When Richard Blair, a forty-seven-year-old Englishman just back from a long stay in Nova Scotia, visited a relative in 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”. Dividing the two was the Paillon River, which, until it was channeled into aqueducts, paved over, and erased from awareness in 1883, marked off old Nice from new, host from guest, poor from rich, servant from master.
For centuries, visitors unmindfull of the Paillon’s vagaries would smirk at what was normally just a dried-up riverbed – dusty, rocky, overgrown with vegetation, with a few sad rivulets running down its length.
Washerwomen, hundreds of them, washed clothes in what water there was, then laid them out to dry on the rocks. The locals, wearing bright skirts, with red or yellow kerchiefs, weren’t scrubbing their own clothes, but much drabber English garments, those of their guests and patrons. They scooted across crudely laid planks to avoid a detour to the stone bridge.
The Paillon River in Nice-Pasteur, summer 2002
“No one,” Irish physician Percy Fitzpatrick wrote reasonably enough in 1858, “could imagine that this broad line of dry stones and gravel could ever be metamorphosed into a mighty torrent … carrying all before it like a Balaclava cavalry charge.”
The Paillon River in Nice-Pasteur, winter 2002
But that’s just what sometimes happened. Eighteenth-century maps called the Paillon not fleuve or rivière, the more familiar terms, but torrent - a river with origins high in the mountains that floods with the melting of the snow. Fed by mountain streams, the Paillon, nearly as wide as the Seine at Paris, would roar down from the Alps, uprooting trees, sweeping away homes, hurling into the sea a roiling brown muddiness of debris. A 1744 flood drowned hundreds of French and Spanish soldiers as they tried to cross during a batde with the Sardinians. In times past, the story goes, a man stationed upstream would, at the first sign of a flood washing down toward town, blare out the warning with a trumpet call.
It was the potential for these sudden floods, together with the breadth of its rocky bed, that helped make the Paillon, otherwise so pathetic, an important dividing line. On its left bank stood a shabby ltalian town – Vieux Nice; on its right, a little bit of England – the Croix-de-Marbre district, its prerevolutionary luster restored, flourishing once more with the peace that followed Waterloo.
Place where the Paillon River meets the Mediterranean: Promenade des Anglais, at Parc Albert Premier. On the right: Vieux Nice.
There, along the road set back from the sea that bore carriages from the French frontier, stood the great villas, their lush gardens leading down to the shores of the sea; “long ranges of neat white houses, with Venetian blinds and uniformly surrounded by gardens, line the sides of the street,” the American Nathaniel Carter noted in 1826. The English had their own cemetery and, after 1821, their own Anglican church; the King of Roman Catholic Sardinia sanctioned its construction as long as it did not actually look like a church.
The Paillon River meets the sea, May 2008.
Today the Paillon River is channeled into aquaducts and paved over from the Mediterranean Sea until beyond the Palais des Expositions. On its fairway, still very much recognizable, you’ll find parks, theatres, museums, parking garages and a bus station.
This fairway has always been the border between Vieux Nice and the posh quarters, and still is. Some tourists don’t want to visit the Old Town, because it’s kind of shabby. But most of them love it, because it’s so Italian.
The city council of Nice has neglected the Old Town for centuries. Just after WWII the Old Town was off limits to allied soldiers, because it was too dangerous for them. Crime flourished there, even until the late 1970s. Gangster movies were situated there. The police stood empty handed and didn’t take action.
Once the city council realized that the Old Town could be a major tourist attraction, it intervened. In the 1980s and 1990s the police even managed to move drugs related petty crime to the outskirts of the city.
Nowadays the Old Town is as safe as the rest of the inner city.