Re-Discovering the Riviera

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“Everyone thought that the man was crazy… Nobody will come to buy a house here on this swamp…. It will never work… Then, Brigitte Bardot went and bought one of the first houses here and many more soon followed her… That’s Brigitte Bardot’s house over there.”

Everyone on the electric boat swung around to catch a glimpse of the house and its famous occupant that our guide was pointing out to us. It’s a funny thing about Brigitte Bardot but even though she’s now well into her 80s, we still tend to react when we hear her name. It’s as if we’re hoping that she won’t look like a redoubtable octogenarian but something like the coquettish little thing that she was in the 1960s.

Paradise Found: The evening market in Sainte Maxime
Ancient Venice? No, 1960s Port-Grimaud

In many ways, you could say the same thing about the French Riviera itself. It’s a part of the world that is still dining out on its reputation that stems largely from the 1950s and 60s – a time before mass-tourism flooded such places to capacity and when the Côte d’Azur was a real hidden gem; a lost paradise.

Re-finding the ‘paradise lost’ aspect of the French Riviera is what everyone wants to do when they come here. Most leave with some level of disappointment but if you take your time and look carefully, you’ll find that this blessed part of the world still holds many hidden gems.

On this particular day in September, the Riviera summer was still warm and wonderful as our local guide took a bunch of British (and one Irish) travel journalists through the canals of the town of Port-Grimaud. Today, this mini-Venice is at the most chic end of the French Riviera, where you need about half a million euros to be BB’s neighbour. The whole crazy idea was the brainchild of imaginative architect François Spoerry. Every house is different and they all cluster around a market square and church that even has a Provencal bell tower.

The Market in Grimaud

Port-Grimaud is bang on halfway between Saint Tropez and Sainte Maxime (about 8km from each town). The latter needs no introduction but it was in the former – Ste Maxime – that we were based in a collection of villas on the outskirts of town. Each spacious house has a nice degree of privacy, a very roomy terrace area and a swimming pool with an olive tree and a palm tree in the garden. My villa-mate – a jovial English journalist based in London’s East End – and I couldn’t resist getting changed into togs, grabbing a beer from the fridge and having a dip in the pool (all almost simultaneously) as soon as we arrived, despite having both been up since the crack of dawn travelling to get here.

Sainte Maxime cuts a fairly mundane presence on initial introduction but once you begin exploring on foot, it reveals itself to you in all its Riviera charm. The promenade features a wide boulevard that curves along a sandy shore, with views across the Gulf of St Tropez to Saint Tropez itself. From here, it really looks like a peaceful little jewel, nestled into an alluring verdant peninsula.

Cool Pool: The Villa at Les Restanques du Carré Beauchêne,
Sainte Maxime

Turning into the old town by the art-deco-style casino brings you through a warren of semi-pedestrianised streets that are pure Riviera magic, where colourful shuttered houses with curled orange tiles line streets of head-turning shops and open markets. If you walk up a little higher, you’ll find the former residence of filmmaking pioneer Léon Gaumont (a special pilgrimage and absolute must for any true cinematic fan), a former Grimaldi castle building with unique twisted chimneys and the Hôtel de Ville – a town hall that must be the envy of every other mayor in France for its heavenly views.

The next day, we went to see Grimaud – the original mediaeval version as opposed to its “port” version built in the 60s. It’s just 5km west of its unique purpose-built seaside version and is a wonderful example of a hilltop village (village perché) of the type that abound around here. A stroll through its colourful haunted streets is very rewarding for its mediaeval atmosphere and Mediterranean buzz. Be sure to check out the 12th century church, the hilltop fortifications (which haven’t suffered unduly from the 19th-century additions to the tower) and amphitheatre and its lovely market.

Chic Chateau: The Castle at Grimaud

La Guêpe Mobile is a company specialising in giving tours around the Tropez Peninsula on a choice of either retro-style electric mopeds or an electric-powered Citroën Méhari. For me, it had to be the mopeds. They kit you out with helmet and gloves and off you go, following the guide along quiet country roads that I never dreamed existed in this part of the world, amidst fragrant vineyards and along serpentine lanes that curved along the hills to local beauty spots with viewing points where tourists were magically thin on the ground.

