Guided walking tour of Toulon

Before I went to Toulon I booked a guided walking tour through the website of the Toulon tourist office. It was a two-hour tour, in French, called A la découverte de l’Histoire de Toulon (Discovering the History of Toulon). I found the tour pleasant and informative, though perhaps not as brilliant as a similar tour that I took in Marseille two days later.

As of 2018, these tours in Toulon cost € 10.00 per person and are scheduled once or twice a month throughout the year (every week in August). The tours are in French only.

The starting and ending point of the tour was the tourist office on Place Louis Blanc, at the lower end of Cours Lafayette. The tourist office is easy to find once you know that there is a Wallace Fountain right in front of it. (This particular Wallace Fountain is an example of the smallest version, with only two caryatids instead of four.)

Le génie de la navigation

On our guided walking tour we started by going to the harbor, which is only a short distance from the tourist office, and then walking along the quays until we came to this statue by Louis-Joseph Daumas (1801-1887).

Le génie de la navigation aka Cuverville

He made the statue in 1843 to honor the “great navigators” of the past and future.

Unofficially this statue is often called “Cuverville”, supposedly in honor of a very aristocratic admiral called Count Jules Marie Armand de Cavelier de Cuverville (1834-1912), who was the commander of the Mediterranean fleet in 1895.

But “Cuverville” is also a play on words with the expression Cul-vers-ville (literally “arse-towards-city”) because the statue is facing out to sea and has its posterior turned toward the city and the Town Hall.

Admiral Cuverville died a typical twentieth century death when he was run over by a car while crossing a street in Paris in 1912.

The Atlantes by Pierre Puget

All you loyal readers of my Marseille posts (thanks again to both of you) may recall that Pierre Puget (1620-1694) was the sculptor and architect who designed the Vieille Charité in the Panier district of Marseille.

In 1657 Puget sculpted these two allegorical figures representing strength and weakness. As Atlantes, they seem to be supporting the Toulon Town Hall balcony with their heads and arms. The original Town Hall was destroyed by bombings in 1944, but the door and the two sculptures were fortunately preserved and incorporated into the new Town Hall.

Not long ago I finally learned that a male figure which is used in place of a column to hold up part of a building is called an Atlas or Atlant (stress on the second syllable), after the mythological figure Atlas, who was forced to hold up the sky on his shoulders for ever and ever. In ancient Roman architecture this sort of male figure was called a telamon.

A female figure with the same function is called a caryatid. These can be found holding up the roofs of the Wallace fountains in Paris (and the one in front of the tourist office on Place Louis Blanc in Toulon) and also supporting the dome of the Musée Guimet Library in Paris, among many other places.

The Clock Tower

After reaching the end of the quays we had a look at the Clock Tower (Tour de l’Horloge or Tour Carrée).

This tower is not accessible to civilians since it is inside the naval base, but it is easy to see from the outside. We were told that it was built on piles from 1772 to 1775 and was originally used as a lookout post.

Porte Monumentale de l’Arsenal

This monumental gate, only part of which I have managed to show in my photo, was originally built in 1738 as the entrance gate to the Arsenal. But in 1976 the entire huge gate was jacked up, turned by ninety degrees, moved several hundred meters and installed as the entrance to the Naval Museum (Musée de la Marine).

Our guide on the walking tour showed us some photos and newspaper clippings of how this was done. It was evidently a huge, risky and very expensive engineering project.

What I didn’t know at the time was that two days later, on a similar guided walking tour in Marseille, I would hear a similar story (also illustrated with photos and clippings) about a historic building that was also jacked up, turned ninety degrees and moved to a new location.

The reason for both of these projects was to widen the streets, so as to make room for more and faster cars — which just goes to show that politicians in the twentieth century would go to any lengths and spare no expense to make their cities fit for cars and unfit for people.

If you look at the four Doric columns on the photo, you might notice that they are made of smooth marble, not of rough stone like the rest of the gate. This is because they are original Greek columns which were acquired in some way (no one seems to know how or by whom) and brought over from Greece in 1686. 

Église Saint-Louis

Another stop on our guided walking tour was the Church of Saint Louis, an unusual neo-classical church, with four pillars at the front, which was built over many years in the eighteenth century and finally completed in 1788.

When the French Revolution began in 1789, the church had not yet been consecrated. In 1794 it was inaugurated as a temple of the “Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being”. For a while it served as a caserne for revolutionary soldiers, but was later given back to the Catholic Church in 1803.

During the Second World War, on March 11, 1944, the church was hit by several bombs and badly damaged. After nearly a decade of reconstruction, it was finally re-consecrated in 1953.

Restoration of the Church of Saint Louis

Here is a sign with before and after photos, showing the results of the renovation work that was carried out at the Church of Saint Louis in 2005-2006.

The ship sculpture at Place Vatel

When we came to Place Vatel, where the School of Catering and Tourism is located, our guide showed us this unusual sculpture of the bow of an eighteenth century French warship between the Rue Vezzani and the Passage des Capucins.

Neptune on the ship

On the prow of the ship is a bust of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Actually this one is a replica. The original is on display in the Naval Museum.

Fresco on Rue Chevalier Paul

On our tour we went through the Rue Chevalier Paul and had a look at the large fresco that has been painted there as part of the urban renewal program of the Old Town of Toulon.

Fresco on Rue Chevalier Paul

The top floor shows a workshop for making sails. Below that is a factory for making ropes — since sails and ropes were two of the most essential commodities for ships in earlier times.

A sign at the bottom of the fresco identifies these scenes as being from the end of the nineteenth century, which surprised me since I thought sailing ships were already being phased out by that time, in favor of steamships. Also I was under the impression that the big rope factory in Toulon had been re-tooled by that time and was producing metal cables. (I would have placed these scenes in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.)

On the lower floors we can see the Hôtel du Port with a dozen ladies whose job it was to entertain visiting sailors and officers.

Place Puget

When we came to Place Puget on our walking tour, our guide told us that this was where Victor Hugo stayed when he visited Toulon in 1839. The hotel where he stayed no longer exists, but she pointed out where it used to be. The current building at that address was being renovated and was completely covered by scaffolding, so I didn’t take a picture of it.

The square had a different name when Victor Hugo was here, because it wasn’t re-named Place Puget until 1869. But the fountain was already there, since it dates from 1782. This fountain is called La Fontaine de la Halle aux grains (The Fountain of the Grain Storage Hall), also known as the Fountain of the Three Dauphins. Today the fountain is picturesque because it is almost completely overgrown by vegetation, including two trees that are growing out of its base.

Urban renewal

In the Old Town we came across several of these big signs entitled Requalification, meaning restoration and urban renewal.

Some of the historic buildings in the Old Town are in an advanced state of disrepair. The intention is to save the buildings and fix them up so they can again be used for apartments, shops and neighborhood meeting places.

The opera house from Rue de Pomet

We continued on through the Rue de Pomet, a peaceful, friendly little street which opens up onto Place Victor Hugo and the opera house.

It’s hard to believe, but true, that this lovely little street, along with the adjoining little streets of the Old Town, was formerly a notorious hotbed of vice, iniquity, crime, debauchery and wickedness, inhabited by all manner of mean, nasty, villainous people and strictly off limits to visiting American sailors on shore leave. In fact, this was such a mean, nasty, dangerous neighborhood that it was known in former times as — Chicago!

Or, because this is France, Chicag’, leaving off the –o.

Sorry Chicagoans, but that is how people over here used to picture our beautiful city. In fact they still do, if you want to know the truth.

Rue de Pomet

I took this photo (above) looking south into Rue de Pomet, with my back to the opera house.

Félix Escartefigue and César Olivier

Our guide pointed out the opera house, which by coincidence I had already seen, and then explained the significance of the fresco on the Place Victor Hugo, at the corner of Rue Raimu.

The two men in the fresco are Félix Escartefigue, the captain of a ferry boat, and César Olivier, the owner of the bar de la Marine in the Panier district of Marseille, as seen in a film called Marius from the year 1931.

The fresco at night, as seen from the opera house

I must admit that I had never heard of any of these folks, but here in the South of France they seem to be very popular, even now. Everyone down here seems to know the film and especially the author of the play it was based on, Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974), who also wrote the screenplay. And they all know the actor Raimu (1883-1946), a native of Toulon who played the part of César Olivier in the film.

Rue Raimu was named after the actor, and there is also a statue of him nearby.

Cours Lafayette

Cours Lafayette is where Toulon’s big fruit, vegetable and flower market is held.

In 1990 a huge shopping mall, the Centre Commercial Mayol, was opened nearby, with an oversized hypermarket and parking garage. At the time, many people thought that would be the death of the street market on Cours Lafayette, but as you can see from the photo it was still going strong as of October 2012. Apparently only motorists patronize the hypermarket, whereas the rest of us are numerous enough to keep the street market in business.

The Toulon tourist office is at the lower end of Cours Lafayette, and that is where our guided walking tour ended.

My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.

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2 thoughts on “Guided walking tour of Toulon”

  1. Wonderful post and photos! Enjoyed reading all about the walking tour in Toulon and what you observed. The Cuverville and its clever play on words brought a smile to my face. The Neptune figurehead looks absolutely terrifying and strangely mesmerizing. It’s difficult to believe that The Rue de Pomet has such a dark history! It looks so intimate and peaceful. Thank you for sharing your experiences there.

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