The Snake in St Tropez

Hidden behind expensive Italian sunglasses, our scaley friend tours the hot spots at the Voiles de St Tropez

Thursday October 2nd 2003, Author: The Snake, Location: France
Ask the man in the street about French history pre-World War 1 and you are likely to hear some talk of The Revolution, a snippet about Napoleon and a vague memory of The Roman Conquest (possibly remembered through a childhood familiarity with the cartoon duo from Gaul, Asterix and Obelix). St Tropez sits on the country's Mediterranean coast in the Provence region; an area invaded and occupied throughout its early history by just about anyone with his own battle-axe and enough skill to torch a hut.

In 6th Century BC The Greeks founded Marseilles, but soon found that marauding, unwashed and scary Celts (endowed with a nasty habit of decapitating enemies and nailing the heads onto buildings...a British abroad thing) and the equally unpleasant Ligurians were forming an unholy alliance in the neighbourhood. This deadly tribal team set up raiding basas in the beautiful, rugged, mountainous region of Les Alpes Maritime, set back from the coast, forcing the nervous Marseillaise to invite the Romans over to stay for eleven centuries. a relatively comfortable, civilising peace was maintained in the region....until the fall of The Roman Empire.

This collapse prompted frenzied activity in the Provence district from every hard case of 6th Century AD. Visigoths, Ostragoths, Saxons and lombards (former Roman mercenaries from Germany, not a warlike band of long-range sales reps from the English marine financing company of the same name) stormed the area. Any barbarians with an unhappy, disappointing homelife or equipped with an urge to travel and supress strangers, began rampaging through the region like dysfunctional scocktroops.

Two centuries later, The Saracens rode into a chaotic Provence and established The Carolingian Empire; an attractive title for a dynasty that sparked bloody struggles between le croix et le croissant and led to 800 years of fuedal conflict, culminating in the religious wars of the 16th Century between Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots; So, St. Tropez is accustomed to frequent and lengthy invasions by lawless, uncivilised foreigners bent upon destruction and, therefore, well qualified to host an international regatta.

"Regatta" stems from two Ancient greek words; regara = to sail and terratta = to cause disturbance and mayhem on land (this is total nonsense, naturally, but it may as well be true). This is the 20th regatta to be held in St Tropez; an event that started as a challenge race between an American-owned Swan 44, Pride, and 12 Metre Ikra in September 1981. Those with an electronic calculator instead of a brain will have already noticed a discrepancy in these figures. The regatta, then known as the Nioulargue, suffered a tragic setback in 1995 following an incident that has entered into European, sailing folklore. Briefly, a collision between two classic yachts, 6 Metre Taos Bret and the mighty Mariette, caused the death of a competitor. Due to a genuine sense of shock and remorse in France and complexities in French maritime law, the race was suspended between 1996-98.

Re-born and re-named in 1999 as Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez, this regatta is the final, big racing event of the Mediterranean season and attracts a huge and varied number of international entrants. This year there are 160 boats racing, divided into three main groups; Modern, Classic (including some of the most mouthwatering Fife, Camper & Nicholson and Herreshoff yachts afloat) and a 12-strong fleet of spectacular, futuristic Wallys.

Many of the Wally boats and classic yachts are moored stern-to in the town's original, Vieux port, while the Modern division occupy the more recently built Nouveau Port. The two marinas are seperated by the Quai de L'epi housing the town' s port authority offices in a squat, fortified tower and possibly the chicest tented, regatta village that The Snake has ever lurked around.

The overall flavour of the regatta is 'civilised'. Racing begins at the highly enlightened time of noon, usually lasting three to four hours and St. Tropez is superbly adapted for post-racing, shore-based entertainment. Although there is a busy, well organised, social schedule (more of this will be in The Snake's second, Tropizienne installment) this is almost unnecessary as the town's confusing network of narrow streets and tree-filled squares provides a diverse selection of bars, clubs and restaurants.

In the Vieux Port, above the popular Café de Paris is the first-floor Hotel Sube (exotic Eurotrash) and Bodega de Papagayo (four years ago this was the place for dancing on tables and removing one's trousers, but is now considerably more straight and sober). Set back from the port, in the stunning Place des Lices is Le Café where, if you are very lucky, you may witness a performance from the heavily tanned, geriatric, karaoke singing transvestite. For those who choose less mainstream entertainment, hidden away on the steep, winding Rue Victor Laugier is the bohemian Le Cohiba Café for dimly-lit, late-night excitement.

Whereas a regatta such as Cowes Week (for example) is an intense, frantic, hammer-down beer festival; Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez has a far more relaxed tone. From early in the evening until midnight families wander around the town and port, quietly viewing the race yachts and the quayside exhibitions by local artists, displaying oil paintings and watercolours with nautical and often embarassingly pornographic themes. The whole scene is a perfect platform for the most passionate people-watching.....

Something very curious happens to the French feminine sense of style when it is in close proximity to the sea. The most gamine, delectable Parisian woman casts urban sophistication aside and splatters herself with gold; not only jewellery, but also golden sunglasses, hats, footwear and gold embroidered T-shirts etc, etc. It just doesn't stop. Whether this custom is a (not so) subtle, traditional sign of homage and respect to a carat obsessed Sea-Deity or possibly the conspicuous displays of wealth encountered at glamorous yachting destinations brings out the bourgeois in the most cultivated Frenchwoman is unclear.

Meanwhile, their male counterparts exhibit a strong predeliction for all things striped and seem to treat the French, comic book sailing hero, Corto Maltese, as a role model (Corto is a Captain Haddock-like character, but with biceps, testosterone and an international and highly cosmopolitan sex life).

Another bewildering sight often encountered in St. Tropez is that of Frenchwomen shopping, wearing the essential and socially acceptable gold-laced running shoes while carrying very small, neurotic dogs in their handbags. The effect this spectacle has on your correspondent is hard to explain, but it is close to cerebral hemorrhage. It is claimed that some of these pink-ribboned pooches will only leave the safety of their handbag to defecate; although Prada technicians are possibly working on a shiny, gold prototype fitted with the appropriate doggy plumbing.

Yours, hanging around outside the poodle parlour, The Snake.

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