When we hear about Saint-Tropez, it's too often about a celebrity in dark shades hurrying down the narrow streets to the quay, what Jack Nicholson or Bruce Willis or Kate Moss might have whispered at the Caves du Roy nightclub, what possible scandal brews and where.
Unfortunately, all this banter hides the soul of Saint-Tropez.
So it's with delight that I read through a personal account of St Tropez from the eyes of Simone Duckstein, a Tropézienne from the inside out.
Mme Duckstein was born in her parents' bed at the Hôtel de la Ponche in St Tropez. At the time, the hotel was not yet a hotel but the Bar de la Ponche. It was her mother's popular pub, etched in a triangle of homes that huddle together and look over the fishing port of La Ponche.
In her book, Mme Duckstein whisks us through her personal history as she grows up within a rapidly changing St Tropez. As a child, she lives in a St Tropez vibrant with the artistic scene of the 50's and 60's, the St-Tropez-des-Près. At her mother's Bar de la Ponche, she meets Picasso, writer Françoise Sagan, actress and singer Juliette Gréco, American saxophonist Don Byas, poet Boris Vian and many others. They're not celebrities, but familiar faces, like cousins who visit for the summer.
But the Bar de la Ponche, consumes most of her mother's time and affections. The book describes Simone's struggle with this, her family history, the tear that splits outsiders from insiders, her personal tragedies, and how she returns to the Hôtel de la Ponche and reconciles past with present.
If you're looking for juicy pieces on famous folks who haunt Saint-Tropez, you won't find it here. Simone talks about Saint-Tropez with simple affection and style and offers a lasting impression.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon a little old book at a used bookstore in Aix-en-Provence. My edition was printed in 1953. It was "Maurin des Maures", written in 1908 by a local Provence writer from Toulon, Jean Aicard. In a few hours, I devoured the book.
Its story takes place in the brushy maquis and forests of the Maures Mountains on the French Côte d'Azur, just behind St Tropez.
The hero, Maurin des Maures, roams the Maures Mountains by Bormes-les-Mimosas, St Tropez, Sainte-Maxime and south of Gonfaron, Pignans, La Garde-Freinet. He's a free happy-go-lucky man who hunts rabbits and wild boar for sustenance, teases the gendarmes for fun and ends up falling in love with Tonia, a young woman who works as a waitress in a local tavern. The hiccup? Tonia is engaged to an up and coming gendarme, freshly assigned to the region.
The story charms with its description of the country side behind St Tropez in the mid 1800's. It's also alive with depictions of local personalities, their quirks, their work. Through it, you hear the steps of the wild boar foraging through the woods, you inhale the scents of the maquis. The story bounces like Maurin himself from one adventure to the next, never staying put or boring. It's a colorful, epic and fun tale, with a twist of rebelliousness and love.
Jean Aicard (1848 - 1921, born and worked in Toulon) labored for many years on Maurin des Maures. He claimed to have written it four times over. Flammarion published its first edition in 1908, and it has seen many more editions over the next decades.
The public loved the adventure book. Aicard followed the novel with L'Illustre Maurin (1908) and then Le Rire de Maurin des Maures published in 1923, thus offering a trilogy with Maurin des Maures as the central character.
Jean Aicard also wrote poems, devoting a good number of them to the Provence and its peculiarities. He wrote poems on the Bouillabaisse fish stew (see recipe here), the Olive Tree, the Cicada. Unlike Frédéric Mistral, another Provençal poet, Aicard wrote in French and not in Provençal.
If you fancy finding out more about Jean Aicard, check out the little museum:
Musée Jean Aicard Avenue du 8 Mai 1945 83130 - La Garde Phone: +33 (0)4 94 14 33 78
Opened Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2PM until 6PM and on the 1st and 3rd weekends of every month, except holidays. The museum is in Jean Aicard's former home "Les Lauriers Roses" in La Garde by Toulon, complete with loads of personal items on his work desk. For more info, see the La Garde city web site.
