From 1748 to 1873 Toulon was the site of a brutal prison colony called Le Bagne Portuaire de Toulon. An exhibition on this prison colony was shown at the Naval Museum in Toulon (Musée National de la Marine) in 2012/2013.
The origin of the name Bagne is rather complicated, but it seems to have come from the Italian word bagno, which was the name of a prison in a former bath house in Livorno, Italy (sometimes called Leghorn in English or Livourne in French).
Or that original prison-bathhouse might have been in Constantinople aka Istanbul, depending on which website you read.
The prisoners, known as bagnards or forçats, wore bright red coats and were kept chained to their beds at night – their beds being slabs of wood on a boat or in a prison building – or chained together in pairs while doing forced labor during the daytime.
Second photo: The original reason for these prison camps was that strong men were needed to row the galleys. In the museum there are some models of galleys, like this one which had sixty oars. If there were five men on each oar, that would make three hundred men that were needed just to row this one ship.
Third photo: Here is another model of a galley, this one with fifty oars and with its sails unfurled. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the galleys were gradually phased out in favor of sailing ships which had more space for cargo and cannons. The old galleys were then kept in the harbor and were used as very uncomfortable sleeping quarters for the prisoners.
Fourth photo: Part of the exhibition on the bagne, showing how the prisoners were dressed, and how they slept and worked.
Fifth photo: After seeing Toulon and the bagne in 1839, Victor Hugo wrote that the prisoners had been turned into frightening creatures who evoked fear when they were in chains and horror when they were freed. “The forçat was a sort of demon created by the law.”
It took twenty-three years after his visit to Toulon before Victor Hugo finally published his monumental novel Les Misérables.
Next: Guided walking tour
Before I went to Toulon I booked a guided walking tour through the website of the Toulon tourist office. The cost at the time (October 2012) was € 8.50, which I paid online with my German credit card.
It was a two-hour tour, in French, called A la découverte de l'Histoire de Toulon (Discovering the History of Toulon). I found the tour very pleasant and informative, though perhaps not as brilliant as a similar tour that I took in Marseille two days later.
As of 2013, these tours in Toulon still cost € 8.50 and are being offered twice a month throughout the year. The tours are in French only.
The starting and ending point of the tour was the tourist office on Place Louis Blanc, at the lower end of Cours Lafayette. The tourist office is easy to find once you know that there is a Wallace Fountain right in front of it.
The Wallace Fountains were originally a gift to the city of Paris from the English billionaire Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890). These fountains, with their four lovely caryatids representing the virtues of kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety, have been a quintessential part of the Paris scene since 1872, but a few of them have unaccountably migrated to other cities and even other countries and continents around the world. A few years ago I saw one in Zürich, Switzerland, and now I was surprised to see this one in Toulon.
Second photo: Another view of the Wallace Fountain in Toulon, from a different angle. Note the fruit and flower stands in the background.
My next twelve tips are about things we saw on our guided walking tour of Toulon. You can follow them in order by clicking on the link at the bottom of each tip.
Next: Génie de la Navigation
On our guided walking tour we started by going to the harbor, which is only a short distance from the tourist office, and then walking along the quays until we came to this statue by Louis-Joseph Daumas (1801-1887). He made the statue in 1843 to honor the “great navigators” of the past and future.
It seems that the sculptor Daumas was sometimes referred to as le petit Puget (the little Puget) because he was not taken as seriously as his illustrious predecessor Pierre Puget (1620-1694).
Unofficially this statue is often called “Cuverville”, supposedly in honor of a very aristocratic admiral called Count Jules Marie Armand de Cavelier de Cuverville (1834-1912), who was the commander of the Mediterranean fleet in 1895. But “Cuverville” is also a play on words with the expression Cul-vers-ville (literally “arse-towards-city”) because the statue is facing out to sea and has its posterior turned toward the city and the Town Hall.
Admiral Cuverville died a typical twentieth century death when he was run over by a car while crossing a street in Paris in 1912.
Today “Cuverville” is also the name of a satirical magazine and website in Toulon which has been commenting caustically on local politics since 1995, when the extreme right-wing Front National won the local elections. In 2010 an article on the history and influence of “Cuverville” was published by La Fabrique de l’info, a website written by students at the Institute of Journalism in Bordeaux.
Next: The Atlantes by Pierre Puget
All you loyal readers of my Marseille page (thanks again to both of you) may recall that Pierre Puget (1620-1694) was the sculptor and architect who designed the Vieille Charité in the Panier district of Marseille.
