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The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 1

ALONG WITH THE Canal de l’Ourcq, the Bassin de la Villette, the Canal Saint-Martin, and the Bassin de l’Arsenal, the Canal Saint-Denis is part of the 130 km Réseau des Canaux Parisiens – the Parisian Canal Network.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The Canal Saint-Denis looking from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre to the Pont de Flandre 

The Canal Saint-Denis links the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement to la Seine in the commune of Saint-Denis, 6.6 km to the northwest. From the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine the canal navigates seven remote-controlled locks and one remote-controlled swing bridge and it drops some 28 metres.


The route of the Canal Saint-Denis from the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine showing the locks, or ‘écluses’ in French

The canal is 3.2 metres deep at its shallowest point and 3.5 metres at its deepest and its width varies from 30 metres to 140 metres. It can accommodate vessels with a beam of up to 8 metres and a maximum displacement of up to 1,000 tons. It takes about two and a half hours for vessels to navigate the full length of the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

Like the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both canals were intended to provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning Paris but whereas the Canal de l’Ourcq was also intended to provide Paris with a plentiful supply of water, the Canal Saint-Denis was designed as what we might think of today as a ‘by-pass’, a means of reducing the number of ships and barges passing through the centre of the city. As well as being a by-pass for river traffic the Canal Saint-Denis was, and still is, a by-pass for water. By diverting excess water from the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine, the Canal Saint-Denis serves to maintain constant water levels in Paris’s canals thereby helping to prevent flooding.

The building and operating of the Canal Saint-Denis was achieved through what we would now call a public-private partnership. The City of Paris purchased the land and then tendered contracts to private banking firms requiring them to build and operate the canal in return for which they were permitted to collect tolls from traffic using the canal for a term of ninety-nine years.

Work on the Canal Saint-Denis began in 1805 under the supervision of the French ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, and it opened in May 1821, on time and, at an estimated six million Francs, under budget.

I’ve been to explore the Canal Saint-Denis by walking from one end to the other and in this and in subsequent blog pieces I will share with you what I observed.

I began at the beginning, where the Canal Saint-Denis parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette and runs alongside the Quai de la Gironde.


The green arrow runs along the Quai de la Gironde. The large rectangular building on the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the Museum of Science and Industry

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The intersection of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis at the Parc de la Villette

Not only is the Parc de la Villette a large green space (at 35.5 hectares it’s the third largest park in Paris) it also houses one of the largest concentration of cultural venues in Paris, including the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie (Museum of Science and Industry), three major concert venues and the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The beginning of the Quai de la Gironde

From my starting point at the head of the canal, I had the beginning of the Quai de la Gironde on my left and the entrance to the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, on my right.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The start of the Canal Saint-Denis and the entrance to l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre. On the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the circus Big Top of the Cirque Plume

When the Canal Saint-Denis opened in 1821 there were twelve locks along its length. Between 1890 and 1895 the canal was rebuilt to accommodate bigger vessels and the number of locks was reduced from twelve to seven each comprising two adjacent chambers. The largest lock on the canal is the first lock, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, with a rise of 10 metres which, when it was built, was a world-record. Today, all seven locks and the swing bridge on the Canal Saint-Denis are remotely controlled from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

L’Écluse du Pont de Flandre

Work is underway to renovate the quays on either side of the canal between l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre and the Pont de Flandre so it was not possible for me to walk close to the water along this stretch. But I was able to walk alongside the canal along the Quai de la Gironde, which has its own history.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

In the early nineteenth-century, the Parisian flour and cereals warehouses were limited to the granary at Bastille and the Corn Exchange at Les Halles but with a rapidly growing population new storage facilities became necessary. The area around La Villette was chosen because of its canals, which provided easy and inexpensive transportation. In 1858-1859, two stores docks and additional warehousing capacity were built along the Quai de la Gironde to store flour, starch, grain, oil, alcohol and commodities from the French colonies.

In May 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, the warehouses were burned to the ground but they were rebuilt soon after and served Parisians for the next century.

