FRENCH CONNECTIONS
Condé Nast Traveller India|February - March - April 2021
Two sisters from different parts parts of the world reunite on a trip to the South of France and revel in the aesthetic pleasures of its countryside.
Shunali Khullar

My week on the Cote D'Azur in the autumn of 2019 was my last holiday before the pandemic. The world at the time was innocent to the blow it was about to be dealt in the form of the COVID-19 virus merely two months later. I wrote this piece soon after my return from France. I was on a high, the smell of lavender still lingered in the clothes that had just been pulled out of my suitcase. Little did I realise that it would be a long time before my story would appear and that when it did, it would end up reading like a fable from a long, long time ago. So here it is, a memory made even more precious because I have not seen my sister now in over a year.. While most of the restaurants and vineyards mentioned in this piece are open, some of the places mentioned here are temporarily closed until the next season.

She emerges from a makeshift changing room in a gorgeous yellow, flirty and flowy chiffon dress. I tell her it looks splendid, but she asks a middle-aged chap shopping at the stall if it suits her. “I need a man’s perspective,” she tells me. “Très beau,” he tells her awkwardly, and she buys the dress.

The person I am referring to is my sister, Kaveri. We are doing unbranded shopping in St Tropez at a weekly market that is heaving while the posh stores appear desolate, their happy hours seemingly over for the season. This isn’t surprising as we are here to explore the Côte d'Azur off-season on a road trip. It takes nothing less than the French Riviera— and the prospect of having her pictures taken—to tempt my workaholic sister to spend time with me. We meet at the airport in Paris and fly to Toulon, giddy with joy to be on a holiday without the distractions of a laptop (her) and children (me) for the first time in our adult lives. Over the next few days, we learn that there's hardly anything that can foster our bond better than a vacation along the sunny shores of Southern France.

The ideal way to feel the contours of any small European town is to do it by foot. And so, we walk around the charming lanes of St Tropez’s old town and enjoy the views from La Ponche, sampling its past and buying overpriced coffee in its eponymously named restaurant (laponche.com). St Tropez is saddled with its overriding singular image of flashy luxury, but we discover a quaint town of vintage beauty instead.This isn’t to say that the Valhalla of the wealthy does not live up to its reputation of seafaring billionaires, expensively dressed women, Champagne magnums and louche clubs. It does, but as summer gives way to autumn, this elegant fishing town adopts a calmer hue.

It's near the end of tourist season when the bacchanalian pleasure-seekers make way for lovers of the slow life. The yachts in the harbour appear to be preparing for repose afteand the music is dying down at the beachside bars. And just as a mirthful autumnal breeze blows away the after-party confetti, St Tropez seems to come into its own, once again the demi-island frequented by artists and happy sailors.

There are tourists languidly sitting outside the fabled peoplegazing spot, the Senequier restaurant (senequier.com), sipping their martinis. We are served chilled rosé and treated to a menu in Bahasa Indonesia that the restaurant has printed specially for its Indian patrons, us. Given how cheerfully the staff are fussing over us, we don’t have the heart to tell them that India and Indonesia aren’t even neighbours.

My sister, a vegetarian, is as pleased at the sight of a vegetable curry and tofu skewers as a Russian adrift on the Amazon River would be at the sight of beluga caviar. Vegan food is easy to find here. Little wonder then that our dinner at Les Toits at the Hôtel de Paris Saint Tropez (hoteldeparissainttropez.com) turns out to be one of the most exquisite vegetarian meals we've had in Europe. Sous chef Damien Cruchet serves us otherworldly butternut squash, truffle and pickled enoki followed by a ratatouille with heritage vegetables.

On a walk, the nice lady at the tourism office sent to show us around keeps reminding us that St Tropez is not just about “glamour, sex, sun and the sea”. “Why are we here then?” Kaveri quips. “You’ll see,” the lady tells her enigmatically.

We're told that Parisians began to covet this seaside village when, in the 19th century, artists like Signac, Matisse and Bonnard flocked to its shores, enamoured by its very special light. Priceless works by these legendary artists can be seen at the tiny Musée de l'Annonciade (+33 494 178410) near the harbour, though I doubt it gets much traffic during peak season. One can hardly picture people in designer swimsuits jumping off yachts in the middle of a gin-fuelled afternoon to go and admire pointillist art. Still, it is a gem of a museum.

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