Mont Faron, a limestone peak 584 metres high, overlooks the city of Toulon (the 15th largest city in France, situated between Marseille and Nice) and its major naval port from the north. From the city, a cable car provides access to the flattish Faron summit which houses a memorial to the 1944 Allied landings in Provence (Operation Dragoon Anvil) and a zoo specialising in breeding big cats.
To reach Mont Faron, head north from Toulon on the D46 and follow signs to Les Moulins. At the traffic lights, turn right onto avenue des Moulins and then left onto chemin du Fort Rouge. The road climbs and twists through the upper suburbs. At the T-junction, take the left-hand turn sign-posted Mont Faron 5km and continue along the chemin de la Baume, a one-way road to the summit. The vertiginous views stretch back down to the naval dockyards and you’ll see that the scree is criss-crossed by steep mountain-bike trails – not for the faint-hearted.
About the climb
To give you a better idea of the ascent, here’s last year’s stage of the last day of the Tour Mediterreaneen, won by Cofidis’s David Moncoutie, who overtook AG2R’s Jean-Christophe Peraud in the final few hundred metres. It was Moncoutie’s third win atop Mont Faron. Sadly yesterday’s final stage of this year’s race was shortened due to bad weather, concluding instead atop Col de Gardes.
While the summit has hosted regular stage finishes in Paris-Nice and the Tour Mediterranean, it’s only been used once in the Tour de France. In 1957, Jean Stablinski won the stage from Cannes to Marseille – which took in the summit – by a massive 12-minute margin.
There used to also be an individual time-trial and a road race held each year on Mont Faron. The former was run from 1920-70 and the latter 1920-66. Among their many winners are such luminaries as Jacques Anquetil, Federico Bahamontes and Lucien Aimar.
I walked up Mont Faron last year to view the final day’s stage of the Tour Mediterraneen. I would have liked to have ridden up it but the narrow, twisting road was already closed by the time I arrived. It starts easily enough but the second kilometre has an average gradient of 11.4% and a couple of stretches at 16%. The remainder of the 5.5km climb is a constant 8-9%. The view from the summit affords the most magnificent view over Toulon, extending across the Mediterranean from the islands of Hyeres to the Bec d’Aigle de La Ciotat. It more than compensates for the effort involved in ascending it.
Toulon’s establishment as a town owes a lot to the position of Mont Faron, for three main reasons. Firstly it protects the centre of the town from the Mistral, a strong wind which blows in the southeast of France. It also provides several water sources which gush from its south face. This is unusual in the very dry area of Provence. And finally it allows one to view boats arriving from very far away, especially enemy boats. The name Faron comes from the Greek ‘pharos’ (lighthouse).
The first recorded Toulonnaise immigrants were the Greeks in the 7th century BC, followed by the Celto-Ligurians in the 4th century BC and finally, in the 2nd century BC, the Romans [they got everywhere didn’t they? – Ed]. They called the small settlement Telo Martius: Telo, either for the goddess of springs or from the Latin ‘tol’ (the base of the hill), and Martius, for the god of war. Telo Martius became known for producing the red dye used in imperial robes. It was made from murex, a sea mollusc abundant on the rocks around Toulon.
The settlement changed its name over the centuries from Telo to Tholon or Tolon in the Provencal language, and Toulon in French. It was frequently invaded by pirates, barbarians and finally the Saracens.
The conversion of Toulon to a naval port did not occur until more recent times. In 1487 Toulon passed into French hands under King Louis XI and became an important base by virtue of its strategic position as the largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean. In 1494 Charles VIII established the first military shipyard and from then on Toulon became France’s main naval port in the Mediterranean. In the 17th century, under Louis XIV and his Minister Colbert, naval fortifications were significantly expanded. In 1793, during the French Revolution, Toulon was handed (briefly) to the British fleet by its Royalist inhabitants but it was soon expelled by a French force led by a certain Napoleon Bonaparte.
From 1803 to 1805 Toulon was blockaded by the British fleet under Admiral Nelson. In the 19th century, French troops left from Toulon to go into battle in the Crimea, Italy, Mexico, Indo-China, Madagascar and Africa. Until 1939 the naval fleet constituted the only real employer in the town.
When the German Army occupied southern France in November 1942, the French scuttled their fleet in Toulon. One year later the Allied bombings destroyed most of the port with a great loss of life. Finally, in August 1944 Toulon was liberated by the Allied Forces. And in 1974 it became (after a lapse of 181 years) a prefecture again and capital of the department of Var.