The opening of a new park in Nice called the “Promenade du Paillon” adds to the number of great promenades you can take in this southern French city. The park is named in honour of the Paillon River which still flows beneath it; Margo Lestz visited and tells the story of the park’s history…
Promenade du Paillon Nice
We were treated to a “dancing waters” show with jets of water leaping into the air in time with the music. And then we walked on water. That’s right, all of us walked on water. The basin containing the “mirror of water” is only two cm (less than one inch) deep so when the jets are not in use you can walk right across – some even did this when the jets were on. If it is a nice warm day, no one minds getting wet, especially the children.
Everything in the park is designed to remind us of the river running below. The walkways are covered in aquatic coloured stone and there is a “plateau of mist” made by air pumps that blow tiny drops of water into the air. In the section for children, there are sea animals carved of wood for climbing, swinging, bouncing, etc. The whale, octopus, sting ray and turtle are all following the river toward the sea.
But what about the real river?
The park’s watery theme reminds us that the Paillon is still there, but if you are imagining a picturesque flowing river, think again. The Paillon is not that kind of waterway. Even though it has a very wide bed, most of the time there are only a few small streams of water running through it. The 19th century tourists weren’t very impressed by it. One of them called it an imaginary river. Another said it was the driest part of Nice. The Paillon is probably best known for the paintings of laundresses washing their laundry in the little streams and then spreading it out to dry in the river bed. This led the amused tourists to say that the Paillon was only good for drying clothes.
However, if there was a lot of rain in the hills behind Nice, that “imaginary river” could, and did, turn violent very quickly because of its steep descent into the city. Even though these deluges were infrequent, the risk was so great that in the 1800s watchmen on horses were strategically placed to keep an eye on it. If there was danger they would gallop along the riverbanks crying “the Paillon is coming…the Paillon is coming”. Why? Because the nearly dry riverbed was often full of people and animals. Mostly it was full of Niçoise ladies doing their laundry.
July 1887 brought an especially bad day for three of those laundresses. The skies over Nice were clear and blue and the riverbed was full of women doing their washing as usual. Nobody noticed that in the hills behind Nice there was a storm when suddenly a wall of water came roaring through the riverbed. Most of the laundry ladies scrambled to safety just in time to see all of their clothes washed away, but three of them were stranded on a little island of gravel in the middle of the swirling muddy waters. A crowd gathered and watched helplessly.
A rescue team of five men formed, including Monsieur Garaccino, the son of one of the trapped women. They waded out through a strong current, trying to avoid the debris being thrown about in the water.
The first woman to be rescued was Monsieur Garaccino’s maman of course. Can you imagine the trouble he would have been in if he had rescued someone else first? He carried his mother on his shoulders to safety and returned to the island to rescue another of the women. It was tiring work and the bystanders who were watching these heroic efforts decided to offer refreshment. They tied a bucket to the end of a rope and cast it to the island where the men were waiting. It contained an “energy drink” – a bottle of cognac! After downing the bottle, the men saved the final lady and a mule that was stuck on the island.
Rescuing laundresses is hard work and perhaps that is why the city decided to cover the river. They started in 1867 and little by little the river was hidden from view (the part that runs through the centre of Nice anyway). And today that troublesome riverbed is concealed by the lovely new park.
But should we worry about those torrents which at times poured over the riverbanks? Well, there is a system of overflow tunnels underneath to take care of excess water and an electronic monitoring system which constantly assures that all is ok and ensuring that the deepest water we will see in the park is only 2 cm deep.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.