Thursday, May 29, 2014

France 2014: Road Trip to Sainte-Maxime/Saint Tropez

Our first day trip after arriving in Bargemon was to visit the luxurious beach town of Saint-Tropez, a popular destination for the rich and famous.  We thought it would be easier and more fun to approach Saint-Tropez by water and drove instead to Sainte-Maxime, its smaller sister town separated by a small gulf.  Sainte-Maxime is a pretty little coastal town in its own right, with sandy beaches, a harbour, wharfs, and boardwalk running along a spit.

From the Sainte-Maxime harbour, we caught a BateauxVertes shuttle, running every 20 minutes to Saint-Tropez, at a cost of $13.50 Euros per person for a return trip.  The boat ride provided excellent views of the coastlines of both towns, as well as the various sailboats, speed boats, tall ships and yachts that were on the water.

The harbour of Saint-Tropez is very picturesque with the colourful boats and storefronts, and several large but short round stone towers that could have been defensive lookout towers to support the Citadel up on the hill above. Alongside a stone breakwall is a cement pier leading to a lighthouse that provided  panoramic views of the area. Docked alongside the pier were a series of large yachts.

Gawking at the luxury yachts is one of the main reasons for visiting Saint-Tropez.  There were several docked in the harbour including a shiny black ship named Ulysses, a 56 meter Benetti super-yacht that is available for hire from Fraser Yachts in Monaco–if you need to ask how much, then you can't afford it.  Multiple deckhands were busy at work cleaning and polishing the hull until it was sparkling.  I could imagine that this was a never-ending job for them.  We laughed a bit at the over-the-top ornaments at the stern of the ship and imagined that this was something Donald Trump would like.  Another yacht was named "Lady Nag Nag" and we wondered whose wife, girlfriend or mistress that could be named for?

The port is bustling with a long row of shops ranging from tacky tourist traps to high-streeet stores, and restaurants that charge you an arm and a leg for the beautiful sea view.  We saw many women with big floppy hats strolling down the promenade while their husband or boyfriend followed behind, holding the leash of their little dog.  We even saw a father and daughter whiz by on segways.

We threw caution (and our wallets) to the wind and decided to have a nice leisurely lunch at one of these waterfront restaurants, called Le Quai, so that we could fully appreciate the Saint-Tropez experience. We were seated at a tiny little table barely large enough to contain our meals and drink glasses, with the chairs of the adjoining tables actually touching ours. You sit tucked in together side by side, facing outwards towards the street.  The plat du jour was a piece of grilled seabream served with a vegetable roll and white rice for 17 Euros (the price of many 3-course set meals in other places).  We enjoyed sitting there watching the people and boats go by, and made sure to drink every drop of our 9 Euro bottle of water before we left.

Rather than give more of our money to Le Quai, we had another idea for dessert.  We had previously spotted this soft ice cream vendor called Glaces Alfred that seemed to be serving soft ice cream of a quality and variety of flavours that we had not experienced before.  We bought a double cone containing chocolate and pistachio.  The chocolate was not like the soft ice cream of Toronto with vanilla ice cream tinted with chocolate flavouring–this was dark, firm soft ice cream that had a rich, high-quality chocolatey taste.  The pistachio was also very authentic tasting and for 3 Euros, this was one of the best and most unique desserts we've had so far in France.  We've tried to duplicate this experience in other towns like Cannes, but while there are many flavoured soft ice cream purveyors, so far no other has measured up to Glaecs Alfred in Saint-Tropez.  We may need to make a trip back just for the soft ice cream!

Back in the main square, we encountered musicans and dancers giving a performance.  As the band played, the dancers twirled and spun around while the tourists watched and took photos.  Then, just as suddenly it was over and the performers disbursed throughout the town, still wearing their costumes and carrying their instruments.

At the far end of the harbour was an art fair with paintings, sculptures and crafts on display.  One wildlife painter was in the process of producing a painting of a lion and it was fascinating to watch it come to life.  All the art seemed even more appealing when offset by the beautiful view in the background.

Saint-Tropez is known for its beaches, but I don't think we were in the right area or it is too early in the season, since the beaches we saw were practically empty.  We did see a couple of topless sunbathers, who must have been chilly since it was not that warm of a day.  I was prepared for this after seeing the representative mural in Sainte-Maxime of what it was like to lie around on the beach in this area.

A few blocks in from the harbour, windy streets reveal more restaurants, shops and art galleries.  Bridget Bardot is still an obvious influence in Saint-Tropez as her image is presented all over the place.  One restaurant had tabletops with mosaic backgammon boards on them.  We liked the store that sold funky patterns of shirts including skulls, puzzle pieces, and tennis racquets.  One artist played with the shapes of sailboats in his art.  He had one plate which looked like it had a face painted on it from afar, but up close, you could see three different sailboats.  There were also many cool sculptures that we could see through gallery windows although many of them were closed.

High up on a hill overlooking the harbour sits the Citadel that was built in the early 1600s to defend against invasions from Spain.  We didn't bother actually going into the Citadel since what we were really after were the gorgeous views from the paths surrounding it.  We could see the coastline, the harbour, the rooftops of the buildings, and the tall clock tower peaking up above the other buildings.

There are amazing views even from the cemetery which sits right by the water.

St.Tropez is a beautiful place to people and yacht watch, and if you want to spend a lot of money, the town can help you with that too.  It's too bad we didn't spot any famous people that we could recognize, but it was probably too early in the season for that.

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