hidden europe 66

Port Grimaud: not quite a Milton Keynes

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Watery assets at Port Grimaud in Var département (France), with the Golfe de Saint-Tropez in the background (photo © Jjphotodesign / dreamstime.com).


Two towns, both founded around the same time: Milton Keynes in England and Port Grimaud on the south coast of France, the latter the most ambitious project of French architect and planner François Spoerry.

By the bus stop is a neat villa, set back a little from the road. In the front garden, a family is gathered, the children playing on the terrace while their parents share a bottle of rosé. On the table a dish of olives, a couple of bunches of grapes and some lemons. It is a little cameo of life in Sainte-Maxime, a scene that recalls paintings by Henri Lebasque, the accomplished post- Impressionist artist who turned out some of his finest work in and around Sainte-Maxime.

There’s a toot of a horn as the bus pulls up at the stop. The bus driver calls over “You are going to Saint-Tropez,” his tone and that unusual stress on the word ‘are’ making the sentence sound more like a command than a question. We climb aboard, indicating that we’ll probably not be going all the way to Saint-Tropez but would like to ride in that direction.

“Sit on this side for the best views,” says an elderly lady as we move down the bus. Soon we are running past the beach at La Croisette, rounding the headland at Grande Pointe and slipping past a parade of seductively upmarket villas occupied by people who probably only rarely use the local bus. The 45-minute ride from Sainte-Maxime to Saint- Tropez, skirting Saint-Tropez Bay for most of the way, is a little scenic wonder. We don’t on this occasion stick with the bus all the way to Saint- Tropez, opting instead to alight at Port Grimaud. The bus driver views this as an act of sheer perversity. “But everyone goes to Saint-Tropez,” he protests. “Surely you want to see where Brigitte Bardot lived?”

We pass on Bardot, ignore the offer of “Mick Jagger too” and stick to our guns. Port Grimaud it is, and we’ll not be sidetracked by celebrity. The lure of Port Grimaud is architecture, though barely have we walked into the village than a kid on a bike offers to point out where Joan Collins lives.

This is not what happens in Milton Keynes. But there is a common thread that links Port Grimaud and Milton Keynes, for both are very interesting examples of planned urban communities, new towns that were developed from scratch.

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