Travelogue French Riviera 1: St Tropez


14-17 June 2019
It’s always lovely to attend to one’s bucketlist and this trip was (for me, at least) right at the top! I’d been wanting to visit the French Riviera for decades and our annual Winter Break seemed as good a time as any to strike it off the list.
It was only when we started researching the itinerary that we realised how close together all our must-see spots are, which sealed the deal and motivated us to rent a car for what then became our Riviera Roadtrip.
We’d again timed it perfectly, leaving for our holiday exactly as the first major cold snap set in at home – especially brutal to the unaccustomed after our long summer and only a mild flirtation with autumn.
Landing in Nice, we were greeted with a cloudy sky, a feisty breeze and a warm blanket of humidity. Sort of like arriving in Durban.
There was quite a long queue at the car rental place, but within the hour we were packed into our zippy-nippy Fiat 500, which from all appearances looked brand new and had all the creature comforts, including leather seats and a panoramic sunroof. Fortunately we’d only brought a single shared suitcase because that took up the whole boot, to the point that there wasn’t even space for our little onboard backpack!
Soon we were off, whizzing along with the highway on the road to our seaside adventure, with the longest leg of our roadtrip – a mere 104km – ahead of us.
Our pace slowed considerably as we exited the highway at Saint Maxime, our first experience of the beach towns on the coastal road. Teeming with holidaymakers, the traffic flow was inching along. Still, we had full view of the sea on our left and Saint Tropez on the opposite shore of the bay we were circling, so not so bad for us, as experienced as we are in the world of gridlock.
We had booked to stay in Cogolin, the adjacent town to Saint Tropez, based on the massive difference in price and the close proximity and ease of commute between them. While the town itself was a bit inland, the Port was (obviously) on the coast with enough accommodation options available on online bookings engines to hint that we were not the only ones to make this call.
There was a big shopping centre servicing the area, so we stopped and for a bite (it felt like a LONG time since the lunch on the aeroplane!) and a local SIM card en route to our digs.
We arrived at the Marina Beach Resort, which had sounded a bit like an Avontura Resort on the website, but proved to be so much better with little blocks of rooms strategically laid out for privacy. We were on the end row, so our double (dare I call them) French doors opened onto our veranda, the gravel path, the tennis courts and beyond that (oui oui) the actual-factual marina with all its fancy-pantsy yachts!
Keen to get out after the (semi-) frustrating traffic had delayed our arrival, we dumped bags, donned flip-flops, flip-flopped out of the resort and took a left to the marina, as our concierge had directed.
No more than a couple of hundred metres down, we were walking alongside jetties housing who-knows-how-many millions of Euros in yachts and boats of all shapes and sizes.
We stuck with what we knew and pulled up a dockside table at Le Wine to have sundowners, which the Cote d’Azur had been kind enough to hang onto for us even though it was easily after 7pm already. A couple of hours merriment was a worthy welcome party after our long journey!
It was bliss having had a full night’s horizontal rest and no responsibilities to attend to so we made no effort to get up early on Saturday morning.
And as it turned out, there was no need to anyway.
We breakfasted on filled baguettes at the local boulangerie (2 minutes down the road) and then headed off in the other direction to the first stop on our day’s sightseeing plan.
Eight minutes later we were at that stop, Ramatuelle, a medieval village in typical Provencal style perched atop a hill with spectacular views of the vineyards below and beautiful sea beyond.
The town is tiny so it was fortunate we found the tourist office and got a walking tour map otherwise it would have been a quick 2000-step lap of the concentric buildings and we’d have been back on the road before you can say voila!
However, the map had snippets of information on over 20 points of interest in the concentrated area, which guided our attentions and provided a good hour’s entertainment taking us back in time to where crests adorned doorways and portcullises kept the baddies out.
Soberingly, our tour concluded with the World War II memorial commemorating the lost lives of the brave secret service members who served in the Resistance to bring the country to liberation, but saw their end being shot, beheaded or tortured in concentration camps. It’s an unsettlingly long list for such a small town.
Our route was to take us up the coast, away from St Tropez, which was the plan of action for Sunday.
We stopped in at La Croix Valmer, another pretty little town but by now, being Saturday afternoon, all the shops were shut so there wasn’t much to see and do so we did a whirl around the centre ville and then jumped back in the car.
Our last hop took us to our farthest destination, Cavalaire Sur Mer, the epitome of a seaside holiday town with a long promenade lined with shops and restaurants.
We walked along the shoreline – surprised at how the Med wasn’t as warm as we thought it would be – until we got to the (inevitable) marina with more yachts and flashy boats, where there was a spirited afternoon petanque tournament in session on the permanent gravel pit on the promenade. We sat and watched for a while, enjoying the Frenchness of it all.
On our return walk to the car, the afternoon’s revelry had begun on a section of the promenade hosting a rodeo! There was also a line-dancing demonstration in motion on a raised stage and stalls selling a generous selection of Americana. So odd to see all these ‘cowboys’ parlez-vousing the old Francais in their cowboy hats and pointy-toed embroidered boots.
