PLACE DE LA NATION is both a place of celebration and a place of protest. Every summer, the Carnaval Tropicales de Paris takes place here and most of the big street protests in Paris either start or finish here.
In the centre of Place de la Nation is the monument, “The Triumph of the Republic”, a bronze sculpture created by Aimé-Jules Dalou erected in 1899 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution.
Under the Ancien Regime, Place de la Nation was called Place du Trône because a throne was erected in this space on 26 July 1660 for the arrival of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain following their marriage in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. During the French Revolution the name, Place du Trône, was changed to Place du Trône-Renversé (Square of the Overturned Throne) and, in 1794, it changed from being a place of celebration to a killing field.
Barrière du Trône – Picture from Wikipedia
On 11th June 1794, the guillotine was moved from Place de la Bastille where it had been for a short time to the Barrière du Trône at the southern end of the Place du Trône.
From 14th June to 27th July 1794, Charles-Henri Sanson, Royal executioner of France and his assistants worked the guillotine on an industrial scale. During these six weeks they beheaded some 1,306 people in batches of 40 to 50 at a time.
Today, the Barrière du Trône still stands but, apart from a plaque on a wall marking the site of l’Échafaud (the scaffold on which the guillotine was placed), nothing remains to remind us of these bloody events. That is unless one walks along the neighbouring rue de Picpus. There, behind the heavy wooden doors of N° 35, the reminders are vivid.
This is the Cimetière de Picpus, the largest private cemetery in Paris created from land seized from the convent of the Chanoinesses de St-Augustin during the Revolution. It was to here that the mutilated bodies were brought after Sanson had done his work and after being stripped of their clothing, they were unceremoniously dumped into two freshly dug pits under cover of darkness. These mass graves are still here and today they are tended with much care.
Yesterday, on my way to Place de la Nation to record yet another street demonstration for my Paris Soundscapes Archive, I stopped off at the Cimetière de Picpus. My timing was fortuitous. Yesterday was 15th June; one day after Madame Guillotine set to work in Place du Trône in 1794. In the chapel in the grounds of the cemetery I discovered a memorial service taking place to commemorate the victims buried here.
I recorded some of the sounds inside the chapel and then went to look at the cemetery. Whilst there, I recorded a piece for my audio diary which I’ve been keeping for many years. I’ve never shared any of my audio diary on this blog before, it’s not what I usually do, but I would like to share this piece with you. I’ve added some of the sounds from inside the chapel to my words and I hope that this piece, together with the pictures I took, will give you a flavour of the Cimetière de Picpus – a very special place.
Cimetière de Picpus – A Personal View:
Porte Charretière – The entrance in 1794
Porte Chapelle – The original chapel door in 1794
Family members of the victims are buried here
Memorial to the 16 Carmelites de Compiègne who sang their way to the guillotine
Tombe de La Fayette
The ‘fosses communes’ or mass graves are under the gravel. 304 victims are buried in the smaller grave at the front and 1,002 in the larger grave at the rear in front of the wall
I HAD OCCASION TO visit the French Ministry of Finance last week, the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances.
The Ministry building is in the Boulevard de Bercy and, along with the Louvre Pyramid, the Musee d’Orsay, Parc de la Villette, Institut du Monde Arabe, Opéra Bastille, Grande Arche de La Défense, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, it’s one of François Mitterand’s Grand Projets, officially known as the Grandes Operations d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme.
Designed by Paul Chemetov and built in 1988, the building is T-shaped, it’s seventy metres in length and, because of height restrictions at the time it was built, it rises to only six levels. The building comprises 225,000 square metres of office space that span the rue de Bercy and stretch as far as La Seine. And it boasts it’s own helipad and a private jetty where the building adjoins the river.
When I went to the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances I went on Métro Line 1 to the Gare de Lyon and then walked along rue de Bercy. On the way back, I took a different route and walked along the full length of the Ministry building to the Seine, then across the Pont de Bercy to the Quai de la Gare Métro station on Line 6.
