The elusive magic of a French fishing village

I cut my teeth as a guidebook writer one humid, horizon-expanding summer along the Côte d’Azur. And ever since I have been susceptible to the will o’the wisp charms of the French fishing village. Perfection for me doesn’t involve too much piscine authenticity: I require neither fish processing plants nor rusty Russian factory ships. The stench of rotting fish heads fails to make it onto my ticklist.

What I want is a café-lined harbour, grilled loup or daurade with a glass of rosé, a bit of a beach and enough cultural associations to pass the time while the tan peels off.

Aha, you may think. St Tropez!

Er, no.

Though it’s just about bearable in May and occasionally magical in September (when Les Voiles fills the harbour with beautiful sailing yachts) Saint-Too-Much long ago became de trop, full of needy B-listers silently screaming LOOK AT ME. In high season the harbour is a hell of enormous motor yachts and enormous crowds. On the quayside, pseudo-artists sell execrable paintings of places like St Tropez in the sort of toxic colours that are usually on special offer. Giles the hedge fund manager guns the motors on his yacht to give the people on the café terraces their daily dose of particulates. The yachts berth stern-first; their exhausts point inland. So the espresso-sippers get it with both barrels. They get it in the wallet too, mugged for the audacious price of a cup of coffee. In short, St Tropez is what happens to a fishing village when it has botox and a boob job.

But if not there, where then? Villefranche? Charming, but a bit too sanitised. La Ciotat? Lovely, but the view from the quay is of ships getting their bottoms scraped.

I thought for a long time that it might be Cassis. This little outstation of Marseille really is lovely, sandwiched between the bone-white rocks and turquoise waters of the Calanques and the vertigo-inducing cliffs of the corniche des Crêtes. It has a modest crescent of beach, and a rather more immodest line-up of restaurants on the quayside. But alas, Cassis is these days no undiscovered secret: the property prices climb ever higher, and on summer weekends the village is a traffic jam in search of a parking space.

This summer, however, I think I may have found what I was looking for…

The perfect French fishing harbour…Sanary-sur-Mer

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