16 March 2010

Don’t Wait Toulon

The port of Toulon

“Toulon is coming back,” the concierge at my hotel informed me gravely. The town, she said, has suffered multiple economic reversals, the worst of which was World War II. Twenty months of German occupation and no fewer than eight aerial bombardments destroyed some 1,144 buildings and did nothing to boost the local economy.

Capital of the department of the Var, Toulon is blessed with a natural harbor, sheltering the city’s ports and proposing easy access to the rest of the Mediterranean. Yet that alone has not always sufficed to provide for the general welfare: the Toulonnais have always had to work overtime to persuade folks not to do business in Marseille or Nice instead. I learned to my surprise that, after a few bustling centuries under the Romans, Toulon left no traces at all from the 6th to 9th centuries.

Did the people go elsewhere, then return? I doubt it — simply because they have rejected other opportunities to do the same thing, again and again, up to our own time. The Provençal character is marked by a peculiar toughness that is nowhere more evident than in Toulon. If they weren’t tough, they’d go somewhere more exciting. And yet they stay.

The Opéra: I came to Toulon
for the French premiere of Weill’s Street Scene.
Eventually, you’ll be able to read my reviews
in Opera News and the Weill Newsletter.

The port is still quite beautiful — from the little that one can see of it. The best views are blocked by the entities that sustain the port: Corsica Ferries and the French navy, which maintains a base there. Getting around them requires a lot of legwork, but it’s worthwhile, not least because the postwar architecture of the old port is box-like and ugly. Daunted by the naval base (if you ever want to feel conspicuous — and suspect — try hanging around a foreign military installation), I swung up to La Mitre, the peninsula to the east of the port, guarded by the Tour Royale.

Built by Louis XII to defend the port in the 16th century, the Tour was promptly seized by forces of the Holy Roman Empire, calling into question its efficacy. In time, the Toulonnais came to rely on other defenses — which didn’t stop the Allies from bombing the Tour.

The Tour Royale

Beyond the Tour lie the beaches of Le Mourillon, which look pleasant. But I was tired, and it’s not exactly bathing weather. I’ll go some other time.

Which will be necessary, because I have yet to sample Toulon’s culinary specialty: bouillabaisse. The Marseillais will tell you, of course, that it’s their specialty, but the Toulonnais stick to their claim. Bouillabaisse isn’t cheap anywhere, but in Toulon it’s outrageously expensive, prices ranging from 30 to 45 Euros, and most restaurants require advance notice to prepare it.

I was tempted by l’Atelier des Saveurs (The Flavor Workshop), a bouillabaisse-free restaurant in an obscure side street. Judging by the menu*, the chef is indeed working with some unexpected and potentially pleasing flavors. But the place has few tables, and it was packed at lunchtime on Saturday, my only opportunity to eat there.

The “Genius” of the port, as he appeared at the end of World War II

By happy accident, I wound up at La Feuille de Chou (The Cabbage Leaf), on the tranquil Place Baboulène. On the veranda shaded by olive trees, I thoroughly enjoyed the medallions of monkfish with bacon (oven-roasted until tender inside, lightly crispy outside, and almost sweet), and its accompaniment, a caponattina that is a sort of timbale of Provençal treasures (diced eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, black olives, yellow raisins). There were no starters on the menu, but my main course arrived with a side salad of lettuce and tomato. For dessert, I indulged in the Corsican brocciu (a kind of sheep’s milk ricotta) drizzled with honey. The honey was too bland to contribute much, but a garnish of red currants proved to be a great idea, the acid of the fruit playing off the richness of the cheese.

To drink, I ordered a pitcher of rosé — well aware that I risked something thin and bitter, as so much inexpensive rosé tends to be, even in Provence. The Côtes de Provence 2008 (Charme des Demoiselles) was more apricot- than rose-colored, yet smooth, almost buttery, and wholly satisfactory. All in all, since I had only one real meal in Toulon, I’m glad I wound up here. (Though I’m sorry I forgot to ask where the owners came up with that name.) As further proof of my luck — they’re open only for lunch!

Toulon’s favorite son, the actor Raimu.
The city boasts no fewer than three public statues (this full-length, a bust, and a group piece), a big-ass mural, a street and a square dedicated to Raimu. By the rest of us, he’s best-remembered for portraying César in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy.

I had far worse luck with the town’s museums. After planning my day around an afternoon visit to the Musée de l’Art, I found it closed. Apparently the Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle took a break after concluding an exhibition on Darwin last February, and the directors of the art museum, in the same building, followed suit. But the only way to know this was to wait for the building to open, then to wander up and downstairs until one finally found the entrance to the art museum, only to read the piece of paper taped to the door. “Thank you for your understanding,” the sign read — but I don’t understand why nobody thought to post a notice where people might have seen it before wasting their time.

I made a brief stop at the Hôtel de l’Art, an exhibition space currently presenting the work of the vaguely talented Jan Voss, whose penchant for the title “Untitled” inspired little confidence in this viewer. He’s inspired by comic books, according to the guide, and yes, you can see series of panels in most of his work. After that, it’s just scribble-scrabbling in bright colors. (Note to self: Start to sell your doodles for lots of money.) The local historical society runs the small but informative — and rather sweet — Musée du Vieux Toulon, with very few artifacts, just off the Cours Lafayette, a long street that serves as an open-air market with hundreds of vendors.

Just north of the old town lies the Place de la Liberté,
centerpiece of Baron Haussmann’s urban planning.
He later moved north to overhaul Paris.

Having exhausted my museum-going possibilities in the lapse of about one hour, I found myself with a great deal of time to kill in a town that boasts few noteworthy attractions. I stopped by the Maison de la Photographie for an exhibition of nudes by a local photographer — notable mostly for the corroboration that at least eight women in the area have superb physiques, and that the photographer considers a picture of a cloud (nuage) close enough to a picture of a naked woman (nue). That blew another five minutes.

Eventually, I wound up on the waterfront again, sipping a pastis in the setting sun. This is a highly agreeable pastime, and it’s what one ought to do in Provence, even when you’re in a town that boasts a broader array of attractions. And yet I understand that, for the Toulonnais, it’s enough just to be here.

The “Genius” today

*NOTE: The Atelier’s main courses and desserts don’t appear terribly unusual, but the starters are really intriguing: “Blanc manger ciboulette au coeur de foie gras, sauté de lardons et champignons; Tartare de saumon mi-cuit, écrasée de pomme de terre, dans son maccalong; Marbré de chèvre crémeux et petits légumes, chips de jambon cru.”


Illistara said...

Hi, I'm Cécile, waitress at La Feuille de Chou. Well Bill thank you so very much for your nice words towards our little restaurant, come back soon to taste other specialities.
As you forgot to ask, well, La Feuille de Chou was correctly translated by The leaf of a Cabbage, but it's also (and in our case) a french saying to designate the first page of a newspaper where you can read the titles. That name was chosen by the former owner who was addicted to "first pages"; many of them were nailed onto the walls everywhere in the restaurant. voilà! Bye bye!

William V. Madison said...

Merci pour le commentaire -- et pour tout! A la prochaine --