Of all the lines on the Paris Métro, Line 6 is the one I enjoy most. It runs for 13.6 km (8.5 miles) along a semi-circular route around the southern half of the city between the stations Charles de Gaulle – Étoile in the west and Nation in the east. For 6.1 km (3.8 miles) of the route the trains run above ground from where it’s possible to get a different, and sometimes spectacular, view of the city. The view of the Tour Eiffel as the trains cross the Pont de Bir-Hakeim has to be one of the most spectacular sights on any Métro line in the world.
Métro Line 6 crossing the Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Photo from Wikipedia
Quai de la Gare station is at the intersection of the Quai de la Gare and the Boulevard Vincent Auriol in the 13th arrondissement. It opened on 1st March 1909 and it takes its name from the Quai de la Gare, a wharf on the Left Bank of the Seine in the second half of the eighteenth-century that served the nearby Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. When the wharf was constructed the area was part of the village of Ivry, which consisted of two main neighbourhoods, one of which was called Quartier de La Gare.
Near to the station, and also taking its name from the Quartier de La Gare, was the Barrière de la Gare, a gate built for the collection of taxation as part of the mur des Fermiers généraux, the Wall of the Farmers-General. The gate was built between 1784 and 1788 and demolished in 1819.
Sounds of Quai de la Gare Station:
With its entrance at street level, the platforms of Quai de la Gare sit above the Boulevard Vincent Auriol and they’re accessed by very narrow escalators to the left and right.
I find the sounds of Métro stations fascinating, partly for the sound of the trains but also for the sound of the spaces in between the trains coming and going.
In 1971 the trains on Line 6 were converted to use rubber tyres. This of course makes the sound of the trains less dramatic than the sound of the metal-wheeled trains, but that’s exactly the point. The conversion to rubber tyres was made to reduce the noise and vibration not only to passengers but also residents near the elevated portions of the line.
The swish of the trains entering and leaving the Quai de la Gare and the clatter of their doors opening and closing sit in contrast to the quieter, but equally interesting, sounds in between. Sitting on the platforms of stations like this waiting for a train it’s easy to miss the depth and texture of these sounds. For me, it’s often only when I listen to recordings of these sounds away from the station and out of context that they actually come alive. Every time I listen I hear something different. I hope you do too.
Here’s some more sights of Quai de la Gare:
Looking out from the platform to the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances
THE ALBERT KAHN MUSEUM AND GARDENS are located on the outskirts of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt conveniently close to the Métro station Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud (Line 10) and the tram stop Parc de Saint-Cloud on tram line T2.
Taking advantage of the sunshine that, for the most part, seems to have eluded us this year, I went to take a look.
The museum and the gardens, now owned by the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine, are the legacy of the French banker and philanthropist, Albert Kahn (1860 – 1940).
Albert Kahn was born in 1860 in Marmoutier, in the Bas-Rhin region of France. At the age of sixteen he went to Paris to work as a junior clerk in the Goudchaux Frères bank where he eventually became a senior partner. In 1898 he set up his own bank.
Kahn believed that knowledge of foreign societies and cultures encouraged respect and peaceful relations between peoples and so, following this theme and using his considerable wealth, he set up the series of bursaries, or travelling scholarships, he called Autour du Monde – “Around the World”. He also founded the Chair of Human Geography at the Collège de France, plus the first centre for preventive medicine, a biology laboratory and two forums for discussion and research, the Société Autour du Monde, and the National Committee for Social and Political Studies.
In 1893 Kahn acquired a large property in Boulogne-Billancourt, where he established a unique garden containing a variety of garden styles including French, English and Japanese.
In 1909, Kahn travelled to Japan on business and returned with a collection of photographs of the journey. This prompted him to begin a project collecting a photographic record of the entire planet. He appointed Jean Brunhes as the project director, and sent photographers to every continent to record images of the planet using the first colour photography, autochrome plates, and early cinematography. Between 1909 and 1931 they collected 72,000 colour photographs and 183,000 metres of film. These form a unique historical record of 50 countries, known as The Archives of the Planet, now housed in the Albert Kahn museum.
The stock market crash of October 1929 dealt a fatal blow to Kahn’s wealth and his plans. His property was confiscated and in 1936, the Prefecture of the Seine acquired the Boulogne estate, although Kahn was allowed the use of it until his death in November 1940. In 1968, the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine was granted ownership of the site and collections.