Canal Saint-Martin

These warehouses alongside the Canal Saint-Denis, together with those at the pont du Crimée and alongside the Bassin de la Villette, were known as the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris. Today, they are being redeveloped and turned into up-market office space.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

From the Pont de Flandre onwards, both the canal and the Quai de la Gironde take on a different feel. The slow moving, lumbering barges and the occasional leisure craft contrast with the sleek, high-speed (although not high-speed at this point) TGV trains crossing the railway bridge. And the Quai de la Gironde ceases to become a road and is transformed into a paved thoroughfare accommodating both pedestrians and cyclists.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The sleek trams of the fairly recently opened Tram Line 3b pass by on one side  …

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

… while the navette fluviale taking visitors to and from the Millénaire shopping complex further downstream passes by on the other side.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

And all the while the sound of construction work echoes in the background as the former Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux are rejuvenated.

It was from here amidst all the redevelopment work that I decided to pause and listen and to record a sound portrait of this stretch of the canal and the Quai de la Gironde.

The Canal Saint-Denis and the Quai de la Gironde – A Sound Portrait:

Next time, I will explore the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, but in the meantime, I will leave you with a view looking back along the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde – a very different view from that at its beginning.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde


Sousa Comes To Paris

I WAS WALKING THROUGH the Jardin du Luxembourg heading for my 82 bus when I came upon something quite unusual, something I couldn’t possibly walk past without stopping to record.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me on this particular day so here’s a picture of the Jardin du Luxembourg I prepared earlier!

A group of young musicians were assembled on the bandstand and I just caught the very end of their performance. They were high school and college students from the United States called the Virginia Ambassadors of Music and they were on a summer European tour.

Virginia Ambassadors of Music:

Unfortunately, this was one of those rare days when I didn’t have my camera with me but no matter, their spirited performance of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever more than makes up for that.

As you can hear, the audience gathered around the bandstand were very enthusiastic. And special congratulations to the two young lady flute players who earned their own well-deserved round of applause.

The Virginia Ambassadors of Music don’t seem to have a web site, or at least I can’t find one, so if anyone knows more about them perhaps you’d like to get in touch.


Parisian Thunder!

YESTERDAY, I CAME HOME to find that that the workmen had finished erecting the scaffolding on the apartment block on the left of my little courtyard. This was good news because can there be anything worse than the constant clanging of scaffolding poles? The bad news was that I discovered work had started on erecting scaffolding on the apartment block to the right as well.

All this portends weeks of endless noise as they begin to clean the front of these apartment buildings by sandblasting them. It’s not something I’m looking forward to!

Still, the sight of scaffolding on the apartment blocks in my courtyard is a little unusual so I though I would capture the scene.


I had just taken this picture from my balcony and gone back inside when the clouds darkened and it began to rain. During September we’ve been enjoying a glorious Indian summer in Paris but for the last couple of days the wonderful sunshine has been accompanied by uncomfortable humidity, a sure sign that thunder is in the air.

Parisian thunder from my balcony:

And thunder there was!

Thunder is not uncommon in Paris but I seldom seem to be in the right place at the right time to capture the sound of it – but yesterday was an exception. As the rain poured down and the workmen scurried for shelter I set up my microphones on my balcony and listened to nature’s dramatic performance.

After twenty minutes or so the thunder abated, the rain stopped, the sun shone again and life returned to normal. But what a dramatic twenty minutes it was!


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau and its Sounds

I WAS RETURNING from an expedition to the Pont Marie, one of the oldest bridges in Paris, where I had been on my feet for a little over three hours collecting material for my Paris Bridges Project. It was a sultry afternoon, I was tired and in need of a sit down and some refreshment. I was heading for a café I often frequent when I’m in these parts when I happened upon a short, narrow, medieval Parisian street I’ve walked along many times but never really stopped to take much notice of, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau. For the first time, I was intrigued by this street so I paused to absorb the atmosphere.


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau lies along the green arrow

The street runs parallel to la Seine and it’s bordered to the east by the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and by the rue des Barres to the west with the Êglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris just beyond.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau looking from east to west

As I’ve said, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a short, narrow, medieval street and I was particularly intrigued by its name.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

In French, the word ‘grenier’ means attic or loft so to my mind, “street of the loft on the water” didn’t seem to make much sense. All became clear though when I got home and consulted my bible on these matters, Bernard Stéphane’s ‘Dictionnaire des Noms de Rues’.

