TOULON – ’tis far, far better from afar

Le Mayol, 462 ave République (portside terrace), Toulon 04 94 41 39 36

I’ve never quite “got on” with the town of Toulon – it’s always seemed shabby and dirty and uninviting, somehow. The only time I’ve enjoyed it was after taking the cable car to the impressive summit of Mont Faron, looking down on its sprawling coastline and naval harbour.

So, last year, when yet another November day showed promise of late autumn warmth, we decided to venture down once more, to find out, more closely, what that harbour was all about.

A quick stroll up and down the restaurant-strewn port de plaisance and it was pretty obvious that the one place that stood out ‘toque and shoulders’ above the others was Le Mayol, with its fresh white linen and seafood bar, where shellfish were being opened in full view. Apart from platters of coquillages, happy diners were tucking into individual bouillabaisses at €19.50 (a concept which is strangely innovative around here, and one which more restaurants could easily adopt, in my opinion), and menus of €26.50 and €39.50 that looked distinctly interesting.

As expected, the seafood was excellent – but there were two dishes we tried that stood out as really “vaut le détour”. Firstly a well-balanced salad starter including slices of lobster and langoustine, with tuna/caper rillettes. But the real coup de coeur was a triumphant pigeon dish containing its breast as a crisp rare salmis, its leg as a melting confit with rich foie gras poêlé, all in a superb slightly spicy pot au feu. If it’s still on the menu I urge you to try it. The desserts were light and beautifully presented.

Afterwards we decided to take the one hour boatride around the harbour and naval port, which turned out to be far more interesting than I’d imagined. The accompanying (hyper-enthusiastic) commentary – in French – is different each day, depending on which boats are docked there, and contains a surprising amount of information you’d think should be classified, militarily. Amongst a fleet of frigates and mine sweepers, our little boat snuck under the huge hull of the Générale de Gaulle aircraft carrier, then homed in on a slinky porthole-less “stealth” ship - made from some treated metal that mines can’t stick to, and a new-style humanitarian naval ship with three operating theatres and various other hospital facilities and refugee accomodation. The UN is ordering more and more boats like this, for obvious reasons.

And there were lots of fascinating history snippets about the ancient galleys and their poor old slaves (some of whom, surprisingly, were volunteers…presumably escaping from the same sort of ‘embarrassments’ as were, much later, the French Foreign Legion recruits…)

But the real glory of the trip is that you get to see Toulon from the sea – and its setting is truly spectacular. It’s the world’s third deepest natural harbour, set in an amphitheatre of craggy white mountainside, crowned with forts and radar, and climaxing at the hooked peak of the splendid Mont Faron.

So now that I know a bit more of what Toulon’s all about, I’m nearly a fan. It looks great from above, or from out at sea, but the secret is - just don’t get up too close and personal…

…Except, that is, to eat, either at at Le Mayol – or Bernard (the lovely summer creekside restaurant at the Calanque de Magaud – see my review, April 04 on the AAGP website - still as lovely as ever…)

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2005 Anglo-American Group of Provence