Song of the South of France

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The view from la Plage d'Heraclée in La Croix-Valmer, France.

Paris was perfect*, but it was time to head south to the beach. The plan was to drive, in several stages, and ease into the trip. After a night in Burgundy, and a few days exploring Lyon, we headed to a house overlooking the Med in La Croix Valmer near St. Tropez.

Why La Croix Valmer, you ask? I had first visited St. Tropez in my 20s when I was in the schmatta business and St. Tropez was the place to spot trends. I was lucky; most of my trips were expense account trips. Some were also personal and I always seemed to have a group of friends there concurrently. St. Tropez was the place to be. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. I realized that the day I was sitting on the beach at Club 55. Large yachts were moored all along Pamplonne Beach. A single engine plane drifted into sight, headed to one of the larger boats, and disappeared inside the stern. I had never seen that before. Overrun by oligarchs, rising prices and people with more money than common sense, we decided to move on to other destinations.

That was about twenty years ago. I missed what I remembered of the St. Tropez peninsula and a trip to St. Paul de Vence last November reminded me how beautiful it was. For many years, Michael and I had been seated next to the same two celebrities from L.A. over and over again at restaurants and beach clubs. The second year this happened we all laughed about it and started chatting. They said that they were staying at a luxury hotel in Gigaro on the other side the St. Tropez peninsula because it was calmer, less expensive, and extremely beautiful — with almost empty beaches. And the beaches, lined with beach clubs, are designated as Blue Flag beaches — awarded to beaches and marinas where environmental protection is a high priority in site management.

The Roman Arena High On A Hill In Lyon
The Roman arena high on a hill in Lyon.

We spent three nights in Lyon. Lyon is a very large city that has been around for centuries. Two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône meet there, dividing the city into three sections. We stayed on Fourvière hill, the oldest part of the city originally settled by the Romans. Its arena has reconstructed seating and is used for summer concerts. A museum full of Roman artifacts is near the sprawling ruins.

Inside A Winding Traboule
Inside a winding Traboule.

Down the hill — you can go by funicular — is Vieux Lyon, a neighborhood located along the river. Lyon became very wealthy as François Ier gave the city a monopoly on importing raw silk. Vieux Lyon and La Croix-Rousse across the river were the heart of the silk trade. Buildings flowed down the hills towards the rivers and a unique system of pathways emerged: Traboules.

The traboules are covered passages that go up the hills, attached to buildings, and let the silk workers transport their raw materials and finished fabrics — rain or shine. There are about 400 of them in the city. Not all of them are unlocked, but this one was. Across the river is a newer city, with an outstanding Beaux-Arts museum. Unhappily, very heavy rains came that afternoon, grounding us and covering our car with fine brown sand. An Uber driver informed us that the storms originate in North Africa, and that everything is covered with sand from the Sahara. Who knew?!

Inside The Food Traboule
Inside the Food Traboule.

The next day, we visited the traboule that houses the famed Tour Rose. It has been converted into the Food Traboule. Browse the many levels and find 12 counters serving a variety of cuisines, as well as a cozy bar. We stopped by one, Lob, that served lobster rolls — the 2023 dish of the year. It was delicious. There are more museums in Vieux Lyon that show how silk was woven centuries ago before today’s industrial looms existed.

The Food Traboule, 22 rue de Boeuf

Inside The Eclectic Le Canut et Les Gones
Inside the eclectic Le Canut et Les Gones.

The food of Lyon comes highly recommended. It can be rather pricey so I looked for other options. Lyonnais cuisine uses a lot of offal, not one of my faves, and pork products. I find the food rather heavy. Le Canuts et Les Gones (named after the silk workers) is high in La Coix-Rousse. The restaurant was welcoming; and the food very good. The decor was also unique. The owners scour flea markets, or brocantes, for vintage time pieces, and they adorn the walls.

Les Canuts et Les Gones, 29 rue de Belfort

The Alps Seen From The Route Napoleon
The Alps seen from the Route Napoleon.

The Var and the beach were next. First we had to get there. The drive down was a challenge. Once again, Garmin and Google Maps proved to be a bit out of their depth. As we were leaving Lyon, we were “re-routed” to go around an accident on the autoroute. However, we were taken so far out of our way that a four-hour drive stretched into almost an eight-hour one! We were sent towards Grenoble, and then down the Route Napoleon through the lower Alps. It was very beautiful in Haute-Provence, but inconvenient.

After we finally reached the autoroute from Marseilles to St. Tropez, the GPS took us off the highway way too soon and so we had to negotiate almost an hour of hairpin turns on tiny roads with very steep drops on all sides. I would have gone one more exit past St. Tropez and driven back on wider and safer roads. Lesson learned.

The View From The House
The view from the house.

