A River runs through it – well under it Anyway

Promenade du Paillon, Nice France

This weekend I went to the opening of the lovely new ribbon of a park that flows through Nice, France. It is called the “Promenade du Paillon” in honour of the Paillon River which still flows beneath it.

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.Collage 01 promenade du paillon nice france

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.

Collage 02 promenade du paillon nice france

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.

bugadieres, laundresses nice france paillon river
Old photo of laundresses washing and drying their clothes in the Paillon riverbed

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
The 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.A river runs through it, laundress paillon nice france

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.

paillon river ex voto laundresses
This is an “ex voto” placed in a church to give thanks for a miracle. In 1855 other laundresses (not the ones in the story above) were trapped by the Paillon’s sudden flooding. One of them was pregnant and we see her being washed away. Thankfully she and the baby were saved, hence the “ex voto”.

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.


  1. Margo, I hope the Nice Visitor’s Bureau knows what a jewel they have in you! You entice the world to notice Nice. What a fun post, and thank you for including the “behind the scenes” details. I love that these are things locals will love and enjoy, but we can also find!

    1. Thanks Jonelle. I think Nice is a great city and so I enjoy discovering it and writing about it. It is very touristic in the summer, but still a very nice place to live. I’ll be talking to the Tourist Office about a little compensation… 😉

  2. Margo this blog has renewed my desire, which has never really left, to return to Nice and see more of the city.

    1. Greetings Margo. For some reason my comment was recorded as Anonymous. It is your old friend Jay that made the comment. 🙂 As always you have written a great piece that makes me want to return to Europe again.

      1. Oh, so you are Mr. Anonymous! 🙂 You certainly do need to come back to Nice – and stay longer this time. Last time you just popped in for lunch. There is really a lot to see and do here, especially in summer. Next summer maybe???

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