Dust rises up along the quays of the military harbour of Toulon in the south of France as carriages filled with food and jars of wine pass by. The artillery is spread out on the ground and among the iron cannon balls dozens of people are inspecting the heavy canons which are piled up and ready to be loaded onto the fleet of King Louis XV. I am visiting the Musée national de la Marine, or the Naval Museum of Toulon where a mural of Joseph Vernet represents a scene of the Toulon harbour in 1755.
Surrounded by the Mont Faron in the north and the Peninsula of Saint Mandrier in the south, the bay of Toulon has been used strategically ever since it was discovered by the Romans about 2000 years ago. The greatest European bay, and the third in the world, the harbour was developed thoroughly by Henry IV in the 16th century and turned into a prominent naval base by king Louis XIV during the 17th century. Around the harbour and on top of the hills the forts built by the military engineer Vauban are still guarding the first French military harbour. Exploring the museum we get an idea of what the French fleet looked like and how it has evolved. On the ground floor many paintings show some spectacular scenes along with detailed models and drawings of various ships.
Being France’s main naval base, the harbour of Toulon suffered a lot during the Second World War: France destroyed its very advanced fleet in order to prevent the Nazis from leveraging it. Today the Mont Faron offers a comprehensive view on the fleet, the fifth in the world. A boat tour on its bay offers a close up on the vessels. From behind my sunglasses, I observe from up close the jewel of the French Navy, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle. With its 262 metres of length, it looks massive: the buildings in the background look ridiculously small compared to this floating city of 2000 men and 40 aircrafts. The stealth frigates are lined up and show their weird shapes with wide angles. Sailors stand on deck in their neat uniforms. The black tower of a nuclear-powered submarine gives away its position as it is making its way back to the harbour.
Boating around the bay, yachtsmen replace the military troops. Scuba divers come back to shore on noisy boats. Kids learn windsurfing and sailing. Getting closer to Le Mourillon, racket and ball games are popular on the beach, as well as tanning. Back in town, the clinking of cables along sailboat masts changes from the sound of cicadas along the slopes of the Mont Faron.
If walking the city of Toulon with its narrow southern streets and charming squares, if mountain biking the Mont Faron with its amazing views and nature are a must, no visit can be complete without seeing Toulon from the seaside and exploring its bay. Not only a beautiful site, it is also home to one of the most powerful navies in the world and a shelter to some of the most advanced technologies.
Claire Lessiau (text & photographs)
- Refer to the website of the tourist information office to plan your visit of the bay.
- 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!