In the South of France in the area of Fréjus, is the winding Reyran river & Malpasset Dam. This dam isn’t what you’re imagining though! There is no water here. The river is all dried up, & the dam is in ruins, it’s concrete pieces spread far & wide. What was once a solid wall that held back 50 billion litres of water (how much!?!), is now just a fraction of the size it once was. Reclaimed by nature, the rocks now surrounded with wild flowers. Tangled metal rods stick out from the concrete chunks, strewn around the parched earth.
So, why go?
If you like abandoned places, you’re a keen cyclist, hiker, climber or even a chilled adventurer, you’ll be able to appreciate the Reyran river canyon. Although named the Reyran river, It actually doesn’t hold any water throughout most of the year! During the winter months when the ice melts in the hills & the rains come, it builds up a heavy stream of water. During the summer however, it is bone dry due to the constant heat and lack of rain. You can even walk across the river bed.
We walked down the river, and followed the signs for ‘Malpasset’ over the rocky terrain. There was a family there at the same time, kids climbing the rocks and playing hide and seek in the gaps between. a couple of cyclists passed us on the smoother pathway. Even in October, the sun was hot but the wind left us feeling cool. There was an older couple enjoying a picnic under the trees. Now & then we would pass someone snapping away with a camera or simply enjoying the views (like, not through a screen… shocking, I know!) But generally, all was quiet.
What should you do if you visit?
When you reach the dam (or whats left of it) you can climb up the right hand side & on to the top. Definitely thought we would be swept off by the wind, but we held on! You can still see where the gate would have opened to allow water through. It’s quite creepy looking through the tunnel to the other side if I’m honest. Almost expected see Pennywise with his red balloon peaking through, so I didn’t look for long!
Down the other side of the Dam is where the lake would once have been. later in the year there will be water again but even so, there is plenty of space to walk. This path is suitable for cyclists, providing you’re ok carrying the bikes over the dam first!
From this side, you can take the dirt road up into the hills. If, like us, you choose to go off the beaten track, be prepared. Take double the amount of water you think you need. Then take another bottle of water. Wear sensible shoes. Keep a charged phone on you (at one point I was genuinely considering how we might get in touch with a search & rescue helicopter) & if you think you’ve taken a wrong turn, don’t soldier on until you have to slide down a hill of dense forest, gripping trees for dear life. Don’t battle on for hours before re-appearing at the bottom, scratched and bleeding, to find yourself in a dark tunnel below the motorway. Just turn round and go back the way you came. Trust me!
There are Geocaches in the area, & after a little searching we found one not far from the ruins. (Not going to tell you where exactly, of course!) If that last sentence made no sense to you then you obviously haven’t heard of Geocache before!? In which case, google it & ‘join the world’s largest treasure hunt.’ It’s a great reason to get out and get active & fun for all ages. Wherever you are in the world, you’re never far from treasure!
Why only rocks & rubble?
On the 2nd December, 1959, the families of Fréjus got home from work, had their tea & got ready for bed just like any other day. There had been wet weather in recent weeks, & concerns for the dam had been mounting. Already water had began to leak out. The curved, concrete dam had filled with water for years, creating a 10km long lake. The water could be controlled and released to help the farmers grow a variety of crops and fruit trees. The people of Fréjus were grateful for the dam. Before it’s construction, the farm lands had flooded with rain in the cooler seasons & been parched in the summer. But on the night of the 2nd, the dam burst, sending a 40m high wall of water into their homes, sweeping them away within moments. That water flowed down to the town of frejus & out into the Mediterranean. Only the old town on the hill was safe. By the next morning the area had been destroyed & more than 400 lives lost.
In time, the area was restored & the homes re-built. The dam was not attempted again, the remains left where they had landed. Some parts of the structure thrown out far and wide by the force of the water, now left as a reminder. Eventually, the A8 construction continued & from devastation came something positive. Tourism began to increase as accessibility to the town improved. This boosted the economy of the area & further helped the recovery from what will always be remembered as a horrific night in the history of the Cote d’Azur.
If you visit the dam, spend time enjoying the area, follow the routes up in the hills and take photos of the panoramic views. Climb the rocks & imagine how the dam once would have looked, how much water it would have held. But once you’re done, head to the Roman amphitheatre in frejus, where the lives lost in the disaster are remembered. You can read the names of those swept away by the water, including 135 children. Take a minute to appreciate. We really never know whats round the corner…
If, like I was, you’re still feeling curious, there are lots of black & white photos, YouTube documentaries, & survivor accounts out there to discover. So go ahead! Leave a comment or let me know what you think on facebook or instagram! Oh, and don’t forget to pin this post for later!