IT WAS SOMEWHERE AROUND the year 270 AD when Denis, a Christian missionary and Bishop of Paris, was martyred on the hill we now call Montmartre. Denis was beheaded during the period of Christian persecution under the Roman Emperors Decimus and Valerian. It is said that after his head was chopped off, Denis picked it up and walked six miles or so preaching a sermon as he went. The place where he eventually fell and died was marked by a small shrine which eventually became the Basilique Saint-Denis and the burial place of the Kings of France.
The Basilique Saint-Denis is a medieval abbey church in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. The abbey church was created a cathedral in 1966 and is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis. The building is of unique importance historically and architecturally.
In Roman times the site was a Gallo-Roman cemetery but around 475 Saint-Genevieve purchased some of the land and built a church. This became a place of pilgrimage and in the 7th century, Dagobert I had this church replaced with something grander. By the 12th century it had grown to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in France. The abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features turning it into a masterpiece of what came to be known as Gothic art. The basilica provided an architectural model for the cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
From the 6th century onwards, the Basilique Saint-Denis became the necropolis of French monarchs. Most of the kings and queens of France were buried here. The list is impressive: 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. With I think three exceptions, all the French monarchs were buried here from Hugues Capet onwards.
Over the years, the Abbey was plunged into decline by wars and the Revolution. During the Revolution the tombs were opened and the bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby and dissolved with lime. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church and the royal remains were left in their mass graves. Thankfully, most of the tombs survived the Revolution and today they lie resplendently in the much-visited “Royal Necropolis of France”.
Sounds from the Necropolis:
Clovis I (465 – 511) and Childebert I (496 – 558)
Henry II and Catherine de Médicis
Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon
The fate of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette of Austria is well known. Both were guillotined in the Place de la Concorde during the Revolution. They were though not initially buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis, but rather in the churchyard of the Madeleine, where they were covered with quicklime. Louis XVIII, the last king of France to be buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis, ordered that the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette be transferred from the Madeleine cemetery and today they lie side by side in the crypt of the Basilique Saint-Denis.
The two centre tombs: On the left is Marie-Antoinette and on the right is Louis XVI
MY EXPLORATION OF THE Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds began at the head of the canal where it parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette. In Part 1, I followed the canal to the end of the Quai de la Gironde on the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and in Part 2, I crossed the Paris city limits and followed the canal across the western edge of Aubervilliers to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis.
Having completed a little over half my journey, I’m now going to follow the canal into the commune of Saint-Denis to the final lock on the canal, l’Écluse de la Briche, where it discharges into la Seine.
My route for the final leg of my journey along the Canal Saint-Denis
Walking along the quay from the swing bridge, I crossed from Aubervilliers into the commune of Saint-Denis and the French National Stadium, the Stade de France.
The Stade de France, the French National Stadium
With a seating capacity of 80,000, the Stade de France is a major international sporting and concert venue. It was opened in January 1998 in time to stage the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final in July of that year, a final which appropriately France won beating Brazil 3-0.
Built on the site of a former gasworks and costing €290 million, the stadium took just thirty-one months to build during which time some 800,000 M2 of earth was moved and some 180,000 M3 of concrete poured. The stadium has retractable seating, which moves to reveal an athletics track around the central playing field.
The most notable feature of the stadium is the elliptical roof, which is suspended some 42 metres above the ground, covers an area of six hectares and weighs 13,000 tons.
The one glaring omission in the design of the stadium is the lack of any under floor heating, something that was highlighted, much to the stadium’s embarrassment, when in 2012 a Six Nations international rugby game between France and Ireland had to be cancelled just before kick-off due to the pitch freezing.
As well as hosting the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final, the stadium also hosted the 2003 Athletics World Championships, the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final and the UEFA Champions League Finals in 2000 and 2006. Had Paris won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, the Stade de France would have been the main Olympic stadium.
As a major concert venue, the stadium has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Madonna, U2, Céline Dion, Coldplay, Beyoncé, Eminem, Lady Gaga and many more.
Having stopped for a while to look at the Stade de France from across the canal, I moved on a short way and followed the canal to the next lock, Lock N° 5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris.
Lock N° 5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris looking downstream.
This lock is enveloped in sound, not only the sound of canal traffic though, although plenty of canal traffic passes through the lock, but rather the sound of endless traffic passing over two road bridges adjacent to the lock.
One of these bridges, the Pont Wilson, carries l’avenue du Président Wilson, part of the trunk road running from Paris to Calais, and the other is the huge bridge carrying the France’s busiest Autoroute, the A1, which runs from Paris to Lille.