Eventually the four hectares (eight acres) of gardens were restored and a museum was set up by the Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine to exhibit Kahn’s collection of images.
Sounds of the Albert-Kahn Musée et Jardin:
The Albert Kahn garden comprises a collection of gardens of different styles.
There is the Japanese garden complete with an old Japanese village filled with temples, lanterns, stone edged paths, and the contemporary Japanese garden, with azaleas, and streams crossed by stone or timber bridges.
There’s a formal French garden, with a large greenhouse complete with palms and tropical plants, an orchard and a rose garden.
The English garden was a particular delight to me, with its green grass, rocks and a cottage.
Then, a forest of Blue Atlas cedars and Colorado spruces, whose low branches screen a small lily pond surrounded by a wild meadow. After crossing the meadow and passing through a group of slender birches, paths lead to a forest of conifers planted on steep, rocky soil, a reproduction of the Vosges Mountains near Kahn’s birthplace.
Change is afoot for the Albert Kahn museum. The Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, won the competition for a completely new museum building. Work is due to start in 2015 and is expected to be completed in 2017.
Albert Kahn, museum and gardens: 10-14, rue du Port, 92100 Boulogne-Billancourt
I SPENT A WONDERFUL DAY last week exploring Paris with my friend, Roxanne Escobales.
Roxanne is an independent audio producer and journalist who has decided to slowly take the scenic route away from news and into the sound-based, multimedia world. When she isn’t trying to figure out how to persuade people to give her money for her ideas and production, you can find her at her local pub in South London, appreciating the leafiness of Crystal Palace. You can hear her forays into podcasting with Palace Stories (palacestories.co.uk). You just may hear her news production without realising it if you listen to the BBC World Service.
During the day, I was privileged to introduce Roxanne to the art of soundwalking – something she took to with great enthusiasm.
Later, I rather hesitatingly asked Roxanne if she would consider sharing the experience of her first Parisian soundwalk by writing a guest piece about it for this blog. No hesitation on my part was required of course because she readily agreed.
And so it is with great pleasure and with my grateful thanks that I share with you Roxanne’s story about her soundwalk in the rue Mouffetard.
Soundwalking in Paris – A Personal View From Roxanne Escobales:
Footsteps on my left, laughter just a few meters ahead, and a motorcycle from behind me on the right driving past – watch out! – there’s a car following it and I’m right in its path.
My body instinctively tries to move out of the way, conditioned to save itself by merely hearing the sound of an engine over my shoulder, its wheels on the asphalt.
But at this point, I’m not walking down the street about to be run over by a two-ton killing machine. I’m sitting at a table outside a café on the rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement in Paris, around the corner and down the street from where Ernest Hemingway lived from 1922-3. I’ve got a pair of headphones on, and through my ears I’m re-living the past 20 minutes in binaural stereo. The sound – panning from left to right, or right to left depending on the relative movement of its source in relation to my head at the time of recording – is so realistic, it’s practically 3-D, as if I could touch it, or, in the case of the car, as if it could touch me.
I had just taken a soundwalk with Des Coulam, master of this Soundlandscapes’ blog. He had graciously allowed me to wear his in-ear binaural mics (Soundman OKM II for you knob-twiddling techophiles) to record the whole thing. Honoured, for sure.
“Once you listen back to what you’ve recorded, you’ll be transported to that time and place again,” Des told me over lunch before we set out. I hadn’t realised to what extent said transportation would happen. While I was listening, I could smell the whiff of cheese hanging like a fog around the fromagerie that I had long since passed, and I could see the green jumper and blue jeans of the brown-haired boy whizzing up and down the pavement with his blonde friend as they made tooting noises like sirens, their voices long since silenced.
This was my fifth visit to Paris, and I’ve been working with sound since 2006, so I am no stranger to either. But I had never taken a soundwalk, and it’s changed the way I use my ears, and the way I interact with and understand the world. I felt like a deaf woman who’s heard her child’s voice for the first time.
