St. Tropez is a familiar name, even those who haven’t been there. It is synonymous with luxury and a life that is unobtainable for most mortals. Considered to be the playground of the rich, this little town is nested on the French Riviera. While staying in Cavalaire-sur-Mer we went on a day trip to Saint Tropez and Ramatuelle on a scooter. Another site I visited was the Mediterranean garden of Domaine du Rayol.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region has plenty of gorgeous towns to visit. Menton and Sainte-Agnes are two other towns I visited on another trip. It is preferable to rent a car since many of these towns are not connected or are hard to reach using public transportation. To explore this area you can fly into Nice Cote d’Azur, Toulon-Hyères or Marseille airport.
History of St. Tropez
Greeks arrived in this area in 599 B.C. to found present day Marseille and other sites. The original name of St. Tropez was Athenopolis. In 31 B.C., the Romans invaded the region and changed its name to Heraclea-Caccaliera. Its current name is related to the legend of Saint Torpes of Pisa. He was a Roman soldier who refused to renounce his Christianity and was decapitated during the reign of Emperor Nero. His body was thrown in a boat with a dog and a rooster floating down the Arno river reaching the shores of Saint Tropez. The villagers decided to adopt this early Christian martyr as their patron saint.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, this Mediterranean town was attacked by pirates and privateers. After the village of La Garde-Freinet was founded to the north, St. Tropez and its surroundings passed to be an Arab Muslim colony between 890 to 972. In 1976, William I Count of Provence, Lord of Grimaud, attacked the area. After it was under control of different families, including wealthy Genoese in the fifteen century that built the finest ships. Turkish and Spanish forces attacked the area during the sixteen century, so strong defenses had to be built, including the Citadel that still exists.
The trendy St. Tropez started in the late 19th century when neo-Impressionist painter, Paul Signac, ‘discovered’ the town when forced to get shelter from a storm. He built a house that served to entertain many painters such as Matisse. The town got a bohemian reputation in the 20th century attracting many literary visitors and fashion designers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Allied landings in St. Tropez during World War II called “Operation Dragoon” were done to liberate the south of France. This destroyed the port in 1944, but it was later rebuilt. In the 1950, the glamorous and luxurious reputation was created when Brigitte Bardot started wearing a bikini in the movie ‘And God Created Woman’. This beach destination inspired a sunscream called St. Tropez that is promoted by supermodels such as Kate Moss. It is common to find celebrities and millionaires in the harbor and beach.
What to do in St. Tropez?
As you can imagine, staying in a hotel in St. Tropez is quite expensive, with options ranging into the thousands for a one night stay. Obviously, prices vary according to the season with the peak being summer. If you book in advance, in the shoulder or off-seasons, you will be able to find some ‘affordable’ options.
St. Tropez was a fishing village, if you want to see its history then you should head to the old port which is known as Vieux Port. There is quite a huge contrast between the colorful fishing boats and the mega yachts. Visit early October to admire the “Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez” regatta. This area is filled with outdoor cafés and artists selling paintings. Môle Jean-Réveille promenade is a jetty of rocks leading into the sea that offers great views.
Café Senequier is one of the most famous, but it was closed when I went because of Covid. We went to Place aux Herbes, located in an ancient market square, that is full of stalls selling fruits, vegetables and flowers. Nearby is the Halle aux Poissons (fish market) that sells some of the freshest fish and seafood in Provence.
Above the village of Saint Tropez lies the citadel which was built in the early 1600s. It still has canons that are ready for action. Inside the fortress, in an area that used to be the dungeons, is the Museum of Maritime History. It tells the story of the history of the village and the brave fishermen that traveled the seas.
Below the citadel you will find La Ponche, the old town of Saint Tropez. Wonder through the small cobbled roads that are only for pedestrians. In them you will discover plenty of restaurants, cafés, upscale boutiques (all the famous and expensive designers have stores here) and shops. The beautiful Italian Baroque bell tower of Eglise de Notre-Dame de l’Assomption stands out in all the photos of the skyline.
