Many towns have grown up around rivers which have later been covered in (Liverpool and London included). Beneath the city streets, waterways continue on their ancient courses in underground culverts. Nice was once such place, where the Paillon, a river fed by mountain streams that flood each year with the melting of the snows, for much of the 19th century divided old Nice from new, poor from rich, servant from master. Then, in 1883, the Paillon was culverted, paved over, and became an unknown presence.
But last October, in a dramatic beautification of the city landscape, a new, linear park – the Promenade de Paillon – opened following a major urban renewal project that restores, at least metaphorically, the Paillon to its original place in the heart of the city.
Since we first visited Nice we have seen many changes in the city landscape – the the restoration of Place Massena to its former glory, a beautiful piazza that feels both old and ultra modern with the sleek tram moving silently through; and the demolition of the ugly bus station, one of those ugly sixties concrete monstrosities that were inflicted on towns at that time.
The inauguration of the Promenade de Paillon in October 2013
The ‘green corridor’ under construction in 2012
Then, on our last visit in September 2013 we saw that something big was happening: from the Promenade up to Massena, and beyond towards the Museum of Contemporary Art, large areas were boarded off. Signs promised a new ‘green corridor’ through the city, and behind the boards we could see mature trees being planted and walkways laid out. Returning now, in May 2014, were able to walk the length of this magnificent urban space, a triumph of city planning that has created, in the heart of France’s fifth largest city, a place where locals and visitors alike can sit or amble in beautiful surroundings – a place of fun and enjoyment for children of all ages.
A place of fun and enjoyment
Before we take a walk along Nice’s new ‘green corridor’, following the course of the Paillon beneath our feet, let’s look back to the time when the river was a physical presence in the heart of Nice. It’s there on 18th century maps of the town, called the Paillon torrent – rather than fleuve or rivière – for the simple reason that while, for most of the year, the Paillon was a trickle, in winter or spring it could roar down from the Alps, uprooting trees, sweeping away homes, and hurling muddy debris into the sea. In that state, the Paillon was a might river, as wide as the Seine in Paris. In 1744, for instance, a flood drowned hundreds of French and Spanish soldiers as they tried to cross the torrent during a battle with the Sardinians.
Dangerous river: this was the Paillon in the northern suburbs on 26 December 2013 after the storm which also hit the UK
So dangerous was the river that that in the 19th century watchmen on horses were strategically placed upriver 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’ and blowing trumpets. Concern was heightened because the nearly dry riverbed was invariably crowded with people – particularly Niçoise women doing their laundry.
Washerwomen on the Paillon river bed in 1832
19th century tourists weren’t impressed by the river in its normal state – one visitors called it ‘an imaginary river’. Another sarcastically referred to it as ‘the driest part of Nice’. At that time, the Paillon was often portrayed in paintings with bugadiera, or washerwomen, doing their laundry in the little streams, the washed articles spread out to dry on the pebbles of the river bed. More than one amused tourist remarked that the Paillon was ‘only good for drying clothes’. As late as 1900, as the photograph below shows, washerwomen were still at work on the river bed, though further upstream.
Laundresses washing clothes in the Paillon around 1900
Speaking of washerwomen… Walking back to the apartment in the Old Town where we stayed this time, we would pass a monument on rue Sincaire placed in a section of the old city wall, and dedicated to a person I’d never heard of – Catherine Ségurane. It turns out that Catherine (or Catarina Segurana in the Niçois dialect) was one of those bugadiera or washerwomen in 16th century Nice, and that she is now celebrated as a local heroine and symbol of Niçois identity.
The monument to Catarina Segurana on rue Sincaire
Catarina may or not have been a real person (historians debate the issue), but her legend lives on locally. The story is this: on 15 August 1543, the castle of Nice and the city were under attack from French and Ottoman warships. At that time Nice was part of the county of Savoy and consisted only of the area known today as the Old Town, protected by a thick wall with strategically-placed towers. Nice was an important location because of its harbour, and so the French and Turkish armies joined forces to take it.
Segurana worked as a laundress, which was tough work. In all kinds of weather, she would carry heavy baskets of laundry down to the Paillon and scrub the clothes on the rocks. After the washing and rinsing, she would beat the garments with a large wooden paddle to remove any remaining water. All this heavy lifting and beating meant that Catarina would likely have been a woman of impressive build.
When the French and Turkish forces mounted their attack every citizen fought to protect their city with whatever they had at hand. In Catarina’s case that meant her big laundry paddle. With the invaders climbing the city walls and one making ready to plant the Turkish flag and claim victory she ran for the Turk, whacked him over the head with the paddle, grabbed the flag and tore it to pieces, breaking the flag pole over her knee. Then she did something that created a local legend.
