Toulon: Discovering Something New in Provence

by M. L. Longworth

We’ve been living in the countryside south of Aix, close to the Mediterranean, for five years. We miss Aix and our friends, and the almost-twenty years of memories we had there, but have no regrets. Aix isn’t far, and we go frequently. We love living in the country and exploring the villages, vineyards, and bigger towns around here, and one of our most pleasant surprises has been discovering the city of Toulon. Toulon? you ask. I did, too. I thought it was a no-go zone, as my NYU students used to say, a “fly-over-city,” a community that once thrived solely because of its naval industry (now greatly diminished) and that today was, from all accounts, dying. Not so!

Toulon is one of those cities that each time you visit you discover something new, some hidden gem: an art gallery, a vintage clothing store with some seriously great old handbags, an old-fashioned restaurant where everything is still made by the chef including the bread, craft beers and, our most recent find, craft gin. It’s trying very hard to re-create itself, and I like that. That said, it took us a long time to visit. My 1997 France Rough Guide, published in London, bluntly tells travellers to “give it a miss,” and the Fodor’s entry is four short paragraphs.

Toulon, like Marseille, is an ancient port city dating back to the Phoenicians, when, in the 7th century BC they established trading depots along the coast. In the 2nd century BC the Romans took over and founded a settlement in Toulon, named after Telo, the goddess of springs. Toulon’s naturally deep protected harbour became a shelter for trading ships, and later, of course, war ships. In those days, its main export was a purple dye used in Roman imperial robes, made from a local sea snail.

Christianity arrived in the 5th century, but the town was frequently attacked by barbarians, pirates, and the Saracens. When, in 1486, Provence was integrated into France, Toulon became a major sea power on the Mediterranean and today it’s still the biggest military port in Europe. Below, a detail of a large painting of the harbour as it was in the eighteenth century:

But its saddest moment, and one that is still difficult for many Toulonnais to talk about, occurred on the 27 of November in 1942 when Toulon’s naval officiers collectively decided to scuttle the entire fleet, in the harbour, rather than risk the ships being used by the Germans.

The port today is still home to France’s navy, and ferries that leave every evening for Corsica or Sardinia, and some mediocre restaurants but a fine place to get a beer or coffee and look at the sea:

For lunch we have a few favorite places such as Santa Rosalia (36 rue Charles), a taco restaurant opened by two young bearded locals in love with Mexico. All of the food is made with local organic ingredients and on tap is a Toulon craft beer, Bière de la Rade.

The interior, very vintage including the stereo. There’s a nice outdoor terrace in warm weather.

Another lunch spot we like is the elegant café Le Chantilly, in the middle of the old town on the Place Pierre Puget. Reservations a must as it’s where the locals hang out, especially actors from the Theatre Liberté (directed by acclaimed French actor Charles Berling, a real coup for Toulon), artists, and the mayor Hubert Falco and his entourage.

The old town’s streets, mostly pedestrianized, are fun to walk around as the shops are a mixture of up-and-coming galleries, thrift shops or clothing ateliers run by young local designers, and those social clubs and bars (that are slowly disappearing) where old men gather to chat and play cards. The best streets are those south of the opera house (designed by the same architect who designed the Paris Opera Garnier, Charles Garnier in 1862):

 

The colors of Toulon.

One of the old town’s tiny streets, and a great thrift shop.

On our most recent visit to Toulon we went to the Naval Museum which was a lot more interesting than the dusty provincial museum we were expecting. The displays are bright and clean, accompanied by interesting information. The intricately-made ship models captivated me; whole teams of sculptors were hired to build models before the ships were constructed, as a guide. Young naval cadets also studied the models in detail to familiarize themselves with, and memorize, the architecture of a ship. These two models were each about five feet long:

The model team in a photo taken in the mid-twentieth century:

The museum has very large paintings both depicting the harbor throughout the centuries and some details of life on board ship. This one I thought was particularly well done:

A detail of life on board a French war ship, a painting from the mid-twentieth century.

Now and then glimpses of Toulon’s heroic past can be seen in its seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings, including this one on the harbour beside the naval museum:

A sunny square, whose façades have been refurbished with financial assistance from the city:

Besides the delights of the naval museum, we also discovered a new distillery, Cicada, that makes a local gin using Mediterranean plants. It’s delicious so we bought a bottle and are saving it until this summer to share with friends. Here’s the interior (they are on the Place Gambetta if you’re planning a trip and their website is www.cicadagin.com):

If you’re visiting in July, there’s a jazz festival, and also the Design Parade, organized in part by the Beaux Arts school of Toulon who are loaned a local historic building whose rooms are then redesigned by young interior designers chosen by an elite jury.

But the best part of visiting Toulon is the welcome; in shops, restaurants, and galleries you are greeted with smiles and enthusiasm, for everyone is trying to make a go of it here, and I wish them the best of luck. Here’s hoping that Toulon is the next hot destination in Provence!