Place des Lices (Place Carnot) is the town square. It is common to see people playing pétanque (a version of bocce ball). There are stalls selling fruits, flowers and drinks in the square, as well as a market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings.
Inside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Annonciade is an art museum. This church from 1510 has a collection of works that include famous names such as Paul Signac, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Edouard Vuillard, Raoul Dufy, and Maurice de Vlaminck. These artists spent time living and working in the village. There are plenty of art galleries all over Saint Tropez.
Another museum you should visit is the Butterfly Museum Maison des Papillons with over 35,000 items on display, including very rare, exotic and extinct species.
Most people associate Saint Tropez with its beaches. Outside the port is Plage de Bouillabaisse with free public showers and toilets. It is possible to swim in this beach, as well as Plage des Canoubiers that also offers a sailing school and yachting services. Plage de la Ponche and Plage de la Fontanette are in the old town of La Ponche. These small pebble beaches are more low key and less crowded.
Sentier du Littoral is a scenic coastal road that goes around the Saint Tropez peninsula, starting at Plage de la Ponche. Many decide to do a half day hike to admire nature. There are plenty of beaches in this area, including a quiet pebble beach called Plage des Salins that has pine trees providing shade. Another beach that can be reached by a 45 minute hike is Plage de la Moutte. Most beaches are not within easy walking distance, so be prepared to hike or drive.
Ramatuelle is located 9.8 kilometers from St. Tropez making it a perfect day trip destination or event to spend a night in a hotel in Ramatuelle. It should take about 15 minutes to drive between both towns, however traffic going in and out of St. Tropez can be slow so it could take more time. For protection, this town was built on a hill overlooking the Bay of Pampelonne. Many visit the beautiful beach of Pampelonne that is five kilometers long with crystal clear waters.
The name Ramatuelle derives from Arabic Rahmatollah, meaning the mercy of God or divine providence. This area was ruled by the Moors in the ninth and tenth centuries. It could also come from Camatullici, from a Celto – Ligurian tribe that was in the area during the Roman conquest. Driven from the shores, they took refuge in the mountains and forests.
Nowadays it is a quiet place with a population of over 2,000 inhabitants. In the summer it gets full of tourists, including famous people, who walk around its narrow and cobbled roads. This place is full of charm, with murals done in different areas such as the old laundry center and sun clocks (which are quite common in Provence).
Architecture is typical of Mediterranean villages with pink roof tiles and facades with pastel shutters. Exteriors are decorated with flowers such as bougainvillea, honeysuckle and jasmine.
Sights, Food, Shopping and Events
Ramatuelle hosts events such as jazz festivals, classical music, comedy and theatre. There are plenty of wine estates nearby that make a great side trip. On Thursday and Sunday it hosts a market at “Place de l’Ormeau” by the café of the same name.
There are many boutiques selling fabrics and bags that reminded me of Morocco, as well as typical things of the region such as lavender, liquors, soaps, food products, tiles and more.
You can get a quick snack such as crepes or ice cream if you get hungry. There are also plenty of restaurants that serve gourmet meals. We didn’t eat since we had very limited time.
The church of Ramatuelle was placed on an ancient wall that surrounded the village. It was destroyed during the Wars of Religion. But the community decided to rebuild it in 1582 without support of the bishop. This historical monument has the remains of one of the four watchtowers that were part of the fortifications of the 14th century that were necessary to keep the population safe. Inside there is an altarpiece from the seventeen century that represents St. Andrew, the patron of the parish. There is also a smaller Chapel of Saint-Ann that was built in the 16th century.
Another curious relic from the past is the ancient jail, built under Napoleon III in a style so Arabic that it looks like a hammam. The Saracen Door has its original interior appearance, dating back to 1792. Also from that time is the Font-d’Avaou, a wash house that was the center of the town gossip. The Eiffel Staircase, made of metal, was a modern sight for 1868. Ramatuelle also has the tombstone of the French actor, Gerard Philipe, and a memorial dedicated to the French members of the special services that died during World War II.