In 1657 Puget sculpted these two allegorical figures representing strength and weakness. As atlantes, they seem to be supporting the Toulon Town Hall balcony with their heads and arms. The original Town Hall was destroyed by bombings in 1944, but the door and the two sculptures were fortunately preserved and incorporated into the new Town Hall.
Not long ago I finally learned that a male figure which is used in place of a column to hold up part of a building is called an Atlas or Atlant (stress on the second syllable), after the mythological figure Atlas, who was forced to hold up the sky on his shoulders for ever and ever. In ancient Roman architecture this sort of male figure was called a telamon.
A female figure with the same function is called a caryatid. These can be found holding up the roofs of the Wallace fountains in Paris (and the one in front of the tourist office on Place Louis Blanc in Toulon) and also supporting the dome of the Musée Guimet Library in Paris, among many other places.
Next: Clock Tower
After reaching the end of the quays on our guided walking tour, we had a look at the Clock Tower (Tour de l’Horloge or Tour Carrée).
This tower is not accessible to civilians since it is inside the naval base, but it is easy to see from the outside. We were told that it was built on piles from 1772 to 1775 and was originally used as a lookout post.
Next: Porte Monumentale de l’Arsenal
This monumental gate, only part of which I have managed to show in my photo, was originally built in 1738 as the entrance gate to the Arsenal. But in 1976 the entire huge gate was jacked up, turned ninety degrees, moved several hundred meters and installed as the entrance to the Naval Museum (Musée de la Marine).
Our guide on the walking tour showed us some photos and newspaper clippings of how this was done. It was evidently a huge, risky and very expensive engineering project.
What I didn’t know at the time was that two days later, on a similar guided walking tour in Marseille, I would hear a similar story (also illustrated with photos and clippings) about a historic building that was also jacked up, turned ninety degrees and moved to a new location.
The reason for both of these projects was to widen the streets, so as to make room for more and faster cars – which just goes to show that politicians in the twentieth century would go to any lengths and spare no expense to make their cities fit for cars and unfit for people.
If you look at the four Doric columns on the photo, you might notice that they are made of smooth marble, not of rough stone like the rest of the gate. This is because they are original Greek columns which were acquired in some way (no one seems to know how or by whom) and brought over from Greece in 1686.
Next: Église Saint-Louis
Another stop on our guided walking tour was the Church of Saint Louis, an unusual neo-classical church, with four pillars at the front, which was built over many years in the eighteenth century and finally completed in 1788.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, the church had not yet been consecrated. In 1794 it was inaugurated as a temple of the “Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being”. For a while it served as a caserne for revolutionary soldiers, but was later given back to the Catholic Church in 1803.
During the Second World War, on March 11, 1944, the church was hit by several bombs and badly damaged. After nearly a decade of reconstruction, it was finally re-consecrated in 1953.
Second photo: Here is a sign with before and after photos, showing the results of the renovation work that was carried out at the Church of Saint Louis in 2005-2006.
Next: The ship sculpture at Place Vatel
When we came to Place Vatel, where the School of Catering and Tourism is located, our guide showed us this unusual sculpture of the bow of an eighteenth century French warship between the Rue Vezzani and the Passage des Capucins.
Second photo: On the prow of the ship is bust of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, but this one is a replica. The original is on display in the Naval Museum.
Third photo: Side view of the ship sculpture.
Fourth photo: On one of the nearby streets there is a cut-out sculpture of two forçats, who must have been a common sight in Toulon during the 125 years when the big prison colony was located here. One of the two-dimensional prisoners in the sculpture is chained by a three-dimensional chain to a three-dimensional metal ball.
Next: Fresco on Rue Chevalier Paul
On our guided walking tour we went through the Rue Chevalier Paul and had a look at the large fresco that has been painted there as part of the urban renewal program of the Old Town of Toulon.
The top floor shows a workshop for making sails. Below that is a factory for making ropes – since sails and ropes were two of the most essential commodities for ships in earlier times.
A sign at the bottom of the fresco (fourth photo) identifies these scenes as being from the end of the nineteenth century, which surprised me since I thought sailing ships were already being phased out by that time, in favor of steamships. Also I was under the impression that the big rope factory in Toulon had been re-tooled by that time and was producing metal cables. (I would have placed these scenes in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.)
