Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day two in Toulon

It has been a busy day in Toulon. Our first stop was the market, which weaves its way up the centre of the pedestrian walkway. Most of the stalls have beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables with white asparagus and strawberries on prominent display. Fresh fish, olives and tapenades, spices, cheese and ceramics from Provence make up the other stalls. One stall had a lovely pate in puff pastry that looked delicious along with its other offerings. Nearer the port were a couple of flower sellers with arrangements of every colour. And of course clothing, shoes and handbags were on sale for next to nothing.

We then walked along the front to the Maritime Museum. As you enter you pass through the stone gates that were once the entrance to the port itself hundreds of years ago. These are adorned by Minerva, goddess of war and Apollo, god of war. The decorations were made by the navy artists. At the time, they would have been responsible for figureheads and other adornments on the wooden sailing vessels. The naval museum retraces the tumultuous history of Toulon's naval base. Numerous paintings and artefacts along with some amazing wooden models made for a colourful and informative visit.

After lunch we took a one hour boat tour of Toulon's beautiful bay. Toulon is the largest military port in the Mediterranean, and is headquarters for the French Third Maritime Region. Thirty French naval vessels are based here and were able to see many of them from our tour boat. The guide explained the roles and equipment of each ship, in French of course, so much of it escaped us, although references to exocet missiles seemed to pop up a lot. The tour also included views of several the 24 forts, towers and batteries that helped protect the port during its 500-year history. 

Tonight we arrived at the rugby match between Toulon and Stade Francais almost an hour before kick off to watch the teams warm up. We weren't alone. Stade Mayol was already half full. There was a tremendous atmosphere with music pumping in the background. Finally the teams were announced, everybody stood for the singing of the Toulon team song or perhaps it was a hymn, and a Toulon supporter led a cheer to which fans responded in noises that closely resembled a haaka.

Toulon scored a try almost immediately but Stade replied with two of their own and were soon up by 19-8. For much of the first half Toulon struggled but eventually spent enough time in Stade territory for Jonny Wilkinson to kick several penalties and a field goal. The score remained close throughout the second half, Stade playing a more exciting brand of rugby, including another try, while Toulon seemed prepared to win or lose on the strength of Wilkinson's kicking. On this night it was enough, Toulon winning 32 to 29 after a dramatic drop goal by Wilkinson in the final minute of play.

It's now on to Twickenham for Toulon, and a birth in the Amlin Cup final. It was a fabulous experience for us to see so many rugby greats from both teams play. When would you see two former Wallabies -- Matt Giteau and George Smith -- square off against each other? After pizza we came back to the square by our hotel, which is next to the stadium, and there we spotted the Stade players getting on their bus. They were even stopping for pictures but tragically our camera was back in the room. So rugby fans just imagine my picture with George Smith and Paul Sackey. Along with the other Toulon fans we clapped as the Stade bus left. What a great day.

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