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Sunday, June 3, 2012, in Toulon, France

Hi all. We’ve moved a little bit eastward along the French coast, to Toulon, a large port city. Last week, we were in Bandol.

We settled into life in Bandol, the languid pace of the French coast. Eschewing opportunities to visit nearby islands by boat, we walked around the town, stretched out our lunchtimes, and stopped most days for a coffee and pain chocolat. We’d watch the lady in the plaza making paella in a gigantic pan, and portioning it into containers for take-out. You sit at a café long enough; minutia starts to interest you to an unhealthy degree. Our café visits got to the point that the waiter began to greet us with “deux caf��s, et un pain chocolat ou deux?” (���Two coffees, with one chocolate croissant or two?”) Sometimes one of us was strong, but too often there were two coffees and two pastries. We knew which restaurants gave you coffee with your formule lunch and which ones provided tapenade before the meal and wondered what a fourteen euro plate called aioli (a garlicky mayonnaise) could possibly contain. Only in France can Art eat olives. Only in France can I eat mayonnaise. We don’t know why.

Most of our visit covered the holiday weekend. The harborside was always simmering with activity, from the pointu boats in a row on Friday to the weekend exhibition of automobiles for sale, to the regular Tuesday market of foods, clothing, and household goods. On Sunday night, a karaoke device was set up in the plane-tree-lined plaza in front of the church, and a man sang along with it and played instrumental music from 1950s America, Spain, and of course France. Couples on the square danced to all of it: cha-cha, waltzes, and improvisation when the beat didn’t suggest something obvious to do.

During our stay, we exchanged pleasantries with the tour boat operator on our port side, although I was never sure that I understood the conversations we were having. One day, we gave him a gift of an extension cord that we’d bought before we noticed the odd French plug that doesn’t match our Swedish outlets without an adapter. He immediately promised (and followed through) to give us a bottle of Bandol wine from their AOC vineyards.

We thought we’d be in Bandol for a long visit, so we were lax in checking off the various tourist visits they have on offer from the invisible but perennial checklist. Most of them involve boat trips around the harbor, which don’t have the same magic for us as they do for those more usually ashore than we are. But the boat that contracted for the space we were using came back from wherever it had been, and it wanted its house back. The marina told us we had to leave in the morning. Our planned voyage wouldn’t take long; Toulon was only about ten miles away.

The day was sunny and warm enough for shorts, even for me and even in the morning. We left the dock, and Art switched to a spare autopilot that he’d installed and wanted to test at sea. It had worked fine at the dock. Five minutes after we were out of the harbor, the autopilot decided that north was south, and all of the readings were 180 degrees wrong. This isn’t good when you’re heading east, and the autopilot decides to turn west. The boat was plotted backwards on the chart plotter. The plotter knew where we were; it’s just that the icon of our boat appeared to be traveling backwards. So the boat was perfect for about forty miles. That’s almost a record.

Both of us were looking over possible solutions, Art from the user manual of the autopilot and me from the Internet on my BlackBerry, and we tried three solutions until we stumbled on an idea that worked. After calibrating the device as suggested, and continuing to show us going exactly backwards along our course, he finally simply said to it, “Hey, you’re off a couple of degrees.” And then he fine-tuned it a hemisphere away.

Around a large corner of mountain was the sweeping bay that surrounds Toulon. Two rocks, each shaped like a Hershey’s kiss, rose out of the water. The chart called them “Rocks of Two Brothers”. Myself, I thought it looked more like “Rock of One Sister lying on the ground”. An aircraft carrier was in the harbor as we entered the large Toulon maritime area. Toulon hosts the French navy, and boats in uniform were all around us. The marina at Darse Vieille was expecting us, and we were greeted enthusiastically and helped capably with our lines.

It was a little soon for us to camp out in a big city, but we had errands that needed to be erred. Even though it has more sunshine than any other city in France, Toulon doesn’t get a lot of attention in tourist guidebooks. The base for France’s navy, it’s a departure point for several large ferries headed to quieter retreats – nearby Ile d’Hyères or farther-away Corsica and Sardinia, for example. Its strategic importance during World War II meant that it must have looked a lot like Berlin in 1945, a flat, bombed-out mess. The rapid rebuilding during the post-war boom populated the waterfront with concrete-block apartments in a somewhat upscale and modern design that look as though Rob and Laura Petrie live there.

