Var is the department of Provence Region – the Alps – Cote d’Asur, situated on the Mediterranean coast in south-eastern France. The department includes 3 districts (Brignoles, Draguignan and Toulon) and 23 cantons. Its population is slightly over 1.0 mln people.
The department was formed in 1790 on the territory of a former Roman province of Provance.The name of the department originates from the name of the river Var (translates from the Ligurian language as ‘stream’), which has its outflow high in the mountains (1800 m) and finally flows into the Mediterranean. The river is 114 km long. As the result of the administrative reform of 1860, a part of the territory where the river Var (which gave the name to the department) flew, was passed to a newly-formed department Maritime Alps. Ironically, the river Var found itself outside the department of Var.
Toulon is the administrative centre of the department of Var, situated 50 km from Marseille. Its population is 165 th. people.
The city was founded by the Phoenicians and later was passed to the Roman Empire. Under the Merovingian dynasty Toulon housed the bishops’ residence. One of them was Saint Honoratus.
Within two centuries the city suffered through several hard periods of sieges and devastations, caused by the invasion of Saracen hordes into these lands. However, the city healed its wounds each time, and became still stronger and more beautiful. The last invasion took place in 1211.
Later, after Provence joined France in 1486, the grandiose construction of a sea-port began in the territory of Toulon. This resulted in military conflicts with the Genoese, who feared the loss of sea-trade monopoly in the region. The construction of the port was stopped, to be renewed only in 1514, under Louis XII, who considered the city to be a base area for battle actions against the Italians. The ancient Royal Tower (early 16th century) is the monument to Toulon’s outstanding role in the events of that time. Now the Tower houses the Naval Museum.
The construction of the port in Toulon was resumed in 1599 with doubled efforts by Henry the Great (the founder of the Bourbon dynasty), and later, under Louis XII, - by Cardinal Richelieu who understood very well the strategic importance of Toulon for France’s dominance in the Mediterranean region.
Toulon of the period was one of the best defended cities in France. The especially important role in the construction of fortifications here belonged to the world-famous military engineer, Marshal of France, marquis de Vauban. Owing to strong defense, provided by his engineering decisions, in 1707 the city managed to adequately withstand the siege of the Romans with Prince Eugène de Savoie at the head.
In 1793, after the French Revolution, Toulon suffered the attack of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops. As the result, the royalists’ uprising was suppressed, and the English fleet which supported the rebels, was obliged to leave.
The remains of the fortifications of the 17-18th centuries and a war memorial, devoted to the grounding of allied forces in the south coast of France during the ‘Dragoon’ operation, can be observed after climbing the mountain of Faron. Besides, from there one can enjoy a beautiful panorama of the city and the port. It is also interesting to have a trip by a cable-railway which joins the mountain with the lower part of the city.
It was from Toulon, that all expeditions of the French Navy started in XIX, which were aimed at further colonial expansion. Thus, in 1930 Algeria was captured, which hitherto belonged to the Ottoman empire.
Another important figure who greatly facilitated the development of Toulon, was baron Osman (a German by origin, with the family name of Haussmann), who is known for the fact that he laid the foundations to contemporary look of Paris, which is loved by everyone: instead of narrow small streets with crowds of old houses there appeared beautiful and spacious streets and avenues, where the city’s monuments looked to their advantage. Before moving to Paris, Osman directed all his turbulent energy to city-planning transformations in Toulon. As the result, the city obtained a magnificent Opera house (1862), well-equipped parks, beautiful streets and boulevards.
World War II affected the city greatly. Its greater part was ruined. However, with luck Toulon’s old blocks with their narrow streets, squares and fountains remained intact, and now they are real open-air museums of ancient architecture. The magnificent Toulon cathedral church Sainte-Marie-de-la-Seds de Toulon strikes the eye first, its construction was begun in the 11th century in Roman style and completed under Louis XIV in Gothic style.
November, 1942 was a tragic date in the history of the French Navy: when the fascists tried to capture the French fleet, patriots sent to the bottom of Toulon harbor over 70 French vessels and blew up the arsenal of weapons.
Up to the present days the port of Toulon maintains the status of the biggest military base for the French military deployment.
Another Toulon’s specialty is its numerous fountains (18 all in all!), the most famous of them being ‘Three Dolphins’, ‘Liberation’ and ‘Tambourine’ (to honour a folk instrument). The fountains are the real ornament of the city and the source of delicious coolness on hot summer days.
Brignoles. The first documentary record about the town dates back to the 6th century. Initially a fortress, in the Middle Ages it was the area of developed gardening, especially of growing of Brignoles plums, which were rightfully known as the best in France. During the religious wars which shook France in late 16th century, plum-trees fell their victims, having been mercilessly cut down by the enemies, and the art of cultivating them was forgotten for many years to come.
The 18-19th centuries Brignoles witnessed active development of industries, the most successful being the production of leather and brick, and also silk-spinning, marble works and the production of bauxites. The trade was also lively: of wines, olive oil, local oranges and plums – a special local pride.
Beside these places, in Provence and namely in the department of Var, there are many other places worth of tourists’ attention. These are mostly small towns and settlements, which have the look of their own and interesting history. Let’s mention some of them.
