St. Tropez: Past And Present

The mistral blows much at St Tropez. It has swept the streets so that their surface glistens as if it had been polished, and the air is phenomenally bright and clear. The port has a spanking morning look. In summer it is a favorite resort of yachtsmen, and of painters, those especially of the comfortable academic sort, who, having made a profitable mariage de convenance with Nature and the Schools, are often yachtsmen too. Already many of the small white boats that crowd the harbour are in commission. Decks are polished, stores are fetched and carried, one encounters people who have stepped straight from the novels of Mr Victor Bridges, wearing sweaters, smoking pipes, and even speaking English, on the quay. But most of them are Frenchmen disguised as Englishmen, since between la vie sportive and an Anglo-Saxon get up there’s an indissoluble connection.

I find this an agreeable resort, and more. I cannot entirely acquit the place of being a little picturesque; but it is also beautiful and charming. Freshness is one of its qualities, and an unexpected one. This much-reputed pirates nest, which has certainly an exotic air compared with Cannes, achieves a remarkably successful combination of cleanliness and antique quaintness. The cleanliness is partly a product of the wind, which will not suffer smells; the quaintness is obviously not entirely independent of deliberate promotion, human nature being what it is, and Gallic nature being even more so. Excellently situated to be the object of a pleasant drive from the larger resorts of the Riviera, St Tropez naturally does not refuse to meet the taste for artificial simplicity. Along the quay and the principal street are restaurants, rustically prick’t out, from which the man of sense instinctively retreats, whatever the state of his purse, since there is a kind of indignity in being made to pay more than a thing is worth, as if one were a new-rich fool without discrimination.

But despite these superficial blemishes, St Tropez has great character. Its antiquity is genuine enough. It was certainly a Greek colony, and possibly a Phoenician one; it was known to the Massilians as Athenopolis, and has been suggested as an alternative situation for that lost city of Hercules which some opinion places on the other side of the peninsula. But it was the colonization of the place by Genoese adventurers in the Middle Ages that really established the existing port; and a good deal in its atmosphere that is attributed to Moorish influences would probably be much more justly considered Genoese. These settlers and their descendants held the town by one of those arrangements characteristic of the time, which provided that they should defend the adjacent coasts against invasion. Twice the Tropezien fleet drove off an attacking force; and it is apparently the second of these occasions that is commemorated by the annual ceremony of the bravade, a celebration which involves the election of a Captain of the Town, the discharge of a vast amount of ammunition, a procession, and a farandole.

St Tropez is spiritually the end of the Cote des Maures, though geographically the region extends to the Argens. From la Foux the coast is served by the main motor route connecting Hyeres with St Raphael, and thus with Cannes and Nice. Commercial greed and the sheepish folly of the prosperous have caused this final strip of the Cote des Maures to be more intensively exploited than any portion of the French coast between the peninsula of Camarat and the Spanish border. The road is lined with palms and backed by villas. But inland rise the familiar rounded hills; and although the coast is less indented than on the other side of the peninsula, and thus provides a smaller variety of scenery, it is still very charming. This is a district of detached villas, with large and bosky gardens, rather than of towns; and if, as is probable, there is more bad architecture along these fifteen miles of coast than in the whole of Roussillon lumped together, at least the woods hide most of it.

Beauvallon, which figures with some prominence on the map, is really the Golf-Hotel-Beauvallon-sur-Mer (Var), with a hundred and sixty bedrooms, golf prive, plage de sable fin, 4 tennis, domaine 40 hectares. Ste Maxime, on the other hand, I found to be very definitely a resort, in a pro founder and more melancholy sense than any place I had yet encountered. It is one of those places of which it may be truly said that distance lends enchantment to the view. Before the War it was a small seaport, to which a few people went in winter. Of late years the demand for summer plages has led to its development; and two or three large hotels have been run up, into which the unprotesting flock of the gullible and mindless are herded by their masters, lords of enterprise and propaganda. These sheep-pens, rabbit warrens, tenements for termites, have not yet been opened for the season; two out of three villas carry notice-boards announcing that they are to let. Despite this dismal out-of-season atmosphere, I am exorbitantly charged at a cafe on the principal promenade for some very inferior the au citron, consumed in far from fashionable company.