When we got to La Croix Valmer, the GPS could not find our house. We think that the small, tight, winding roads in the hills confused her. But it was great to finally arrive and the house was beautiful. We had stopped at farm stands and markets up in the Alps to get food and wine. Toasting our arrival, finally, we had a peaceful meal overlooking the pool. It had been a long day.

The Sunday Market in La Croix Valmer
The Sunday market in La Croix Valmer.

The next morning was Sunday. We needed to provision the house. The south of France is known for its markets. They are weekly or bi-weekly, and local farmers sell all sorts of wares whereas other merchants sell all sorts of clothing. The fruits and vegetables, olives, honey, spices and more are stuffed into bags and baskets. There are tables of provencal pottery and other beautiful accessories for the home. After the scary drive along the ravines the day before (and realizing that all the roads were not lit at night) it seemed like a better idea to do dinner overlooking the pool and instead make lunches our meals out.

Chez Marie, a Fruit And Vegetable Market
Chez Marie, a fruit and vegetable market.

Monday morning we had to return to La Croix Valmer to visit the butcher, seafood vendor and a vegetable market bursting with local produce. The quality of everything was outstanding.

Even Small Villages Offer Shopping
Even small villages offer shopping.

There were also some small stores in town selling shoes, clothiing, home decor, and more. The fashions were all rather beachy, and not at all expensive. Houses abound on the hills all around town.

The Colorful Couleur Jardin Beach Restaurant
The colorful Couleurs Jardin beach restaurant.

Shopping done, we headed to lunch down the hill. Couleurs Jardin is a sun-bathed restaurant on Gigaro Plage. The menu goes from the local staple, soupe de poisson, to lots of caviar. The restaurants in this part of France, like restaurants in New York, too often offer a sea of sameness. There is a lot of copycatting of menus. One could not escape grilled octopus, tataki of tuna or beef, and lots of carpaccios. The food here was Italian tinged and many restaurants offered pizzas, too. Both lunch and dinner is served in most of the beach clubs. Gigaro itself is barely a village. The restaurants on the water offer the best hospitality in the area.

Couleurs Jardin, 1242 Blvd de Gigaro

La Plage de Gigaro Stretches to Cap Lardier
La Plage de Gigaro stretches to Cap Lardier.

A series of sandy beaches stretches from the end of the peninsula, Cap Lardier, to the city of Cavalaire-sur-Mer. There are a few hotels and many houses lining the hills. The beaches are pretty empty in June, especially during the week. Everything here is family friendly. The beach clubs don’t have DJs and people are not dancing on the tables as they do in the clubs of St. Tropez.

Inside Qu'Elle Bazar Near The Beach
Inside Qu’Elle Bazar near the beach.

On the other side of the road was a large boutique. It stretched over several rooms and had something for everyone. Chic home decor, toys and clothing for kids, hats, shoes and bags, and clothing for men and women. It was very beachy, but tasteful and well made. Nothing too flashy.

Qu’Elle Bazar, 20 Blvd St. Michel

Homes with a View Of the Med
Homes with a view of the Med.

Small roads lined with homes wind up and down the hillside. All the plants of the Med are here: olive trees, palms, cypress and parasol pines. And the gardens are full of flowers and their pollinating friends.

Vineyards Along The Coast in The South of France
Vineyards along the coast.

There are vineyards everywhere you turn and a plethora of good local wines. This one produces some of La Madrague, Cuvee Rose, Gigaro’s rose wines. Organic, of course. Unfortunately, the vineyards offer small production and most labels cannot be found in the States.

Lunch At Marius A La Plage
Lunch at Marius a la Plage.

The next day we went to Couleurs Jardin’s sister restaurant, Marius a la Plage. It is more casual, and slightly less expensive (no caviar ). On one side of the club is a bar, and there’s live jazz music and other instrumentals at 7 p.m. many nights of the week. And if you arrive by boat at either of the restaurants, a tender can be sent out to bring you to shore.

Marius a la Plage, 1242 Blvd de Gigaro

La Pinede Plage Hotel and Beach Club
La Pinède Plage Hotel and Beach Club.

Later, we explored la Plage d’Heraclée a bit further down the beach road. It is another fine sand beach, with lazy blue waters. The hotel La Pinède Plage is located on this beach. It boasts another chic beach restaurant, and with transats on the beach. Close by, a larger sister hotel, La ​Château de Valmer, is across the road from the beach, with its own beach restaurant nearby.

La Pinède Plage, 382 Blvd de Gigaro and La ​Château de Valmer, 81 Blvd de Gigaro

A View From La Plage d'Heraclée
A view from La Plage d’Heraclée.

The sea is extremely swimabble. There is a lifeguard and designated swimming areas on la Plage de Gigaro. Heraclée is a bit more informal. Paddle boards and other equiptment can be rented along the beaches. One of them is named Landing Beach, as the Allies landed here in 1944 to liberate Provence.

