In 1679, the great military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), wrote that the harbor of Toulon was “the most beautiful and the most excellent of the Mediterranean Sea, in the opinion of all nations. It is the principal port of the kingdom and the place where the King ordinarily keeps the largest part of his naval forces.”
Vauban visited Toulon four times between 1679 and 1700 to fortify the city and develop an arsenal to support the ambitious naval policy of King Louis XIV. The arsenal included a rope-making factory that was housed in a very long building (shown as a model in the museum), to produce the vast quantities of ropes that were needed for the large sailing ships of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The building still exists today, but it is now used for offices since modern ships do not have any great need for ropes.
According to this museum text, Vauban’s arsenal began operations in 1692. “Its basin, or dock, located to the west of the city, could accommodate around forty vessels. In the interest of efficiency and rationalization, the arsenal included all the facilities that were useful for the construction and maintenance of the king’s fleet: rope-making, forges, carpentry shops, warehouses. Toulon became the largest and most important arsenal of the Mediterranean.”
On our harbor tour we had a look at some of the old fortifications, which are now obsolete but were important in earlier centuries to protect the entrance to the port.
Gate of Italy
This “Gate of Italy” and the adjoining walls were designed by (three guesses) Vauban. They were constructed starting in 1678 as part of a system of fortifications to protect the city and the harbor.
Inside the tunnel of the gate you can find this plaque, which reads: “The 24th of March 1796 General Bonaparte rode under this arch on his way to take command of the glorious Army of Italy. 1969 Bicentenary of Napoleon.”
Location, aerial view and photo of the Porte d’Italie on monumentum.fr.
This Royal Tower was built from 1514 to 1524. It was the first fort to be built to protect the harbor at Toulon.
Vauban did not arrive on the scene until 155 years later. When he inspected the Tour Royale he praised it highly (in contrast to his scathing criticism of the Château d’If near Marseille), but suggested further improvements.
For many years the Tour Royale and its surroundings belonged to the French Ministry of Defense and were not open to the public.
This sign proclaims: “Toulon reclaims its coastline.” The sign shows how this area changed between 2005 and 2012. In 2005 this was still a military site that was closed off with walls and barbed wire. Now it is a public park with a hiking path along the coast and access to two beaches that were previously closed off.
There is now a clearly marked bicycle lane leading to the Tour Royale from the city center of Toulon.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Tour Royale on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.