Turning her back on the enemy soldiers, she bent over, lifted her skirt and showed them her arse. Then she took their ripped up flag and wiped her bottom with it before flinging it down on them. The first written record of Catarina’s story dates from 1608, only 65 years after the events, and the family name of Segurana is listed in the records of that time. But it’s the 20th century before the exposed rear end shows up in any print sources, suggesting that part of it is apocryphal.
Horrified by her desecration of their flag, the Turks fled that day. But they soon returned and occupied the city for a while until reinforcements from Savoy arrived to drive them out. But Segurana has became a heroine and emblem of Niçois identity and spirit. Disturbingly, however, her legend has been taken up by the right-wing group Bloc Identitaire which opposes ‘imperialism, whether it be American or Islamic’, asserts local identity and opposes immigration and what they see as the ‘Islamization’ of France. Each year activists gather at her monument carrying banners such as ‘Immigration – Islamisation … Tomorrow Remigration’.
An aerial representation of the Promenade de Paillon
Turning aside from this nonsense, let’s take a walk along Nice’s new ‘green corridor’, opened on 26 October 2013 after a massive three-year project which was the culmination of nearly ten years of building work undertaken by successive mayors to improve the quality of life and infrastructure in Nice – projects which included the new tram network, the rejuvenation and pedestrianisation of Avenue Jean Médecin, Place Massena and Place Garibaldi, and the demolition of the old bus station and car park which was a terrible eyesore that scarred the town centre architecturally. During the three years of its creation, lawns were laid, paths paved, and 50,000 plants, 6000 shrubs, and an amazing 1600 trees were planted along a green corridor designed by landscape architect Michel Pena.
The Paillon reaches the sea at the Promenade des Anglais
Our walk starts on the Promenade des Anglais, where the Paillon reaches the sea, emerging from out of its culvert before passing through a shingle bank. Across the road are the Albert 1er gardens that contain the Théâtre de Verdure, an open-air theatre and music venue built in 1946 and now incorporated into the Promenade de Paillon. Able to seat 1850 people, and surrounded by pines, palms , cypresses and fountains the amphitheatre has played host to performers such as Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, as well as jazz musicians and rock bands. The Nice Jazz Festival now takes place here every summer.
The Theatre de Verdure seen from the air
We weren’t able to see the Theatre since it was screened off as preparations were in hand for a music festival, so we headed up through the gardens and past the newly-positioned sculpture designed by Bernar Vernet. A huge, sweeping curve, it’s called Arc of 115.5 Degrees.
Albert 1er gardens
Arc of 115.5 Degrees, designed by Bernar Vernet
Arc is a rather elegant public sculpture, both in its form and material. However, Vernet is also responsible for a monstrous intrusion into the Promenade des Anglais which had appeared there on our last visit in September. Nine Oblique Lines is 55 tons of rusting steel girders, 30 metres high, created created to mark the 150th anniversary of the annexation of the County of Nice to France from Piedmont in 1860. The incumbent mayor of Nice got his party leader(and President), Nicolas Sarkozy down to unveil the thing, which supposedly symbolizes the union of the nine valleys of the County of Nice.
Nine Oblique Lines, designed by Bernar Vernet
Moving further into the new park, we encountered a couple park rangers speeding around niftily on their Segway PTs – two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicles which the rider operates by shifting their weight forward to go forward and backward to reverse. The rangers had attracted a small crowd, interested in this new and unusual means of getting around.
Park rangers on their Segways
This section of the park is paved with a blend of basalt and limestone in which are buried hundreds of foggers which create a micro-climate of rising mist – as seen in the photo of Arc above, and the one below .
By this stage we had reached Place Massena, where the trams glide silently across and the figures of Jaume Plensa’s Seven Continents: Conversation in Nice still sit atop their poles, kneeling or hugging their knees.
On the other side of the tramway lies the park’s star attraction: the water mirror and ‘dancing waters’ display. The water mirror is a sheet of water less than one inch deep that lies on the paved surface when the fountains of the dancing waters are inactive. It makes a surface that you can walk across without getting your feet wet, but one that is also highly reflective, suggestive of the river that lies in its culvert beneath your feet.
Everything in this park is designed to remind you of the river beneath: the water mirror covered in stone the shade of water, the plateau of mist that pumps tiny droplets of water into the air, and, in the section for children, sea animals beautifully carved from wood for kids to climb, swing and bounce on.