Afterwards I take an extensive walk about Ste Maxime and its outskirts. Notwithstanding that a’ few of its new buildings have some architectural merit, the general impression created by the place is that the whole of it has been bought up by some cynical and vulgar speculator, whose aim is the exploitation of the contemporary herd; a herd composed of those who, lacking standards by which to discriminate between the good and the bad in any case, are indifferent where they go, so long as they can boast of having spent the summer on a Mediterranean plage, and of having been made to pay a high price for the privilege. In this respect Ste Maxime is a melancholy microcosm of the mod-ern world. A resort, if it is to make any appeal to the critic capable of distinguishing between the real and the false, must offer either every civilized amenity, like Cannes, or else nothing but comfortable accommodation and such gifts as nature has bestowed, like Cavaliere. In either case it may not be to one’s personal taste, but it will have character, an individual quality that one must recognize. Ste Maxime makes a miserable descent between two stools. It is a vulgar sham, a nothing. I have no doubt it is very popular.

When I got back to the station, determined to shake the abundant dust of Ste Maxime off my feet, the wind was blowing so hard that a notice on the door of the waiting-room requested the traveller not to open it, but to go round to the other side; adding the one word, mistral, as sufficient explanation. Despite the spiritual and physical depression induced by the rawness of the town and the bitter gust, I was a little cheered by this touch of sensible and homely informality. It is not in every country that one would find a station-mistress capable of such enterprise and wisdom. I like this little railway, with its happy freedom from petty regulations, which permits a train to stop between stations for the benefit of a single passenger who wishes to descend. You cannot run great enterprises so. But that is no reason why the inevitable soullessness of such undertakings should be extended to small ones, as is often done in these days, when a mechanical and pointless efficiency is the god of every jack-in-office. It is an agreeable thing to be reminded sometimes that there are still institutions in which neither the humourless inflexibility of officialdom, nor the lick-spittle abomination they call service, has been substituted for the human practice of courteous and reasonable acquiescence in a patron’s wishes.

La Nartelle, Val d’Esquieres, and so forth, are bunches of hotels and villas, all more or less popular, and even perhaps a little fashionable, in summer. St Aygulf is larger. It is the final, ultimate resort of the Cote des Maures. At this point we reach the mouth of the Argens. The mountains crop behind, the railway crosses the river and a small lagoon, and slants across the narrow windy valley to Frejus.

Frejus is the Forum Julii of the Romans. After Actium there floated over the fields which now lie between the station of the Ligne du Sud and the little town, the captured galleys of defeated Antony. For the sea has retreated from the Roman port; and those who dislike the neighbouring resort of St-Raphael say that the wind has blown it out into the bay. It is significant that it is those who dislike St Raphael who speak thus. As for Frejus, no one bothers either to dislike or like it, or to consider it at all as a place where one might stay. Yet I spent two days there, stopping at a great rambling hotel, where one went up and down stairs and lost oneself in endless dark green corridors like forest paths, as in an English coaching inn, and was very kindly treated. But I must admit that there is really nothing to make one stop at Frejus, and that such advantages as it may have over a popular resort are purely negative. I have, how-ever, a certain tenderness for Frejus. There is something touching in the repetitious earnestness with which this shrunken little town (with every justification) proclaims its one treasure, the Cloister of Notre Dame, as “one of the marvels of all France”; and (with none at all) proclaims itself as “the Pompeii of Provence.” The fact is, that though the Roman town was five times the size of the present one, I doubt if it was ever either very beautiful, or much esteemed as a place in which to live. It was a garrison and warehouse town, a point of disembarkation and a centre of distribution for military and commercial traffic coming into Gaul. Its amphitheatre, instead of being majestically constructed of great blocks of stone, like those of Nimes and Arles, is built of brick. To-day it has a very unpreserved and rustic look: grass grows in the middle, the cigale chirrups, the air smells of thyme. The Butte St Antoine is nothing but a sort of rampart, built to prevent the wind from blowing the ships out of the harbour, which I should think was very necessary, though it would not keep the mistral off; if indeed the mistral blew here in those days, and the whole climate of the Mediterranean has not greatly changed, as some have thought, since Roman times. The Lantern of Augustus, supposed to have been the office from which the harbour master issued his orders to shipping, is a little tower with a pointed roof, the least like a Roman building, I believe, I ever saw.

