Promenade du Paillon, Nice: A river runs through it ... or at least underneath

October 26th marked the opening of the new ribbon of a park that flows through Nice, the €40 million 12-hectare Promenade du Paillon, in honour of the Paillon River which still flows beneath it.

After two years of major works massively disrupting the city, residents and visitors alike eagerly awaited the official first view of the grounds. And they weren’t disappointed.

Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Dancing in the park

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. It was a nice warm day, so no one minded getting wet, especially the children.

Paillon Collage

Water water everywhere

Everything in the park is designed to remind us of the river. 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.

Paillon Collage

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.

Torrential River

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.

The Paillon is coming

One day in July 1887 was 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. But what they didn’t notice was that in the hills behind Nice there was a storm.

Paillon BugadièresBugadières qui lavent le linge dans le Paillon à Nice.

Suddenly, a wall of water comes roaring through the riverbed. Most of the laundry ladies scramble to safety just in time to see all of their clothes washed away, but three of them didn’t get out in time and are stranded on a little island of gravel in the middle of the swirling muddy waters. A crowd gathers and watches helplessly.

To the rescue

Five men decide to act. One of them is Monsieur Garaccino, the son of one of the trapped women. They wade out together supporting one another. Even though the water is now only about waist high, the current is very strong and the river is carrying lots of mud, stones and other debris which can easily knock a person down.

Mamma goes first

The first woman to be rescued is Monsieur Garaccino’s mamma, of course. Can you imagine the trouble he would have been in if he had rescued someone else first? Monsieur Garaccino puts Mamma Garaccino on his shoulders and with the help of the other four men, they struggle back to the bridge where a ladder has been attached. Mama Garaccino climbs to safety and the men turn back toward the island.

Laundress no. 2

Paillon Nice ParkThe water is rising fast and the other two stranded women are up to their ankles now. Well one of them is. Aima, the older of the two, is almost hysterical. She is down on her knees praying at the top of her voice to all of the saints in heaven to save her. The men arrive and again, it is Monsieur Garaccino who does the heavy lifting. Aima, “Laundress no. 2”, is placed on his shoulders and the five men start back toward the bridge. But they stumble and the current takes them all down into the swirling, debris-filled water. They manage to get back up, but poor Aima had swallowed so much of the muddy water, that she had to be taken to hospital where she was in very serious condition.

In need of refreshment

But Laundress no. 3 still needs saving, so the very tired men make their way back a third time to the little island. Someone has managed to lead his mule out onto the island and Laundress no. 3 is perched on him. The bystanders see that the men are exhausted and want to do something to help. So they tie a bucket to the end of a rope and cast it out to them. It contains an “energy drink” – a bottle of cognac! After downing the bottle, the men are reinvigorated enough to save Laundress no. 3 and the mule.

Enough is enough

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. So hopefully the deepest water we will see in the park is 2 cm and no more rescues will be necessary.

For more, see www.curiousrambler.com

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