Like the rest of the multitude ambling slowly through, resting on the many path-side benches provided, or sitting reading or day-dreaming in the shady pavilions with their wooden armchairs, we would pleasurably idle the time away here, watching the kids play tag with the fountains.
Because the water mirror can be deceptive: all of a sudden the jets will burst into life, fountains that launch in random patterns, often catching children or adults alike unawares as they leap into the air
On the internet I found a couple of images of what this area around Massena looked like when the river was exposed. One is a painting, dated 1830, entitled Le Quai Masséna et le Pont Neuf , the other a photograph showing the same location in 1865.
Le Quai Masséna et le Pont Neuf, 1830
The Paillon river and Pont Neuf in 1865
After the water feature comes the children’s playground, in which two dolphins, a whale, an octopus, and a turtle all follow the hidden river towards the sea. I was mightily impressed with this sizeable area – all the features are made to the highest quality, and specifically designed for this park. That children had been made the focus of this development, right in the heart of a busy city, was deeply impressive.
As you walk towards the end of this green corridor, the whole space is beautifully framed to the north by the Provencal mountains. It is the most imaginative and beautiful opening up of green space in the heart of a city that I have encountered.
At the very end is the space which is where, if I recall correctly, the ugly bus station once stood. It’s now a beautiful piazza, paved in grey and black stone with palms and beds of flowers and herbs. This is what the area looked like in 2011, according to Google Street View:
We’ve been following the underground course of the Paillon, a mountain torrent that originates high above Lucéram in the southern Alps. Along the way you can clearly see how the river once separated the Old Town from the 19th century developments on the far bank, a separation clearly visible in the architecture on either bank. When Englishman Richard Blair visited Nice for a few months in 1829, he found the old town of Nice ‘narrow, dirty, and stinking’, whereas ‘the part where the English are is open and clean’. It’s a division that echoes the Left and Right banks of Paris.
After a series of devastating floods, the Paillon was covered up in various stages after 1868 for around a mile from the Promenade des Anglais and the city centre. Yet the old divisions persisted. For a long time the city council of Nice neglected the Old Town. At the end of World War 2, the Old Town was off limits to allied soldiers, because it was too dangerous. Crime flourished there until the late 1970s (French gangster movies often being set there). But, in the last couple of decades, once the city council realized that the Old Town could be a major tourist attraction, it has been cleaned up and made safe. The Paillon Promenade is the culmination of that process of redevelopment.
The Paillon Promenade is a magnificent development, almost a utopian vision of what city living could be. Walking through this green corridor, inspired by its blend of greenery, calm, enjoyment and child-orientated features, set me musing on the extent to which it reflects the greater powers of local government in France (and other parts of Europe), compared with the UK.
In 1966 a law in France required its 14 largest provincial cities to establish a new kind of metropolitan authority to overcome the fragmentation of local power. With a mixture of local taxes and government grants, this system of strong mayors and powerful city regions has generated a more balanced economy than in Britain, with wealth and power spread more evenly across the country, rather than concentrated in the capital.
By way of contrast, here in Liverpool, only 10 percent of city council income comes from council tax, while the government has capped the level of council tax at less than inflation, meaning it is not increasing with cost of providing services. At the same time, of course, more than 70% of council income comes from central government – and that has been cut savagely since the recession.
Michael Heseltine was Minister for Merseyside in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s – the government which dismantled Britain’s system of powerful metropolitan authorities, and began the process of restricting the powers of local councils. Later, he expressed his thoughts on the implications of these policies:
I’d just seen more and more power taken away from the provinces and centralised in London. It was a profound shock to me in 1979 when I became secretary of state for environment to find that in order for a local authority to build a council house, they had to fill in forms with 80 different questions for my department’s approval. It made a complete mockery of any talk of local government. I actually pinned these forms up in the wall on my office.
Liverpool was lucky. Being designated European Capital of Culture in 2008 meant that in the years leading up to 2008 the city benefited from considerable investment, and grants from the European Union – all before the crash hit. Walking around Nice, everything points to a vibrant city which has the fiscal wherewithal and the devolved powers to achieve great things for its citizens, and those who visit. In Liverpool, all Mayor Joe Anderson can do is manage the budget cuts imposed by the coalition government. Cuts that not only hurt the lives and increase the deprivation of its poorest citizens, but also threaten the gains made in the first decade of this century. Currently the council spends around 25 percent of its net budget on items such as cultural events, regeneration and leisure centres, which not only benefit those who live here, but are also vital to Liverpool’s economic prospects as a tourist destination. But the council has no legal requirement to provide these services.