As far as I can tell, the book is out of print, but you'll find plenty of old editions available through Amazon resellers, through AbeBooks and others. You can also get your hands/mouse on a e-book version of it. In French only - a good way to brush on la langue de Molière.
Click on any of the above books to read more about them...
We're often asked: "What travel guidebook do you recommend for our upcoming visit to the French Riviera or Côte d'Azur?"
And we usually respond: "It depends."
It isn't to annoy anyone. Really. It's just that different guides serve different purposes.
The French Côte d'Azur overflows with beautiful footpaths. Hikers and even the casual walker who enjoys savoring a region slowly and on foot will love this new hiking guide: "26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Côte d'Azur". It covers hikes on the western side of the French Riviera (from Hyères to Cannes, including St Tropez, Frejus, St Raphael, Maures Mountains, Esterel Mountains) and includes some of the more unique sites. Complete with photos, maps, hiking length, distance & difficulty, recommendation and background info. Pretty unique and well-received guidebook.
If you're looking for a thorough guide that you'll enjoy reading, even when you're not seeking any particular information, I recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Provence and the Côte d'Azur. It's one of the heavier guides on the region (a one pounder!). That's because of the quality of the glossy paper that helps to show off the book's photos. The guide drips with gorgeous photos that succinctly tell it all. The drawings of museums and churches are also extremely well done and useful.
If you couldn't care less about photos, but want juicy gems of information, I love Nicola Williams' Lonely Planet Guide to Provence and the Côte d'Azur. As an adopted local, I can tell that Nicola has walked the walk and done *lots* of local exploration, from cork oaks to beaches to wineries. It shows. I miss the photos (there are only a few, bunched up up front) but after all, you'll get to see the actual sites on your visit.
For a different perspective into the French Riviera, I enjoy Ted Jones' "The French Riviera, A Literary Guide for Travellers". It's an exhaustive yet very readable and lively account of 150 authors who lived and worked in the region. Anyone who enjoys the French Riviera, its literary life and a bit of eaves dropping will love the book.
While a physical guide is useful for visits, to ponder over in the car, in the train, in your room, on the trail, use online guides for time-sensitive information. Restaurants in particular change over the years. We even see them change focus or management over a season or two.
So for restaurant and hotel recommendations, TripAdvisor.com and VirtualTourist.com do a great job, based on the impressive number of participating reviewers. Millions of reviews get posted. That means the phony or revengeful posts don't weight in as much as they may on some lesser-visited sites. For gourmet restaurants in particular, take a look at Guide Gantié for 2008. It's printed but also online, complete with videos of each selected place.
I also enjoy Igougo.com as well as BootsNAll.com for travel stories.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St.James, les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, is not strictly a French path. And no, it's not at all on the French Riviera.
Why talk about it on AzurAlive.com where we scout offbeat crowd-evading spots in Southern France?
To many in France and beyond, le Chemin de Compostelle is mystical. During medieval times, it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Since 1140, pilgrims, the curious and the brave have embarked on it by foot, on horseback or more recently by bike to reach a site considered sacred by many, the site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Four main paths cross France and lead pilgrims from all across Europe to Santiago de Compostela: the "via Turonensis" that goes through Tours, "via Lemovicensis" through Vézelay, the "via Podensis", the oldest and most popular route and the one that crosses Puy-en-Velay and finally, the "via Tolosana" going through Arles.
Turonensis, Lemovicensis, Podensis all meet up at Ostabat in the French side of the Basque country to continue on into Spain as a single thread. Tolosana or the Arles route, rejoins them shortly after at Puente La Reina in Spain. The four then continue west as one to Santiago, as the Camino Francés or French Path.
I've recently talked with Susan Alcorn, hiker and author of "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." Camino Chronicle is a personal account of Susan and Ralph Alcorn's 500-miles 34-day hike across the Spanish side of the Camino to Compostela.