We routed our drive home through Saint Tropez to get an idea of what the next day was to hold. It’s warned to be a busy town and the online references referred to crazy traffic and limited parking so a reccie would give insight on whether we’d be best driving, walking, bussing or boating ourselves around the next day.
While not terribly enlightening, the taste did serve to add excitement to the following day’s visit. How awesome to be flitting around in the playground of the rich and famous!
Arriving home, we showered and prepared for our evening activity – a walk to the adjacent town’s marina for dinner.
No more than 2km down the road, Port Grimaud is quite different to our Port Cogolin. Much fancier and bigger, Port Grimaud is big gated community that looks like a slice of Venice with Tuscan architecture and quaint townhouses built on a grid of canals, with residents mooring at their doorsteps and boating around the ‘burbs.
Bordered with wide roads lined with palmtrees and based on the calibre of cars we saw (including a Rolls, generous selection of German luxury cars and more than a handful of Italian sportscars), this was definitely the more affluent area.
We took the bridge (named the Rialto, no less) into one section of the marina where there was a town square surrounded by restaurants, and where we enjoyed pizza and pasta while watching locals chuck boules on the gravel on the square.
Done with dinner and the sun still in the sky, we walked down to the beach and were lucky to get a waterside table at the big pub on the beachfront to spend a couple of hours watching the sun go down and plotting our plans for the next day.
After all consideration of the many options for transport for our Sunday trail, we settled on taking our Noddy car. This would give us more freedom to add to our agenda if new ideas occurred and while the parking fees in St Tropez were going to be extortionate, it was all part and parcel, and using our own transport would save us time, which is the one thing money can’t buy.
But first, breakfast needed to be attended to so we took a drive to the town of Cogolin, sure that there would be a boulangerie with our name on it.
We were wrong.
While (another) pretty little town, we were disappointed to find a selection of bakeries selling bread and butcheries selling deli items but not a one having put the lot together to sell a packaged sandwich. And while you might immediately think that it would just be a case of procuring each at the specialist store and combining, it’s not that simple without any cutlery. The baguettes are crispy, crunchy and very long so would be a very messy to split; and a thick layer of butter is an essential part of the formula.
We masked our disappointment admirably with an obligatory whip around the centre ville to say we’d seen what there was to see, and were soon back on the road to St Tropez to seek fame, fortune and a feeding.
We parked the car and had barely emerged from the underground parking when we spotted a cluster of sandwich stalls in a small market. One was a kebab stall, which sealed the deal and we were soon munching happily on a bench, shaded by the tall trees in the Place de Lice, watching the locals battle the boules, obviously.
Taking a walk through the town, Saint Tropez has more character than I expected; the full complement of designer stores and glitzy lables, but in a charming setting of cobbled streets, terracotta roof tiles and painted window shutters instead of the usual chrome and glass city storefronts. An obscene amount of premium motor cars and an ostentation of yachts, but still somehow warm and charming.
We climbed the hill to the citadel and maritime museum which gave context to the town’s rich history and a wonderful panoramic view across the town, the crammed marina and across the bay to the places we’d passed through on our way in.
Returning down the hill, we wound through La Ponche (the old fishing village) and were deposited on the marina where we spied an Irish pub called Kelly’s La Grotto that was perfectly timed to earn itself the #6 spot on our Guinness Index!
And, coincidentally, while we were there our friend Kelleigh called us to say she’d be in Cannes for the week so hopefully we could meet up! We made arrangements for Tuesday; a very exciting prospect!
Very pleased with our new plan, we were newly motivated to follow through with the last phase of our current plan – to drive to Bonne Terasse beach to walk a trail around Cap Camarot to see the lighthouse. 2.5km each way would keep us out of trouble for a couple of hours.
Late afternoon was the perfect time to do it and thankfully the trek around the cape allowed for interspersing the sticky, sweaty hiking with dips in the ocean – which was, as per the name, deeply and brightly azure, and was so clear in places that we could see the pebble beds and seaweed on the ocean floor even from up on the cliffs where we were climbing.
We ended off the adventure with a good soak in the water before getting back into Noddy and heading home to shower in anticipation of the dinner we’d earned through all the activity.
We opted to return to Port Cogolin for our last supper and were spoilt with a 3 course menu special at Le Gallon, lured in by the host at the door. We feasted on salmon terrine, tempura prawns, mussel pot, tuna steak and – the coup de gras – lemon meringue, for only a couple of Euro more than the dinner the night before. We had ordered a bottle of white wine and a bottle of sparkling water, thinking it pennywise to spritzer, but the restaurant foxed us with a) the smallest glasses in the world, b) serving us rosé (which looking around, everyone had, so maybe that’s what you got no matter what you ordered) and c) when the bill came we found out the bottle of water was €8.50 (!!) so hardly worth the effort of diluting.
Still it was a very pleasant evening and the setting, food and company were perfect so all in all, all smiles.