Thursday, 26 September 2013

Postcard from Provence. Saint Remy Vs Saint Tropez.

I have driven through Provence literally dozens of times. The A7 and A8 autoroutes are now so familiar I could write a decent guide-book to their service areas.

When we reach Provence, we usually we speed straight past the Luberon (to the left) and the Alpilles (to the right), and head directly to that little coastal bit called the Var and our normal home-from-home, Saint Tropez.

This year we did just the same on our way down, hurrying past Peter Mayle country to spend a paltry three nights in our favourite beach haunt. It's the shortest holiday visit I've ever made, and even after a wasp-ruined lunch at Le Club 55 we were still desperate to stay longer.

However, we had booked a house in the vrai Provence, somewhere between the Plateau de Vaucluse, the Petit Luberon and the Alpilles (the borders of these areas are somewhat blurred - especially by estate agents).

Having been priced out of anything worth owning in St Tropez, it seemed a good idea to find out what attracted so many second-home owners to the inland part of this vast and largely very rural region.

We've been here a week now, and I still haven't worked out what that attraction is.

Ok, so it's pretty warm in summer. But it can also be bloody windy (the mistral buffeting us today is rumoured to make people insane, so please excuse me if I become even more psychotic than usual).

There are some very pretty small hill towns like Bonnieux, Gordes and Menerbes (known as the 'golden triangle'). But these settlements are in many ways even less real than St Tropez. Life as you and I know it is almost extinct in these expensively preserved environments.

About the only thing you can buy in these villages is a postcard or a naff napkin. For anything to sustain normal life you need to battle for an early parking spot at crowded but wonderful morning markets, or traipse into towns like Cavaillon to a horrible hypermarket and pay about 50% more than you would in the UK.

You will hear from many that our own high streets aren't a patch on those in France, where small, high quality independent stores are still supposed to flourish. But here in Provence they've torn up the script and opted instead to turn almost every high street into a source of pointless tourist grot.

We spent almost an hour trying to find a food shop in L'Isle Sur La Sorgue one morning, and by the time we found a place to buy fruit and veg it had closed for lunch! Closed for lunch? Which century do these people live in? Next thing, they'll be closed on Sundays. Oh yes, sorry, they are.

Frankly, it would have been a lot easier to furnish a house with over-priced antiques than feed a hungry family.

Anyway, I digress, let's get back to property.

Close by is the phenomenon that is Saint Remy de Provence; a small town nestling at the base of the Alpilles, famous for providing Van Gogh with a lunatic asylum during the last year of his life and the setting for one of his most famous paintings - Starry Night.

Oh, and the whole town was once owned by Monaco's Grimaldi family (useless guide book info #1).

This otherwise fairly inconsequential town is surrounded by multi-million Euro second homes filled to the brim in summer with design conscious Parisians and is the spiritual home of France's most achingly stylish interiors magazine - Cote Sud.

A short walk from the brasserie where we ate dinner we found a cluster of estate agents that wouldn't look out of place on Sloane Street or Rue Faubourg St Honore. Sotheby's Realty, Michael Zingraff (Christie's), Emile Garcin, L'Agence des Alpilles, name but a few. These agents' windows were crammed with large country estates all done up like magazine spreads with box hedged gardens, pretend olive groves, polished cement floors and exposed stone walls. But why are they here? Why do people choose to holiday 75 kms inland, on a flat plain beneath some fairly plain hills (to call them mountains would be overly generous)?

The simple answer, it seems to me, is that people attract like-minded people. So, once one pretentious Parisian family set up camp just outside St Remy, others felt compelled to do likewise.

It's the same almost anywhere.

Back in the UK we've been looking at houses near Frome in Somerset. Not because we know or love the area, but because one or two people we admire and look up to have bought there...and this has started a wave of interest from like-minded London souls.

For all its artistic and cultural pretensions, St Remy still feels decidedly parochial compared to St Tropez. The traffic buzzes but, unlike its coastal counterpart, the town doesn't. Perhaps that's what people like about it.

Here they can play 'le grande poisson' in a much smaller pond. And still shop at Villebrequin for their swimmers.

This part of Provence is self-consciously interior designed. It may pretend to be relaxed and casual, but it isn't. Even in the ugly little crossroads town Coustellet, there's a shop selling Farrow & Ball paint.

St Tropez, on the other hand, is bohemian to its roots. It actually tries at times to be less relaxed, more formally designer led, and always fails. Brigitte Bardot's town lets its hair down on a daily basis, whereas out here in St Remy they seem to spend half their time in hairdressers (there are more of these than anything else on the high streets) having it put elaborately up.

A €3m bastide outside St Remy would cost closer to €10m in St Tropez. And I guess this is another, not inconsiderable, reason to choose the countryside over the seaside.

I think however that money and a wish to cluster together are only superficial reasons for St Remy's popularity among Parisians (and a few overseas buyers). The more fundamental reason is snobbery.

French snobs make our own breed look decidedly amateur. These masters of haute pomposity and the 16th Arrondisement are loathed throughout France in a way that Londoners cannot comprehend.

When the Parisians that do make it to St Tropez finally decamp for home in late August, the local waiters, barmen, beach honchos and hotel maids all celebrate. (I have never seen the old barman at Club 55 happier than the day after their mass departure.) They all prefer the courtesy, if nothing else, of the British, the Dutch and even the Germans.

The Parisian's snobbery and unpopularity accounts not just for their desire to holiday in clusters like St Remy, but also their decision to forego the pleasures of the coast.

Out here in this vast, rural, wind-blown fruit farm they can still pretend that they are THE rightful inhabitants of la France profonde (as they pompously call the culture and lifestyle of the countryside).

They have lost Gordes, Menerbes and Bonnieux to international Mayle followers, but St Remy still (just) remains theirs.

Outside the wind blows ever more angrily, as if it knows I am being mean about Provence. But I'm not really. There is much to recommend both St Remy and St Tropez.

But I know which one I would choose. And it has salt, not snobbery, in the air.

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