It seems that in the early thirteenth-century, a Monsieur Garnier or Guernier owned some houses in the passage between the Êglise Saint-Gervais and the river. In 1241, all of these houses were acquired by the Knights Templar save for one in which Garnier’s goddaughter lived.

The records show that in 1257 the street was known as rue André-sur-l’Eau but by 1391 it had become rue du Garnier-sur-l’Eau. It seems then that the present day rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a corruption of the fourteenth-century name, rue du Garnier sur l’Eau. So nothing at all to do with attics or lofts then!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Not only was I intrigued with the name of the street, I was also intrigued by its atmosphere. When I arrived, the street was practically empty save for the occasional passers-by pausing to look at the shop at the bottom of the street. Apart from the shop, the only one in the street, and the occasional traffic passing along the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe the street had a very medieval feel to it.

I was also keen to explore the sound tapestry of the street. After all, quiet streets in Paris are relatively rare things.

Those of you who follow this Blog regularly will know that I often use the technique of soundwalking to explore the city’s sound tapestry but the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is not a street that lends itself to soundwalking. It’s a short street and it takes no more than a minute to walk from one end to the other. In my experience, the best way to capture the sound tapestry of a street like this is to do the reverse of a soundwalk, that is to say, stay in one place and let the street walk past you.

And that’s exactly what I did. I positioned myself in the narrowest part of the street, about two-thirds of the way up towards rue des Barres, and from there I began to record and to see what would happen.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Sounds of rue du Grenier sur l’Eau:

As is so often the case, things seldom turn out the way one expects. My microphones revealed that, what appeared to be a quiet, medieval street was in fact a hive of sonic activity.

Ordinary Parisians passing by, some chatting to friends, some purposefully walking from one place to another, some carrying their shopping and looking rather weary and some simply strolling and enjoying the sunshine. Small children gambolling within sight of but not tied to their parents and testosterone-fuelled adolescents jockeying for position in life’s pecking order. And then there were the tourists, mostly in groups, receiving yet another commentary about yet another ‘site of interest’. The sounds of voices, footsteps, children running, a car horn, things falling over, a breathless jogger and rustling shopping bags were all now evident whereas they had been inaudible from further down the street. A bicycle rickshaw rattled past with the driver giving a fleeting commentary on the architecture. And another, more detailed, commentary came from an English-speaking French tour guide who was escorting a small party of Japanese tourists.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

This commentary is actually worth listening to in some detail. The tour guide was talking about this timber-framed house. He tells us, or rather he was telling his tour party, that all the houses in Paris were like this until the seventeenth-century. Wood floating down the river was retrieved and used either as firewood or to make timber frames for the houses. The problem was that, because the streets were very narrow, a fire in one house could easily leap across and set fire to the neighbouring houses. To avoid this hazard, a law was issued around 1600 saying that the wood had to be covered with plaster. It’s only in recent years that some of the plaster has been removed to expose the wood. In the picture above you can see that the timber frame is exposed on the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau side of the house but the plaster remains on the rue des Barres side. This house is now a youth hostel but it’s so popular, especially in the summer, that guests are only allowed to stay for three nights.

I’m not quite sure how much of all this was absorbed by the Japanese tourists but it fascinated me!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

I spent well over an hour standing in rue du Grenier sur l’Eau observing, but observing through active listening. I suspect that most of the people who passed by were aware to some extent of the soundscape around them but probably only as something in the distant background. For those engaged in conversation, these ‘background’ sounds would probably have passed by largely unnoticed.

For me though, the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau, small as it is, seemed to be huge canvas upon which was woven a colourful and captivating sonic tapestry depicting the fascinating contemporary atmosphere of this medieval street.


Soundwalking in Paris with Antonella Radicchi

LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.


Antonella Radicchi

Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.

Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.

Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.

Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.

Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi

I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.

I couldn’t wait!

Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!

His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.

So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.


Des’ binaural recording equipmentMarantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones

He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.


Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk

Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!


Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.

Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:


My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg

Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in rue Descartes:


My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right

Antonella in rue Mouffetard:


My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy

I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.

I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.

And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!


