Toulon is France’s second most important naval port, a fine Mediterranean harbour surrounded by hills. It has been a port since Roman times and during the 17th and 18th centuries was famous for its galley slaves - observing these poor unfortunates at work chained to the decks used to be a favourite sightseeing excursion. When the galleys were abolished, the slaves were jailed and the penal colony of Toulon featured in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. The port suffered grievously in the Second World War, bombed by Germans and Allies alike and required massive post-war reconstruction. Toulon is now the administrative centre of the Var.
In recent years, the town has reasserted itself and has a lively atmosphere throughout the year. There is a wealth of new museums, cafes and restaurants where you can sample local specialties like escabeche de sardine and la cade, a cake made from chick peas. The centre of the modern town is Place de la Liberté, dominated by the magnificent Grand Hotel, the last vestige of former glory days. Here, too, is Place Victor Hugo with its pavement cafes and the splendid Opera de Toulon. Look out for the huge wall frescoes that have become so typical of Toulon. The old town, with its winding streets and once notorious red light district, is currently undergoing massive renovation.
The many museums include the Musée de la Marine with its fine baroque entrance housing huge model galleons, figureheads, paintings and naval instruments and the Musée du Vieux Toulon dedicated to the history of the town. There is a classic Musée des Beaux Arts with an eclectic variety of French paintings including many Provencal artists and the new Hotel des Arts which houses more contemporary exhibitions. The Cathedrale Ste-Marie-de-la-Sedo is originally 11th century with17th century additions and also has works by Puget as well as a magnificent baroque altarpiece. On nearby Cours Lafayette, there is a huge and lively market everyday except Monday.
Enjoy the harbour bustle from the pavement cafes on Quai Cronstadt and don’t miss the statues by Pierre Puget said to be modelled on galley slaves which adorn the town hall annexe along the quai. East of the town is the beach district of Mourillon, the place for a breath of sea air and evening night life. The best view of Toulon is from Mont Faron above the town reached by a winding road or better, the telepherique cable car. Here you will find the Memorial museum to the Allied landings in Provence in August 1944. Up on the hill there are also restaurants, a park and a zoo.
Copyright © 2011 Rosemary Bailey
Copyright Images : Informationfrance 2011