Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Site of closed dynamite factory now an idyllic park

It was another unplanned Monday. We decided to drive up the coast to Banyuls to buy some of the tiny vinegar balls for friends in Italy. It was a beautiful hot, sunny day adding to the beauty of the drive with the mountains completely dressed in yellow broom.

Arriving in Banyuls we discovered that the vinegar boutique, La Guinelle's boutique in town was closed on Mondays, so we would have to drive to the main site in the hills near Cosprons. Of course that spot closes at 12:30 and it was about that time. There was nothing more to do than have lunch in a restaurant on a side street that opened into a lovely big old stone courtyard. Grilled sardines, salad and a glass of the palest French rose, who could ask for anything more?

By the time we finished lunch we still had too much time on our hands before the vinaigerie would open. We decided to visit nearby Paulilles, a former industrial wasteland. This doesn't sound very appealing but the site is now a natural jewel along the Catalan coast. Prior to 1870 Paulilles was a rural setting but the debacle of the French army against Prussia pushed the French Minister of the Interior to find a site for a dynamite factory "as far as possible from the border with Germany." The Bay of Paulilles was selected and converted into a dynamite factory by an engineering officer working with Alfred Nobel

The plant employed several hundred people and five generations of Catalans worked there. A complete village sprang up with housing and a school. In 1960, 20 tons of dynamite were produced each day, supplying building projects all over the world, such as the Panama Canal. Over the years numerous fires and explosions occurred causing over 30 fatalities. As well there were many serious and fatal diseases caused by contact with the nitro-glycerine and it's by-products.

When the market for dynamite collapsed in the 1970s, the plant went into decline and eventually closed in 1984. In 2008, 17 acres of the site was reopened to the public. Inside the museum we enjoyed the display, "A Workers' Story, " which was compiled with the help of former factory workers. It was fascinating. The workers were happy to work at this dangerous site in order to avoid fishing or working on the land. Housing was provided but it depended on who you were. The manager had an eight-bedroom house with beautiful grounds. One story told of a 31-year-old woman who just suddenly dropped dead at work. One of the chemicals eventually sped up the heart so much that it caused sudden death. It wasn't all bad as the stories told of festivals and lots of fun times at the beautiful beach.

We wandered around the gardens with exotic banana and eucalyptus trees. The fig trees were loaded with nearly ripe figs. At the site of the original hamlet we visited the workshop that restores traditional Catalan boats. From the viewing space we looked down on a huge wooden barque with restored wood and new caulking between the planks.

It was a short walk to the beautiful beach on the Bay of Paulilles, where a few people were sunbathing, enjoying the hot day. What an idyllic spot. We continued on to the outdoor museum in the original dynamite factory. Here we walked through the four alcoves discovering four scale models showing the landscape of the Vermilion Coast, the factory before it closed, the voyages of dynamite around the world and a relief of the restored site. Nearby the old water tower offers panoramic views of the coastline.

Finally, we took a walk through fields that were a riot of colours from all the spring wild flowers, ending up at the Great Hall. l especially liked the stunning pyramidal orchids in different shades of pink. Today, the hall is used for storage of the barques that need repair. But right beside it  was a huge fenced off area, a refuge for Catalan donkeys. Unfortunately, we couldn't spot them in the high grass and wildflowers or perhaps they were having a siesta in their enclosure.

We will definitely come back to the Bay of Paulilles, a truly beautiful spot that belies its industrial past. Our mission was accomplished as we bought the vinegar balls for our Italian friends. We will soon find out if they like them as we will see them there in a few days time.

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