La Fête de Ganesh 2014

LA FÊTE DE GANESH, along with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the Carnaval Tropical, bring an annual wave of colour and spectacle to the streets of Paris highlighting the city’s cultural diversity.

Indian communities across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year and yesterday I went to join the celebrations in Paris.

Fête de Ganesh 2014

The Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol

Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. It was from here that a colourful procession set off yesterday on its tour of the surrounding area.


Strands of jasmine were on sale everywhere

To experience la Fête de Ganesh is to experience a multi-sensory feast with the colourful costumes and the equally colourful sounds overlayed with wonderfully exotic smells.

Unfortunately, I can’t recreate the exotic smells for you to enjoy but I can share with you this year’s Fête de Ganesh in sounds and pictures and let them tell their own story.

La Fête de Ganesh 2014 in sound:



The Deity Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014

This is the pile of coconuts that you can hear being smashed in my recording

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014



Lunch after the parade …  if you can find a seat!  Then the clean up begins …



Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk

IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.

Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins looking from West to East

At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.

In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.


Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget

The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture

I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:

Rue des Ursins

Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.

Rue des Ursins



The Pont au Double and its Sounds

FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Pont au Double in the heart of Paris close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.


The Pont au Double is 45 metres long and 20 metres wide and it links the 4th and 5th arrondissements of Paris from the Île de la Cité to the quai de Montebello.

Pont au Double

Work began on the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point in 1626. Designed by the French architect, Christophe Gamard, the bridge was deemed necessary as part of the development of the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.

Hôtel Dieu

The Hôtel Dieu today seen from the northern end of the Pont au Double

Originally, the Hôtel Dieu was situated on the opposite side of the parvis Notre-Dame (the square now known as Place Jean-Paul II) from where it stands today. Then it was next to la Seine but during the Middle Ages the hospital had grown in an unplanned and rather chaotic way. By the early part of the seventeenth-century the Hôtel Dieu was grossly overcrowded, often with four patients to a bed, and in order to provide more space a part of the Hôtel Dieu had spilled over la Seine to occupy a parcel of land on the Left Bank. The new bridge was seen as a way of connecting the two parts of the hospital.

Pont au Double

The bridge was completed in 1634. It was a stone bridge on to which a two-story building was constructed which was used as extra hospital wards for the Hôtel Dieu. This building occupied almost two-thirds of the width of the bridge. It was decided that the remaining one-third should be open for public use for which a toll was levied. The proceeds from this toll were used to pay for the bridge. The toll to cross the bridge was a ‘double denier’, a denier being a medieval coin taking its name from the Frankish coin first issued (as the denarius) in the late seventh century. In English it is sometimes referred to as a silver penny. It was from this ‘double denier’ toll that the bridge took its name, the Pont au Double.

In 1709, the original bridge collapsed and it was replaced with a new bridge, which survived until 1847. The Pont au Double we see today was opened in 1883 as a one arch cast-iron bridge designed by Henri-Prosper Bernard and Jules Lax.

Pont au Double

The other day, I went to explore the Pont au Double and I began by seeing what I could find under the bridge.

Pont au Change

The first thing I discovered was that this is one of the embarkation points for the Bateaux Parisiens, one of the many tourist boats that ply la Seine. And it is the sounds of tourist and other boats passing that dominate the soundscape under the bridge.

Pont au Change – Under the Bridge:

Pont au Change

I was also reminded of two pieces of history as I was exploring the underside of the bridge.

Pont au Double

These steps leading down to the quai de Montebello reminded me that in the seventeenth century steps like these also emerged from the bridge onto the quay and la Seine. It was from here that the nuns from the Hôtel Dieu used to spend up to nine hours a day doing their washing and that of the sick and infirm from the hospital above. I was also reminded that in the seventeenth century this would have been rather an obnoxious place to be since the hospital poured its waste directly into the Seine around here.

Pont au Double

The plaque in the wall bearing the legend ‘1910’ reminded me that this was the height to which the Seine reached in the Great Flood of Paris in January 1910. Although the water threatened to overflow the tops of the quay walls that line the river, workmen were able to keep the Seine back with hastily built levees.

