AUG. 6 — SAINT-TROPEZ, France
If you look at France as a beautiful woman, the French Riviera is its cute little bum. It sits softly and daintily on the Mediterranean Sea where it is ogled by every passing sailor, yachtsman and window-shopping woman. No place on the Riviera, however, stops people dead in their Gucci loafers like Saint-Tropez. It is the sexiest dame in the Riviera’s chorus line of beauties. Saint-Tropez is beautiful, calm, classy, clean and unpretentious. In other words, it’s the perfect woman.
On Wednesday, I had a fling with her.
I took a 90-minute cruise here from Cannes. You can reach Saint-Tropez by bus but it’s on a spur of land that juts out into the Mediterranean like a Jimmy Choo heel (Yes, the Riviera gets me in the mood) and would take hours. Besides, on the Riviera in August, you don’t want to be too far from water. On this day the Mediterranean was something out of a Viagra commercial. We left on a big ferry boat in about 80-degree weather with a bright sun blazing in a cloudless turquoise sky. The sea was as smooth as a nice Cote du Rhone and the color of blue irises.
Coming into the famous port, Saint-Tropez’s buildings look like sandstone castles. It’s almost a uniform beige tint that gives Saint-Tropez a fairyland feel to it. Sticking up from the apartment complexes and government buildings is the pink and gold bell tower of Notre Dame de l’Assomption church. The first impression I had of Saint-Tropez was of a quiet, little fishing village with charming architecture and boats bobbing up and down on a quaint harbor.
Then we docked.
Saint-Tropez’s dock reminded me of the Lane County Fair when I was growing up in Eugene, Ore. Every space was filled with novelty shops and menu-toting barkers trying to get you in their restaurants. Tourists off various sized cruise ships skittered around trying to buy the requisite souvenirs before heading off to their next port of call. I thought I’d see a booth where I could throw softballs at milk bottles and win a stuffed bear.
It was inevitable that Saint-Tropez’s location would turn it into a Riviera theme park. It started out as a French military stronghold and really was a quiet fishing village until the early 20th century. It later became the first French town to be liberated in World War II. It had been frequented by the likes of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Errol Flynn but it wasn’t until a relatively unknown French actress named Brigitte Bardot arrived to film the 1956 hit, “And God Created Woman” when Saint-Tropez launched into the international jet setting lexicon. The movie was about Bardot playing an 18-year-old vixen in a seaside village. Her image in swimsuits on gorgeous beaches launched Bardot’s fame and Saint-Tropez’s as they dovetailed into her continued love affair with the town. She moved here in 1963 and until about 15 years ago could still be seen shopping in local markets.
As her fame grew with movies such as “A Very Private Affair” and “Le Mepris,” the Jet Setters followed her like puppies, leaving their previous stomping grounds of Monaco as if it was a jilted lover. Mick Jagger proposed to Bianca on Saint-Tropez. Greta Garbot tried unsuccessfully to hide from the paparazzi. One day, Bardot looked around and called Saint-Tropez “Jet set base camp.” It hasn’t stopped. Rappers Diddy, Jay Z and 50 Cent have referred to Saint-Tropez in their songs.
I can see why. Look, I hate tourist traps. But after so many years traveling I’ve learned there’s a reason some places attract tourists. They’re fabulous. So is Saint-Tropez and it doesn’t take long to get away from the cruise ships and tourists toting fanny packs and paunches. I walked around the harbor and up windy cobblestone sidewalks through the old town. Here, the frantic pace of a cruise ship holiday slowed to a lazy day on the beach. I had a seafood salad at a quiet, outdoor table as locals, called “Tropeziens,” gossipped in front of their small apartment buildings and zipped around on bikes, long baguettes sticking out from their baskets.
It didn’t take two minutes before I was out of town and on a quiet two-lane road overlooking the spectacular seaside. Sailboats meandered past on a nearly windless day. Sunbathers baked on golden sand. A cemetery in this unbelievable setting made dying seem almost appealing. After about a 15-minute walk, I saw a sign for Plage des Graniers. Down a short paved driveway I came across the perfect beach: a secluded cove with golden sand and just enough people to make good people watching and not resemble a municipal swimming pool in summer. The cafe with white wooden tables and chairs took nothing away from the bliss of sitting on a Mediterranean beach that looked made for a movie set. It didn’t even bother me that I forgot a towel and laid on my T-shirt, shorts and camera bag.
Away from the dock, the language was almost predominantly French. I heard American English from one couple but the fit bodies and languid sounds of the prettiest language in the world made me feel I was on Saint-Tropez’s local beach. The water was as clean as Evian and nearing 80 degrees. Floating on my back, staring up at the brilliant sun, I suddenly had an incredible urge.
I have to rent “And God Created Woman.”