Last year, I moved back from Scotland to France with mixed feelings. For sure I would see all my friends and family again, for sure, I’ll find delicious food and wine on the table, but for sure Paris would still be crowded, polluted and so far from the ocean. I may have stayed only 2 years in Scotland, but it was enough time to make good friends and feel at home diving the west coast of Scotland.
Only 10 days after I landed with all my stuff at CDG Airport, I was invited to leave Paris behind for the time of a weekend in sunny French Riviera. It’s funny how sometimes acquaintances met years ago somehow reappear in your life in a very timely manner and turn it upside down. I had visited a fair chunk of my home country in the past, but Toulon had never been on my itinerary. “Ugly industrial port” This is what I thought it would look like. It was until I had a private guide for myself to show me the most beautiful spots of Toulon above and under water. It worked a little too well I guess as in the last 12 months I came back 7 times. Let me show you why…
Wandering around the Provence style old town
It was my first surprise. Behind the modern buildings that enclose the main port, there is an old Provence style town, similar to Marseille and Nice. You don’t want to miss the most interesting sights in town? Just follow the golden arrows on the pavement. Here are the places I like the most in Toulon centre:
- The Opera & Victor Hugo square: The Opera is the most elegant building in town. The cafés of the square around it might be one of the most enjoyable places to sip a drink. Don’t miss looking up, on your right, to the mural; it’s a tribute to one of a famous Toulon-born actor, Raimu, playing the most famous writers from Provence, Marcel Pagnol.
- Lafayette Avenue: Recently renovated, this long avenue is where the morning food market takes place every morning. Expect mouth-watering flavours from Provence, Italy and Northern Africa.
- Liberty Square: Most of the time nothing special is going on this large square except a few times a year for some special events like when the local rugby fans come to celebrate the victory of their beloved RCT team! However, I like the way it looks, so perfectly aligned, with an impressive statue representing the French Republic at the centre of a fountain.
Beyond these landmarks, don’t hesitate to get lost in the narrow streets of the old town to discover here and there a fountain, another intriguing statue or a tiny square with olive trees.
Learning about the biggest EU Navy base
Thanks to Saint-Mandrier Peninsula, the bay of Toulon is a natural port where ships can aways shelter in any condition. Before visiting Toulon, I was unaware that is was such a huge Navy base. It is today the biggest in the European Union and the home base of the enormous Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier. I was so impressed that every person I met knew so much about all the different ships and submarines: their size, their use and how many in total. The navy base is of course not open to the public but here are two ways you can learn more about the military port and its history from its creation by Richelieu in 1631:
- Going on a Toulon Bay boat tour: As you make a 1-hour boat tour all around the bay from the main port of Toulon to La Seyne-sur-Mer and Saint-Mandrier, the guide gives many details about all the ships that are present at the time of the tour. In my case, I saw the giant Charle-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier and a few stealth ships. Comments are only in French, but they can provide you with a document with the comments written in English. More information: www.lesbateliersdelarade.com
- Visiting the National Navy Museum: Just 5 minutes of walking from the main port, you will learn all the history from the ancient Roman port of Telo to its development in the 17th Century into a royal military port, to become the largest navy base in the EU. Their collection of ship models and figurehead was my favourite part of the exhibition. I also appreciated the part dedicated to what happened during WWII and why Toulon Bay could almost be considered as the French Scapa Flow. More information: www.musee-marine.fr
Make sure you get the combo ticket for these two activities to save some money. You can also buy a ticket for one on a day and with the ticket, get the discount for the other on another day.
Scuba diving in fantastic sites only 30 minutes away
From Toulon Centre, there two large diving playgrounds scuba divers can enjoy. You basically only need a 30-minute drive to reach the diving centre.
- Saint-Mandrier Peninsula: it includes famous dive sites such like the Arroyo shipwreck and the “Two Brothers” (“Les Deux Frères”), a dive site made of two twin rocks loaded with marine life. The area around the peninsula also includes plane wrecks from WWII with many other shipwrecks.
