One by one I pick them from their shell, making sure to grab a thin sliver of onion where I can, before I receive another hit of the fresh brackish tang. “What are you on?” I hastily ask my next-door rival between mouthfuls. “94!” she blurts out, as quickly as her lips will let her before another bite is taken. I’ve somehow become a contender in a mussel eating contest, but instead of sitting at a long table with a shouting crowd, I’m dressed in white at an alfresco restaurant on the harbour of St Tropez.
It began as a leisurely race, only stopping at a memorable number to dip a fry in the salty wine reduction. But suddenly I notice great speed in my peripheral. “On our ski trips we always compete” my friend says as another mussel disappears. “My record was 138”. With that I pick up the pace.
I’m lagging behind at a measly 64, the aged black pot of open shells intimidating my rapidly filling belly. Ah hah! A creature locked tight, inedible and normally disappointing, yet one more I can add to the count without sacrificing valuable stomach space.
Our mandatory French delicacy comes enjoyed with a backdrop of unblemished white yachts. I know that they are spotless because all day the staff have wiped clean every inch of salty spray, shining the ship and laying out a carpeted entrance before the rich and fabulous return.
Our arrival to the harbour had been more garden-variety than glamorous. Aboard the Gypsy ferry from St Maxime we sailed across the gulf, a common rock among the diamonds. Despite disembarking with Jill and John from South East London, I concealed my non-A-lister identity with tortoise shell sunglasses, a white flowing dress and a large straw hat that flapped up in the breeze. I was sticking to the St Tropez dress code even if it meant swapping Ted Baker for Topshop.
However behind the blockage of bedazzling boats, the rest of the town is less lavish than expected. Since I was small, St Tropez had sounded unattainable. I’d imagined an army of lanky tanned girls in tiny bikinis, seductively propped on sparkling decks whilst men in white shirts and shades matched their manhood to the scale of their ship.
It comes as a relief that once you get past the extravagant frontline, a web of faded auburn walls enclose rustic restaurants, bakeries and shops – for those who can’t afford to drown in champagne. I slyly (and gratefully) tuck my Mastercard to the bottom of my bag.
Not only were the pathways less posh than expected but they were also less populated. It seemed that one place to escape the August Bank Holiday crowds was on the streets of St Tropez.
A meander takes us past miniature galleries with even more artwork than the waterfront. Rare among European cities, St Tropez’s resident artists have actual talent. Abstract textured canvases line the marina’s bend, a few classic caricaturists sneakily hiding among the seaside scenes.
Here is where you’ll dig out that credit card; a cabaret meal at L’Opera, a dessert with your toes in the sand at L’Escale or a glass of wine at Sénéquier, which has offended the St Tropez harbour with its blood red appearance since 1887. “At least it’s a good spot for people watching” my friend says as we reluctantly hand over €8 for a midday Cola. Always the optimist, she’s right. Opposite us a street musician sets up to seduce onlookers with his slow European strings, only to be moved on before he gets to his last verse.
Our afternoon is filled with dripping gelato from Barbarac, a slow walk around the water’s edge and a gaze at designer boutiques. It comes as no surprise that St Tropez is stuffed with tiny shops selling high-end fashions in numerous shades of beige. What in-fact does come as a shocker is that many are stocked with cashmere jumpers and leather knee high boots… in the heat of August.
Whilst I’m not in the market for cream cardigans, I am on the search for a magnificent view, my can’t-leave-until-I’ve-seen-one for any new soil.
Here it is, a dusty ascent to La Citadelle. However instead of learning about the maritime history of the coastal town, we circle the museum’s hilltop location for its 180 degree panoramas. An uphill gravel walk leads to a glance over the town just below, the Church bell tower the only character in the skyline.
As the thickets of lush trees thin out, a sweep of pure blue dominates the view, only interrupted by a shallow distant outline of the mountainous Verdon National Park. We will venture here another day, another story waiting to be told.
Before the tour of the St Tropez panoramas comes to an end, a thick forest crumbling into the ocean disrupts the sky. Here is where the millionaires live, in the most luxurious of Lego houses. Among a closer inspection, dots of turquoise turn out to be infinity pools, and reflective walls, a floor to ceiling view of the boats cruising the Mediterranean Sea. As if the builders had planned it all those years ago, a short rundown wall offers the perfect place to prop and imagine ourselves nipping round our selective mansions for a glass of local Rosé.
Ah, ST Tropez. Not just a rich man’s land, but it doesn’t hurt to be one.
Sweating from our short hike in the heat, I look down at the herd of humans throwing themselves into the sea. One quick suggestive eyebrow raise at my friends and we are rapidly making our way back down to tear off our fake designer dresses and join in.
This strip of clear blue that stretches around almost the entirety of St Tropez guarantees one thing; a fine meal fresh from the ocean. 97 mussels later and still counting, I stop shoving shellfish in my face long enough to see that the sun has begun its descent, illuminating the stonewashed orange pier. I watch as the party boats begin to receive their first line up of skimpily dressed guests.
Why do they come to St Tropez? In truth, it’s just a small resort with some boutique shops and a collection of seafront restaurants. But perhaps that’s just it. Maybe under the gold Gucci sunnies and rhinestone studs, the white suited yachtists just appreciate authenticity. No over built skies like Monaco, no not so nice side of Nice. Just a charming little town surrounded by a rich, wooded peninsula. At heart we all just crave a down to earth destination, no matter how we arrive.
3…2…1. I’ve finally reached 100. It’s not quite 138 but just like St Tropez, there’s no competition.