St Raphaël and the Malpasset Dam

Published Sat 11 September 2010 23:12 (+1200)
  • travel (188 posts and 1102 photos)
  • france (6 posts and 34 photos)
  • dams (2 posts and 7 photos)
  • food (20 posts and 105 photos)
My dinner order became the town news :)
My dinner order became the town news :)

After Avignon we hopped back on the train and went to St Raphaël in the French Riviera, which was… about what you'd expect, a lot of very expensive boats that their very expensive owners probably seldom have time to use, and too many posers hanging out on the beach and going between bars.

The locals were cheerful though. My dinner order became the local news when I thought the salad would be entrée sized and ordered a main too. They weren't rude or offensive about, they just thought it was hilarious that someone would order a salad and a main, and made sure to share the joke with their mates who wandered past. They were pretty good-natured though (didn't hurt that the chef & his wife, our waiter, came out to share a complimentary shot of something you could strip paint with with us at the end of the evening).

The Malpasset Dam

Remains of the deadly Barrage de Malpasset
Remains of the deadly Barrage de Malpasset

I didn't have much interest in the crowded beaches of St Raphael/Frejus, nor the bars… not really my scene. I got out of town and walked to see what's left of the Barrage de Malpasset. Named after the town it was built nearby, it proved sadly appropriate – the dam of bad water.

I took a bus around town and got off at one end of the route, high on a hill, from where I had a very long and very hot walk towards where the motorway meets the trail to the dam.

As you walk up this track leading to the dam site, at some point you realise that the big lumps of stone you've been walking past aren't a natural aggregate, they're huge chunks of concrete ripped off from the dam, some with the twisted ends of thick iron reinforcing bars sticking out. Scattered down the river path for some distance, they become more frequent as you go further up and go around the last corner, bringing the wrecked dam into sight.

Crumpled floodgate valve of the wrecked Malpasset Dam
Crumpled floodgate valve of the wrecked Malpasset Dam

It's not a hydro-electric dam; it was built to control the seasonal flood of water down the river so that the water could be used in dry seasons for irrigation.

There was apparently nothing wrong with the design, or the construction. But disaster came about due to a unlucky combination of circumstances and geology.

Finished in 1954, after a few years of dry seasons and legal issues that prevented the dam's use, it was filled slowly.

But in 1959 heavy rains on the Côte d'Azur caused the water level to rise fast – far too fast. On December 2, the dam managers opened the floodgate partially, but too late, and too little: a major road was being built nearby, and to have opened the valve fully would have allowed so much water through it would have damaged the piles of the bridge being constructed just downstream. So they didn't.

That evening the swollen river backed up behind the dam to the point where it reached the top of the dam, and began to creak ominously.

At 21:13 on December 2, 1959, the dam collapsed. The wave of water was 40m high and is estimated to have swept down the river valley at 70km/h. 423 people were killed or missing.

It's said that the rock on which the dam was built was not as stable as originally believed from the surveys, though there is debate as to the significance of this. Generally though it is accepted that since the dam itself was strong enough to handle being completely full, and the mica on which it sat faulted (due to mechanisms not understood at the time the dam was built), that it was a combination of poor siting and operational circumstances that led to the tragedy.

The dam will of course not be rebuilt, but the remains are left as a memorial to the dead. You can clamber up onto the dam from where you can try to picture how large a force is required to rip through that concrete, metres thick, and warp solid bars of metal.

When I visited in summer, the pond gouged into the sandy riverbed directly below in front of the floodgate valve (itself bashed out of shape) held stagnant water in which bright green algae grew, making the scene somewhat sickly and alien. I had to resist the temptation to haul myself up to the dam's valve and look inside the belly of the failed work.

It's hot, take water. A car would be highly advantageous – I wasn't going to make it back to the bus loop in time for the last afternoon bus and had a very, very long walk back to St Raphael.