Some 30 years ago I went camping near Ramatuelle in the South of France and discovered swimming naked and loved it.
I also discovered nearby Saint-Tropez and fell in love with it.
We drove the short distance to town each evening, ate in a different restaurant on the street in the warm evenings, and, as far as we were concerned, we had arrived.
We were there long enough that glorious summer to find a favourite restaurant run by charismatic Anna and her long-suffering husband. Sadly, it is no more. In the intervening years, I have ceased camping. I sometimes consider it but always find a way out. I have also ceased disporting myself in front of the fishes as I think they deserve better.
But my love of Saint-Tropez has only strengthened over the years. I have been lucky to spend time in the South of France most years. I love the light and the sea. I adore the weather. I like the pace and the easy style of the place. There are few things in life more enjoyable than chatting over a cup of coffee or a glass of rose and watching the world go by and there is no better place to do this than Saint-Tropez.
If I was told my time was nearly up where would I go? It could be my last week of freedom before residing in the Joy for a crime I have yet to commit, rather than shuffling off my mortal coil. Would it be one last trip to New York? Sydney maybe? Another week in Bali? Or Paris, which I love? Maybe Prague. No. I think it would have to be St Tropez. I never tire of it, and as soon as I leave it behind I am already looking forward to the next visit.
What was once a little fishing village is still not very big. About 5,000 people live there and they are dwarfed by the tourists who wander up and down the tiny streets and have their photos taken by the enormous yachts. There is always great excitement when one of these massive floating palaces arrives or leaves. Everyone want to see who it is. Sadly, they are mostly faceless financiers or supermarket owners that no one has ever heard of. They do, however, have the ability to attract women half their age straight out of Vogue and employ crews who all look like film stars and athletes.
Yacht-watching is a must. I did see Eddie Jordan parked there once after a Grand Prix on his four-storey, very classy-looking Sunseeker. He looked very content and I looked very envious. I believe he has acquired an even more splendid one since. If you are loaded he will rent it to you.
Once you have ooohed and aahed along the port, it is but a short walk to the Place Des Lices, which is the heart of the small town. Most days there are games of petanque going on which seem to be endless. It is a good place to sit over a coffee and watch. This is a game where women and men seem to compete on equal terms and the locals while away lifetimes playing here. The Place is famed for its plane trees, some of which have holes that you can be photographed through if you want an odd selfie. Up every sidestreet you will find hidden away restaurants beside houses with the washing hanging out and splendid flowers adorning ancient buildings and 50cc scooters and bikes buzzing around.
Walk a few more yards and you will be on a street with every world fashion brand you can think of and prices that are out of this world. Alongside are shops for ordinary people, and supermarkets where the residents shop and you can buy fruit and bottles of water with the locals without breaking the bank.
Each Tuesday and Saturday mornings the Place des Lices is transformed into a fantastic market which is one of the wonders of the modern world. Not one square inch is vacant. You will spend a morning shuffling through narrow pathways where you can buy just about everything from shorts in colours you would not dare wear at home to cashmere and silk that you could not afford at home. Or stock up on sunglasses, T-shirts, antiques, pottery, cosmetic jewellery, made-to-measure leather belts, spices and just about anything you can think of. If you have a list of people you have to bring presents home to, you will get sorted here. This is also the place locals shop for meat and veg, fish and cheese, and oil. Come with an empty bag.
If you are driving into St Trop on a Tuesday or Saturday you have better get up early because the massive Port car park is full by 9. It is much better to stop in St Maxime or St Raphael and get on one of the Bateau Verts boats which cost less than 20 return by sea. They drop you about a five-minute walk from the centre of the Port, and you also get a nice 20-minute ride across the Gulf de Saint Tropez.
John Masterons - people-watching in St. Tropez
My favourite way to go to Saint-Trop is by Harley. The French affair with Harley Davidson is alive and well and there will always be some pristine customised examples parked on the Port or cruising up and down. A word of advice. Do not even think of entering the precinct unless you have been polishing your chrome. This is not a place for a grubby machine. It is also important to think about what you wear because as you park and dismount there will be hundreds of eyes examining you minutely just in case you are a 'somebody'. You should look cool!