But the cloister is superb; and one ought, perhaps, to extend this compliment to the whole cathedral, or at least to its exterior and its Baptistery. The cathedral is Romanesque, which in itself is almost a sufficient guarantee that its form is good; and recent cleaning has revealed the fine col-our of the fabric. The carving of the sixteenth-century doors, protected by shutters which the amiable guardian will unlock for you, is very intricate and fine. The Baptistery dates from the fifth century, and is thus older even than that of St Sauveur at Aix, though that has some still more ancient columns, those they say, of a pagan temple that once occupied the site. In point of age and state of preservation, this Baptistery of Frejus is said to be unique. The cloister, with its upper story, and its wooden ceiling decorated with incised and painted figures of every variety that the introverted medieval imagination could suggest, from an angel to a centaur with a woman’s breasts, must certainly be so. Until a few years ago the arches of this cloister were bricked up, and most of its beauties hidden. The highest praise is due to the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques and the Ministry of Fine Arts for their intelligent restoration, and to the present guardian of the cloister for his careful maintenance.

It is characteristic of Frejus that this excellent official is, so to speak, everything and everybody where the local monuments are concerned. Having parted from him at the door of the cathedral, I went round the corner to the Syndicat d’Initiative to make a few inquiries. There was a door with a bell and a notice requesting one to ring. I rang; and there appeared my friend of a moment since, this admirable Pooh-Bah, who, owing to my tactless haste, had not had time even to disguise himself or change his hat.

A short way up the inland road to Cannes from the cross-roads in the centre of the town one passes on the left the barracks, an unusually attractive example of its kind. A little further on, a turning on the same side takes you to the ruins of the Roman theatre. They are of little interest or value, but enjoy some favour as an afternoon resort for the younger Forojulienne matrons and their children. There are still some fragments of the aqueduct which brought the water of the Roman city more than thirty miles from the Siagnole; but scarcely anywhere a complete arch standing, save in one place where I counted five.

I walked this way to an uncertain destination on a warm afternoon, after a cool morning of mistral. A mile or two outside the town a rough road goes to the right to Valescure. At the corner is a military camp, with a cemetery in which many of the Colonial soldiers who died in the late War are buried, or at least commemorated. This extraordinary cemetery consists of what is referred to as a Missiri Soudanaise, an Indo-Chinese pagoda; and, for the rest, of hundreds upon hundreds of little tombstones, each one bearing an unpronounceable outlandish name. The Missiri Soudanaise presented itself as a collection of weird carved wooden figures, grotesque representations of animals and monsters, a little like those on Indian totem-poles, painted in brilliant bizarre colours. At first sight the whole thing seemed rather meaningless and jolly; but as one looked further, it took on a strangely sinister appearance in these peaceful, sunny, European surroundings. A little Oriental soldier unlocked the door of the pagoda and invited me to enter. The interior was overcrowded and gaudy, full of modern brasswork and bright stuffs, without any of the repose or beauty we associate with Chinese art. I wondered whether the little soldier had any religious feeling about the place. I was a little embarrassed by his presence. I dropped a coin, as a contribution to the upkeep of the shrine, into the box, which (since even in an Indo-Chinese pagoda we are still in France) was provided for the purpose. There was a good deal of France in that conjunction: the military pomp, the large gesture—and the assumption that somebody else would pay for it.

I thanked my guide for his attendance. He disclaimed thanks with smiles and a polite word. I should have liked to know what he thought about the adjacent demonstration of the effectiveness with which the blessings of civilization had been conferred upon his race. But a dozen incompatibilities of thought and feeling separated us; and besides, I reflected, it was probably a sentimental fallacy to imagine that he would be likely to have any opinion of his own.

I took the path for Valescure. Its pale dusty surface wound among dense groves of pine trees, extending up a slope ahead of me to the horizon. In the distance the foliage appeared to have the close-packed texture of parsley, but it was the wrong colour. The needles of these southern pines, however, have a much fresher, greener colour than the blue tone we associate with the species in the north. The tops of a few white buildings projected from the close green mass. In such surroundings one misses the rich variety of an English wood; but these trees, particularly those of the umbrella kind, can be very beautiful. I know not whether there is any objective basis for the popular belief that the smell of them is healthy; though there is obviously plenty of subjective truth in it, since nearly everybody thinks so. But then, I know not whether there is any objective basis for anything. Nor does anybody. So why worry? They smell very nice.