AzurAlive: Not everyone goes out and hikes 500 miles across an ancient pilgrimage trail and then comes home and writes a book about it. What was the spark that triggered the adventure?
Susan: One Sunday several years ago, we read about the pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago in the our local newspaper's travel section. It sounded interesting, but my husband and I were both still working full time. I filed the article with the dozens of other destination pieces I've saved.
A couple of years later, as we were both considering retirement, the idea of walking the Camino resurfaced.
We were already backpackers — in fact our hike on the Camino was just weeks after we completed our final segment of the John Muir Trail, which is a 221-mile trail through the highest mountains of California. I guess we just figured that although it was more miles than we had ever walked, we also had more time than ever to do it. I was very leery about doing the meseta — I took the "Nine months of winter, three months of Hell" (referring to the extremes of weather) to heart. Because I had visions of perishing in the brutal heat, we had talked about our alternatives — one was that Ralph would continue walking and that I would bus ahead.
As it turned out — which is usually the case — my worries were unwarranted. The meseta, though indeed a land with scant vegetation and relatively few people, had its own rewards. I found its "plain-ness" provided the opportunity to meditate — to think about anything that came to mind, or nothing. I liked the way that small things — a single flower alongside the trail or an egret in a nearby field — could be noticed. I was intrigued by the fact that a row of trees lined the trail for miles. The trees, as well as occasional stone benches, had been placed in order to provide shelter and relief for Camino walkers. And finally, enjoyed the way that the miles of the flatter terrain seemed to zip by.
AzurAlive: How did you prepare for the trip?
Susan: We live in a hilly area and have moderate weather so we have the benefit of being able to walk in the hills pretty much year-round. We can be "couch potatoes" during the "off-season," but when hiking season approaches, we definitely start our training hikes. Four to six weeks before a major trip, we start taking hikes of increasing miles and difficulty. Ralph like to take these longer hikes carrying his backpack; I should do this too, but I rarely do! And because we are hiking long-distance trails in the U.S. as well as in Europe each year, we are either training for, or going on, long hikes much of the year.
AzurAlive: Did you write the core of the material during the trip?
Susan: I kept a journal during our 2001 walk on the Spanish Camino and that became the core material for "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." However, because I wanted to know more about the trail and its history than I could pick up during our walk, I did a lot of research after we returned home. The book combines my journal entries, cultural information, and legends of the trail. I also included practical information such as how to pack and how to prepare for an extended trip away from home.
AzurAlive: Tell us about your hiking in France. Did you start on the French side of the Pyrenees?
Susan: That sounds like another book -- and someday that may well be! We found our Camino experience so interesting that we wanted more. We decided to walk the French route from LePuy (GR65) across to Spain. We walked the route in three sections from 2004 - 2006.
Although we saw many wonderful sights throughout France, I think that the section from LePuy to Figeac was the most beautiful. Of course that was partly due to time of year — it was springtime and we were blessed with snow (exciting!) and daffodils everywhere! Our 2005 and 2006 trips were in the fall, so it was hotter and drier, but the climb out of St. Jean Pied du Port and over the Pyrenées was stunningly beautiful!
We enjoyed hiking in France so much that we are planning on returning this fall and hiking a portion of another Camino route — the one from Arles to Puente la Reina.
Thank you Susan and Bonne Randonnée, wherever your next hiking adventure may take you!
What is the French Côte d’Azur best-kept secret? Its footpaths.
They offer panoramic views along low-lying mountains, chiseled pitons by ancient volcanoes, protected
national parks thick with vegetation, plains engorged with colorful
flowers, amphibians, and birds of all chants.
Most guidebooks miss them. And unfortunately, visitors miss them too.
Yet to the walker who knows where to go, the Côte d’Azur is close to paradise.
Pre-announcing a NEW Guide to the Western Côte d’Azur: "26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Côte d’Azur". A guide for hikers of all levels of ability who long to discover the region's natural beauty.
Available at your favorite bookstore or through Amazon beginning inFebruary 2008. Pre-order now.