Culture is future » Territorial attractiveness and social cohesion


Article - The Paulilles bay: a bet on culture

The area of Paulilles, French Catalan heritage, formerly occupied by the Nobel dynamite factory, is today a haven where relaxation on the beach, restoration of the maritime heritage, and various exhibitions mingle.

Wednesday 8th August 2012, 3.30pm, Paulilles beach : children play loudly at the seaside, large families try to find a place where they could spread their towels, a grandfather teaches his granddaugther how to swim, three teenage girls sunbathe peacefully. One century before, this scene would have been considered as completely unseemly : not that the concept of holidays  didn’t exist yet, but because the site of Paulilles was then more known for its Nobel dynamite factory than for its beautiful landscapes.

In 1870, the French State decided to establish on the Vermeille coast, between Port-Vendres and Banyuls, a factory of explosives, presumably protected by its distance from the Prussian enemy. At first exclusively dedicated to the army, its production was quickly commercialised with private purposes in the industry and the building trade. In 1975, the factory produced almost 4000 tons of explosives in a year. At the height of its activity, between 300 and 400 people were employed, all of them lived there. Paulilles became practically an autonomous village thanks to the establishment of a school, church and even a kitchen garden.

At the end of the 70’s, Paulilles suffered from the explosives market crisis  and, in spite of the diversification in metal cladding, its production decreased every year. In 1984 , the National Society of Powders and Explosives, owner of the factory, closed definitely the site.

From 1979 (so way before its closure), the local figures made sure that the Paulilles bay would be protected, fearing that this large area could be covered with concrete because of property projects. And indeed, it enabled to discourage the major property developer Jean-Claude Méry, first buyer of Paulilles, who wanted to transform the bay in a huge luxury marina. So it’s only in 1998 that the Conservatoire du littoral could buy the site of Paulilles in order to attempt to preserve it for good.

In 2000, the Conservatoire entrusted the management of Paulilles to the Conseil Général des Pyrénées Orientales. Some years passed before the final project of renovation was set up : « Paulilles, the future of a memory », which brought together a multidisciplinary team of botanists, architects, landscape architects, as well as the participation of associations of conservation of the local heritage.

It took 17 months to make the site safe, depolluted and rearranged (at least for 17 ha from the 32.5 ha in total). The budget of the project came to 12 millions euros, partly financed by the Region Languedoc-Roussillon, the State and Europe. The Paulilles bay finally opens its doors in 2008.

The site of Paulilles contains in particular nowadays :

  • A restoration workshop for traditional Catalan boats. The Conseil Général has indeed decided to take benefit from this large space to integrate there this workshop (unique in the region), permitting the restoration, conservation and the exhibition to the public of the Catalan maritime heritage. It is also a way to remind that the workers of the factory hadn’t neglected their work in the vineyard, nor the anchovys fishing, very popular on the Vermeille coast.
  • The House of the site, which welcomes the visitors from their arrival thanks to a coffee shop and an exhibition centre which recounts the story of the factory and the life of the workers of Paulilles. It is next to the manager’s garden.
  • A walkway where are proposed during the whole summer activities for the youngest, and in particular about the discovery and the preservation of the local fauna and flora.
  • And of course, the beach, very much appreciated by the holidaymakers, determined by a wall of anti-landing, last testimony of the World War Two.

This large complex, set up in the former buildings of the factory, may be considered as an ecomuseum exceptionally exhaustive about the socio-cultural life of its former inhabitants, but also as an innovative example of eco-responsible site since its space is completely dustbin-free and pedestrian.

We can consider this renovation of industrial wasteland as a big success for the area of the Pyrénées-Orientales, especially regarding tourism, since the site of Paulilles welcomed 240 000 visitors in 2011.

But it is most of all the display of a political will sometimes rare in the matter of cultural offer. Preserving it from property dealings and creating the site of Paulilles, free and open to everyone, the local (and european) political actors made a choice that could have appeared as daring : a bet on culture.

Indeed, in a region where the unemployment level comes to 14.2%, they managed to refuse a project that pretended to create hundreds of jobs but which would have destroyed forever the memory of the place and its landscape.

Furthermore, the project of Paulilles has permitted to bring a certain cultural offer to a place usually exclusively reserved to the holiday leisure : the beach.


A contribution of the University of Avignon, by Cécile Bataille.


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