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LOOK: To long for Toulon

LOOK: To long for Toulon

It is only while standing on Mont Faron overlooking Toulon that the noticeable cut-out of the Old Town can be easily recognised.

Reaching the peak of Faron is a cablecar away and as it ascends, the city opens up and the bay, described by the vice-president of Rugby France, Henri Mondino, as the “most beautiful in the world” fully reveals itself.

Lagoon-like, the roadstead is encircled by a narrow peninsula on the far side, and buffered by the harbour and a short strip of land that climbs into more mountainous terrain on the mainland.

It is indeed a beautiful vista to behold.

Toulon has a bit of a reputation in France. Located on the coast of Provence in the south-west of the country, it is host to the Toulon Arsenal. It is the largest naval base in the Mediterranean and on occasion the pride of the nation’s fleet, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle anchors there, as well as its nuclear attack submarines.

Roughly 20 000 military and civilian personnel are employed at the base. Toulon is, therefore, a sailor’s town and its history and culture are tied in with that tradition – for better or for worse. It enjoyed an urban renewal during the 2000s, finally revealing its fascinating history and flavour to the rest of the world.

During a recent trip to the city, Independent Media was hosted by Air France and Atout France and took a whirlwind tour through the Old Town of Toulon. It was far too brief a stay but one that will certainly leave an impression.

The Rugby World Cup is less than a year away, and Toulon – with its impressive training facilities – will be the base for the defending champions, the Springboks. They will play Scotland on September 10 and then Tonga on October 1 at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, some 60km away.

LOOK: To long for Toulon

Toulon is a rugby city, and it is not surprising that rugby balls, jerseys and memorabilia adorn interiors as decorations. Lovers of the game will, therefore, be comfortable with their surroundings and the banter that might ensue if they find themselves in the city on match day.

It is this old-world blueprint, slower pace and rugby-zealous tradition that could make it one of the best locations to follow the Boks from in 2023. The hustle and bustle of Marseille, you see, can be reached by either rental car or train on match day, leaving the Saffa to enjoy the ancient city in peace.

Before or after the match, travellers visiting Toulon can enjoy exploring the military history of France, while ambling along its inner-city streets.

LOOK: To long for Toulon

The Musee National de la Marine sits proudly at the main entrance to the Arsenal, its façade the former gate to the base in the neoclassical style. Following the Place Monsenergue leads into the Boulevard de Strasbourg, a promenade straddled by the marina and a row of cafés and restaurants where people-watching is the main sporting activity.

The Old Town, built during medieval times, with its narrow roads, cobblestone lanes and intimate town squares, rises behind this. Modern storefronts adorn the medieval buildings, creating an interesting dichotomy between post-modern sensibilities and the more classical Romanesque architecture.

Walking through these streets is to experience Europe of the past before the Renaissance, before the march to modernity and realism. The buildings are narrow, the rooms small, the windows shuttered and tall.

A relaxed amble in the morning will reveal the Provencal market where the locals haggle for fresh produce – breads, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish. The sights are enticing, the scents lingering. It is easy to get lost here, each pathway revealing something of interest, historic and weather-worn.

LOOK: To long for Toulon

Eventually, travellers will stumble upon the Sainte-Marie-Majeure – the cathedral constructed in the 11th century and built upon the remains of a previous 5th-century church. It will take you by surprise, squashed between two unassuming buildings. Here and there, are the fountains of Old Toulon, found in many of the small squares that open up the narrow streets.

The most famous and arguably the most striking of these is the Fontaine des Trois Dauphins in Place Puget. It is a hanging garden, onion-like, sprouting manicured flora around sculpted stone.

LOOK: To long for Toulon

When the World Cup starts, it will be late summer and that will allow tourists to enjoy relaxed and compact white beaches dotted along the bay. The recent trip was in early November, and unusually, the weather was temperate and enjoyable.

But be warned, due to the skittish nature of the rand, it will be expensive regardless of how many nights you decide to stay. Booking accommodation early will go a long way towards lowering the costs.

LOOK: To long for Toulon

Here, it is suggested that you look for accommodation in and around the Old Town if you wish to take advantage of the nearby amenities, within walking distance, that the city offers.

If you wish to experience France of old, and enjoy a slower pace, then Toulon could be the city for you.

Read the latest issue of IOL Travel digital magazine here.

Original Article