- The Gold Islands: From Hyères Peninsula, you can get access to the marine protected area of Port-Cros. This National Park was the first Marine Park in France to be established in 1963. The islands of Porquerolles and Port-Cros offer some of the best dive sites in France. “La Gabinière” (or “La Gab” if you want to call it like the locals do) is a dive site of Port-Cros Island, famous for its population of friendly but shy groupers. It is often said the best dive site in France. The area between Port-Cros and Porquerolles islands is also the home of two great shipwrecks, the “Grec” and the “Donator”, two twin ships that are unfortunately resting deeper than maximum recreational depth.
I have started a series of blog posts detailing all the best diving you can do in Var, the region of Toulon. I have more coming, but here are the first ones:
Hiking peaceful natural sites for breathtaking views
Nature is all around the city: if as a scuba diver I can enjoy fantastic underwater spots, the inland also offers many beautiful places for outdoors lovers. Here are two fabulous places perfect for a short hike that will add a nature touch to your program.
- Mount Faron (“Mont Faron”) is to Toulon what Table Mountain is to Capetown. It is easily accessible by car or by cable car from the city centre. Many easy hiking trails start from the upper cable car station. You walk on rocky and dusty paths through pine trees until you reach some of the best views of Toulon Bay, looking at it from its inner side.
- Cape Sicié (“Cap Sicié”) is a bit further west in Six-Fours-Les-Plages, about 40 minute driving from Toulon. Depending on the trail you chose (please check the map at the entrances, forget about Google map, seriously, I tried to rely on it, and I got almost lost), it can be a nice walk outside or serious hiking and climbing steep rocky paths. In all cases, the view of the outer side of Toulon Bay, Saint-Mandrier Peninsula, The Two Brothers rocks, and Hyères Peninsula is just fabulous. The higher you climb, the further you’ll see.
Enjoying the sunniest city in France
Like most people, I would have guessed that the sunniest places in France were Marseille or Nice, or maybe somewhere in Corsica. However, with a total of 2,900 hours of sun, Toulon receives more sunshine than Marseille (2,800 hours) and Nice (2,700 hours). With such beautiful weather, I just want to spend as much time as possible outside. If scuba diving and walking are already part of my routine when I’m in Toulon, this summer I am planning to give a try at sea kayaking and SUP to enjoy it even more.
Beyond the hours of sunshine, sunsets are also stunning in Toulon. There are a few spots that are really good for sunsets like the different beaches (Mourillon, Magaud, Almanarre) or the Fortress of Six-Fours. Even in wintertime, they are almost always incredible with striking colours of orange, pink and purple.
How to go to Toulon?
There are several ways to come to Toulon, but the best is to take the “TGV” high-speed train from “Paris-Gare de Lyon” train station. In only 3h50 you travel comfortably as you cross some of the most beautiful landscapes of Burgundy and Provence. One big tip is to book as early as possible, the earliest being 3 months in advance. If you can try to avoid weekends as many French people use TGV to travel around France, trains tend to be full so prices are higher. During the week you can get the best deals but avoid the early mornings and late afternoons as they are the favourite times for business travellers. If you get a return ticket for 100€, it’s an excellent deal! Check the prices on www.trainline.eu
If you are not in a hurry, by making the extra effort to go to “Marne-La-Vallée” Station (Disneyland Paris TGV station, about 1 hour away by train from the centre), you can grab great deals with the OUIGO trains for as little as 15€ to Marseille. Then you need to take a local train to Toulon. Total time for the low-cost journey would be around 6-7 hours.
I love taking the train because the 4 hours of the journey give me enough time to work on my blog and I can dive both days of the weekends if I want as I’m not flying back! I took the SNCF “Voyageur” loyalty card (free) that allows me to cumulate points each time I take the train. In a year I got enough points to go to Toulon for as little as 15€ for my trip!
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