Pamplonne and It's Boats Seen From The Road in St. Tropez
Pamplonne and its boats seen from the road.

After a lazy morning at the beach, we decided to venture across the peninsula and spend some time in St. Tropez. Pamplonne is where you will find most of the world famous beach clubs of St. Tropez. And lots of the big boats. Too many, really. Many of the clubs of St. Tropez have become weaponized, with franchises all over the place. Funnily enough, many have settled on St. Barth in the Caribbean, and due to the island’s loose tax structure are now headquartered there. This is St. Tropez. Money talks. As does a party-ready atmosphere. The simplicity of the St. Tropez of old has slid away.

Gucci is One Of The Many Designer Brands In Town in St. Tropez
Gucci is one of the many designer brands in town.

St. Tropez remains a shoppers paradise, leaving its Rivera neighbors, Cannes and Nice, in the dust. Of course there many of the big brands, from Gucci to Chanel via Hermes and Dior. But in the town’s small streets there’s a plethora of choice. Gucci’s small store had a selection of vacay ready looks.

Gucci, 72 Rue François Sibilli

The Ash Boutique in ST. Tropezis Full of Shoes And ClothingThe Ash Boutique is full of shoes and clothing.

Ash is down the street. The Italian brand specializes in shoes, sneakers, and lots of sandals. There is a small collection of beach-ready clothing, which this year features lots of dresses in a riot of colors.

Ash, 68 rue François Sibilli

The Cipriani Outpost In Town in St. Tropez
The Cipriani outpost in town.

I was not really surprised to see that a Cipriani had opened. And I guess that while I was appalled that they charge 200 euros for a serving of sole meuniere, I was not totally shocked. The space looks very pretty, but it seems that it is not really a part of the Cipriani family of restaurants. It is a copycat. The menu, the tabletops, even the signature chairs were copied. And owned by the LMVH group. How long can they get away with this? Odd, considering that LMVH goes after people for copying their products.

(Not) Cipriani, 15, rue François Sibilli

A Dior Branded Restuarant in St. Tropez
A Dior branded restaurant.

Right next door is another LMVH owned restaurant, Dior. It is popular for lunch and tea, but seriously, I don’t need a cappucino where the coffee art spells Dior, nor do I want a sandwich with the brand name seared into the bread. It may be pretty, but?

Dior des Lices, 13 Rue François Sibilli

Flouncy Fashion in The Passage du Port in St. Tropez
Flouncy fashion in the passage du Port.

There are several passages that lead from the larger streets to the Port and they are multi-story. They are all lined with stores that are not luxury designer brands. Las Chicas, a St. Tropez brand, is one of them. The store is full of this year’s ruffles.

Las Chicas, Passage du Port

A Riot of Colors In Chez Camille in St. Tropez
A Riot of Colors In Les Secrets de Camille.

Les Secrets de Camille is located in a series of stores. The store is fun, and sells clothing, shoes, hats, jewelry; pretty much anything you may need for the beach.

Les Secrets de Camille, passage du Port

On Trend Crochets In By Marie in ST. Tropez
On trend crochets at By Marie.

Boutiques also line other streets leading to the Port. By Marie is a multi-brand boutique that carries a variety of designers, even American ones. These crochets are very trendy. The boutique also has two branches in Paris.

By Marie, Place de la Garonne

Sporty Clothes For Men in St. Tropez
Sporty clothes for men at Jaqk Store St Tropez.

Men’s clothing tends to be more classic than the women’s fashions. Jaqk Store St Tropez has good casual separates in loads of colors and patterns.

Jaqk Store St. Tropez,  3, rue François Sibilli

Boats Along The Port in St. Tropez
Boats along the port.

All streets seem to lead to the Port. You can moor your boat on the Quai for a hefty fee. These boats are smaller than the ones that were here years ago. The super wealthy have graduated from mere yachts to super yachts. They are too big to come into the Port. We just missed Bezos and his fiancé. They even had a second support yacht with them, carrying a helicopter, among other toys.

Big Cruise Ships in The Distance Off The Port in St. Tropez
Big cruise ships in the distance off the port.

The Quai Jean Jaurès was the place to people watch at the end of the day. After leaving the beach, tons of people would don their finest and promenade along the Port. These days, the Quai is pretty empty. A pair of huge cruise ships can be seen outside the Port, which is scary. And no one is particularly well-dressed.

The Men in St. Tropez
The men in St. Tropez.

 Sénéquier and La Gorille were the cafes of choice in days of yore. Now, Sénéquier was half empty at 6 p.m., and too many people were simply glued to their phones. There were still some shoppers around. This guy’s enthusiasm for designer logos is indelible. I don’t think anyone is here spotting trends any more.

Sénéquier, 29 Quai Jean Jaurès

Rue Allard, Off The Port in ST. Tropez
Rue Allard, off the port.

