• Photo: Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock

St-Tropez

At first glance, it really doesn't look all that impressive. There's a pretty port with cafés charging €5 for a cup of coffee and a photogenic old town in sugar-almond hues, but there are many prettier in the hills nearby. There are sandy beaches, rare enough on the Riviera, and old-fashioned squares with plane trees and pétanque players, but these are a dime a dozen throughout Provence. So what made St-Tropez an internationally known locale? Two words: Brigitte Bardot. When this pulpeuse (voluptuous) teenager showed up in St-Tropez on the arm of Roger Vadim in 1956 to film And God Created Woman, the heads of the world snapped around. Neither the gentle descriptions of writer Guy de Maupassant (1850–93), nor the watercolor tones of Impressionist Paul Signac (1863–1935), nor the stream of painters who followed (including Matisse and Bonnard) could focus the world's attention on this seaside hamlet as did this one sensual woman in a scarf, Ray-Bans, and capris.

Anything associated with the distant past seems almost absurd in St-Tropez. Still, the place has a history that predates the invention of the string bikini, and people have been finding reasons to come here since AD 68, when a Roman soldier from Pisa named Torpes was beheaded for professing his Christian faith in front of Emperor Nero, transforming this spot into a place of pilgrimage. Along medieval streets lined with walled gardens and little squares set with dripping fountains, you can discover historic delights like the Chapelle de la Misericorde, topped by its wrought-iron campanile, and Rue Allard, lined with picturesque houses such as the Maison du Maure.

Vanity Fair ran a feature, "Saint Tropez Babylon," detailing the over-the-top petrodollar parties, megayachts, and Beyoncé-d paparazzi. Yet you might be surprised to find that this byword for billionaires is so small and insulated. The lack of train service, casinos, and chain hotels keeps it that way. Still, in July and August, you must be carefree about the sordid matter of cash. After all, at the most Dionysian nightclub in town, a glass of tap water goes for $37 and when the mojo really gets going, billionaires think nothing of "champagne-spraying" the partying crowds—think World Series celebrations but with $1,000 bottles of Roederer Cristal instead of Gatorade. Complaining about summer crowds, overpricing, and lack of customer service has become a tourist sport and yet this is what makes St-Tropez—described by the French daily newspaper Le Figaro as the place you can see "the greatest number of faces per square meter"—as intriguing as it is seductive.

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