Saint-Tropez – An Overview & History

    St. Tropez is one of the French Riviera’s top destinations for the jet-set crowd. Highly-fashionable trust funders flock (by yacht or by helicopter) to this tiny resort town every summer, and have been since the 1950s. Yet despite its well-earned hedonistic reputation, St. Tropez possesses a certain mystique that has lingered here since long before a pouty young ingénue named Brigitte Bardot came along in the mid-1950s and splashed the whole town with limelight.

    Saint-Tropez - An Overview & History - st tropez travel guide2

    Scrape away the gilded patina of new money (and avoid the nearly 100,000 visitors who rumble in each summer) and the once-humble fishing port, military stronghold, and artist enclave still shimmers beneath the plane trees on the Place des Lices, in the cannonball-marred walls of the fortified Citadel, and along the narrow cobbled streets that have bewitched visitors for centuries.

    Saint-Tropez was once simply a picturesque French fishing village. Then Coco Chanel and her fashionable friends started coming, and it became the setting of the movie And God Created Woman featuring Brigitte Bardot, the era’s famous sex symbol. Since then, the previously almost unmapped town in French Riviera became an international tourist hotspot. It is now known as a top destination for the wealthy and famous. The Hamptons of Europe.

    Saint-Tropez - An Overview & History - Saint Tropez

    Other than partying and shopping, people-watching and celebrity-spotting is the main pastime in Saint-Tropez. In St Tropez, the motto is: see and be seen. In St Tropez, it is easy to party and spend like a celebrity. Let us acquaint ourselves with this tiny but illustrious town…

    Basic Information About St. Tropez

    Saint-Tropez is 100 kilometers west of Nice in southern France. The locals call themselves Tropeziéns. It has a population of less than 5,000. French is its official language, though many speak English because of its international status in tourism.

    The peak season for tourists is around May to August in the summertime, and it completely shuts down (stores empty out and restaurants close) in the off-season from October to April. It shares the perfect Mediterranean climate as the rest of the French Riviera.

    The famous St. Tropez beach clubs are actually not in St. Tropez, but in the bordering Ramatuelle, on Pampelonne beach (which is father than most people would want to walk).

    The Origin of the Town’s Name

    Saint-Tropez got its name from an early Christian martyr, Saint Torpes. Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero ordered his execution. Saint Paul converted Torpes, he then professed his faith to Nero during a pagan ceremony. Nero asked him to renounce his faith, not wanting to kill him. Nero ordered to decapitate him after he refused to do so.

    Saint Torpes’ head was tossed into the Arno, a river in Tuscany, Italy. The body was placed in a rotten boat with a rooster and a dog. The boat floated to Liguria. A holy woman dreamt of the body’s arrival. It reached the location of the present town, and not far from the sailors’ cemetery.

    The body was supposed to nourish the rooster and the dog, but it remained untouched. The locals named their village in his honor. Saint Torpes became the patron saint of sailors. Two festivals parade his bust to venerate him: Les Bravades in mid-May, which commemorates the time of the creation of the army and its achievements, and another in mid-June to commemorate the victory of the Tropezian militia over the Spaniards in 1673.

    If you arrive in mid-May and hear gunfire, don’t head for the hills. Les Bravades dates to the 15th century and is a traditional (and loud) Provencal religious and military celebration held over three days each May that gives grown men a good excuse to don old military uniforms and fire muskets. Backed by a drum corps, parades and jubilant onlookers, this celebration is a beloved St-Tropez event, honoring military history as well as the town’s patron saint, Saint Torpes, whose bust is marched through the narrow lanes.

    A Bit More History…

    St Tropez is, quite simply, the most famous resort in Europe – and it was attracting the artistic and dissolute long before Brigitte Bardot’s time. The pointillist Paul Signac led them in from the late 19th century and, by the Forties and Fifties, the village was a summertime extension of the Parisian Left Bank: Juliette Greco, Boris Vian, Sartre and Picasso. Then Bardot appeared in ‘And God Created Woman’, transforming localized hedonism into a worldwide reputation for illicit pleasures. The place never looked back.

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    A statue of Brigitte Bardot in St Tropez

    St-Tropez occupied a strategic military position long before it was a jet-setter’s oasis. Built between 1590-1607 to defend the coastline against pirates and other invaders, the Citadel  still keeps watch over villagers and the sea, though only a few roaming peacocks and some defunct cannons stand guard these days. Predating the Citadel are three medieval towers guarding the port – Portalet, Jarlier, and Suffren, the oldest building in St-Tropez. Here’s more about the history of St Tropez, including its history of dealing with pirates who sold Tropezians into the slave trade.

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    mick jagger’s wedding in st. tropez

    The iconic and oft-photographed bell tower of St-Tropez belongs to the Italian baroque-style Notre Dame de l’Assomption , which contains a wooden bust of Saint Torpes.

    Hire a taxi or scooter and head to the simple Provençal-style Chapelle Ste-Anne  located atop a hill in a residential area above the Place des Lices. Built in 1618, the chapel made pop culture history in 1971 when Mick Jagger married Bianca (here’s the crazy story behind their chaotic wedding) here after a civil ceremony at the St-Tropez town hall.

    Artists in Saint-Tropez

    Before the celebrities, the uber-rich, and their super-yachts came, the artists had already fallen in love with this town. The works of the painters put the town on the artistic map. Most illustrate the simple yet charming life typical of St Tropez.