Pont au Double

Having explored underneath the bridge, I climbed up the steps from the quai de Montebello to explore the bridge from above. From here it is hard to imagine that in the seventeenth century hospital wards belonging to the Hôtel Dieu would have occupied two-thirds of this bridge, on the left-hand side.

Pont au Double

Today, the Pont au Double is a thoroughfare for tourists heading to or from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. These days, no toll is required to cross the bridge but a pourboire, or a tip, is always appreciated by the street musicians who can often be found on the bridge.

Pont au Double – On the Bridge:

Pont au Double

In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.

The soundscape under the Pont au Double with the sounds of tourist and other boats passing was fairly predictable but I found the soundscape on the bridge really quite interesting.

The young lady pictured above wearing her tap shoes and playing her ukulele together with the accordionist, who was reluctant to be photographed, gave a colourful perspective to the soundscape but it was the sounds at the beginning and at the end of my exploration on top of the bridge that really fascinated me.

Square Jean XXIII

At the northern end of the Pont au Double is the Square Jean XXIII, a park named after Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in France from 1945 to 1953, who subsequently became Pope Jean XXIII. I began and ended my exploration on top of the Pont au Double here and it was here that I found two very similar but contrasting sounds. The chorus of the tourist’s voices, mostly Chinese (or were they Japanese?) outside the park at the outset seemed to contrast beautifully with the chorus of the birds hidden in the foliage in the park at the end of my walk across the bridge.

The sounds of the boats passing under the bridge, the sounds of the street musicians and the sounds of the tourists on the bridge are certainly characteristic sounds of the Pont au Double but they are transient sounds, they come and go, they vary day by day and similar sounds can be heard on and around several other Parisian bridges.

For me, it is the sounds of the birds that are the unique sounds of the Pont au Double.

Pont au Double


The Gare de l’Est and its Sounds

THE GARE DE L’EST is one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. Designed by the French architect, François Duquesnay, it was opened in 1849 by the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Paris à Strasbourg, the Paris-Strasbourg Railway Company. In 1854, the service was expanded and the Gare de l’Est also became the western terminus of the Paris – Mulhouse Railway.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est today

October 4th, 1883, was a key date for the Gare de l’Est because that was the day that saw the first departure of the original Express d’Orient from the Gare de l’Est bound for Istanbul.


The first Orient Express in 1883 – Image via Wikipedia

Run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the original route was from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to pick up another train to Varna. They then completed their journey to Istanbul (then called Constantinople) by ferry. It wasn’t until six years later, on June 1st, 1889, that the first non-stop train left the Gare de l’Est for Istanbul.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est was renovated in 1885 and again in 1900 and then in 1931 it was doubled in size with a new extension built symmetrically with the old station.

Gare de L’Est

‘Strasbourg’ by Lemaire

At the top of the west façade of the original part of the Gare de l’Est is a statue by the sculptor Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire, representing the city of Strasbourg.

Gare de L’Est

‘Verdun’ by Varenne

At the east end of the station, the newer part, is a statue personifying Verdun, by Varenne. Both Strasbourg and Verdun are important destinations served by Gare de l’Est but Verdun in particular reminds us the role the Gare de l’Est played in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

The railway network from the Gare de l’Est stretches towards the east of France and it was from this station that thousands of French troops, the poilus, were despatched to the Western Front in 1914.

We can get an impression of the contemporary scene from a painting that hangs in the western concourse of the Gare de l’Est by the American painter, Albert Herter.

Gare de L’Est

Le Départ de poilus, août 1914 by Albert Herter

Herter painted this in memory of his son, a volunteer in the French army, who was killed at Bois-Bellau in the last few month of the war.

The painting includes the artist himself, on the right holding a bouquet in his hand, while his wife is on the far left with her hands clasped together. These two figures draw our eye towards the centre of the painting and their son, standing in the doorway of the carriage with a flower in his gun and his cap held high. His enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the tears of the women on the platform.

The painting was given to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Est by the painter as a gift in 1926.

Gare de L’Est

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, the Gare de l’Est is hosting a photographic exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by the photographer Didier Pazery.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

After the death in 2008 of Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the Poilus, Didier Pazery made pictures of the old front line and of artefacts belonging to the Meaux Great War Museum. The exhibition includes some of these pictures together with portraits made ​​between 1996 and 2007 of the last survivors of the conflict.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

Before moving on to the sounds of the Gare de l’Est, there is one other feature of the station that has a connection with war, this time with the Second World War.

