When you think of South France, names like Côte d’Azur, Saint Tropez and Nice probably first come to your mind – touristic, sunny places and rich people from all over the world.
Less famous is the 165 000 inhabitant city of Toulon, in south east France on the Mediterranean coast.
Despite the fact that the city is comparatively unknown and although I actually never was a fan of South France, I was however lucky enough to visit the place.
What makes Toulon so interesting is not only its great harbour, where you can watch hundreds of sailing ships and yachts shining in the sun while enjoying fresh fish meals in one of the tasty restaurants. Where you can also pass in front of the huge mountains Toulon offers and talk to people of all ages that are about to fish for their dinner. Or where you can make a tour on a tourist boat where guides inform you about the city’s military harbour, which is the most important one in France.
In all unfairness, the city is not so famous either for its wonderful beaches, natural- or artificially constructed ones, some hidden between big cliffs where people fish for their dinner. Where you can see palm trees and people swimming even in October, because the water is warm enough and the sun still is burning on the blue-turquoise coloured ocean.
Few people also know about the cultural diversity which is reflected for example in the street market every morning in the city centre: Fresh exotic fruit on your left, French fish on your right, in front African tissue and clothing stands.
Former prisons close to the coast that were used especially for North Africans and that are surrounded by canals are now visited by tourists.
Before arriving, I unfortunately hadn’t heard about Toulon’s famous rugby team, yet: In the huge “Stade Mayol” in the city centre, you can regularly watch its team playing, the RC Toulon, that even is the current European champion.
But above all, Toulon is special for its paradoxic structure and architecture. Walking through the centre, you will discover typical romantic French alleys, places with fountains surrounded by trees, people chatting and sitting on benches or tables that belong to bars, restaurants or alternative “culture cafés” – just as you imagine France.
Then, by curiosity turning into another small street, the city suddenly changes: The busy corners and pretty houses are all gone, what remains are dilapidated, old buildings, some almost caved in – for example one just next door to the town hall, completely destroyed. Roller shutters of former bars and restaurants are closed down. The only slightly animated part of the city is represented by builders and small snack bars now and then, with owners who desperately try to reanimate the dead area close to the main streets. However, if you have a closer look at the buildings, you will discover that they are less dead than they seemed to be at first sight: Some windows are open and inside the buildings, letter boxes are labelled, in one apartment I even saw a motorcycle.
Even though I was a lot warned about the closed-minded, suspicious inhabitants of Toulon (and I even got to know a few), I was also lucky to meet some really friendly and interesting people who were happy to show me around or answer some questions about their opinion of their home city. Nobody actually told me he or she would really love it, and no one hated it, either. “It’s okay here, I mean, it’s my home”, is a phrase I heard a lot.
Toulon’s charm is not a typical one: It is not what you expect by a Southern French city. And that’s what makes it so special.