To keep that Riviera feeling intact, it’s essential to avoid driving into Saint Tropez. From May to October, the queues of vehicles trying to cram into the one single-lane road that leads to the Tropez peninsula are veritable buzz killers.

Moped Man: The author attempting to look cool while exploring the Tropez Peninsula

Instead, skip down to the port in Sainte Maxime and take the boat across the Gulf to Saint Tropez. It’s about €14 return and worth every cent as you’re whisked across the coolest stretch of Azur sea in Europe to run the gauntlet of jaw-dropping boats and arrive at the old harbour. Now, get walking in one of the best towns in France to get lost in. Every corner corner presents a picture of Provencal prettiness and if shopping is your thing, you’ll have plenty to admire in superb unique outlets and luxury retailers. If the fish market is open, don’t miss it – it’s a historical and cultural landmark.

Super Saint Tropez: A view over Saint Tropez and the Gulf

You don’t have to get ripped off by the many willing cafés along the harbour front (where it’s usually too crowded to really enjoy the view anyway). Instead, go a few blocks inland to the Place des Lices. Have a coffee at Le Café, admire its superb interior and relax watching the locals playing boules under the plane trees on the square. Then, take a walk up to the old fortifications. Not only will you get some lovely views over the town, you also get an appreciation of what an important place this town was back in the day – long before BB and her entourage bothered to frolic here.

Wow: The interior of Le Cafe on the Place des Lices, Saint Tropez

Back at Port-Grimaud by the seaside, the end-of-season tourists were still numerous. Here, we were to get a final lasting impression of the whole area from the air. I had never done paragliding before and I was a little bit worried about the height involved. You’re strapped to a parachute and a motor-boat pulls you along, letting out the cable so that you sail high into the air. It’s the most relaxing way of being launched skyward I’ve ever experienced. It was a truly gorgeous experience sitting in the harness and looking all over the Gulf of St Tropez, Sainte Maxime and the myriad of jewels of little villages such as Gassin and Ramatuelle – each of them a hidden gem in itself.

Get Yourself There

Travel Both Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) operate direct flights from Cork to Nice.

Staying There

We stayed at Les Restanques du Carré Beauchêne, Sainte Maxime, courtesy of Summer France. Prices are from €244 per person for a week in a 3-bedroom villa basis, sleeping up to 8 people (€1,953 total) in May or from €384 pp per week in a 3-bedroom villa basis, sleeping up to 8 people (€3,074 total) in August. For the other complexes in the development, the prices are lower. See summerfrance.co.uk for details.

Doing Things

Apart from the watersports, another great way to explore the countryside is by guided retro electric mopeds at La Guêpe Mobile (www.laguepemobile.com)

Eating and Drinking
In Sainte Maxime, the Bistro de Louis (+33 4 94 43 88 27) on Place Colbert offers great Provençal fare in a charming old-town setting. Le Saint Barth (saint-barth-plage.com) gives you large and superb portions in a more upbeat international menu right on the beach

In Grimaud, the Café de France (+33 4 94 43 20 05) on Place Neuve is a joy just to be in, with its central location from where you can watch the world go by. Even more impressive is the quality of food and service.


In Grimaud, the Café de France (+33 4 94 43 20 05) on Place Neuve is a joy just to be in, with its central location from where you can watch the world go by. Even more impressive is the quality of food and service.

In Saint Tropez, you won’t find a more atmospheric place to eat than the aforementioned Le Café (www.lecafe.fr) on Place des Lices. Inside, the eye-popping décor celebrates 1960s cinematic culture on an art-deco  background. All topped off by an excellent menu. Outside, local men play boules under the shade of ancient plane trees.

An even cosier option is to not leave the confines of your villa and bring the best of French cuisine to your door. Part of the team at Restaurant La Badiane, Sainte Maxime, owned and run by award-winning chef Geoffrey Poësson offers a chef à domicile service for clients, offering the same style of cuisine as in his restaurant.


More Information

The official websites of the key towns are: Sainte Maxime (sainte-maxime.com); Saint Tropez (www.sainttropeztourisme.com); Grimaud (grimaud-provence.com).

For wine tasting, try the Domaine de Tropez (domaine-tropez.com), for superb regional rosés.

The Bateau Vertbateauxverts.com brings you from Sainte Maxime to Saint Tropez and for water sports in Port Grimaud, try Riviera Water Sports (rivierawatersports.com).

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