St Tropez, St Raphael and St Maxime
"From the quiet charm of the west we now enter the glitz and glamour of the towns of St Tropez, St Raphael and St Maxime"
St Tropez arrives first and for many, it’s not quite what they expect. For a start, you’ll soon realise that trying to drive into the centre is a mistake and the simple advice is ‘Don’t do it!'. The reason? - St Tropez’s streets are very narrow, often jammed when a large vehicle meets a smaller one and the confusion and chaos is compounded by the hordes of people who march through the streets oblivious to the fact they’re meant to stay on the pavements. It’s far better to park in the large car park to the west of the town and stroll the ten minutes into the centre, either along the coastline or through the town. You’ll see much more that way too including the dozens of cruise ships that moor off the town dropping the thousands of eager passengers at the harbour.
The town became famous as the stomping ground of the actress Brigitte Bardot and soon became synonymous with Hollywood style and celebrities but the images that it conjures up of gin palaces and garish opulence couldn’t be further from the truth as St Tropez has a quiet, refined charm. Where you’ll see signs that the town takes advantage of its high class reputation is in the prices in the shops for non-food items and in the restaurants. The worst for overpricing are the ones near the seafront and harbour whilst much more realistic prices are available just yards away in the streets of the old town.
Getting closer to the Italian border you’ll find the commune of St Raphael, one part of a town formed with Frejus across the River Pedegal. It’s a small tourist resort but one which developed in the second half of the 19th century when the commune’s leaders grew jealous of the success of other Riviera resorts. As well as the beaches, St Raphael has access to the stunning peaks of the Alpes-Maritime and is unusual in having red rock, giving the coastline a dramatic hue.
Further along the coast and slightly inland, although at the head of the Gulf of St Tropez, is the commune of St Maxime which was founded over a thousand years ago by monks from nearby Cannes. The monks earned their keep from fishing but later, as a village developed around the monastery, it began to trade in wine, cork and olive oil. The monastery continued to be successful, building the village’s iconic ‘Tour Carre’ to protect it from seaborne attack. It was in Napoleonic times that it was further strengthened and then at the start of the 20th century, when the bigger towns had been consumed by tourism, poets, artists and writers discovered it and moved there to get inspiration for their work. Today, tourism is the life blood of St Maxime, with travellers coming for the old world charm of the village and the beautiful beaches nearby. From the pier you can take ferries to St Tropez, Les Issambres and Port Grimaud whilst in the town, the streets come alive after dark with charming bistros and bars.
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