Before I stuck the mics in my ears, Des tutored me on how to open myself up to the sound of the city – how to acknowledge and distinguish each individual sound instead of filtering it out as a mass of white noise, which is what we normally do every waking moment as we navigate through the aural obstacle course around us.
Then he told me that with the binaural mics I was to pretend my head was the mic shaft, and my ears were now microphones. It’s stereophonic, so it captures a pretty full range. Any sound that I was drawn to I was to slowly turn and/or point my head in that direction.
Thankfully, he used his vast experience with the technology and set the recording levels for me, because, as they are mics and not headphones, you can’t hear how the machine is recording; you can only hear what’s being recorded. Had I been responsible for the recording levels I would most likely have set them too high or too low.
While the result was mind-blowing – those mics pick up quite delicate sounds – the process was an experience itself. Walking down the rue Mouffetard wearing small earbud mics, I blended right in as it looked like I was just listening to music. Concentrating on the soundscape of the street made me aware of a whole new sensory experience. As a fast walker used to busily-busily hurtling down London streets through annoyingly rambling crowds, thinking about the next ten things on my to-do list and not being present in the now, the soundwalk made me stop and hear the roses.
Part of Roxanne’s soundwalk in rue Mouffetard:
Des has graciously edited down a shorter version of the 23’51” piece I recorded for you to enjoy. It’s only one moment in time and space – MY moment. Because you didn’t experience it you probably won’t have the same sense of wonderment that I did upon listening to it. But clamp on a pair of cans for that full stereo effect, sit back and listen to the life of one street in Paris on a sunny May afternoon, and you may just appreciate that moment, because those sounds won’t happen in that order at that place ever again. This is history in a very personal sense.
Maybe, just maybe, it will inspire you to open up your ears and hear the familiar in a startlingly new way.
I SPEND A LOT of my time walking the streets of Paris listening to and recording the everyday sounds around me, the sound tapestry of the city.
Recording urban soundscapes is not as easy as you might think. In our modern digital world where we’ve come to expect affordable technology to turn us all into instant experts, one might be forgiven for thinking that recording urban soundscapes is simply a matter of pointing and shooting and hoping for the best – but it doesn’t quite work like that. Capturing the most expressive and lasting images of the sounds around us requires a heady cocktail of active listening, enthusiasm, hard work, endless patience, attention to detail and an ear for a captivating subject, not to mention copious amounts of shoe leather.
Captivating sounds seldom appear to order, they are often elusive and need to be hunted out and to hunt them one needs time, often lots of time. Few things are more frustrating than spending an entire day pounding the streets searching for that special sound only to come home empty-handed. But on a good day, it only takes one chance moment to come home with an absolute gem.
The great 20th century Parisian street photographer, Robert Doisneau, summed up this element of chance by saying, “Chance … You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, you pay for it with time – not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”
And sometimes the spending of time can bring a huge reward.
Les Halles – the former ‘belly of Paris’
Recently, I was wandering around Les Halles, once the huge covered food market known as the ‘Belly of Paris’, and a part of Paris now undergoing much needed renovation. I’ve recorded there many times but this time captivating sounds seemed particularly elusive. I’d been there for most of the afternoon spending time but recording nothing and I was on the point of giving up and going home when the element of chance that Robert Doisneau spoke about intervened.
In the distance I could hear the sound of bells, the bells of the Église Saint Eustache, the gothic masterpiece in which the young Louis XIV received communion, the church chosen by Mozart for his mother’s funeral, the church where Richelieu was baptised and where both the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were married. I followed the sound of the bells and began recording. The sounds led me into a little courtyard at the side of the church. I waited until the sounds of the bells faded and then, spying a very old, well-worn door, I opened it, entered the church and walked into a magnificent wall of sound coming from the Van den Heuvel organ being played by a young man sitting at the giant five manual console in the nave.
The Bells and Organ of Église Saint Eustache:
“… not the wasting of time but the spending of time.” And in this place, on this day, the spending of time was an investment richly rewarded.
Yesterday marked the third birthday of this blog. When I began it the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me. Now, three years on, this blog has taken on a life of its own with over 200,000 visitors and over 1,000 loyal followers.
