Thursday, 6 August 2009

the secret life of a holiday resort

arriving by night or any weekend in the high season and palavas is a once sleepy fishing port transformed forever into a gaudy french blackpool. thumping music leaks out of every harbour nitespot til the early hours, beachside waiters bustle back and forth with trays of plat du jour, whilst jeeps stuffed full of brash young bucks screech in and out of the portside car park looking for action.

but things are never what they might first seem. wander into palavas on a weekday morning and this seaside resort shows a quite different face…

market day in the vieux ville’s tiny square by the old church spills out on to its surroundings the heart of old palavas, winding into its little maze of streets in a blaze of colour and cacophony of scents on the morning breeze.

it’s 7.30am and everyone’s out already, a population scarcely seen (but occasionally glimpsed from behind shady window sills of faded villas) when joining the evening perambulation on the harbour front, where café bars and souvenir shops vie for the tourist euro. a posse of tiny old ladies are out in force, bent double with arthritis but sprightly nonetheless with baskets at the ready for the scrum for the freshest produce, piled high on trellises and displayed in stacks of luridly labelled boxes, fresh fish laid out on chunks of smashed up ice under stripy nautical awnings, whilst crabs and lobsters skulk from a tumble of nearby buckets and baskets. further along, the charcuterie is setting up shop, chatting neighbourly to the olives and cheese stall next door, enjoying a café noir and a breather before the crowds turn up. here from the safety of the local café tucked under the arm of the old church, is the perfect spot to observe the ordinary hustle and bustle of this parallel palavas.

the vegetable stall is where the drama is this morning, teeming with ladies clutching their bright baskets, laden with the rich pickings of so many plump red tomatoes, insurgence of herbs, outsize peaches and juicy nectarines, intoxicating bunches of ripe-indigo grapes, snappy crisp peas ready to pod, gnarly courgettes and fat pale onions, enveloped in layer after layer of fragile, papery skin. the ladies, gaudy in their button through tabards, clashing with the vivid reds, purples and greens of natures best, gather in the never diminishing queue at the counter, sharing a natter whilst expertly squeezing, sniffing and generally scrutinizing the various delights on offer. yet others pass by carrying fresh warm bread, the ubiquitous baguette wrapped in jolly twists of paper, stopping for a ‘bon matin’ before hurrying to church for morning mass or benediction. all the while the local cats and their endless broods of kittens are lazily winding in and out of the throng, accepting titbits and the odd scratch of the forehead or occasionally goading the inevitable army of jack russells out and about for their morning stroll or lolling under café tables with their partners in crime, palavas’ old chaps, dapper in pressed shirts, belted pants and wide braces or jaunty in well worn sailor shorts, v-necked tees and faded sea caps. then baskets and trolleys bursting with tonight’s dinner, they move conspiratorially in twos and threes towards the enticements of the charcuterie, rotisserie at last wafting about the hot meaty juices of slowly roasting chicken and pork. meats procured, olives sampled and a cheese or two tested, a nearby display of nylon tabards beckons and the flock of blue rinses, tight perms, sensible sandals and colourful frocks moves on. essentials taken care of, they can finally afford to browse and indulge in a new pinny, carefully assessing the sartorial delights from behind tortoiseshell spectacles, wisely secured on long cord around necks.

meanwhile on the main drag, shops are opening and tourists are stirring, pottering about in their sarongs, flipflops and designer shorts. the café starts to fill up with mums and restless enfants, a sack of mussels arrives for the plat du jour, and like our flock of elderly ladies, strays and salty sea dogs, its suddenly time to move on.

as the church bells strike 9am, the secret and humdrum life of palavas fades away for another day of business in holiday town…

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