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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Med in winter is travel’s best-kept secret

Seaside spots reduce to their proper populations

Overwhelmed in summer by the aestival jollity of incoming folk in flip-flops, locals are suddenly all that’s left, come autumn – with their proper local concerns: fishing, shopping, repairing roofs, playing cards in the café and smoking under the No-Smoking signs.

Self-improvement, too. Not long ago, in the lagoon-side shellfish port of Mèze, I saw a poster announcing a series of winter lectures on Marxist sociology. I looked at the half-dozen fellows drinking mid-morning wine at the nearby bar – they’d perhaps 17 teeth between them – and wondered how Hegel might go in Heysham.

All this is true even in places like St Tropez where real Tropeziens recapture their village from the global forces of glamour to reveal it as a comely little Mediterranean settlement, the result of hard lives, maritime commerce and considerable military distinction. Thus, along the coast, one gets a feel for the Med in its fulness, when it was a source of civilisation, of work and of menace rather than a leisure facility. People – café-owners, restaurateurs, fishwives – will, though, be delighted to see you as they’ve not seen anyone from outside all week. They’ll have ample time to explain where Didier Deschamps is going wrong and what rouille-de-seiche might be. Later, the blokes in the bar will move on to dialectical materialism.

Museums remain open and are crush-free

I’m referring, initially, to the great galleries of the Riviera: Matisse and Chagall in Nice, Leger in Biot, Picasso in the château at Antibes and (with War & Peace panels) the chapel in Vallauris. But also the Musée de l’Ephèbe in the friskier surrounds of the Cap-d’Agde. Winter shrivels the activity of Europe’s biggest naturist camp nearby, but there’s sublime male nudity in the museum where a classical bronze – dug by marine archaeologists from the Hérault estuary – is said to be of Alexander the Great. Whoever he is, he’s beautiful, soft-featured and evidently merciless.

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