This “Liberty Square” in Toulon is a good place to ruminate on the ambiguities of the concept of Liberté, especially since Toulon in former times was best known not as a place of liberty but as the site of a brutal prison colony, the Bagne.
The second act of Bizet’s opera Carmen ends with a rousing celebration of “la chose enivrante: la liberté! la liberté!” — sung first by Carmen and then by the entire chorus before the curtain falls. (Here Bizet was following Mozart’s advice by placing a stirring finale just before the intermission.)
Actually Carmen was not extolling any kind of political liberty, but the liberty to roam the mountains of Andalusia with a band of smugglers. But no matter, this chorus will still keep running through your head long after you have left the opera house. In case you missed it in Toulon, there are numerous versions on YouTube, like this one with Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don José.
This square in Toulon was originally called Place d’Armes (Square of Weapons) but was re-named Place de la Liberté in 1889 in honor of the centennial of the French Revolution.
The large sculpture on the north side of the square is the Fountain of the Federation, which was inaugurated in 1890. It includes three large sculpted figures representing France, Force and Justice. (But not Liberty.)
The dominant building on north side of the Place de la Liberté, behind the Fountain of the Federation, is the Grand Hôtel, built in 1868-1869.
In the long run, the Grand Hôtel was too grand to be just a hotel. During the Second World War it was requisitioned by the occupying Germans, who used it as their military headquarters. It has also been used at various times as an apartment building and a French Navy headquarters. The building has recently been renovated and is now used partly as an office building.
On the ground floor at the left an important new institution was opened in September 2011, the Théâtre Liberté.
For many years there was an interesting bookshop, the Librairie Gaia, on the ground floor of the Grand Hôtel. It was advertised as “a traditional bookshop that is good for browsing”, which I can confirm was true. Unfortunately, this bookshop had to go out of business in 2017.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on Toulon, France.