There are streets that lead in different directions off the Port. The rue Allard is one of them. Store after store lines the streets. Some of the stores are the French high street brands, some are American and Italian brands, and some are Tropezienne brands.

Inside One of The Two K.Jacques Boutiques in St Tropez
Inside one of the two K.Jacques boutiques in town.

K.Jacques is one of the latter. I had been to the store in Paris, but it was so small it did not have everything. Neither did the shop in St. Tropez. The brand has been in business for so long and has so many styles and offers those styles is so many colors that it’s not physically possible to have everything in a store. But they now will make any sandal in the color of your choice via their website; and their factory is local. And they ship to the states. My summer sandal issues are solved!

K.Jacques, 39, bis rue Allard or

Affordable Bijoux at Trinity in St. Tropez
Affordable Bijoux at Trinity.

Jewelry stores at every price range can be found in St. Tropez. Trinity Bijoux is a family owned and run boutique with casual costume jewelry and accessories. Many different designers are represented in the store. And if you are looking for fine jewelry and luxury watches, there is plenty to find.

Trinity Bijoux, 47 rue Allard

Walking Along Towards The Citadel in St. Tropez
Walking along towards the Citadel.

Shops generally close at 7 p.m., but some stay open a bit later. We walked up towards the Citadel so we could have an apero before dinner at La Ponche. There are a ton of restaurants in and around St. Tropez. Some are excellent, and some are overpriced and mediocre. Many of my favorite places from years ago have closed, but there are new ones to explore.

BanH-Hoi Spills Into the Street in St. Tropez
BanH-Hoi spills into the street.

BanH-Hoi has been around for years. The Thai-Vietnamese restaurant has grown in size, taking up the ground floors of several buildings and filling the small street with tables. The restaurant was filled with all sorts of diners. The food remains excellent.

BanH-Hoi, 12 rue Petit Saint Jean

Walking Up The Rue François Sibilli in St Tropez
Walking up the Rue François Sibilli.

The late night sunsets bathe the town with a soft light. We had parked on the far side of the Place des Lices and even the walk back to the car felt magical.

The Place Des Lices At Dusk in St. Tropez
The Place Des Lices at dusk.

The Place des Lices is surrounded by cafes and restaurants. The bi-weekly markets are located here.  You will find teams playing Pétanque, a provencal game using silver balls known as boules, day and night.

Lunch In The Sand At Pepe
Lunch in the sand at Pépé.

Lily of The Valley is a luxury hotel in La Croix Valmer. It specializes in wellness and weight loss. The hotel also runs several chic restaurants. We had a delicious lunch at Pépé, a feet-in-the-sand restaurant nestled under trees on the beach. The cuisine is Italian and offers a wide range of food; salads, sandwiches, Italian street food and pizzas. The crowd was very friends-and-family oriented. And extremely relaxed.

The Beach At Pepe Near St. Tropez
The beach at Pépé.

The beach is equipped with transats and umbrellas for a relaxing afternoon. Located on Gigaro beach, the swimming is easy and the water a stunning transparent blue.

A Shaded Brigantine near St. Tropez
A shaded Brigantine.

Brigantine is a sister restaurant, located right next to Pépé. The food is also pan-Italian, but less casual. Lobster and veal Milanese take pride of place. Both restaurants serve lunch and dinner. Brigantine also has a wine bar, with a very extensive selection of Italian and French wine.

A Beach Boutique With Style
A beach boutique with style.

A stylish boutique is located between the two restaurants. There is a nice selection of beachy clothing for men, women and kids. If you are looking for peaceful days at the beach, this is the spot.

 Pépé, Brigantine, plage de Gigaro

On The Road To Nice
On the road to Nice.

And then it was time to leave. Sadly. Our flight back to New York left Nice in the morning so we had decided to spend the night. It is about a two-hour drive to Nice and we didn’t want to have to get up at 4 a.m. in order to catch the plane.

A View Over the Amour Beach Club in Nice
A view over the Amour Beach Club in Nice.

There is a pebble-covered beach in Nice, but it is much more crowded than the beaches of La Croix Valmer and St. Tropez. After a nice Nice afternoon, the last day of the trip took a serious wrong turn. Just as thoughts had turned to where to go for dinner, a text arrived from Air France. They had cancelled our 9:30 a.m. flight from Nice to De Gaulle, and our flight to New York was scheduled to depart in the afternoon. As we sorted through the options — Overnight train? Rent a car? Stay? — another text arrived telling us that we had been rebooked on a flight that left at 6 a.m. That meant getting up at 3 a.m. to arrive at the airport at 4 a.m. as the airline required. And then we were left with a seven-hour layover in De Gaulle for a total of 24 bleary-eyed hours door to door. We might go back to La Croix Valmer, but I seriously doubt that it will be on Air France.

C’est la vie!

Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn. 

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