To all those who visit this blog regularly, to those who just stop by as they’re passing and to all the friends I’ve made all over the world as a result of this blog I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.
This recording of the sounds of the bells and the organ of Église Saint Eustache is a celebration of the life that this blog has taken on and I dedicate these sounds to you all.
WITH ITS COBBLESTONES, bakeries, cheese and wine shops, restaurants and vibrant atmosphere, rue Montorgueil is a quintessential Parisian street ideal for a soundwalk.
The rue Montorgueil begins in the 1st arrondissement close to the Église Saint-Eustache and the former covered market of Les Halles and it stretches to the north, across rue Étienne-Marcel, into the 2nd arrondissement as far as rue Saint-Sauveur. From there, it continues north where it becomes rue des Petits-Carreaux.
Rue Montorgueil – A Soundwalk:
There are some places of note in rue Montorgueil.
At N° 38 is the restaurant, L’Escargot, easily spotted by its distinctive sign. Founded in 1832, L’Escargot is, not surprisingly, famous for its snails. Sarah Bernhardt, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Proust all dined here and the restaurant still retains its authentic Second Empire décor and its traditional cuisine.
At N° 78 is Le Rocher de Cancale, famous for its oysters and crumbling facade which was painstakingly restored with gilt panache in 2012.
It was founded in 1804 and is now a listed historical monument. In times past this was a fashionable place to be seen where its clientele included dandies, courtesans, aristocrats and members of the Jockey Club de Paris.
At N° 51 is the La Pâtisserie Stohrer, the oldest pâtisserie in Paris. In 1725, Louis XV married Marie Leszczynska, daughter of King Stanislas of Poland. Her pastry chef, Nicolas Stohrer, came with her to Versailles. In 1730, Stohrer opened a bakery at N° 51 where he invented desserts for the King’s Court including the Baba au Rhum or Rum Baba.
If you’ve never been to rue Montorgueil it’s well worth a visit. Here are some more sights to enjoy while you listen to the sounds of the street.
ONE YEAR AGO I stood in place de la Bastille amongst a jubilant crowd as they received the news that François Holland had been elected Président de la République, the first French socialist president to have been elected since François Mitterand back in 1981. I produced a piece for this blog about that evening in which I said, “As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.”
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2012
One year on and the party’s over, the excitement has evaporated and the opinion polls show that François Hollande is now the most unpopular president in modern French history.
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2013
On Sunday crowds once again filled place de la Bastille, not to celebrate but to protest at what they see as betrayal. In a nutshell, their argument is that François Hollande was elected last May on the back of a promise to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the French government has cut spending, increased taxes, reduced hiring in the public sector and introduced plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns. Meanwhile, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10%.
Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sunday. According to the police they numbered 30,000 while the organisers, Le Front de Gauche, put the figure at 180,000. How the police and demonstration organisers always come up with such widely varying estimates of crowd numbers continues to baffle me. All I can say is that I was in place de la Bastille when the demonstration moved off on its march to place de la Nation and I was there three hours later as the tail end of the march was just setting off.
This demonstration was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche coalition. One time government minister and member of the French Senate, Mélenchon has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He now heads the Front de Gauche comprising the Unitarian Left (Gauche Unitaire), the Federation for a Social and Ecological Alternative (Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique, FASE), Republic and Socialism (République et socialisme), Convergences and Alternative (Convergences et alternative), the Anticapitalist Left (Gauche anticapitaliste), the Workers’ Communist Party of France (Parti communiste des ouvriers de France, PCOF) and The Alternative (Les alternatifs).
Jean-Luc Mélenchon came to national prominence in 2010 during the huge demonstrations against pension reform and in 2012 he represented Le Front de Gauche in the French presidential election where he came in fourth place with 11.05% of the vote.
Marching under the banner Marche citoyenne pour la 6e République, the Front de Gauche want to see, according to one of the leaflets handed to me, a sweeping away of the current constitution and fundamental change to the way things are done – an end to the dominance of the financial markets, a democratisation of the institutions, more power to the people, new and greater rights to employees, a democratisation of elections with proportional representation and genuine independence of justice without conflicts of interest.
