Every year wiseacres write off St-Tropez. It’s finished, they say. The rich and beautiful have gone. Glamour has fled. It’s now reduced to the flip-flop and wannabe brigade.
This is nonsense – and often malicious nonsense, put about by PR people with other destinations to sell. The truth is that St-Tropez remains one of the few places on the planet where stars and moguls gather in abundance. Ask George Clooney, Jack Nicholson or Naomi Campbell. They’re all regulars. Mohamed Al Fayed is not unknown in the resort. Alain Prost, Joan Collins and Denzel Washington go pretty much every year.
The list goes on. It reads like the contents page of a celeb directory. Of course, you’re not likely to bump into them these days. Things are tighter and more crowded than they were in the 1960s. On really busy days, St-Tropez gets 100,000 visitors. Even Magic Johnson – another fan – wouldn’t stick out in a throng like that.
Losing its lustre? No way
The big names and big fortunes tend, anyway, to stay in fancy, guarded villas scattered discreetly about the hillsides above the village. Or in the poshest hotels. (That said, they also have a habit of appearing at least once during a stay, to show themselves. They’re stars. They can’t help it. Have a look in the bars facing the port or on Pampelonne beach.)
If St-Tropez really were losing its lustre, we could reasonably ask why there were half-a-dozen new luxury hotel projects underway right now. These will come in addition to the 20 already-existing four- and five-star hotels, plus other uncategorised boutique spots. A normal person might think this was overdoing it for a village (pop: 6,500) supposedly going down the tubes.
No. St-Tropez is thriving. It retains its aura. So let us hear no more about decline. Let us instead consider the intriguing process by which a seaside village apparently indistinguishable from hundreds of others in the south of France should have become the most celebrated resort in Europe, with glitter and bangles affixed to its image.
Brilliant men, beautiful women
It’s usual to say that, until the middle of the last century, St-Tropez was a quiet, unassuming fishing port. This is wrong, too. As a little port, St-Tropez majored in commerce (wine and cork), not fishing. It has long had wide international relations not only through sea-faring but also thanks to the local seigneur’s importing of families from Italy to boost the village’s population in the 16th century.
And artists have been showing up since the late nineteenth. Pointillist painter Paul Signac happened upon the place on his boat in 1892. Others followed him in. (Signac’s works give me a headache but he obviously had, and has, his admirers. Judge for yourselves in St-T’s Annonciade art gallery.)
Then, in the mid-1950s, Roger Vadim brought Brigitte Bardot to town to film And God Created Woman. Bardot bought a home nearby. St-Tropez never looked back. In subsequent years, a mix of Left-Bank writers and musicians, and bankable movie stars, drew a cloak of licence and frisky luxury over the village’s old stones. This was where the cleverest men and most outrageously beautiful women gathered. Who wouldn’t want to stay for a while?
Mick, Bianca and Brigitte
The sea-side spot fuelled a fusillade of fantasies. Mick Jagger married Bianca here in May, 1971. France’s leading music producer, Eddie Barclay – himself eight-times married - hosted legendary White Night parties. Agreeable excess lit up the beaches and bars through the night. The place, as I said, has never looked back. But it has moved on.
St-Tropez has grown too busy now for barefoot insouciance. Or, rather, so busy that it has institutionalised barefoot insouciance. This is no bad thing, but it is different from the times when you might hail Brigitte puttering past in her Méhari beach-buggy.
Today, the resort is a synthesis of jet-setters, artists and traditional village life, all overlaid with a localised summer population explosion. In the tight-knit tangle of the old town, you’ll still see proper villagers with tropezien roots as deep as the Med walking with shopping baskets to the grocer’s shop. It’s just that, in St-Tropez, the next-door store is Dior. In the port, working boats bob next to yachts the size of Uzbekistan.
Capital service, wealth and the beheading of Saint Tropez
Along wriggling streets the width of two donkeys, a lady in a housecoat will be cleaning her front step next to an agency for Sotheby’s. Two doors down is the sort of nightclub where Paris Hilton might be fêted.
Traditions run from Les Bravades, celebrating St-T’s surprisingly military past, and Saint Tropez himself (he was a real saint, really beheaded), right through to dancing till dawn to at Les Caves-du-Roy nightspot…where entrance is easy, as long as you’re Bruce Willis or Naomi Campbell.
This is, in short, an extraordinary spot. "It's a small village with the services of a capital city," says a Tropezien friend of mine. To benefit, it will help if you’re a long-time resident, a living legend or simply very wealthy indeed. (Nowhere in France, or even in Monte-Carlo, have I ever paid quite so much for a plate of pasta.)
But you should go – everybody does – if only to wonder at the phenomenon. In the words of my friend: "A tomato is just a tomato but, if you’re eating it next to Bill Gates, it has a different taste." St Tropez might just give you the chance to discover whether or not this is true.
Read Frank Camel's guide Glitz, glam and girls... welcome to St Tropez in which he tells us how to enjoy St Tropez in style.