marine-museum-toulonFrom the grey warships of its naval base to the cruise terminals and pretty Port Saint Louis, Toulon is all about the sea.

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This page explores the city's superb maritime attractions, including the Musée de la Marine (Maritime Museum) and boat tours round the harbour. Click here for guides to the Old Town and 19th century quarter, to Mont Faron and its cable car, to the beaches of Toulon, to its cruise ship terminals and to the Toulon Rugby Club and its legendary Stade Mayol.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Toulon's harbour or rade (the word means "protected anchorage") was discovered two thousand years ago by Roman sailors. They settled there, attracted by the superb natural protection from the weather provided in the north by Mont Faron and in the south by the island of Saint Mandrier (now a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a causeway).

Toulon's harbour is the largest rade in Europe. And, thanks to this exceptional geography, it's one of the most spectacular and beautiful - perhaps the most beautiful - on the Mediterranean coast.

The port was developed in the 16th century by Henri IV and became France's main southern naval base under Louis XIV, the Sun King (1643-1715).

It continued to grow during the 19th century, the era of steamships and grand colonial expeditions. Toulon's focus was mainly military; Marseille had become the main commercial port on the Mediterranean coast.

The city saw some of its darkest hours during the Second World War. In 1942 the fleet was deliberately scuttled (destroyed) in order to prevent the Nazis from capturing it. Only a handful of submarines escaped to French North Africa.

naval-harbour-of-toulonThis remains a traumatic and controversial episode in Toulon's history and many questioned whether the fleet could have been saved.

Then the port itself was heavily bombed and virtually destroyed by the Allies. But Toulon also lived through a glorious hour, when it saw the Allied Forces land in August 1944 prior to liberating the south of France.

Reconstructed and modernised, Toulon's Arsenal is today the main base of the French navy and the home of the colossal 40,600 tonne / 39,900 long ton Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the flagship of the fleet. It is the country's only port with nuclear warships, and the powerhouse of the local economy.

THE NAVAL BASE

The naval base can't be visited in detail for obvious reasons, but there are two ways to get a glimpse of its workings. One is on the petit train (little tourist train), pictured waiting for passengers in the cruise terminal, which offers a 45 minute trip round the base.

toulon petit trainStrict security surrounds this visit. You may not get off the train during the tour and anyone aged over 15 will need to bring their passport or national ID card. Use of cameras, camcorders and mobiles / cell phones is not allowed.

We weren't able to try this trip on our autumn visit to Toulon, as it runs only between April and September. Note, too, that visits may be cancelled at any time without notice for military reasons. The commentary is in French only. Website for Toulon's tourist train.

News for transport in ToulonFollowing the terrorist attacks in France in 2015, the petit train tour inside the naval base is currently unavailable.

The other way of seeing the naval base is to take one of the boat or catamaran excursions around the rade. Several companies offering these are lined up on the quai de la Sinse, opposite the place Louis Blanc (where the Tourist Office is located).

We went round the harbour with the Groupement des bateliers toulonnais. Another company which offers these trips is Les Bateliers de la Rade. In both cases the tours take about an hour and leave at regular intervals. They may be cancelled on days of high wind and don't run in the winter.

Even if you're not seriously into military hardware and history, this is a great chance to see Toulon from a different angle, and to appreciate the scale of the city and the sheer range of its marine activities.

The tour is accompanied by a knowledgeable and very in-depth commentary on the boats in the port, with lots of stories and anecdotes about their dimensions, details and history. Obviously, the ships vary from day to day and so the commentary is live, not recorded.

toulon-naval-baseThat in turn means that it is likely to be in French only, so check this first before you choose which boat to go on. Some tours offer leaflets with a basic translation into English and other languages, but you will get much more out of the trip if you understand French.

The route takes you anti-clockwise around the bay, so try to get a seat on the right-hand side of the boat for the best views.

It skirts (though does not enter) the military Arsenal, but you will be able to get a good view of its imposing warships, nuclear submarines and - if you're in luck - the hulking Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. Pictured: a view of some of these ships from the tour boat.

You then pass the ship graveyard, where pensioned-off boats are dismantled and recycled, and the mussel farms, shipyards and cruise terminal of La Seyne sur Mer before heading across the mouth of the bay, past the Tour Royale, along the edge of the Mourillon peninsula and back towards the quay.

Back on shore, Toulon's harbour front was entirely refashioned after the war and is now lined with big modern apartment buildings. There are, nonetheless, several points of historical interest, both just along from the boat landing stage in the direction of the Arsenal.