The small port Darse Vieille, or Old Dock, was built between 1604-1610 after the 1599 naval arsenal and shipyard. The marina was in a very secure location – secure from the wind deep inside the harbor, and secure from the town, although not too far from waterfront restaurants and the old town. One block inland from the port is a large stadium, and there’s a fine indoor mall with a grand-scale Carrefour market. The promenade on the walking street leading up from the harbor hosts a six-day-per-week produce market which seems to stretch to the next city.

At the other end are squares boasting appealing medieval and 19th-century structures, such as the 1862 opera house. This is the second-largest opera house in the country, after the one in Paris, so it’s apparently the largest opera in France that isn’t haunted by a phantom.

As you wander through the old town, shaded squares abound, and restaurants with chalkboard menus advertise their offers. We chose one with an appealing multi-course lunch, and sat inside as all the outdoor tables were taken when we arrived. We were the only ones inside, where few tables were sprinkled about the small room. Then another pair of diners arrived, and a table for two disappeared from the dining room, to be placed in the square outdoors. We then realized that we could ask for a furniture move for our table as well, and were placed at the outermost possible spot. By the time we were seated, there were only three tables for two left indoors. There wasn’t anywhere else to put anyone, we thought. But before we had our first bite, the rest of the furniture made its way outdoors.

Art was happy, as we were able to cross some chores off of the list, including one that we’d expected to delay until season’s end. This was the broken spare GPS mounted on the radar pole, which was a casualty of the misadventures we had crushing wires when we tried to take the pole down in Port Napoleon. The fixed concrete pier was high enough that the Raymarine technician was able to reach the GPS from the top rung of a normal ladder. This saved us a summer without a decent GPS spare and the price of another radar pole adventure in the fall. We also received assurances, from Raymarine technical support, for our autopilot solution, that simply reorienting its calibration manually was the right way to fix it. The countdown on the anchor windlass broke during our one anchoring experience of the season. Art found the faulty magnetic sensor and replaced it. And the salinity probe in the watermaker broke and Art fixed that. Now the boat really was perfect, again, for a moment. Then he found evidence of a problem in our cockpit hard dodger.

After a few days in town, we realized that we’d been enjoying ourselves so much just living in Toulon that we hadn’t done any of the tourist activities. The number-one recommendation from most sources was to take a funicular from sea level (my zone of comfort) up the mountain Mont-Faron. Sorry, hanging from a wire over a mountain slope is not my idea of recreation anymore. The temptation upon your arrival at the top includes a museum that documents the Allied landings that liberated the port in August 1944, just months after the success of the Normandy invasion. Still not enough, though.

Closer to sea level, the Marine Museum found its way onto our itinerary. This museum is housed in the original land entrance to the port. It’s filled with paintings that document the naval history of Toulon, with a timeline that covers life at sea from the time of the Romans. An audio guide steps you through the exhibits. For us, the highlights included the many detailed ship’s models and the actual figureheads and scrollwork recovered from old wooden sailing ships.

Summer travels usually mean that we don’t see many movies. For one thing, we’re not always in places large enough to support a movie theater. For another, we’re in countries where most movies are dubbed into the local language. Luckily for us, the English-language movies we like generally aren’t the blockbusters and can sometimes be found in the “original version”, with subtitles. We typically wouldn’t see summer blockbuster action movies anyway, even at home. So in places where there are lots of theaters, we can often find something to watch. On Saturday, we went to the Pathé (you see that brand name on movies all the time) theater complex and saw “Sur La Route” (On the Road), the famous Jack Kerouac novel. The ticket-taker in the Cineplex also told me about an art-house around the corner that runs all of its movies in the original language.

Seeing a movie (or even the Simpsons on TV) overseas makes you very aware of small bits of foreign conversations blended into the story. The years we were in Scandinavia, where they sometimes don’t even bother with subtitles on English-language cinema, I was still reluctant to see “Julie and Julia”, knowing that at some point Julia Child would be in France and I’d have no idea what people were talking about. Swedish subtitles wouldn’t help much. I made Art scramble around in England during our three-day visit to see it in a theater on more friendly language turf. The following year, Midnight in Paris came and went in the summer theaters while we were in Spain, and we finally caught it on the plane as we headed home months later. In “On the Road”, the lead character’s aunt, shown in only a few scenes, spoke only French, which of course had no subtitles at all. You take your chances.

The weather is still very perfect here – crisp in the mornings and evenings, and sunny all day. We’ll be stuck in a mistral in the next day or two, and hot summer is coming, so we’re enjoying what we have now; Hope that you are getting outdoors, too.

Love, Karen (and Art)