Marche citoyenne pour la 6éme République:
These street demonstrations are always colourful and loud and for the most part good-natured, although I will have something to say about that in a moment.
On Sunday there was the usual mix of serious minded protestors, occasional eccentrics and endless loudspeaker vans blasting out slogans and music at full volume often drowning out the chants of the marchers. The cacophony of sound can be overpowering especially to promiscuous microphones that pick up anything and everything. So for the sound hunter, capturing the atmosphere of such large demonstrations is a challenge.
In the sound piece above I’ve tried to give you a flavour of the atmosphere and to highlight some of the distinctive sounds. In the next piece, I will give you a flavour of what it’s like to walk amongst a crowd of tens of thousands of people. It’s a walk from the Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette, which on a normal day takes about two minutes. On Sunday it took me closer to twenty minutes (and I was lucky to do it that quickly) as I weaved my way through the throngs of people.
Walking from Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette:
My final sound piece though tells a different story.
As I said earlier, street demonstrations in Paris are usually pretty good-natured and pass off without any trouble. The largest demonstration I’ve attended was the massive protest against pension reform in 2010 when one million people took to the streets. Even with a demonstration of that size and with passions running very high, I saw nothing that could be described as trouble. On Sunday though, I saw something I’ve never seen before and I also learned something about the Front de Gauche.
This group of Africans were at the very back of the demonstration and it was them that I joined some three hours after the leading demonstrators had left place de la Bastille. True, unlike most of the other demonstrators, they were not protesting specifically about la finance et l’austérité although they all professed sympathy with the aims of the demonstration.
Their specific concern was for the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were demonstrating for the release of political prisoners in that country and in particular for the release of Simone Gbagbo. You can find out more about the former French colony of Côte d’Ivoire here.
To be honest, I know very little about Côte d’Ivoire other than what I occasionally glimpse on French TV news and, until Sunday, I wasn’t at all sure who Simone Gbagbo was. But these people clearly felt they had a point to make and they were doing it peacefully and with enthusiasm. In my experience it is quite usual for minority groups with off-piste interests to meld into large demonstrations.
All was well until the time came for them to move off and follow the tail end of the larger demonstration. I had moved slightly ahead of them when I was aware of a scuffle taking place behind me. I turned round to see three or four young white men all sporting Front de Gauche stickers trying to break up the African group. The African stewards were brilliant. They responded swiftly by shepherding the African group away from the trouble and calm ensued. What happened next I simply found beyond belief.
When I turned round to look towards the larger demonstration about twenty or thirty Front de Gauche people, men and women, all white, had linked arms and facing the African group had formed a double cordon to prevent the Africans getting close to the main demonstration. Not only that, but when the Africans remonstrated, the language from the all white cordon was, how shall I say … provocative.
Here’s how events unfolded:
What seemed to have escaped the attention of the all French, all white, cordon was, as one of the Africans told me with passion in her voice, “We are all French citizens!”
I must say that for me, the man in charge of the African group – the man in the orange cap, white trousers and holding the microphone in the picture above, was the hero of the hour. He showed real leadership, not by responding as vocally as some of his group but by exerting the sheer force of his personality, calmly talking to people and getting the music and the chanting going again.
I must also say, that having seen what I did, any sympathy I may have had for Le Front de Gauche, and I did have some, melted away in an instant as their darker side revealed itself.
The all white, all French, cordon clearly believed that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is a wonderful thing … so long as you’re white and French. If you’re black and African then it seems to be quite a different story.
FOR SOME TIME NOW as part of my Paris Soundscapes project I’ve been recording and archiving the contemporary sounds in each of the twenty surviving nineteenth-century passage couverts in Paris. The Passage Choiseul in the 2nd arrondissement is latest of these passages to be added to my collection.
Work began on the Passage Choiseul in 1825 and it took two years to complete. The architect, François Mazois, came up with the original design but he died before the work was completed and so another architect, Antoine Tavernier, took over.