On the lower floors we can see the Hôtel du Port with a dozen ladies whose job it was to entertain visiting sailors and officers.
I haven’t been able to find out who painted this fresco. Does anyone know?
Next: Place Puget
On our guided walking tour through the Old Town, we came across several of these big signs entitled Requalification, meaning restoration and urban renewal.
Some of the historic buildings in the Old Town are in an advanced state of disrepair, so the intention is to save the buildings and fix them up so they can again be used for apartments, shops and neighborhood meeting places.
Next: The Opera House from Rue de Pomet
When we came to Place Puget on our walking tour, our guide told us that this was where Victor Hugo stayed when he visited Toulon in 1839. The hotel where he stayed no longer exists, but she pointed out where it used to be. The current building at that address was being renovated and was completely covered by scaffolding, so I didn’t take a picture of it.
The square had a different name when Victor Hugo was here, because it wasn’t re-named Place Puget until 1869. But the fountain was already here, since it dates from 1782. This fountain is called La Fontaine de la Halle aux grains (The Fountain of the Grain Storage Hall), also known as the Fountain of the Three Dauphins. Today the fountain is picturesque because it is almost completely overgrown by vegetation, including two trees that are growing out of its base.
Since the railway did not reach Toulon until twenty years later, Victor Hugo’s journey from Marseille to Toulon in 1839 was by stagecoach (diligence in French). Hugo did a lot of traveling by stagecoach in these years, as I have described on my Liège intro page and in one of my Liège transportation tips.
Second photo: Plaque on the base of the fountain.
Third photo: Another view of the fountain, showing its circular base that is full of water. The little red sign says that the water is not suitable for drinking.
Next: Urban renewal
On our guided walking tour we continued on through the Rue de Pomet, a peaceful, friendly little street which opens up onto Place Victor Hugo and the opera house.
It’s hard to believe, but true, that this lovely little street, along with the adjoining little streets of the Old Town, used to be a notorious hotbed of vice, iniquity, crime, debauchery and wickedness, inhabited by all manner of mean, nasty, villainous people and strictly off limits to visiting American sailors on shore leave. In fact, this was such a mean, nasty, dangerous neighborhood that it was known in former times as – Chicago!
Or, because this is France, Chicag', leaving off the -o.
Sorry Chicagoans, but that is how people over here used to picture our beautiful city. In fact they still do, if you want to know the truth.
Second photo: I took this photo looking south into Rue de Pomet, with my back to the opera house.
Next: Félix Escartefigue and César Olivier
Our guide on the walking tour showed us the opera house, which by coincidence I had already seen, and then explained the significance of the fresco on the Place Victor Hugo, at the corner of Rue Raimu.
The two men in the fresco are Félix Escartefigue, the captain of a ferry boat, and César Olivier, the owner of the bar de la Marine in the Panier district of Marseille, as seen in a film called Marius from the year 1931.
I must admit that I had never heard of any of these folks, but here in the South of France they seem to be very popular, even now. Everyone down here seems to know the film and especially the author of the play it was based on, Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974), who also wrote the screenplay. And they all know the actor Raimu (1883-1946), a native of Toulon who played the part of César Olivier in the film.
Rue Raimu was named after the actor, and there is also a statue of him nearby.
For people like me who don’t know about any of this, there is an excerpt from the film on the Marcel Pagnol website – with English subtitles, which are essential for us poor foreigners.
Second photo: The fresco at night, as seen from the opera house.
Next: Cours Lafayette
This is where Toulon’s big fruit, vegetable and flower market is held.
In 1990 a huge shopping mall, the Centre Commercial Mayol, was opened nearby, with an oversized hypermarket and parking house. At the time, many people thought that would be the death of the street market on Cours Lafayette, but as you can see from the photos it was still going strong as of October 2012. Apparently only motorists patronize the hypermarket, whereas the rest of us are numerous enough to keep the street market in business.
Fourth photo: The bell tower of the cathedral, from Place Pavé d’Amour at the upper end of Cours Lafayette.
Fifth photo: Old buildings on Cours Lafayette.
The Toulon tourist office is at the lower end of Cours Lafayette, and that is where our guided walking tour ended.
Next: Porte d’Italie
Just off of cours Lafayette is the Cathedral Saint Marie de la Seds. Originally a Romanesque 11th Century church, it was endowed with a 17th Century facelift, adding Baroque details and a massive bell. I tried to enter after the services but was politely told the Church was closed.