I arrive back in mainland France at the port of Toulon. At 7am I pay little attention as I drive through the city streets to the coastal tourist resort of Les Sablettes but I do notice that the main road is strung with Christmas lights.
The next day I take the marine navette across the sheltered harbour to the city. The docks are full of navy battleships and aircraft carriers as well as a Cunard cruise ship. Back on land, I head straight for the tourist office but find they have little information to offer except for a useful city map.
The Cours Lafayette is a main artery for the city with a busy and colourful market every morning. I hear a lot of Arabic voices and it feels more like a North African town than a city in the south of France. Stalls are filled with bright red peppers and tomatoes, deep brown chestnuts and wild mushrooms, orange pumpkins and floral fabrics. The air is filled with the scent of roasting chickens and fresh fish while the men sit chatting outside cafes with a strong expresso.
In the Place de la Liberte I find a Christmas market where the stalls are selling hot wine, biscuits and gifts. Children are entertained by an animated display feature Father Christmas and a lot of funny elves, as well as a huge Christmas tree with giant baubles that they can ride in. Sadly, the beautiful Fountain of the Federation has been swamped by fairy lights. It’s one of 200 fountains which are dotted around the city and I find many other smaller examples as I wander around the streets.
I had wanted to visit the Naval Museum down by the port but, as it is adjacent to the Naval compound and in light of the recent terrorist attacks in France, it has been closed indefinitely. However, the art galleries remain open and are free so I make my way to those instead.
In the Hotel des Arts I discover a temporary exhibition of modern art works by Edouardo Arroyo. I’ve never heard of him but his paintings, sculptures and collages are certainly intriguing.
The larger Musee D’Art offers more contemporary landscapes by local artists and an exhibition of art related to food. Some paintings use crockery and glass and there’s a photograph replicating the famous Carmen Miranda pose, though the creative hat is now composed of rotten fruit. The largest exhibit covers the whole end wall and is a large dark brown 8m long canvas, but it is the pervading scent of chocolate which reveals the true nature of this particular work by local artist Claire Dantzer. Unfortunately no photos are allowed.
Outside of the museums I find that the streets are full of interesting architecture. Despite being heavily bombed during WWII many beautiful buildings remain, such as the opera house built in 1862. There are also many sculptures hidden in the streets and squares and several glorious murals on the walls.
I wonder if any of the Cruise ship passengers bothered to visit Toulon, or if they just hopped onto a coach and drove to the more picturesque Provencal villages or the jet-set coastal resort of St Tropez.