We rose early in Sanary-sur-Mer and left with unusual proficiency. We faced a leisurely drive along the urbanised main road through Six-Fours-les-Plages. Some stretches proved to be very tight with overhanging trees or badly parked cars. It took us all of nine built-up miles to reach our next planned stop, a free aire near to Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, on a jutting peninsula south of Toulon. On arrival we found the aire was very small, but we fortunately arrived just as one van was leaving, and they gifted us the ideal corner spot we would have chosen in an empty aire. Perfect. We had a short jaunt to take in our new temporary home, spent some time making up lunch and then walked the short way to a local terminal where we hoped to board a ferry to the regional capital of Toulon.
Several local were already seated, waiting patiently. The ferries, like buses, had a ‘next service’ display, with only 14 minutes to wait for Toulon; or so we thought. This boat failed to arrive, the timer tripped over to 32 minutes and the intermediate service simply disappeared. More people arrived, some looking curious as to why so many were waiting. Groups of fit students, likely gymnasts, competed with each other doing one-handed handstands whilst we waited. Alongside the tourists and students, elegant women dressed for lunch in designer outfits, their Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags hanging from stiff elbows, chatted loudly. Finally the ferry cruised into view. It cost €2 each for a single ticket. We sat up front enjoying the fresh breeze and welcome spray on our faces for the 25 minute trip.
Cruising through the waterways of the busy military harbour, we alighted directly into the crowded streets of central Toulon. We walked along the quayside, a long street of busy cafés and bars, noting the celebrated ‘Genie de la Navigation’ statue. We then crossed the main through road to enter the colourful market stalls. We immediately thought of Toulon as having a more north African feel; the quality of light playing on the stone walls and paved streets, the extensive markets, the people, their faces and dress. And most of all, the smells – curry plants, jasmine, honeysuckle mixed with sweat and diesel. At other times the streets reminded us of Havana or New Delhi, the colours flickering on a backdrop of tall, narrow façades, the play of light, the sun not penetrating to ground creating patches of deep shade and bright light, the flaking shutters, the cracked render. There was a real sense of a imposing, crumbling grandeur.
We followed the colours and smells of the markets as they extended through many streets. At one stall we paused to buy a few juicy nectarines and ate them as we walked, dripping sticky juice down our hands and chins. We passed many fountains and water features in varies styles and sizes, always pausing to run our hands through the cool water. We passed tiny squares, empty of people, and large open plazas busy with cafés. We circled the exuberant Toulon Opera building, the second largest in France (after Palais Garnier in Paris). Drained in the heat, we stopped to eat our lunch in Liberty Square, near the fountain, in the only small patch of shade we could find. The heat of the day was already repressive, and not conducive to exploratory city breaks. We were dreaming of the beach.
Revived a little from our lunch stop, we wandered a few more streets, looking at places of interest marked on a tourist map we had picked up. But our fortitude for city streets was waning, so we returned to the terminal and caught the next ferry back. Once back in Les Sablettes, we walked slowly through a shady park to a local beachfront. We passed by many more crowded market stalls selling crafts and paintings. Several very competent artists were displaying their works, luminous oil paintings that piqued our interest but we ultimately declined to purchase. The beach was full of supine bodies and running kids, loud music and the scent of salt and blossom filled the air. We chose not to sit, but continued our slow walk further, people watching. We ate expensive ice creams as a treat.
Back in Benny early evening, a late edition to the aire arrives and, after securing permission, double parks across another van right in front of us. This was their only chance of fitting in and made the aire look more like a storage yard, but it was an impressive piece of manoeuvring nonetheless. We enjoyed a pre-dinner stroll to another small beach area south of the aire, set beside a thick pine forest. We found it still busy with sun-worshippers and rowdy families enjoying the shade left behind by the low sun. We walked a short portion of south coast path before hunger drove us back to Benny. On our way we surprisingly found a shop open, on a Sunday night, and managed to buy some welcome snacks for later. A great day, and it confirmed the best way to arrive in any city is by water.