Thriving green tourism: how France is using its coal mining history

Slag heap #93. Image: Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick, via Wikimedia (Public Domain)
Slag heap #93. Image: Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick, via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Tourists will notice the strange hills across the countryside of Nord-Pas de Calais. The region has a long history of industry, and these hills are an unavoidable reminder.

They’re not really hills at all. They’re the slag heaps from the centuries of coal mining in the region. All the waste rocks from the mines were piled up into large, black mountains. After the industry died down, these artificial mounds became testimonies to the coal stained history of the region.

Now, they’re being revitalised. If you visit the small town of Rieulay, you’ll be treated to the local wine “Charbonnay”, a play on words between the wine grape Chardonnay, and the French word for coal (charbon). The grapes are grown on the side of one of the heaps. Other heaps have become nature reserves, or biking trails. There’s even a ski slope on one hill.

Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin (France) © Mission Bassin Minier

The last mine in the area closed in 1990, leaving the area in deep economic depression. Some suggested razing the hills to the ground, but instead a plan to drop seeds on the hills from helicopters was realised. Thus, the dark hills turned green, and since 2012, the entire area has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Now, they’re not seen as a bad memory. Although some hills are still too contaminated for visitors, the transformation has given locals opportunities to revitalise their lives. The plan to turn the area into a tourist destination will keep the industrial heritage secure for years to come, and put money back into the region.

Read more at National Geographic, or check out the tags below for industrial heritage and adaptive reuse.

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