Med And Buried
The Mediterranean gets a bad rap from the British these days; too expensive, too crowded, no longer the playground of the those rich young playthings about whom Noel Coward wrote ‘Mentally congealed lilies of the field, they lie in flock along the rocks because they have to get a tan.’
Before then, nobody tanned because a suntan meant you worked outside and were therefore working class. Into the roaring twenties came Coco Chanel, who popularised the idea of tanning. She sold us the idea that the sun represented pleasure and relaxation as well as health. And the only way to tan was on the coastline between Italy and Spain.
The Cote D’Azur had boomed in the late Victorian era largely because the upper classes could whore and gamble within easy access of restrictive London. The veneer of sophistication was there, but it was always about raking in cash from would-be lotus eaters, which is what Harold Wilson accused Britons of being in the late sixties, when they started retiring to Monte Carlo and Nice. What he feared was an exodus of high tax-payers, and of course that was another function of the Riviera – it was the perfect place to bury a nest-egg.
So, from rich Victorians (Arthur Sullivan was a huge fan) to Bright Young Things then affluent post-war retirees, we finally reach the era of cheap travel. But if Easyjet could get you there, it still couldn’t get you a good table at the Colombe D’Or (tip: go for a cocktail and check out all the art for free).
Now the crucial stretch of the Riviera has become a bolthole for Russia’s financial thugs, so much so that in Beaulieu some of the street signs are in Russian. In came security guards, pay-offs, bent property deals, hookers, money-laundering and the kind of skullduggery one usually only sees in films; I had a house there for a decade (I am unembarrassed to admit that the pool at the top was mine) and could tell you stories that would make your eyes fall out. I left when the corruption became so endemic that my neighbour was able to bribe the chief of police into allowing him to construct a rifle range in his back garden.
There’s another downside to the South of France – in the winter months it is culturally arid and brain-freezingly dull. Anyone who has suffered four hours of traffic getting into the deeply disappointing St Tropez will know how bad the Cote D’Azur can be. The secret truth about St Tropez is that if you have to drive into it, you shouldn’t be there at all. One arrives by yacht and moors in the town harbour, and not the nouveau riche one at Port Grimaud.
I left with a sigh of relief and no backward glance, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I went to visit friends in Marseille, this being the one stretch I did not know. What I found was something entirely unexpected.
To be continued