    Saint-Tropez, le quai, Paul Signac, 1899
    Saint-Tropez, le quai, Paul Signac, 1899
    Places des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Henri Matisse, 1904
    Places des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Henri Matisse, 1904
    La jetée de Saint-Tropez, Pierre Bonnard, 1912
    La jetée de Saint-Tropez, Pierre Bonnard, 1912

    Paul Signac (1863-1935) He was born in Paris. He trained as an architect before becoming an artist. Impressionists’ works like that of Monet inspired him. He combined his love of painting and sailing. He rented a small cottage and worked on the quaysides. His move to a large villa in St-Tropez called La Hune marked a very important year in the modern art scene.

    Henri Matisse (1869-1954) He is a son of a store-keeper and was born in northern France. He studied law but quit because of illness. His pastime, drawing, became his career. His mentors in his artistic studies made him inquisitive about the nature of colors. After discovering his own style experimenting with pure colors, he created a distinct art of his own.

    Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) He was born a wealthy Parisian. He studied law and pursue a career as a barrister before being an artist. In 1910, he moved to French Riviera where he found the inspiration for his art. He used notes, sketches, and even photographs as reference materials. He reflected on his subject, and as he said, dreamt of it.

    An A-Lister Paradise

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    St. Tropez swells in the summer months as yachts creep into port, but a quick stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets of Old Town reveals what attracted celebrities to this former fishing village in the first place.

    Haute couture designer Coco Chanel visited throughout the 1920s. So did Elsa Shiaparelli. In the 1950s Brigitte Bardot starred in the film And God Created Woman set in the town. This was the turning point of the town, from a boat-making and fishing village to a playground of stars. Even today, there are photos of Bardot all over town. Here’s the story of the scandal Bardot created.

    The writer and poet Françoise Sagan also visited in 1955, and her book Bonjour Tristesse brought St. Tropez even more into the spotlight. Pink Floyd wrote a song entitled San Tropez.

    More recently, many rappers have include St. Tropez in their song lyrics stating it to be their favorite vacation spot. It’s where Leonardo DiCaprio held his charity gala for wildlife and ocean conservation. A-list celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez regularly visit.

    Today, it still attracts the crème de la crème of the show business and modeling industry.

    When to (and When Not to) Visit Saint Tropez

    In high season (June to August), 60,000 visitors a day clog the beaches, cafés, and 15th-century alleys of this old fishing village. But July and August, when the crowds descend, can be an enjoyable spectacle—especially at the beach clubs on Pampelonne, where anyone who’s anyone has lunch.

    There is no point in visiting in the off-season (November to mid-April), as almost all of the hotels, shops, and restaurants close up.

    We recommend visiting in late April, May, June, September or early October to avoid the crowds but still enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean weather.

    From the end of September through the beginning of October, some of the world’s most beautiful yachts descend on Saint Tropez for the annual Voiles de St Tropez, whilst the Antipodes Film Festival at the Cinema la Renaissance, in the central Place des Lices, will open from October 13-19.

    But without doubt one of our favorite events at this time of the year is the Grande Braderie, which will bring Saint-Tropez to a standstill from 24-27 October when the town is flooded with bargain-hunters snapping up designer duds for a fraction of regular price.

    How to Get to Saint-Tropez

    There are no train stations or airports near Saint-Tropez, and the surrounding area is full of wineries and things to do, so a rental car is recommended. If you rent a car, it’s easier to get to the famed stretch of sand and the beach clubs on Pampelonne, six miles outside town. If you do take public transportation, here are your options:

    By bus: There is a bus station in Saint-Tropez called the Gare routière de Saint–Tropez located in Place Blanqui. It is operated by department transport division Varlib, which employs other companies to operate routes. Bus #7601 serve Saint-Tropez from behind Saint-Raphaël’s train station via Sainte-Maxime to the east (almost hourly, 1.5 hours to Saint-Raphaël, 30 minutes to Sainte-Maxime). Bus #7801 and #7802 run from Toulon’s train station to the wet (6/day, 2 hours)

    By boat: Boats make the one-hour trip between Saint-Tropez and Sainte-Maxine run about every hour. There are also ferry services connecting to Nice or Cannes. This can actually be the fastest way to arrive (aside from helicopter), given the traffic jams that occur in the summer. A novel way to visit is to take a boat trip from Quai Amiral Nomy in the Esterel with Les Bateaux de Saint-Raphaël. Their trips (which run between April and November) take about an hour each way and provide fabulous views of the coastline en route.

    More options: Options include mini-buses, scooters, cars, bicycles, taxi, and helicopter services. Also, walking is an obvious choice due to traffic and because of the short distances of the destinations.

    Along the Drive to St. Tropez

    Most of the drive from the French Riviera is absolutely stunning — especially the coastal part through the Esterel area. However, there are also plenty of low-budget areas that create eyesores along the one-and-only road connecting St. Tropez to Sainte-Maxime and on to the rest of the French Riviera.

    The seaside in the Grimaud and Gassin areas are filled with ultra-low-budget ‘camping’ sites (basically a for-rent trailer parks), ‘Mobil Home’ parks (also similar to what Americans think of as a trailer park), trashy American-style ‘Monster Truck’ shows, mini-golf, budget shopping, caravan / camper / ‘RV’ vans on the beach, and run-down amusement parks.

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    A promotional photo from one of the campgrounds

    When you hit Port Grimaud and start seeing the Monster Truck ads posted every few meters along the road, you’ll know you’re entering a typically congested stretch of road and are between 10 and 50 minutes from St. Tropez, based on how crazy the traffic is. And no, there’s no ‘back-road’ to escape to.

    Video Tour of Saint-Tropez

    Whether you’re a celebrity or just the usual traveler, the one of a kind experience you can have by visiting Saint-Tropez in southern France is unforgettable.

    The area around St. Tropez also has a lot to see. There are many vineyards and other cute towns within a 20 minute drive. Check out our guide to things to do and sights to see in St. Tropez and the nearby towns to visit.

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