Fresh basil, peaches, melons, figs, nectarines, tomatoes, lavender, thyme, olives… All these scents enter my nose as we walk through the colourful and authentic market of Cour Lafayette in the city centre of Toulon, along the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera) in Southern France.
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Beyond these fantastic smells and the bright colours of locally-grown fresh vegetables and fruits, the friendliness of the locals is striking. Easily exchanging a few words about the RCT (the Rugby Club of Toulon where some of the best players in the world evolve), a joke or an anecdote, it feels like everyone knows each other on this lively market.
At the next crossing, freshly brewed mint tea and wood fire overpower these smells, and I sit to taste a piece of cade, a local specialty imported by the Italian immigrants during the 19th century made of chickpea flour, olive oil and water.
This snack is quite filling, and this is precisely what the blue collars working on the shipyards of Toulon needed! Along with the militaries, they formed the main part of the population of Toulon, an important military harbour since Henri IV set its baseline in the late 16th century. The French navy was created a few years later by Richelieu (1639), minister of Louis XIII and established here, creating a whole economy around it. His son Louis XIV mandated Colbert to make France a strong naval power that could rival against the British Empire. Still today, engineered by Vauban, the many forts protecting the harbour top off the surrounding hills.
However, geographically stuck between the commercial harbour of Marseille and Nice, Toulon has remained in their shadows, even having somewhat of a bad reputation in France. For the past years, major renovation programs have been carried out in its medieval heart. Its patchwork of squares with fountains shaded by olive trees and colourful parasols invite passers-by to enjoy a Mediterranean lunch prepared with fresh ingredients from the market.
Hungry from all these smells, we enjoy a delicious plat du jour for a bargain along Rue Paul Lendrin. Comfortably seated in the shade of a plane tree, the terraces are filled with locals taking their lunch breaks in a friendly atmosphere that seems to make the work day lighter.
Leaving the medieval parts of the city with its narrow streets halved by their characteristic gutters, we venture in the newer part designed by Haussmann (the famous baron who modernized Paris in the 19th century). The square Victor Hugo is the hyphen toward the 19th century and its tall buildings and wide avenues. The Opera House dominates the square and is one of France’s most outstanding ones, comparable to the Parisian Opéra Garnier.
We understand better why the Toulonnais were singing their love for their city with their Southern French accents on the market, ending in a whisper. If they are proud being from Toulon, they want to keep to themselves this rough diamond in its stunning jewel case with the Mont Faron in the background and bathed by some of the most beautiful beaches of the French Riviera.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- Refer to the website of the tourist information office to choose your points of interests in and around Toulon.
- Toulon is easily reached either by train from Paris (4 hours with the TGV) or by plane (1 hour from the Marseille Provence airport or 30 minutes from the Toulon-Hyères airport).
- To get the GPS-powered version of this article in GPSmyCity, click on this link!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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