Gare de l’Est

This innocuous looking ventilation shaft on one of the platforms of the station hides something that the thousands of passengers who pass through this station each day are probably completely unaware of.


Image via the compelling website

There are a series of bunkers under this platform. Built just before the outbreak of war and with space to accommodate seventy people, they were intended for use as bomb shelters, to protect against gas attacks and as a communications centre. They are all still intact but not open to the public.

Gare de L’Est

On my visit to the Gare de l’Est I was very much aware of its history, the Orient Express, the poilus and the bunkers, but I wanted to explore the station as it is today and particularly its contemporary sounds.

The Gare de l’Est and its sounds:


Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est is a big station and its glass roof is listed as a monument historique. I don’t know whether its clocks share that distinction but, if not, perhaps they should.

Gare de L’Est

The movement of people within the station seems to pass in waves as trains arrive and depart.

Gare de L’Est

And in between train arrivals and departures people do what they always do, they sit and wait.

Gare de L’Est

My exploration of the sounds of the Gare de l’Est took an unexpected turn when, in the midst of a very hot and very humid early August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm of tropical proportions appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

Gare de L’Est

I learned pretty quickly that when it rains the Gare de l’Est is far from waterproof. Not only did the rain splatter the trains waiting at the platforms but it also bounced off the entrance to the platforms as well.

Gare de L’Est

And it also seemed to permeate through every available nook and cranny.

Gare de L’Est

But the rain soon passed and the station was quickly returned to the balm of a summer’s afternoon.

Gare de L’Est

I couldn’t help wondering though how the sounds I’d recorded in the Gare de l’Est in early August 2014 would compare to the sounds to be heard in the same station one hundred years ago in August 1914 as a generation of young men set off to a conflict from which few would return.

Gare de L’Est



Le Tour de France 2014

IN JULY EACH YEAR, the Champs Elysées hosts two major events, the défilé, the large parade on 14th July, the centrepiece of La Fête National, and in the last week of the month, the final stage of the Tour de France. Both events occupy the whole of the Champs Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde and both attract large crowds. But while the former is of largely national interest, the latter commands a global audience.


The Champs Elysées from on top of l’Arc de Triomphe

Image via Josh HallettFlickr:

The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event and it’s the greatest free show on earth. Only the Olympic Games and the FIFA football World Cup, which take place every four years, attract a bigger audience. Each year some 12 million spectators watch le Tour along the route each spending on average six hours at a time at the roadside. But that number is tiny compared to the television audience. This year, 121 different television channels across the world broadcast the race in 188 countries to a worldwide television audience of 3.5 billion people.

Running for three weeks from Saturday 5th July to Sunday 27th July, this year’s Tour de France, the 101st, comprised 21 stages covering a total distance of 3,664 kilometres. There were nine flat stages, five hill stages, six mountain stages with five altitude finishes, one individual time trial stage and two rest days.

I follow le Tour every year but for a long-time ex-pat like me, this year’s Tour was extra special. The Grand Départ, the first stage of le Tour, is always a showpiece often taking place in countries outside France. This year, the first three stages took place in the UK, but more that that, the first two stages took place in Yorkshire, a place where I lived for twenty years and a place I know very well. With Day 1 of le Tour stretching some 190 km from Leeds to Harrogate and Day 2, 201km from York to Sheffield, the local wits quickly dubbed this year’s Tour as le Tour de Yorkshire!

After leaving the UK, le Tour travelled to France and, with a detour into Belgium, paid it’s respects to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by racing through Ypres, Arras and the haunting plateau of the Chemin des Dames.


Le Tour de France route 2014

I didn’t go to the start of le Tour in Yorkshire but I did go to the finish in the Champs Elysées on Sunday.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

And there I found that the UK theme continued in the shape of a couple of London buses.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

Since 1975, the final stage of le Tour de France has ended in the Champs Elysées and the format is the same as with all the other stages of le Tour.