The Pont de l’A1
Despite the fact that Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis are probably the poorest municipalities around Paris and both have a very high crime rate, I never felt uneasy walking through either as I explored the Canal Saint-Denis – at least not until I arrived here. And it wasn’t the people I encountered that made me uneasy, instead it was the atmosphere around where these two major arteries pass overhead. Both bridges feel oppressively low to the ground. One, probably because of its size, feels as though it is – and the other just is! The base of the Pont Wilson in fact forms the roof of the downstream entrance to Lock N° 5 and I couldn’t help feeling claustrophobic and very uneasy as I walked underneath it. In addition, the noise pollution here from the traffic passing overhead is particularly oppressive and certainly didn’t add to my sense of well being.
The downstream entrance to Lock N°5 with the Pont Wilson forming the roof
The downstream entrance to Lock N°5 with both the Pont Wilson and the A1 passing overhead
On the downstream side of Lock N° 5, the canal makes a left turn and widens out to form le bassin de la Maltournée, a zone de débarquement, a zone for loading and unloading construction materials, mainly sand and aggregates.
Looking back from here you can see both the Pont Wilson and the A1 passing over l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris with the Stade de France just beyond.
I can’t account for the clothes draped over the rail. They didn’t seem to belong to anybody and there were many other items of clothing scattered around along with much assorted detritus.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée looking upstream
And this is what le Bassin looked like in former, busier, times.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée courtesy of Wikipedia
Because of the width of the canal at this, its widest point, vessels are able to manoeuvre to and from the landing stages whilst allowing other vessels to pass in and out of the lock.
The barge ‘Diane’ heading for the lock while a barge behind her manoeuvres alongside the loading quay
The fifth lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris, takes its name from the nearby Porte-de-Paris. Before the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, Saint-Denis and Paris were separated by a vast agricultural plain, la Plaine Saint-Denis. Two gates, the Porte de Saint-Denis in Paris and the Porte de Paris in Saint-Denis, allowed access between the two cities.
Today, we should think of Porte de Paris as a neighbourhood rather than as a gate. With a population of around 9,000, Le quartier Porte de Paris – Stade de France, links the historic city of Saint-Denis with the modernity around the Stade de France and there are plans to bring an urban continuity between the two. New private and social housing is planned along with a new school and a new hotel project and improved accessibility will be provided when the new Tram Line 8 comes to town later this year.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée - zone de débarquement
From le Bassin de la Maltournée I walked on to the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis in the heart of the commune of Saint-Denis.
Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis
What we now know as Saint-Denis actually dates from the 2nd century AD when it was a Gallo-Roman village named Catolacus or, Catculliacum.
Somewhere around the year 270 AD, during the period of the Christian persecution under the Roman Emperors Decimus and Valerian, Denis, a Christian missionary and Bishop of Paris, was martyred on the hill of Montmartre. He was beheaded and it is said that, after he lost his head, Denis picked it up and walked six miles or so preaching a sermon as he went. The place where he eventually fell and died was Catolacus and his grave became a shrine. Around 475, Saint-Genevieve purchased some of the land around the shrine and built a church. This became a place of pilgrimage and in the 7th century, King Dagobert I had this church replaced with something grander, the Abbey of Saint Denis. By the 12th century it had grown to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in France. The abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features turning it into a masterpiece of what came to be known as Gothic art. This abbey church, the Basilique Saint-Denis, provided an architectural model for the cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
From the 6th century onwards, the Basilique Saint-Denis became the necropolis of French monarchs. Most of the kings and queens of France were buried there. The list is impressive: 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. With I think three exceptions, all the French monarchs were buried here from Hugues Capet onwards.
Some of the Royal tombs in the Basilique Saint-Denis
And at some point in all this, although we’re not sure precisely when, the Gallo-Roman village of Catolacus became Saint-Denis.
Industrialisation first came to Saint-Denis in the seventeenth-century under le Roi-Soleil, King Louis XIV, when weaving and spinning mills and dye houses were established. But it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that industry really took off. A combination of an expanse of flat land easy to build on together with the arrival of the canal in 1821 and the railway in 1843 facilitated the easy transportation of coal from the mines of northern France and Belgium, metals from Lorraine and raw materials from abroad.
The proliferation of industry changed the face of Saint-Denis, not least its political face. In 1892, Saint-Denis elected its first socialist administration and by the 1920s, the city had acquired the nickname of la ville rouge, the red city.
But, as with neighbouring Aubervilliers, (see Part 2), the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s took its toll. There was a shift away from manufacturing to service industries with the concomitant mismatch between the qualifications required for the new industries and those of the local population leading to increased unemployment, increased poverty, increased immigration and the flight of the wealthiest part of the population leaving the poorest concentrated in dilapidated older housing in the centre and social housing projects at the periphery.
During the 1990s, some rejuvenation of Saint-Denis began with the building of the Stade de France and the associated infrastructure improvements and since then, there have been attempts to attract more new industry and to initiate renovation projects not only in Saint-Denis itself but also throughout the wider Plaine Saint-Denis. The Saint-Denis website outlines some of the projects underway.
Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis
From l’Écluse Saint-Denis I walked on passing this rather nice cottage on the quayside.
