Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ste Maxime, the poor neighbour of St Tropez, plans a traffic revolt


The beach at Ste Maxime attracts many people during the summer
The beach at Ste Maxime attracts many people during the summer, but most cars pass straight through the town. Photograph: Lonely Planet Images/Alamy

Just 10 miles of scenic route separates the medieval Côte d'Azur town of Ste Maxime from its noisier, internationally celebrated neighbour, St Tropez, Mediterranean playground of the rich and famous. But for the Maximois, this short stretch along the French Riviera has become a highway to hell as up to 30,000 vehicles a day bisect the town at the height of summer, causing "monstrous" traffic jams.

Not only do the visiting hordes crawl through Ste Maxime at a snail's pace, paralysing emergency services and public transport and polluting the atmosphere with noise and fumes, but they do so without so much as a backward glance, complain the locals.

As a result, Ste Maxime suffers all the hassle and none of the benefits of St Tropez's popularity, they say. "We have had enough. For 30 years we have put up with this, but we can do so no longer," Vincent Morisse, the mayor of Ste Maxime, who led a recent street demonstration of angry citizens demanding action, told the Observer.

"It creates really monstrous jams," he added. "And it's not just tourists who are affected, but locals. Firms have difficulty making deliveries and it takes an hour and a quarter to get to the hospital; not to mention the pollution. It is catastrophic. Can you imagine the authorities letting this happen in Paris? I think not."

If you are going to get stuck in a traffic jam for up to three hours, the Côte d'Azur, where locals claim the sun shines for 300 days a year, and where the sparkling Mediterranean laps gently at pristine white-sand beaches, certainly beats the M25. Ste Maxime sits at the north of the stunning Gulf of St Tropez protected from the strong, cold and dry mistral wind by the Massif des Maures mountain range, and facing its neighbour, the preferred summer playground for the international celebrity set, and an endless stream of artists, singers, Hollywood stars and Russian oligarchs, across the gulf.

The town was founded 1,000 years ago by monks from the Lérins islands off Cannes, a few miles along the coast; the brothers started with a monastery and named the village after one of their saints, known in the Provençal Roman dialect as Santa Maxima.

For centuries, fishing was the main industry, then olive oil, wine and cork. In August 1944 the beach of Ste Maxime was at the centre of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France. In the 20th century the village attracted artists, poets and writers. Footballer David Ginola was born here, actress Emmanuelle Béart grew up just outside the town and Jean de Brunhoff wrote his first Babar the Elephant book in Ste Maxime. Among the town's grandest visitors are members of the Swedish royal family, who own a villa in the town centre.

Unassuming Ste Maxime has never sought to compete with its more famous neighbour but it has played a vital, if unrewarded, role in the success of St Tropez, which has no train station or motorway link.

Today, however, the residents of Ste Maxime have had enough of being ignored and inconvenienced and are demanding that the regional authorities construct a bypass around them.

Jean-Pierre Duprilot, vice-president of the Ste Maxime Sites Association, which organised a demonstration of 200 residents at the end of August, said that the problem has been getting steadily worse for at least 20 years. He says that, for every 100 vehicles that enter the town, 70 leave for St Tropez. "The small traffic hold-ups used to be part of the charm of the St Tropez gulf and used to be worse in the summer when there were a lot of holidaymakers. But today we live all year round with infernal traffic jams," he said.

"For 30 years the road authorities haven't lifted a finger on this road. And in this period the traffic has increased tenfold, not to mention the fact that the population of Ste Maxime has gone from 7,000 to 12,000 inhabitants."

Morisse does not know where the money will come from to build the road, but insists that it will have to be found. "It is urgent and imperative that we have a road to take this traffic away from us. This cannot go on.".


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