Saint-Tropez is of course where some very rich and famous people live in mansions out along the bay. It might sound unspeakably naff to take a boat ride called "Houses of the Stars", but it is actually great fun. In an hour on the sea you get a very good talk on the history of the area. It is a steal at about €14. Usually, your guide is a student traveling the world who will have several languages.
Give them a tip. You see Brigitte's house and the one Michael Douglas rents and the ones that this and that industrialist are re-furbishing. You will see the paparazzi in their tiny helicopters buzzing over boats to see the stars sunbathing. Cynic that I am I am certain that the stars let them know where they will be. Plus you see the Cimitière Marin which hangs over the sea. You have to be local to be interred there and enjoy the view. This trip also shows you the beaches that are just a short walk out of the town, and is a great way to get your bearings and plan a walk.
The Citadel is up there at the top of the hill overlooking the town and is well worth the walk if only for the views. It is undergoing regular renovation and the dungeons now house an interesting maritime museum. Back down at the Port is L'Annonciade, which houses a very good collection of Impressionists. Paul Signac lived in St Trop for a while and it is the subject of one of his well known pointillist efforts. This gallery museum also has good examples of the work of Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso and lots of great work by painters with smaller names. Check opening times as they are unusual. All along the port there are artists painting and selling. And always someone to do your caricature, but I haven't sunk to that yet.
No day in Saint-Tropez is complete without a pre-prandial rosé or Pastis watching the rich come back from shopping. Women with high heels, short skirts and big bags of purchases head back to their yachts and hotels looking like they own the world, and they probably do. Wait as long as you like and you will never see one with an extra ounce of flesh. More people must make a resolution to go on a diet here than anywhere else on earth. There is a clown dressed as a gendarme and he gets great value out of tourists before they cop that he is just part of the St Trop streescape whose only job is to make people laugh. Eating out on the street at night is wonderful, and once you get away from the Port the prices are fairly normal for the South of France. There must be more restaurants per square inch in St Tropez than there are PhDs in Harvard.
I have never met BB in St Trop, but thankfully I did meet her once in this lifetime. We had a short chat about seal clubbing where we were much in agreement, so that was a good start. I looked into those eyes and knew what the phrase 'sex kitten' was all about. And I can see why she has lived most of her life in that little fishing village. It is just about as beautiful as she is.
God created BB
Saint-Tropez was put firmly on the map by its most famous citizen, Brigitte Bardot, with her starring role in And God Created Woman, directed by Roger Vadim, in 1955. The beaches that it made famous now house Club 55, where superstars from Bono to Johnny Depp have lunch. You park your boat and they send out a smaller one to collect you. Club 55 was the the crew canteen for that famous film.
I suspect Maeve Binchy spoke perfect French and she would have been perfectly at home in Saint Tropez. I usually sit in Senequier with a hot chocolate or glass of wine and watch the world go by. Maeve would have been the perfect companion. From men cruising in their Rollers and Lambos to women parading with every fashion sense, including none, this is people-watching paradise. Ivana Trump sat beside me one day.
There are miles of beautiful beaches all around Saint-Tropez. The daring French popularised, or invented, going topless. Once upon a time police in helicopters tried to stop it. Today it seems that bit passe. There are still sections of Plage de Pampelonne where bodies of all shapes and sizes are happily naked. If you haven't done this and spent time swimming nude and liberated, you haven't lived. Get it off the bucket list.
I have frequently taken the comfortable Oscar Wilde with Irish Ferries to Roscoff or Cherbourg. After a good night's sleep it is easy to do a long drive the next day. It is about a 13-hour drive to the south using motorways. That includes a few coffee breaks, and there are excellent service stations every half hour or so all the way. The tolls will add over 100 euro each way. And it is a pain in the neck if you don't have someone in the passenger seat. Filling up with wine will take the sting out of toll fees. I have driven it in a day in the car but break the journey for an overnight if on the bike. Vichy is a nice town to stop in. It is very walkable and there are lots of restaurants to try. The South of France is well served by Ryanair and Aer Lingus and I have flown to Nice, Marseilles or Nimes and hired a car. Prices vary from day to day.
See also: www.rendezvousfrance.com; www.sainttropeztourism.com