"… la chose enivrante: la liberté ! la liberté !" Top 5 Page for this destination Toulon by Nemorino
Toulon Travel Guide: 83 reviews and 334 photos
Whatever else you may have heard about Toulon, you should be aware that it has a gorgeous nineteenth century opera house – one of the largest opera houses in France outside of Paris.
The Toulon Opera aka Théâtre Municipal was inaugurated in 1862. Not long ago it was beautifully renovated, just in time for its 150th anniversary in 2012.
The opera I saw there in October 2012 was Carmen by Georges Bizet, with its rousing chorus in praise of “that intoxicating thing: Liberty ! Liberty !” – the same opera I had seen just two days before in a different production in the nearby city of Marseille.
Toulon’s newest theater, the Théâtre Liberté, was opened in 2011. The play I saw there was about a Jewish family uprooted by the War of Algeria. It was called Dis-leur que la vérité est belle, which means Tell them that the Truth is beautiful.
The harbor of Toulon is “the most beautiful and the most excellent of the Mediterranean Sea”, according to Vauban in 1679. “It is the principal port of the kingdom and the place where the king ordinarily keeps the largest part of his naval forces.”
Navies, in those days, needed huge numbers of strong men to row the galleys and later to do all sorts of hard physical labor. Toulon was notorious in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the site of the bagne, a brutal prison colony where over four thousand inmates, called bagnards or forçats, were kept chained together for many years of hard work.
In October 1839 the French author Victor Hugo visited Toulon to observe the bagne, because he wanted to describe it in a novel he was planning to write. The novel was Les Misérables, which grew to be eighteen hundred pages long and was an immediate popular success when it was finally published twenty-three years later.
The protagonist, Jean Valjean, spent a total of nineteen years at hard labor in the bagne of Toulon as a forçat, and for the rest of his life was in danger of being recaptured and sent back to the prison.
In the late twentieth century Toulon was notorious for other reasons. Much of the city had to be re-built after the destruction of the Second World War, but the rebuilding effort was hampered by corruption and incompetence. It was an open secret that public building projects in Toulon cost 20 % more than in other parts of France, due in part to the bribes that had to be paid.
Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the city government, Toulon was one of four French cities where the extreme right-wing Front National won the local elections in 1995. But the right-wingers turned out to be at least as corrupt and incompetent as their predecessors, so they were voted out of office in the next city election in 2001.
And now? Is Toulon getting itself turned around?
Unlike the Marseille Opera, which faces north and thus is nearly always in the shade, the Toulon Opera aka Théâtre... more travel advice
If you don’t mind getting a stiff neck, have a good look at the ceiling of the Toulon opera house. The painting up there... more travel advice
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