Valescure is unique. It consists of a number of huge magnificent hotels—not of the modern gimcrack barrack sort, but sumptuous and solid mansions, isolated in the woods—and a few private houses, which I am not going to call villas. There is also a golf-course. I can only compare it to the out-skirts of Bournemouth as they must once have been, or to the most secluded quarter of Roehampton in a happy yesteryear. And yet these comparisons must give a very inadequate conception of the place. It sleeps with a beautiful detachment from the noisome business of the unquiet world in the aromatic midst of its encircling woods. It is a land where it is always afternoon. No one has ever met anybody who has ever been there, just as no one has ever met Sir Basil Zaharoff or the Dalai Lama. Valescure does not advertise itself, no public conveyance goes to it, and if you wish to go there you must either walk, as I did, or hire a car. There has never been a French town or village, however small, which did not gather about some centre of communal life, hotel de viIle, place, or cafe. Valescure has no such centre, unless perhaps it be the golf-course. It is essentially not a French place, but an English one. Its only named thoroughfare is called after an English colonel. On a fine afternoon in spring its visible population consists of a nurse-maid wheeling a baby in a perambulator. But as I turn my steps towards St Raphael, I am met by an obvious English parson out of uniform, and by two English cars containing obvious English families.

It is said that Lord Brougham, to whom the prosperity of Cannes is due, considered settling at Valescure before he decided to go to the other side of the Esterel. I am ignorant whether it was on climatic grounds that he rejected the neighbourhood of St Raphael. This town, being exposed to the mistral, has the reputation of being cold in winter; yet it is a winter resort of considerable age and standing, largely owing to the influence of the writer, Alphonse Karr, who, having settled in the place, perhaps considered himself obliged to justify his choice by public proclamation of its merits. Its position at the mouth of the valley of the Argens, which is a natural corridor for the north-west wind, is certainly against it; but the blowing of the mistral does not necessarily exclude sunshine; and I must suppose that St Raphael has attracted those who like a bracing place.. So far as my slight acquaintance goes, Valescure appears comparatively sheltered. Not so St Raphael, to whose climate, during the period of my sojourn, the term fresh might be very reasonably applied.

By one definition (that which excludes the Cote des Maures and the region west of Toulon) St Raphael is the first resort of the Cote d’Azur. Its appearance is by no means unattractive. To the west is Frejus-Plage, with its naval aerodrome. Then comes a small harbour, with yachts and fishing-boats; and finally the modern town, extending on the east to the foot of the red-and-green and mass of the Esterel. St Raphael has a spacious air, in contrast with Ste Maxime, something of a mellow look. The Boulevard Felix-Martin is a handsome promenade, embellished with fine palms, and lined to landward by very tolerable buildings; and here, on a sunny morning, when it is not too cold, you may stroll at your leisure, looking at the sea-planes and the two or three warships which are usually moored a short way from the shore.

Though St Raphael has an ancient nucleus, its only old building is an eleventh-century Church of the Templars, in an extremely wretched and dilapidated state. They will show you the house where Gounod composed Romeo and Juliet, and the Maison Close of Alphonse Karr, to whom the natives show a proper gratitude by naming streets and erecting statues in his memory on every hand. It was at St Raphael that Napoleon landed on his return from Egypt in 1799; and it was from here that he embarked, fifteen years later, for Elba, disguised in the uniform of an Austrian officer, lest the zeal of his countrymen to show that they could spurn a fallen hero as well as they could cheer a triumphant one should bring about his death.

To go from what is ancient history, and therefore ridiculous, to the sublime, it was at St Raphael that I ate an excellent dejeuner, which included a portion of one of the best roast chickens I have ever tasted, and certainly as good a chou-fleur au gratin as I ever have, accompanied by a young Beaujolais, which, with this meal, may perhaps be considered by the purist to constitute a reversion to the ridiculous. And St Raphael has yet another claim on my memory; for it was there that I saw two young men, in all other respects apparently normal and law-abiding citizens, of whom one wore a tight-waisted brown jacket, long grey plus-fours, with stripes, over bare legs and bedroom slippers, and a golf cap; while the other displayed a piece of brown fur in place of a necktie.