Hyeres is a town in French Riviera, situated to the east of Toulon. It was founded by ancient Greeks. It was here that the French king Louis IX (canonized by Catholic church) and his troops landed after a crusade. Today Hyeres is a fashionable resort, which attracts visitors with its picturesque nature and especially mild climate. It is explained by the natural protection of the town’s territory, owing to hefty mountain chains around, from the disastrous Mistral wind; the latter being the master in the lands of Provence, often bringing evil and discomfort for people.
The surprisingly beautiful nature of Hyeres and the azure colour of the sea-water in these places promoted the imprinting of the region’s name - Cote d’Azur. Since the 19th century Hyeres has been the favourite place of leisure for French, as well as British kings and aristocrats. It is well known that Queen Victoria with her husband Prince Albert had rest here more than once. Besides, the classic of Scottish literature, author of the famous novel ‘Treasure Island’ Stevenson had lived and worked here for some time.
Next to the town there are picturesque Islands of Hyeres.
Salernes is a town in the district of Draguignan, sitting cozily in a valley surrounded by hills. The first people appeared here as early as in far-away Palaelithic times (over 30 thousand years ago), as archeological findings say.
Since ancient times the population knew much about making oil, wines, hats, and also growing various crops – figs, wheat, beans, peaches. Since the 18th century the town has become one of the leading producers of semi-porcelain, and later of ceramics, including unique Romanesque red hexagonal floor tiles, and also of various clayware.
Saint-Tropez. The history of the town began in II century B.C., and it is named after Saint-Tropez (Trophemus) – one of the first Christians, who in Neron times paid their price for the faith. According to the legend, executors cut his head, and his body, together with a cock and a dog, was thrown into a boat which was later found by fishermen near today’s Saint-Tropez.
Since the 20-ies of the last century, well-known artists began visiting the town, and the fashion queen Coco Chanel paid a visit. In the years of World War II Toulon became the epicenter of the operation on the grounding of anti-Hitler coalition troops into the southern coast of France.
A common fishermen settlement, Saint-Tropez received a second breath when in 1950-ies a number of well-known French films were shot here, with popular actors in the main parts, such as Brigitte Bardot (“And God created a woman”), Louis de Funès (comedies about a gendarme from Saint-Tropez), Alain Delon and Romie Schneider (“Swimming pool”). The well-known film “The umbrella prick” was also made here.
The main occupation in Saint-Tropez is leisure on a beach. But there is the possibility for a cultural programme – a visit to the Museum of Modern Art and Cinema and to the 16th century fortress.
Bandol (Toulon district) is a resort town with its traditions. Here essay-writer Tomas Mann, writer Aldous Huxley (who wrote the outstanding novel “Brave new world” in 1932), French actor Fernandel had their holidays. Their then-presence contributes to the charm of the town, and to the feeling of a festival and eternity. Bandol is wonderful sand beaches, splendid harbours, pine-covered mountain slopes. It is a horde of yachts and fishermen boats, fragrant air laden with the scents of pines and the sea, clear azure water with rich sea-life, - the dream of any diver. And also wines: red, white, pink, - all of them are wonderful and rich, each having a distinctive colour of its own. There is no wonder about it: Bandol is the capital of Provence wines!
Opportunity permitting be sure to visit a Cartesian monastery Chartreuse de la Verne (1170), built among the mountains in the territory of the town of Collobrières.
It would be interesting for tourists to visit the Thoronet Abbey, one of three Bernardine abbeys in Provence, known as ‘Three Provence Sisters’. The abbey is situated between the towns of Draguignan and Brignoles and is the historical monument of the 12th century. The monastery was in action here up to 1785.In fact, Bernardine monks lived like hermits, their churches were known for asceticism and absence of luxury and ornaments. One of the first abbots of Thoronet was Folquet of Marseille, who had been a famous French troubadour with active society life before he became a monk; later he became the bishop of Toulouse and a cruel inquisitor.
The town of Fréjus is charming too; it’s an ancient town at the very foot of the mountains on the sea-coast. There are many historical monuments there, from the Roman epoch to the Middle Ages. As early as in the 1stcentury B.C. an amphitheater for 12 thousand spectators was built there, to entertain the Roman soldiers. Real gladiator fights were held there. Its ruins remain till today.
The Azure Coast continues to attract the people of art. Some of them do not mind buying real property here. Thus, in 2008 Hollywood actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought the castle of Miraval in the settlement of Correns (department of Var). The couples showed the unexpected interest for wine-making and directly take part in the production of new brands in the territory of their estate.
While travelling in the department of Var, one feels the charm and colour of this nook of Provence at his every turn. One is struck by the variety of its landscape and the stylish architecture of local cities and towns, by the charm of small mountain settlements, castles and fortresses, by its original culture, traditions and region holidays, by vineyards and gardens, by surprisingly blue water, by incredible air, laden with the scents of flowers, sea, spices, perfumes and delicious Provence dishes. And also – by the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the local people, who welcome you and are ready to give you high-rank service. And to be short – the local life is full of the feeling of pleasant regularity and harmony, of esthetic pleasure from the beauty around.
Tourism of the district of Var suggests many opportunities for rest and entertainment. These are excursions along mountain trails, cycling, horse-riding along Verdon Gorge, visits to museums and churches, beach leisure, diving and many other things.
To enjoy all this and see this with your own eyes you should only buy a plane ticket. Several hours of flight – and Provence meets you!!!
Dreams come true!