I first came to Sanary in 2004, but it wasn’t until I read Sybille Bedford’s memoir ‘Quicksands’ that I opened my eyes to its literary past. Bedford – who died in 2006 – was, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of that vanishing generation of travel writers who lived a remarkable life, wrote beautiful prose and never had to drag a fridge anywhere to please a reluctant publisher. Her chaotic, bohemian childhood saw her wash up in Sanary in the interwar years, just as it became a place of refuge for writers and intellectuals fleeing the rise of fascism. You want names? Sanary’s interwar exiles are names to conjure with: Thomas Mann, his brother Heinrich, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig and Mahler’s window, Alma Mahler-Werfel. Not all the exiles were escaping Hitler: Aldous Huxley produced some of his greatest work while living at the Villa Huley close to La Gorguette beach. Bedford knew the Huxleys, and subsequently became his biographer. The dinner parties must have been intimidating.
War came and scattered the exiles to the four winds. Mann’s house fell victim to the Nazis, who demolished it to make way for coastal defences. But Huxley’s villa is still there, and is marked by a plaque. So too is Bedford’s much more modest house on chemin du Diable. Pick up some information from the tourist office by the port and you can spend an enjoyable afternoon chasing literary ghosts.
In the nicest possible way, Sanary is a little old-fashioned. Its architectural ensemble is unimprovable: there are no filing cabinet apartment blocks to spoil the harbour. Instead, it’s dominated by the church tower, the mairie and the venerable Hôtel de la Tour where Sybille Bedford spent her first night. There are yachts, of course – this is the south of France – but unlike its neighbour Bandol, Sanary doesn’t have a marina so big you can’t actually see the sea. There are foreign visitors, but no braying expats; tempting restaurants, but nothing bling enough to lure a St Tropez celebrity. There’s an old-fashioned bandstand by the port, and a pretty little cinema on the avenue Gallieni, as timeless and unmistakably French as Babar the elephant.
There are beaches: a brace of modest coves west of the port, and Huxley’s beach at La Gorguette, dominated now by a slick new hotel. Longer beaches are found east of town in Six-Fours-les-Plages, and if you’re a seeker after secret coves, the far side of Cap Sicié has some as charming and modest as any in the south of France.
I returned to Sanary this summer on a warm July night to find the harbour in full swing. From a live stage by the tourist office the rhythms of a Latin American band blared. On the quay a night market was busy with visitors, browsing contentedly for crafts.
I browsed too. Not for jewellery, but for dinner: picking my way from one menu to another until I found what I was looking for. I selected a table just back from the quay. The restaurant was tiny – little more than a pop-up, its interior all kitchen and its handful of tables teetering on the kerb, a little too close to the traffic. I didn’t particularly mind; no Mediterranean port is entirely complete without the drone of scooters or the faint threat of motorised death. The meal was simple: soupe de poissons, dark and fishy, served with rouille, croutons and creamy gruyère. A perfect glass of cool rosé. Fresh grilled fish with salt, lemon, a scattering of herbs and a little olive oil. A small salad. It was wonderful. What I paid would have bought no more than a scornful look in London.
Little ports in the south of France just don’t get much better than that.
Oh, I doubt it’ll ever be hot or happening. Sanary is on the ‘wrong’ side of Toulon, which is in turn – and in some respects unfairly – the most unfashionable city in the south of France. It’s not on the travel industry’s radar. But if that’s what it takes to save it from a fate worse than St Tropez, so be it. Perfection beats a glimpse of Simon Cowell any day.
Sanary lies on the coast of the Var département, a little west of Toulon http://www.sanarysurmer.com
Ryanair connects London Stansted with Toulon-Hyères airport in the summer months; otherwise, fly to Marseille and pick up a hire car.
Hôtel de la Tour (sanary-hoteldelatour.com; around €95) is the traditional choice, right on the port and with a good restaurant; Hostellerie La Farandole (hostellerielafarandole.com, from €235) is the luxury choice on Huxley’s beach.