They were once a symbol of devastation: black conical mountains rising in strange symmetry from the otherwise flat landscape of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, in northern France. Entirely made by humans, these terrils, or slag heaps, are the byproduct of nearly three centuries of coal mining in the region.
Today the slag heaps symbolize something else. What from a distance appears black turns green up close - the vegetation as promising as the sustainable tourism initiatives now starting to revitalize the region’s economy.
Now, these rehabilitated mounds serve as playgrounds for locals and visitors alike, with natural spaces and even the Louvre’s first satellite museum. Hikers appreciate the panoramas from the summits of Europe’s highest slag heaps, while ultra runners train on the “hell staircase” at the Arena Terril Trail, and cyclists circle the lake at the Terril des Argales. Meanwhile, skiers glide down an artificial ski slope covering a terril in Noeux-les-Mines.
In Rieulay a vineyard blankets a slag heap, its Chardonnay grapes harvested by hand from steep terraces to produce the pride of the village: “Charbonnay,” named in a playful nod to charbon (coal). And in Loos-en-Gohelle, the former coal extraction site known as the Base 11/19 now serves as a tourist attraction, music center, and sustainable development hub. From the café operated by the tourism office, you can sign up for a range of activities on the terrils: an art therapy class, a meditation session, or a sunrise hike with breakfast.
UNESCO has awarded the mining basin World Heritage status, recognizing it as a living and evolving cultural landscape symbolizing Europe’s industrial history. The region’s infamous black mountains suddenly had the same standing as the pyramids of Giza. Shocked locals, newly instilled with pride, perceived their region differently.