Sunday, 8 May 2016

St Trop, Port Grim.

Tuesday 3rd May, 2016

Since St Tropez becomes St Trop in tabloidese, then by rights Port Grimaud 's diminutive should be Port Grim. This would be entirely appropriate. The architect François Spoerry, was a pioneer of the so called 'new vernacular' which amounts to rejection of modernism and an attempt to develop an approach to building that draws upon local traditions. It's the kind of thing championed by our jug-eared heir apparent which resulted in a new toy-town next to Dorchester. It's called Camberwick Green or something.

Spoerry's creation, Port Grimaud, built in a swamp a few kilometres from St Tropez is a massive holiday development of fake Provençal fisherman's cottages built in three stages between the 1960s and 1990s. The place's USP is the fact that it is developed around a network of canals so each property has its own mooring, on the assumption that if you are stupidly rich enough to desire to live in Port Grimaud, the chances are you are daft enough to desire a sleek vessel decked out in white leather and mahogany as well. 

The end result, though marketed as 'Venise Provencal' is pure Disneyfication. The only place we have ever seen anything similar is in the Florida Keys, however the level of security on the entrance gates and 'gardien offices on Grimaud's tourist cell blocks create a level of compound surveillance greater even than anything we experienced in the States, including our short stay in a villa at the Jack Nicholas Memorial Golf Penitentiary near Palm Springs. The result is an environment that is beautifully manicured, wholly safe, litter free, every house individualised within strict rules, an entirely managed and privatised space. You too can partake of this Duplo utopia, so long as you have the cash, 1.2 million Euros for a house, 250,000 for a studio apartment - about the size of a walk-in wardrobe. Is this the future? The monied in safe privatised gated communities, the rest of us in the wilds, like the savage at the end of 'Brave New World'.

 Perhaps that's an over-reaction. Certainly many of the visitors wandering about seemed positively delighted by the place, a kind of Gallic paradise; France scrubbed clean. Personally, I found it slightly sinister, making a fairly lame literary joke that it resembles a novel that J G Ballard never quite finished - Low Rise. The odd thing is, this spooky sense of an over-managed environment is nigh impossible to capture in photographs. Port Grim had been designed to be photogenic, as if reality itself has been photoshopped to remove all its wrinkles and endearing flabby bits.

These past couple of years we have wandered through many examples is over-development on the Med coast, the gaunt concrete shells of abandoned apartment complexes in Greece and Southern Italy, two hundred kilometres of ghastly sprawl from Valencia to Cartagena, the Soviet style holiday gulags of Marseilian Plage, and of course, Benidorm. 

I think Port Grimaud tops the lot. Partly it's to do with location. The Gulf of St Tropez is a gorgeous bay. For all its suburbanisation it's still lovely, but it's difficult not to think as you gaze across towards the port, it's ochre buildings bronzed at sunset, how much more beautiful it must have been in 1925 before the shoreline mass development. 

It is difficult to deny that the Bay of St Tropez is still beautiful, but  its frenertic, urbanised and comodified.

Places like Marseillan Plage and the Pilar da Horadada are built in scrubland, the former in a mosquito infested 'etang', the latter in coastal semi-desert straight out of a Spaghetti Western. However, it's not just about location, it's also about intention, and for me the haphazard chavvy towers of Benidorm are less offensive than Port Grim's exclusive planned Provençal Disneyland. I realise this is a political point, environmentally their impact is no different, to put it politely, effluent is immune to issues of social class. I also realise as a tourist there is some irony in making these points as we are part of the problem. In a sense the dilemma of travel is the similar to that of anthropology in that in visiting and observing a place you change it.


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