Toulon, France

Built into an enchanting quay on the shimmering banks of the Cote d’Azur, Toulon is France’s naval capital and a cosmopolitan gateway to the fabled land of Provence. Toulon has been center of the French Navy since 1494 and today is home to the impressive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

Nestled between Provence and the Mediterranean, Toulon enjoys the splendors of beautiful countryside, shimmering seas and a rich, rewarding culture. A favored cousin of Saint-Tropez and Marseille, Toulon boasts the most sunshine of any French metropolitan city. With Italy on its eastern horizon and Spain to its west, Toulon is a cultural crossroads where exquisite tastes converge and find their expression with a distinct French flair.

Excavations by archaeologists at the nearby Cosquer Cave suggest that people have lived in the region since the Paleolithic era. During the 7th century B.C., Greek colonists established villages along the coast; by the 4th century B.C., the Ligurians came to the area east of Toulon known as Olbia.

Romans arrived in the 2nd century B.C. and founded a town called Telo Martius: “Telo” for the goddess of springs, and “Martius” for the god of war. Perhaps this choice would foreshadow the coming of the French Navy. The Romans used the city as a base for manufacturing a dye from a local snail shell, from which they created a shade of purple used for imperial robes.

Toulon was Christianized in the 5th century with the completion of its first cathedral. The building stood for more than 500 years, but was eventually destroyed. As Visigoths attacked the city by land and pirates attacked by sea, Roman power waned. In 1095, a new cathedral - funded by Gilbert, the Count of Provence - was built in Toulon.

In 1486, Provence officially became a part of France, taking Toulon with it. France’s King Charles VIII began constructing a navy in the port city, hoping to expand France’s military might on the Mediterranean. King Francis I went further in 1524, building an imposing new fort, the Tour Royale. It was only a few months until the fort was surrendered to the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1790, after the French Revolution, Toulon sided mainly with the royalists and welcomed the British Fleet when they came. During the siege of Toulon, the British were cast out by a young Napoleon Bonaparte. They returned in 1803 to blockade the city during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1849, the city began a major reconstruction with Baron Haussmann at the helm. Haussmann would go on to plan and design post-revolutionary Paris. Some have called Toulon his practice city.

Toulon saw difficult battles during World War II. The German army came to occupy the city in the winter of 1942; Allies bombed the city the following year, destroying much of it. The Free French Forces would not take back the city until August 28, 1944.

Toulon Lifestyle and Culture

Toulon’s Old Town is home to the traditional Provençal market, which unfurls its umbrellas every morning on Cours Lafayette. The market overflows with an endless bounty of local foods and products,from soaps to honey.

Toulon is the gateway to the countryside of Provence, home of world famous cuisine, culture and art. Aioli, Bouillabaisse and Daube all have a strong reputation here, as does Banon, a semi-soft goat milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. Provençal wines are known for their playful sweetness; the region’s long summers and short ripening season produces some of the most refreshing and fun rosés in France.

Toulon Sights and Landmarks

No journey to Toulon is complete without visiting the Old Town. This cozy pedestrian-only district of narrow streets is famed for its many historic squares (or places) and fountains. Toulon’s Place de la Liberte, or “Freedom Square,” is an incredible blend of architecture and artwork. Its majestic statues and arching fountains are sure to impress. It was created in 1852 by brothers, Gaudensi and Andre-Joseph Allar. In the Place Amiral Sénès, the 1821 Fontaine de l’Intendance elegantly trickles water into two concentric pools. Place Puget, the original center of the town, was built upon an old farmer’s market. Now it is the location of the 1782 Fontaine des Trois Dauphins. In fact, this square was named Trois Dauphins until 1869.

Less than an hour north of Toulon, Aix-en-Provence weaves another rich tapestry of history and art. The Cathedral of the Holy Savior is the centerpiece of the medieval quarter of the city, built upon a Roman Forum and a basilica. The Deux Garçons, perhaps the most famous brasserie in Aix, was once the haunt of the likes of Émile Zola, Paul Cézanne and Ernest Hemingway. For those interested in the great Impressionist’s work, Cezanne’s atelier outside of the city has been preserved just as he left it in 1901.

Just past Cap Canaille, the highest sea cliff in France the picturesque fishing village of Cassis is home to some of the country’s famed calaques, sheltered inlets of white cliffs that spill into the ocean. Cassis also produces some of the best white and rosè wines in France, and is one of the only villages in Provence to produce white wine.

Toulon Entertainment and Activities

Toulon suffers no shortage of wine and wineries. In the hamlet of Le Castellet, perched on a hillside northwest of Toulon, lush vineyards stretch for miles. This small medieval community is remarkably preserved, with cobblestone streets and the ancient gateways.

The beautiful waters that have made Toulon a naval capital provide an ideal setting for a sail around the bay. From the water, it’s easy to see why the French Riviera is considered one of France’s most elegant corners.

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