Like all the passages couverts, the Passage Choiseul resembles a street with two rows of boutiques on the ground floor with living accommodation above joined together by a glass roof. At 190 metres long this is the longest of the surviving passages couverts and it’s registered as an historic monument. The floor originally comprised grey sandstone floor tiles but they were covered over in the 1970’s with the speckled tiles we see today.
Like in so many of the passage couverts, the glass roof in the Passage Choiseul suffered over the years. It was replaced in 1907 but the ravages of time took a further toll and it once again descended into a sorry state. Recently, a young architect, Raphaël Bouchmousse, 32, came up with a proposal to renovate the roof at a cost of €740,000. The proposal was accepted and in May 2012 the work began. It’s now completed and the roof has returned to its former glory.
A Soundwalk in the Passage Choiseul:
The Passage Choiseul has a long association with the arts. Anatole France, a French poet, journalist, novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, worked here as a proof-reader from 1867 to 1876. Louis-Ferdinand Céline the French novelist, pamphleteer and physician, lived here as a child. His mother, Marguerite Destouches, owned a curiosity shop in the passage. Alphonse Lemeere published the first poems of Paul Verlaine from here in 1864 as well as the works of the Parnassians who embraced a French literary style that began during the 19th century. Today, the former publishing house of Alphonse Lemeere is occupied by the painter and sculptor, Anna Stein.
Another occupant of the Passage Choiseul is the rear entrance to the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens.
Inaugurated in 1855 by the composer Jacques Offenbach, the theatre was especially built to perform his opéra-bouffes. Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) was premiered here in 1858, La Belle Hélène in 1864 and La Vie Parisienne and Barbe-Bleue in 1866.
The main entrance to the theatre is in the neighbouring street, rue Monsigny.
After early success, like all the other passages couverts the passage Choiseul entered a period of decline. Its fortunes were revived in the 1970’s when the French actress, Sophie Desmarets, opened an antique shop here, Cactus Bazar. This was followed by Kenzo’s first fashion boutique, Jungle Jap, which has now moved to the Place des Victoires.
Today, the Passage Choiseul hosts Japanese eateries, clothing stores, jewellery shops, art galleries and art supply shops, as well as a plentiful supply of shoe shops.
The Passage Choiseul is to be found at:
40, rue Petits-Champs / 23, rue Saint-Augustine / 40, rue Dalayrac
And you can see more of my collection of les passages couverts here.
NESTLING BEHIND A CLUSTER of trees behind the théâtre Marigny and close to the Rond-point des Champs Elysées, the puppet show, Les Marionnettes des Champs Elysées, is simply entrancing.
This puppet theatre has been here since 1818 making it the oldest marionette theatre in Paris. For generations it was owned by the Guentleur family but in 1979 it was acquired by José-Luis Gonzalez who has kept it going in the original tradition, a tradition dating back to the beginning of the 19th century.
Guignol is the most popular puppet character in France and his name has become synonymous with puppet theatre. He was created in Lyon at the very end of the 18th century by Laurent Mourguet, one time silk weaver, peddler and later a dentist. Dentistry in the late 18th century was a primitive art consisting entirely of pulling teeth for free and making money by selling potions afterwards to kill the pain. Mourguet had the idea of attracting customers by setting up a puppet show in front of his dentist’s chair.
Mourguet’s first puppet shows were based on the Italian commedia dell’arte and featured Puncinella, or Punch as he’s known in England. By the turn of the century Mourguet’s shows were becoming so successful that he gave up dentistry and became a full-time puppeteer. His puppet shows took a satirical look at the concerns of his working-class audience and included references to the news of the day. This proved to be a highly successful formula which lives on today with TV shows like Spitting Image in the UK and Les Guignols de l’info in France.
Mourguet developed characters close to the daily lives of his Lyon audience, first Gnafron, a wine-loving cobbler, and in 1808 Guignol. Other characters, including Guignol’s wife Madelon and the gendarme Flagéolet soon followed, but these are never much more than foils for the two heroes.
Guignol was supposedly named after an actual Lyonnais silk worker and he was originally performed with a regional dialect and the traditional garb of a peasant.