The multi-talented, Marseille-born architect, painter and sculptor Pierre Puget created two caryatids (figures serving as architectural supports) to "hold up" the portal of the former 17th century Mairie d'Honneur (Town Hall).

puget-caryatids-toulonThe Town Hall itself was destroyed by Allied bombs, but the facade has been grafted (not very harmoniously) on to a new building.

Full of quirky character, Puget's mighty strongmen, pictured, struggle hard to hold up their load. The left one is officially called L'Effort (Hard Work) and the right one La Fatigue (Exhaustion). But locals refer to them more rudely as "tummy-ache" and "toothache".

In front of the Town Hall a statue called Le Génie de la Navigation has its own irreverent nickname. Sculpted by the local artist Louis-Joseph Dumas, this male figure heroically points towards the sea, while his back end faces the city, which is why he's known as "cul-vers-ville" (it's also a pun on the name of a famous admiral).

THE NAVAL MUSEUMS

Toulon's most prestigious museum, the Musée national de la Marine (Maritime Museum) sits right at the entrance to the naval base next to the clock tower. Access is through the magnificent original door to the Arsenal, pictured, which dates back to 1738 (the museum itself is a modern, 1980s building constructed behind it).

musee-national-de-la-marine-de-toulon-entranceTotally refurbished in 2012, the museum traces Toulon's long maritime history with a fantastic variety of exhibits. It starts off with a bang, with a fine array of brass cannons just inside the entrance and a line-up of big historical paintings executed at regular intervals which give a clear sense of how the port has changed and grown through the centuries.

There's a maquette of the Corderie, a very, very long thin building where rope for ships' rigging was woven (the real thing is found near the museum and is some 400 metres / 440 yards long).

You can also see some splendid carved wooden figureheads and large-scale models of 18th century ships which were used to train officers and crew before they went abroad the real thing.

 

 

The displays are packed with detail, such as one showing how the tall, heavy masts were installed on the ships' hulls and another depicting the unenviable life of slaves on the convict vessel. You can see the control panel of the Clemenceau aircraft carrier and a scale model of the Charles de Gaulle. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions.

Set out on two levels, a ground floor and a mezzanine, the Musée de la Marine is airy and spacious. It's not huge, but you could easily spend several hours here, especially if you make full use of the free multilingual audio guide which comes along with your ticket. A little booklet with games for children is on sale at the entrance (this is available, alas, in French only) and there's a very good book and gift shop.

Tickets are valid all day so, while there's no café or restaurant inside the musuem itself, you can pop out for refreshments and come back later. The entrance price is modest for a museum of this calibre and numerous discounts are available, including reductions for under 25s and cruise ship passengers. The Musée de la Marine is closed on 1 May, 25 December and throughout January.

Where: Musée national de la Marine, place Monsenergue, 83000 Toulon. Tel: (+33) 4 22 42 02 01. Website for the Musée national de la Marine in Toulon.

Over in La Seyne sur Mer, the 17th century Fort Balaguier is a smaller naval museum with displays on Toulon's bagne, the prison where Jean Valjean was famously incarcerated for years in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

Where: Musée municipal naval du Fort Balaguier, 924 Corniche Bonaparte, La Seyne sur Mer 83500. Website for Fort Balaguier in La Seyne sur Mer.

Heavily defended, Toulon's bay and coastline are peppered with around forty more forts and gun emplacements. Two others are open to the public. Up on Mont Faron, the 19th century Tour Beaumont has been turned into a memorial to the 1944 Allied landings in Provence, the Mémorial du débarquement de Provence. Click here to read more about it.

And in Mourillon to the south-east of the city centre, the 16th century Tour Royale was the first defensive fort to be erected at the entrance to Toulon's harbour.

It formerly belonged to the military but was bought by the city in 2006. Now open to the public, its pleasant gardens contain a monument to submariners and the bright yellow and red bathyscaphe FNRS III, a mini-submarine which broke the world diving record in 1954. From July to September you can also explore the inside of the tower itself and enjoy terrific views of the bay from its roof. Entrance free.

Where: Tour Royale, avenue de la Tour Royale, 83000 Toulon. Website for the Tour Royale in Toulon.

Finally if all these massive military ships and installations just become too overwhelming, see the other side of sea-faring Toulon in the picturesque and colourful little Port Saint Louis at the beginning of the Mourillon beach district, which hosts a fish market in the morning and many outdoor activities throughout the year, from an open-air seafood feast in March to markets and music festivals in the summer and autumn.

 

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