He looks like Elvis (more or less). He sounds like Elvis (just about), but it ain’t Elvis. Meet Melvis Wesley – one of the many Elvis impersonators who eke out an existence in summer by entertaining the happy campers in camping sites all along the French Riviera.
Somehow, campsites and Elvis impersonators just don’t seem to go with the traditional image of the French Riviera – Aristocratic Englishmen and their ladies in flowing silks and summer suits, strolling along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice or all the world’s film stars jetting into Cannes for the film festival. Brigitte Bardot in St Tropez or quite simply those places of Riviera legend where, long before the age of mass tourism rich Brits and Parisians would hang out for the summer in Menton or Ramatuelle or Monaco.
Oh dear, Monaco. High-rise apartment blocks as far as the eye can see. Yacht jams in the port. One measly beach BUT not a millionaire in sight – its all day-trippers, happy campers, bawling kids covered in ice cream, fat Germans in football shorts and tight shorts, huffing, puffing, heaving and sweating their way up the stairs to the Palace – and when you get there? – Sorry Prince Albert, but the whole place looks like it has been built from Marzipan. The Grimaldi’s palace is large house guarded by one sad soldier who looks like a Playmobil figure. But you haven’t come here for the palace. You want to see Grace Kelly – erm; you’re standing on her. Yes, she’s under that slab in the floor of he church. I know. You were expecting some kind of shrine.
No the Riviera is not what it was. Far from exclusive – it is now very inclusive, all-inclusive to the point of being universal. Everyone wants their slice of Riviera. Everyone wants to spread their towel out on the beach at St Tropez, everyone wants a deckchair in Nice – but there just isn’t the room. The French Riviera is heaving. The French Riviera is popular. The French Riviera is every available inch of viable land turned into sprawling campsites or Jerry built holiday villages. The French Riviera is everyone looking for their slice of old world exclusivity. The French Riviera is just one vast summer refugee camp peopled with happy campers who want to say that they have been on holiday to the French Riviera. The French Riviera is trying to fit a Rolling Stones concert or a Super Bowl final into your back yard.
There is this word in French « populaire » Nowadays it is misused in the English sense of popular, meaning that loads of people all like something at the same time. Applied in its true French sense though, « populaire » means of the people for the people – well, the Riviera is « populaire » – all cramped campsites, beaches thick with northern and eastern European flesh busy roasting in the sun, and, to keep the people happy, well, there are errant Elvis impersonators, magicians, ersatz Moulin Rouge Feather and boa topless dance troops and … well all the popular crap to keep people happy.
There was a time when only people with time and the money to afford time could manage a holiday on the French Riviera, but in the sixties, with full employment and index-linked salaries, all the workers and plebs climbed into their family cars and chugged down to the Riviera in search of that holiday existence only previously enjoyed by the rich. And to accommodate them all, what better than campsites?
So, I am proud to admit that I am a true Pleb, enjoying a pleb holiday on a sprawling refugee camp/campsite on the Gulf of St Tropez. I like, I even love my mediocrity in the sun. I like the Elvis impersonator. I love the fat German tourists. I love the wall-to-wall anorexic Russian and Polish girls on the beach, rubbing in their cooking oil and laying out their tea towels. I like eating my full English breakfast early in the morning at the beach café whilst reading my English newspaper and staring out across at St Tropez. I love the « populaire ».
I’m not sure of the original purpose of this post, BUT, if you want an authentic posh French beach holiday, nowadays you have to head for the Atlantic coast where it is all Espadrilles, and stripy Breton fisherman’s sweaters. You don’t go to swim but, hop about in rock pools, build sandcastles, take long bike rides and just paddle in the shallows with your Chinos rolled above your knees. Now I’ve never been to New England, but this all sounds very Martha’s Vineyard (of which the French equivalent is the Ile de Ré), whilst the French Riviera is now a down market Copacabana. (It’s not unlike Brighton on a Bank holiday.
No matter, in two days I am off to the Riviera because there is guaranteed sunshine, warm seas and I also kind of like this Pleb side to the holidays, because after years of trying to be a writer and an artist, I have finally worked out I’m a pleb I like Melvis Wesley and I’m very happy that way.