If St. Tropez, Cannes and Nice are your idea of the Cote d'Azur, Toulon might come as a surprise. Depending on your tastes, it'll either be a very pleasant discovery, or a bit of a shock. Toulon is devoid of glitz and glamour; more akin to its huge neighbor to the west, Marseille, than the showy towns further east along the coast.
Toulon is a naval town first and foremost, home to around 60 percent of France's fleet (the rest being in Brittany) and wears that association with pride. The naval military complex encompasses a vast part of town, a city within a city really, stretching some eight miles west along the harborfront. You can visit the grounds on a guided tour aboard the city's 'petit train' or take a boat around the harbor where a guide will point out all the naval hardware.
Toulon's other big claim to fame is rugby; in fact the first thing you'll spot as your ship docks is the Mayol rugby stadium, home to RC Toulonnais, or Toulon for short. The rugby team is a major player and has won Europe's top-club rugby union competition, the Heineken Cup, a record three times.
There is also a large fishing fleet, which you can spot from where your ship is moored, and seafood appears on most of the restaurant menus, especially those along the harborfront.
Toulon was first put on the map in Roman times when the area's tiny sea snails (known locally as murex) were used to extract a purple dye to color imperial robes.
Today, Toulon is a bustling, vibrant, multicultural town, with a large population hailing from the former colonies. Although you might well be tempted to take a tour into Provence, it's well worth spending a day here, walking the streets, stopping for a cafe au lait in one of the many squares and stocking up on lovely local produce such as pate, sausage and wonderful perfumed soap, before getting back onboard.
Cruise ships dock at the Quai Fournel, just a short walk to the center.
Toulon is a busy city, and people should look out for traffic on the congested roads. A lot of the older parts of the city have pedestrianized zones, allowing visitors to explore in safety, but some of the thoroughfares around the port can get quite jammed.
The euro. Most cruise ships will have an onboard bureau de change but there are plenty of banks in the city center; the nearest ATMs are in Place Louis Blanc, the large square which marks the start of the open-air market and home to the town's tourist office, a few minutes' stroll from where you're docked. Most shops and restaurants accept credit cards, though not American Express.
French, although many people -- especially in the city's museums, restaurants and shops -- will speak English, but this should not be relied upon. It's worth learning a few French words and phrases to make your stay more enjoyable.
Provencal soaps and perfumes are a favorite memento in this part of France. These can be found in the cruise terminal itself, or at the stalls lining the street market on the Cours Lafayette, a few minutes' walk from the port, as well as in some of the shops along the Cours and in the adjacent streets. Provencal produce is prized in French cuisine, and you'll find plenty of stalls selling local delicacies such as pate and cured meats, as well as olive oil and local cheeses (check with your line whether you can take these onboard!). You'll also find servers and bowls made out of olive wood, and even chocolate made with olive oil.
The drink of choice on the Cote d'Azur is pastis, an anise-flavored spirit often sipped as an aperitif. Similar to the Greek ouzo and the Turkish raki, it's usually served with a glass of water and turns cloudy when mixed together. Knock one back in one of the alfresco cafes opposite the opera house on Place Victor-Hugo where you'll find a piece of street art depicting two local characters drinking pastis.