At first glance, it really doesn't look all that impressive. There's a pretty port with cafés charging €5 for a coffee and a picturesque old town in sugared-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.
Vanity Fair ran a big article, "Saint Tropez Babylon," detailing the over-the-top petrodollar parties, megayachts, and Beyoncé–d paparazzi. But don't be turned off: the next year, Stewart, Tabori & Chang released an elegant coffee-table book, Houses of St-Tropez, packed with photos of supremely tasteful and pretty residences, many occupied by fashion designers, artists, and writers. Once a hangout for Colette, Anaïs Nin, and Françoise Sagan, the town still earns its old moniker, the "Montparnasse of the Mediterranean."
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. Yet fame, in a sense, came too fast for St-Trop. Unlike the chic resorts farther east, it didn't have the decades-old reputation of the sort that would attract visitors all year around. For a good reason: its location on the south side of the gulf puts it at the mercy of the terrible mistral winter winds. So, in summer the crowds descend and the prices rise into the stratosphere.
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. It is, after all, the hajj for hedonists.
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. Today, a different sort of celeb is worshipped. Take an early-morning stroll (before a 9 am pétit-dej at Dior des Lices) along the harbor or down the narrow streets—the rest of the town will still be sleeping off the Night Before—and you'll see just how charming St-Tropez is. There's a weekend's worth of boutiques to explore and many cute cafés where you can sit under colorful awnings and watch the spectacle that is St-Trop saunter by. 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. In the evening, everyone (well, at least those less flush) moves from the cafés on the quays to the cafés on the squares, particularly Place des Lices, where a seat at Le Café allows you to watch the boules players under the glow of hundreds of electric bulbs (paging Deborah Kerr and David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse). In the end, it's not too hard to experience what the artists first found to love and what remain the village's real charms: its soft light, its warm pastels, and the scent of the sea wafting in from the waterfront.