Making a home from home

There’s nothing quite like making a foreign city a home, if only for a few days. The discovery of the best patisserie in town, entirely absent of other tourists and staffed by men and women only speaking the local tongue, for instance. I take special pleasure in being able to direct other tourists to their desired destination, or knowing where the only working ATM in town might be: something I found particularly pleasurable (and useful) in Libreville, a city where money seems to evaporate into the humid air.

I spent a week of late summer sun in Toulon, on France’s Mediterranean Sea coast. In ever popular Provence, wedged between Marseille to the west and the posh-spots of Nice, St Tropez, and Antibes to the east, it receives the daily rushed visits from berthing cruise ship passengers. No one seems to linger there for very long.

In truth, there’s very little to ‘see’. The art galleries, when open, are small; the maritime museum a miniature version of that in Greenwich. The ‘little’ harbour – the harbour complex stretching over a vast area – is stunning. Home of the French navy and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the vertical lines of bobbing yacht masts are only broken by the cruise ships, Corsica-bound ferries, and blue-grey of naval shipping. The harbour front is an interesting clash of tourist-orientated restaurants and local café-bars.

Just a step back from the harbour front, to one side of the Provencal market on Cours Lafayette (supposedly one of the more traditional in the region) is a warren of old streets that have survived the assaults naval towns are bound to endure, including heavy bombing by both allied and axis powers during the Second World War. It means some say the town is unattractive – which is an outright lie. Others have described it as unsafe – I’m yet to see why. It is a working town, the military remains the largest employer in town, and with the time to investigate a little more thoroughly, Toulon’s charm unravels around you like the petals of the salt crystals grown just down the coast.

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