The GR 10 (Grande Randonnée 10) long-distance trail snakes 538 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Pyrenees that separate central Europe from the Iberian Peninsula. By any measure, it’s one of the great hikes of Europe, a haute route nearly five times the length of the original by that name, from Chamonix to Zermatt. With a total of 31 vertical miles of ascent and descent, the GR 10 is a challenge for the dedicated that usually takes 50 days to do, end-to-end.
It has a less-challenging eastern extension that runs 13 miles northward along the Côte Vermeille, the “Vermillion Coast” of the Mediterranean. A map of the main trail and its extension looks like a drawing of a hoe, its long, crooked handle oriented west-to-east and its tiny blade pointing north. About halfway up the “blade” there’s an indentation between two capes jutting out into the Sea, marked Anse de Paulilles (“Cove of Paulilles”) on maps. Named after Saint Paulille, a Spaniard who resisted persecution by the Vandals, it’s been known since Roman times for its exotic vegetation, sheltered waters and sunny beaches. In the 12th Century, a church was built at Cosprons, a hamlet about a mile up in the foothills overlooking the Cove, but otherwise even today there are few signs of habitation, save for the vineyards so characteristic of Mediterranean France. It might have stayed that way had the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 not happened.
Outgunned in the war, France sought to upgrade its defense industry sector. That led to privatization of the manufacture and sale of explosives, which until then had been a government monopoly. In 1870, the Nobel dynamite factory was built on an 80-acre site at Paulilles, chosen for being remote and amenable to building piers for sea transport of raw materials and products. Soon, the factory had 200 workers, and Paulilles became a factory town, with a church, a school and a cooperative store. By 1900, the factory was producing 550 tons of dynamite a year. Year by year, production went up, and the factory delivered dynamite to major construction projects round the globe, including the Panama Canal, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Production peaked at 9,500 tons a year in 1972. Thereafter, in an increasingly competitive market, profits shrank, leading to the factory closing down in 1984. Real-estate developers eyed the site and put forth plans to turn it into a high-end complex of marinas and hotels. But in 1998, the owners chose instead to sell the site to an environmental NGO, Conservatorie du littoral (“Coastal Conservatory”), which cooperated with the Departmental Council to turn it into a free environmental park.
There was precedent for the owners’ reluctance to despoil the coast. Though engaged in a hazardous business, for its time, the factory had been a pleasant place. Successive factory directors had gardeners who maintained gardens of local trees, shrubs and flowers, and supplemented them with species from afar, including magnolia and cypress from Arizona. The school had been so good that it had attracted pupils from nearby towns. The factory had been one of the first of its sort to employ women in non-clerical positions. It had been one of the first to employ large numbers of workers from abroad; from 1875 until just before World War II, 40 percent of the workers were Spanish, some who had come as a consequence of La Retirada (Spanish for “The Retreat”), the early 1939 mass exodus of civilians and soldiers fleeing the Spanish Civil War. After the French withdrew from the war in Indochina in 1954, Vietnamese came to work there. The industrial heritage was worth commemorating.
Moreover, aside from the military uses of its factory’s products, Paulilles unintentionally became a memento of war. In 1943, the occupying Germans strengthened coastal artillery emplacements and built anti-tank walls to thwart the feared Allied amphibious invasion that never came there.
Though ugly, the antitank walls stand to this day. They act as seawalls,
keeping the parking lots, park terraces and restaurants of today in place, against the forceful high waves of autumn and spring storms in the Mediterranean. And sunbathers have found that, as the concrete walls are warmed by the sun, they’re the only places where you can comfortably strip for tanning in midwinter.
Transforming the factory site into a park took 10 years and involved removing some 70 buildings and restoring nine for park use. Opened in 2008, the park now features extensive grounds and gardens, an industrial heritage museum and a café open in summer. There’s also a restored repair facility for traditional Catalan boats, the wooden craft with lateen sails first introduced by the Romans in the Second Century. It’s a place for rest and contemplation, sunning and swimming, whether you arrive on foot via the GR 10 or by car, bus or cycle on the RD 914 coastal road between Port Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer.
Though the factory is long gone, its mystique remains. Much as the Wild West lives on in legend in the USA, local lore here holds many stories of the deeds of the dynamite makers. Some of them are even true, such as the well-documented incident of 1948, when several workers were caught playing soccer with a ball of dynamite and were barred from the factory for 10 days. And the life of the era of the factory town has been built upon in fiction, leading in November 2010 to the first full-length novel, “Les Dames de Paulilles” (“The Women of Paulilles,” ISBN 978-2350660943).
GR trail network, website at www.gr-infos.com with pages in seven languages, including English.
The Departmental Council website at www.cg66.fr (French only) has links to other sources and updated details of interest to visitors.
Paulilles, Côte Vermeille by Caroline Chaussin (Actes Sud, Arles, France 2009, 48 page softcover booklet, ISBN 978-2-7427-8064-8, French only) is a good single source on the history, preservation and rebuilding of the Paulilles site.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.