First comes the caravane publicitaire, the colourful and noisy procession of sponsor’s vehicles. The numbers vary from year to year but there are usually around 250 vehicles in the procession, they arrive 90 minutes before the race riders and it takes them 40 minutes to pass.

Then comes the race itself. This year the final stage began at Évry just to the south of Paris and it finished with eight laps around the Champs Elysées. Copying last year’s 100th edition of le Tour, the route up and down the Champs Elysées was extended to include a circuit around the Arc de Triomphe and a fly-past by the Patrouille de France as the riders arrived.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

After the vibrancy of the caravane publicitaire and the excitement of the finish of the race comes the ceremonie protocolaire, the awards ceremony.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

The podium waiting to be pushed into place for the ceremonie protocolaire

I record the end of le Tour every year in the Champs Elysées so I’m very familiar with the routine. My first task is always to walk up and down the avenue looking for a vantage point from which to record. This is not always as easy as it sounds.

I usually record the sounds of the caravane publicitaire from just beyond the finish line but because the public address system is so awful finding a spot from which to record the commentary is much more difficult. It often takes quite a long time to find just the right place but once I’ve found it I usually head off to a café I know just off the Champs Elysées where I’m guaranteed a seat, a cool glass of beer and a TV to watch the riders’ progress. As soon as I see the riders arrive in Paris I head back to my recording pitch and take up position.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

To actually see any of the race it’s necessary to get there early, occupy a vacant place and then spend several hours waiting for something to happen. The enthusiasts get themselves very well organised.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

France Télévisions always have by far the best view with their outside broadcast cameras hoisted on cherry pickers stretching across the road and more cameras in the helicopters flying overhead. Their pictures are shared on the big-screen televisions situated at various points around the course.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

A France 3 OB camera ready to be hoisted over the Champs Elysées

On Sunday I spent just over six hours at work in the Champs Elysées, waiting for and then recording the caravane publicitaire, searching out a site from which to record the commentary and recording the race and the ceremonie protocolaire. Altogether, I recorded just over three hours of sound a good part of which has now been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.

For those of you who haven’t got three hours to spare, here is a flavour of the end of le Tour de France 2014.

Le Tour de France 2014 in the Champs Elysées:

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

And what about the commentator and that distinctive voice, the voice of the Tour de France?

For those of you who may have wondered, his name is Daniel Mangeas and he’s been the commentator of the Tour de France, and other cycle races, since 1974. He commentates on some 200 events a year. For le Tour he spends two hours at the microphone presenting the riders at the start of each day’s race and then he drives to the finish to commentate on the last 50km of the race. He was, of course, in Yorkshire for this year’s Grand Départ and this being le Tour de France, he commentated in French. I can’t help wondering what all those Yorkshire Tykes made of that!

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

On 5th July, 219 riders set off on the Grand Départ from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. After three weeks, 3,664 kilometres and for the winner at least 89 hours 59 minutes and 6 seconds on the bike, 164 riders arrived at the finish line in the Champs Elysées on Sunday. Some riders didn’t make it to the finish, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome being perhaps the most notable to crash out en route.

Tour de France 2014 -

Vincenzo Nibali

The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France 2014, a race he led for eighteen days out of twenty-one. This year also saw a return of French riders to the podium with Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot finishing second and third respectively.

The last stage on the Champs-Elysées went to Marcel Kittel just like last year. The German outsprinted Alexander Kristoff in a spectacular final sprint on the Champs-Elysées.

Peter Sagan won the Green Jersey for the best sprinter, Rafal Majka won the Polka-Dot jersey for the best climber, Thibaut Pinot won the white jersey for the best young rider and Alessandro De Marchi won the prix de la combativité. AG2R La Mondiale won the team prize.

And spare a thought for the man who finished last, the lanterne rouge, Ji Cheng, the first Chinese rider to compete in the Tour de France. The fact that he came last, just over 6 hours on aggregate time behind the winner, doesn’t mean that he was the worst rider in the race. Like many riders, Ji Cheng is a domestique, whose job is to sacrifice his own position in the race to protect his team leader, to supply him with food and drink during each stage and to chase down riders who break away from the peloton. Ji Cheng won the affection of the crowds because he did his job so well.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées


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