Guignol and the puppet shows that feature him are very much a Lyonnais tradition. In Paris, les Marionnettes des Champs Elysées departs from that tradition slightly in that Guignol wears a green coat with red facings whereas in Lyon he wears brown. Also the name of the theatre, Théâtre Vrai Guignolet, is different. This is because, according the current owner, Guignolet is for him the real Guignol of Paris as opposed to the Guignol of Lyon.
Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles et Messieurs, je vous présente …
Les Marionettes des Champs Elysées:
This sound piece is an edited version of the full Marionnettes des Champs Elysées show that I recorded but you will still hear a man dressed in black sporting a moustache opening and closing the curtains, Guignol, his wife and son, a misbehaved mouse and, of course, the inevitable gendarme, Flagéolet.
These puppet shows are often thought of as just children’s entertainment – Les Marionnettes des Champs Elysées is advertised as being suitable for children from 3 to 10 years of age – but they are much more than that. In Lyon they say that, “Guignol amuses children… and witty adults.” Guignol’s sharp wit and linguistic verve have always been appreciated by adults as well as children.
It’s over fifty years since I last went to a puppet show and that was a very English Punch & Judy show. When I went to see Les Marionnettes des Champs Elysées I was just as excited as I was all those years ago and I probably laughed even more now than I did then.
Whether you are young or old or whether you speak French or not, I hope you will get as much pleasure from listening to Les Marionnettes des Champs Elysées as I do. Guignol’s wife in particular trying to catch the mouse with cries of, “Arrête … Arrête”, reduces me to fits of laughter every time I hear it.
IT MAY BE ONLY a stone’s throw from the tourist magnet of Montmartre but Château Rouge couldn’t be more different. Situated in the Goutte d’Or district, Chateau Rouge is Africa in the heart of Paris.
Home to immigrants from Europe in the 1950’s, Château Rouge now boasts an African community from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Togo, the Congo, Cameroon and probably other places too. It’s said that something like thirty different languages can be heard here. At the heart of Château Rouge is the Marché Dejean, a busy street market but one unlike any other I’ve seen – or heard – in Paris.
Alighting from my train at Château Rouge Métro station I stepped onto a platform full of other people who also had the Marché Dejean firmly in their sights. The crush was so great that we had to queue to get out of the station.
Emerging onto the street the cacophony of the Métro station faded and a different wave of sound enveloped me, the sound of the Marché Dejean round the corner. I could hear the market well before I could see it.
The Marché Dejean runs along the rue Dejean but it spills over into two of the neighbouring streets, rue Poulet and rue des Poissonniers and the whole area is a very rich sound environment.
Regular followers of this blog will know that I enjoy soundwalks. Soundwalking is one of the techniques I use to capture the sounds of Paris and particularly the sound tapestry of the city’s streets. The aim of a soundwalk is to capture the mélange of sounds that create the atmosphere of a place as well as the individual sounds that might help to define it. And the Marché Dejean is perfect soundwalking territory.
A Soundwalk in the Marché Dejean:
The sights and sounds of the Marché Dejean reflect its soubriquet, Little Africa. Either side of the street small retailers selling beauty products and colourful fabrics sit alongside hallal butchers and exotic food shops selling everything from fish – treadfin, tilapia and barracuda, to exotic spices and vegetables including yam, okra, manioc (cassava) and a host of other things I can’t put a name to.
Although these shops are exotic and colourful the real sounds of the Marché Dejean are to be found in the street itself. People using upturned cardboard boxes as makeshift stalls gather in the road to sell everything from beauty products, to clothing, exotic vegetables, peanuts, watches, sunglass, handbags and even mobile phones. At the first sign of the police of course, these itinerant traders disappear in the blink of an eye only to return minutes later when the threat has passed.
Taking a camera to these parts is not a good idea. I was very firmly told by an extremely large and rather menacing African gentleman that taking photographs c’est interdit – it’s not allowed. Of course it is allowed, it’s just that they don’t want you to do it – for what reason we can only guess.
Château Rouge and the Marché Dejean with the colourful sights, which are much brighter in the summer than when I went, the exotic smells and rich sounds reflect the cultural diversity of Paris. The area is well worth a visit – but it’s perhaps best to leave the camera at home.