A little further on I discovered that my way on this side of the quay was blocked and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare and continue along the canal on the other side. This brought me to a bridge carrying several railway lines and an elevated roadway over the canal.
I paused under the bridge to record some sounds only to find that two men, complete with the obligatory white van, were busy shovelling concrete. I could have waited until they’d finished before doing my recording but I didn’t, I carried on and to good effect as you will hear.
Men at Work
And I was also able to capture the sounds of this barge passing.
I spent the best part of an hour under the bridge capturing the various sounds before moving on to complete my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis.
Walking along the quay, I paused to look back at the bridge that had occupied so much of my time. It not only carries the RER trains of Line ‘D’ but also the Transilien trains of the SNCF-owned railway network operating within the Île-de-France region, as well as SNCF and Thalys high-speed TGV trains.
Looking in the other direction I was able to get a good view of the final lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche.
Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche
I continued along the quay to the downstream end of the lock where I found a sign listing the destinations that can be reached from here together with the distances and the time taken to reach them.
I could see that from here to the Canal de l’Ourcq was 6.6 kilometres and it would take a barge 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there. But I already knew that because I’d just walked all of those 6.6 kilometres. But to cover the 113.3 kilometres to the far end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from here would take a barge 21 hours … and who knows how long by foot!
So now that I’d reached the final lock on the Canal Saint-Denis I couldn’t leave without seeing the point at which the canal discharges into la Seine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass the lock by walking further along the quay because the way was barred so I had to divert away from the canal to the road that would take me up to the bridge that crosses the canal close to the lock, the Pont de la Briche.
On the way to the bridge I found this plaque, which reminded me that Saint-Denis was occupied by the Germans from June 1940 until it was liberated by General Leclerc on 27 August 1944. Sadly, this unfortunate soul didn’t live to see la libération, he was killed just two days before.
Standing on the Pont de la Briche I looked over l’Écluse de la Briche and thought about the things I’d seen and what sounds might represent this third leg of my journey along the canal.
l’Écluse de la Briche from the Pont de la Briche
Canal Saint-Denis from the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis to the Pont de la Briche – A Sound Portrait:
This sound portrait begins with the sound of a barge manoeuvring in la Bassin de la Maltournée and another barge negotiating the entrance to Lock N°5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris. Then comes the sound of long the Lafarge barge carrying a load of sand exiting Lock N°6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis. We then move to underneath the railway bridge with the sound of trains rumbling overhead, a barge passing under the bridge and the men shovelling concrete. All these sounds conjure up images for me of this final leg of my journey.
But my journey wasn’t yet quite complete. I couldn’t walk all this way and not visit the spot where the Canal Saint-Denis actually enters the river – and simply to see it from on top of the Pont de la Briche wasn’t good enough, I had to see it from ground level just as I’d seen the rest of the canal.
Finding a way down from the bridge took some time but eventually I discovered a set of very uneven stone steps some way away from the bridge. I ventured down and this was my reward – the junction of the Canal Saint-Denis and la Seine.
The Canal Saint-Denis discharging into la Seine
And this was the end of my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis. I’d walked from the head of the canal in the Parc de la Villette where it parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq and followed it through the 19th arrondissement of Paris and then through the communes of Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis to the point where it discharges into la Seine. The canal stretches for 6.6 kilometres, although I walked much further than that if you count the detours I made to look at things that caught my eye and to find suitable places from which to record sounds. It took me almost seven hours to complete the journey, much longer than a serious walker would take of course, but then serious walkers seldom stop to hunt for sounds!
My walk along the canal made me think not only about my immediate surroundings but also about history, the medieval history of the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis, the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and the more recent de-industrialisation with the urban decline and attempts at renewal that have followed in its wake.
Next time, I shall add a postscript to my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds, something I came upon by chance and something I think captures the very essence of the canal.
THE EARLIEST REFERENCES to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis date as far back as the Mérovingians, around 750 AD. The street became popular in the Middle Ages because it was the most direct route between Paris and the increasingly prestigious Abbeye de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France.
The Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis crosses the 10th arrondissement of Paris linking the Boulevard de la Chapelle in the north and the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle further south. The street is called the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis because it’s an extension of the Rue Saint-Denis to the faubourg, the area formerly outside the Paris city walls as marked today by the Porte Saint-Denis.
In September last year I produced a blog piece about the northern part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis from the Boulevard de la Chapelle to the Gare du Nord railway station, the area known as Little Jaffna because of the Tamil population who live and work there. You can see that blog piece here.
Having completed a soundwalk of that part of the street, I thought it was now time to complete my sonic exploration of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis by doing a soundwalk along the remainder of the street from the Gare du Nord to Porte Saint-Denis. The street may have lost the glitter it once had when it formed part of the King’s processional route to the Basilica of Saint Denis and the accents may have changed – you’re more likely to hear Indian, Arabic or Turkish than anything else, but the street has its own character and is full of interest.
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis – A Soundwalk: