Several companies offer boat tours of the harbor and the military port in Toulon. The one I chose (for no particular reason) was called Bateliers de la Côte d’Azur. The tour was excellent, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who understands French. (I didn’t notice any harbor tours being offered in other languages.) The price in 2012 was ten Euros for a one-hour tour.
Since the tour goes counter-clockwise around the harbor (that’s anti-clockwise to you British folks), you should try to get a seat on the starboard side of the boat (that’s the right-hand side to us landlubbers).
SNCM stands for La Société Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée. This company runs regular services for passengers, vehicles and freight to Corsica, Sardinia, Tunisia and Algeria.
When our guide on the harbor tour pointed out a large ocean-going tugboat called the Abeille Flandre, everyone on the tour knew exactly what he was talking about.
Everyone except me, that is, since I am not a regular viewer of French television. It turns out that the Abeille Flandre is a rescue tug that was based for many years in Brest, on the Atlantic coast, where it (sorry, she) was involved is some spectacular rescue operations. Since 2005 the Abeille Flandre has been stationed in Toulon. A newer and more powerful rescue tug, the Abeille Bourbon, is now on duty in Brest.
The French word abeille means bee, by the way, so I expect the name is meant to suggest that this tugboat is occupé comme une abeille = busy as a bee.
For about half of our harbor tour we went past the military port, which is the Mediterranean headquarters of the French Navy. The actual military port is off limits to civilian ships, so we stayed just outside the boundary markers. Our guide knew everything about the ships down to the last detail and reeled off facts about them without the slightest hesitation. Of course I did not retain all this information, but I found it impressive to listen to someone who was obviously an expert in his field.
One piece of information that I did retain was why these twenty-first century warships look so different from the ones we used to see just a few decades ago. These new ships consist mainly of smooth surfaces without any irregularities or portholes, to make them practically invisible to radar.
On the civilian side of the harbor I learned from our guide’s commentary what a Ro-ro ship is.
Ro-ro means “roll on, roll off”, sort of like a car ferry, but bigger. Trucks or anything with wheels can be driven on (so the freight does not have to be loaded by a crane) and driven off at its destination.
This particular ship is called the “UND Atılım” and belongs to a Turkish company called U.N Ro-Ro İşletmeleri A.Ş., which provides two sailings per week between Toulon and Ambarlı, Turkey. The sailing time, according to their website, is 72 hours. The truck drivers, for whatever reason, do not ride on the ship but “are transferred to Marseilles by Pegasus Airlines and then transferred to Toulon Port by shuttles.”
The UND Atilim was built for U.N Ro-Ro in 2001 by a German company, the Flensburger Schiffbau Gesellschaft (FSG). “UN” here does not mean the United Nations, but is part of the name of the Turkish company.
After seeing so many perfect-looking ships, it was almost a relief to go past a section of the harbor where a few damaged ships are moored, awaiting repair or recycling. The rusty ship in the photo had been there for several years, evidently, because no one had quite decided what to do with it.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.