Toulon – more than just rough charm

Over a year ago now, in November 2017, my husband and I set off from New Zealand to France, destination Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. This is what Lonely Planet online says about Toulon:

“It has a certain rough charm, and although it’s getting progressively more attractive, most visitors just pass through.”

Perhaps it’s a good thing we are unseasoned travellers who don’t read Lonely Planet reviews! Even though we still would have gone, perhaps our minds would have been closed and the time we spent there would not have been as rewarding.

Our trip was for research purposes for my current YA work-in-progress about a girl from Toulon who travels to Kororāreka (Russell, New Zealand) in 1827-1828. And thank goodness we went: I had prostitutes living in the wrong part of town, people seeing a mountain that can’t be seen, and the sun going north instead of south … okay, so I should have known better about the sun but sometimes, even though you know something, you don’t KNOW it until you’ve seen it.

I had worried about my husband being stuck in one place for three weeks with nothing to do, but my worry was unfounded. Toulon Naval Base is the second largest naval base in France and its museum kept us both absorbed for hours. Waterfront shops remained open during the offseason and he spent hours there as well; we came home with carefully selected purchases of compasses, sailing hats and, his favourite, a small hand-held telescope. The old town was ripe for exploring and we would wander off, separately or together, to absorb the atmosphere. He even seemed to enjoy being directed down side streets taking notes while I wrestled with copies of old street maps.

We had planned to take a number of day trips; Menton had been floated as an idea so we could see the house where New Zealand writers go for their Katherine Mansfield residencies, and he wanted to go to Monte Carlo. We’d even discussed a weekend in Barcelona. But a few sick days on my part put paid to any major excursions. Instead, we took a number of shorter trips. One day saw us drive up Mont Faron to look out over Toulon and then to Sanary-sur-Mer. Sanary is a lovely fishing village with quaint fishing boats lined up along the quay and a beautiful church.

Our second jaunt was to Le Beausset and from there a 40-minute walk to Le Castellet, a small, walled, medieval village. Very sweet and we were just about the only tourists there – heaven. In fact, I would hazard a guess there were more cats than tourists!

Our third excursion took us just ten minutes by bus to Mourillon (Toulon’s main beach area) and our final day trip was to St Tropez, a two-and-a-half-hour drive with a crazy bus driver who I was certain would drop us into a ravine. The lure of St Tropez was actually Port Grimaud, a recently built village using a canal network similar to Venice and just 20 minutes by ferry from St Tropez – except no ferries were running and we were told Port Grimaud was basically closed for winter. St Tropez itself looked basically closed for winter too but we visited the citadel and museum on the hill above the town and got in some accidental research – a lovely surprise.

While Toulon might not be Lonely Planet’s idea of a tourist destination, we found the location perfect, the people friendly and a number of excellent attractions within an easy hour or two by bus, ferry or foot. It even snowed while we were there which made the whole experience quite surreal – I never knew it snowed on the Mediterranean coast!

Fourteen months later my YA novel is still a work-in-progress, but I have now taken my protagonist out of Toulon and she is on her way to New Zealand. Let the next part of the adventure begin.

Book Review – The Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter

Happy New Year and welcome to Pendants and Paperbacks 2019. Holidays are the perfect time to catch up on reading and I have been doing a lot of that over the past week or so. As part of my regular book review series, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on  Eirlys Hunter’s junior novel, The Mapmakers’ Race.

Sal, Joe, Francie and Humphrey Santander’s father hasn’t returned from his latest expedition. Worn out with worry and with no money left, their mapmaking mother chooses to enter the family in the Mapmakers’ Race. Contestants have 28 days to find and map the best route through the unchartered wilderness from Grand Prospect to New Coalhaven. With a prize pool that will solve almost all of their problems what have the Santanders got to lose? Unfortunately, a lot. When the children’s mother is left behind at a train station en route to the start line, the children are stranded in Grand Prospect not knowing what to do. Finally, they decide to embark on the race by themselves, hoping their mother can catch up.

What ensues is a madcap adventure as the Santander children do their best to make their parents proud in spite of dangerous terrain, terrifying beasts, villainous adults and each other. Every day provides a new challenge for the children and they overcome each one through quick thinking, experimentation and perseverance. While not set in our world, the story is not completely fantastical either: perhaps the best way to describe it is magical realism set in a world similar to our own with just a splash of steampunk. Some of the scenes could be a little scary for younger children but I am a firm believer that in the safety of a book children need to see dangerous and scary scenarios worked through and overcome.

Eirlys Hunter has devised a strong cast of characters and an engaging plot to create a true adventure story where overcoming obstacles to meet the final goal is key. Not only does she write adventure with skill, but in the story’s down moments she also has a beautiful way with words. Here is a taste:

The moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.

Alongside Hunter’s rollicking text are illustrations by Kirsten Slade whose map drawings add shape to the story.

If you are interested in investigating further, there is the Look Inside feature on Amazon plus an extract in The Sapling. The Mapmakers’ Race can be purchased at Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are in New Zealand please support your local bookstore or order online at The Children’s Bookshop, Wellington.

This review has also been posted on The Wonder of Words website.