IT’S BEEN A HECTIC few years for the tramway system in and around Paris. In 2012, the tram lines T1, T2 and T3 were extended, in 2013 two new tram lines were opened, T5 and T7, and now, in December 2014, two more new tram lines come on stream. On Saturday 13th December, tram line T6 was opened and on Tuesday 16th December it’s the turn of tram line T8.
I went to the opening of tram line T7 in November last year and last Saturday I braved the cold and the heavy rain and went to the opening of the new tram line T6.
Le ville en tram – the inauguration logo for tram line T6
At the moment, tram-line T6 runs for 13 km from the Châtillon-Montrouge Métro station (Métro Line 13) to the tram stop Robert Wagner in Vélizy-Villacoublay passing through the communes of Châtillon, Clamart, Fontenay-aux-Roses, Meudon and Vélizy-Villacoublay, although Montrouge, Malakoff and Le Plessis-Robinson will also benefit from their proximity to this service. When the tram line is completed in the Spring of 2016, two further tram stops and a subterranean section of line will extend the tram line a further 1.6 km to Viroflay.
The tramline T6 route
Tram line T6 has been designed to ensure easy transfers to Métro Line 13 (Châtillon-Montrouge), RER Line ‘C’ (Viroflay Rive Gauche), SNCF’s Transilien service (Viroflay Rive Gauche and Viroflay Rive Droite) as well as to several bus services at almost every tram stop.
The other transport connections (click on the image to enlarge)
Building a new tramway is a very lengthy process and the planning for tram line T6 began back in the year 2000. A proposal was put forward and accepted by the Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF) in 2002. Preliminary studies and designs were carried out during 2002-2005 followed by a public announcement in 2006.
The cost of the project is around €385m excluding taxes and the cost of rolling stock and the project has been funded by the State (16%), Île-de-France (50%), Conseil général des Hauts-de-Seine (20%), Conseil général des Yvelines (13%) and RATP (1%).
For the rolling stock, a contract worth €171.6m was awarded for the supply of 28 Translohr STE 6 type trams.
Translohr STE 6 type trams at Châtillon-Montrouge on tram line T6. Note that there is only one rail per tram and the trams run on rubber tyres.
Each tram can accommodate 250 passengers, 60 of whom can be seated and the low floor facilitates easy access for passengers with restricted mobility. Other features include air conditioning, display screens and sound announcement systems.
Tram line T6 operates from 5h 30 to 00h 30 seven days a week. The journey time is 40 minutes and the trams operate every four minutes during peak hours and seven minutes during non-peak hours. It is expected that some 82,000 passengers will use the line each day.
Arriving at Châtillon-Montrouge Métro station last Saturday morning I emerged into an unpleasant winter chill and very heavy rain. I’d arrived about half an hour before the opening ceremony was due to begin so I had time to look round. I came upon two brand new trams parked ready to be moved into position at the appointed time.
I also discovered that the TV station, France 3, was covering the event ‘live’ so I was interested in taking a close look at their outside broadcast scanner …
But everyone else seemed more interested in the TV personalities on parade …
As I walked past the TV tent with its attendant big screen TV outside relaying the live broadcast to those standing in the rain I came upon the Franco-Brazilian drummers, Batucada Zalindé. While they were playing, the two trams I’d seen earlier were manoeuvring into position by the station platforms ready for the opening ceremony.
The opening of the new tram line was preceded by speeches from the assembled dignitaries, including Jean-Loup Metton, maire de Montrouge and vice-président du Conseil général en charge des Transports, Yann Jounot, préfet des Hauts-de-Seine, Jean-Paul Huchon, président du Conseil régional d’Île-de-France, président du Conseil du STIF, Pierre Bédier, président du Conseil général des Yvelines, and Pierre Mongin, président-directeur général de la RATP.
And then it was off to fight my way through the crowds to clamber aboard the first passenger-carrying tram to leave from Châtillon-Montrouge to Vélizy-Villacoublay on the now opened tram line T6.
Tram Line T6 – Opening:
Inside the inaugural tram much later in the day when the crowds had subsided
After leaving the Châtillon-Montrouge terminus, tram line T6 makes a sharp left turn and then heads off up a hill. I was impressed by the speed of the tram as it climbed the hill. The Translohr STE 6 trams can reach a speed of 40 km/h but I think the average speed on tram line T6 is around 20 km/h.
Forty minutes after leaving Châtillon-Montrouge we arrived at the tram stop, Robert Wagner, the current terminus in Vélizy-Villacoublay.
Not all the passengers who got on at Châtillon-Montrouge travelled the full length of the line but those of us that did alighted at the Robert Wagner tram stop. There had been an opening ceremony at this end of the line too so some people went off to the marquees that had been set up to see what was on offer. I on the other hand, crossed the tram line and caught the next tram back to Châtillon-Montrouge.
I recorded the sounds inside the trams for the full length of both my outward and return journeys. These of course are historic sounds – the sounds inside the trams on their very first day of operation and so they have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive and, in due course, they will make their way to my Paris Soundscapes Collection in the sound archives of the British Library.
To give you flavour of what it sounds like inside a very full tram on tram line T6, here is part of the recording I made on the return journey, the five-stop section from Division Leclerc to Châtillon-Montrouge.
Tram Line T6 – Division Leclerc to Châtillon-Montrouge :
And when I arrived back at the Châtillon-Montrouge terminus the festivities were still under way, a band was playing – and it was still raining!
Tram line T6 has its own Twitter account which provides passengers with traffic updates: @T6_RATP
When the new Tram Line T8 opens on Tuesday 16th December, the Paris tramway system, extending into the Île-de-France, will stretch for 105 km. From the opening of Tram Line 1 in 1992 to the opening of Tram Lines 6 and 8 in 2014, a huge amount of money has been invested in the tramway system. And there’s the prospect of more to come.
Tram Line T9 is the planned line between Paris Porte de Choisy and the city of Orly, expected in 2020, followed by Tram Line T10 from Antony to Clamart in the southwest suburbs of Paris, expected in 2021.
EARLIER THIS WEEK I had to travel from Paris to Amsterdam.
After years of criss-crossing Europe courtesy of Air France, I’ve come to realise that being seduced into thinking that a one-hour flight might be the quickest and most convenient way to travel between these two cities is a myth perpetuated only by the prospect of accumulating more, usually unclaimed, air miles.
Now, I’m more than happy to avoid the endless angst associated with airports and opt for a much more civilised mode of travel – the train.
My Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam
After walking to the bus stop at the end of my little street I caught the 43 bus, which took me to the Gare du Nord in time for me to catch my 10.25 Thalys train to Amsterdam Centraal Station.
Thalys is an international high-speed train operator originally operating on the LGV Nord high-speed line between Paris and Brussels, a line shared with Eurostar trains going from Paris or Brussels to London via Lille and the Channel Tunnel. The line is also shared with French domestic TGV trains.
Beyond Brussels, the main cities Thalys trains reach are Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Liège, Bruges, Ghent, Charleroi, Aachen and Cologne.
The main Thalys routes
En route to Amsterdam the Thalys crosses France, Belgium and The Netherlands stopping at Brussels (Bruxelles in French), Antwerp (Anvers in French), Rotterdam and Schiphol, before arriving at Amsterdam Centraal Station three hours and seventeen minutes after leaving Paris.
Thanks to a very sensible piece of joined-up thinking, Schiphol railway station is directly under Schiphol airport so for anyone flying from Schiphol, a short escalator ride from the train platform will deposit you directly inside the airline departures area.
Just as with the airlines, train ticketing remains a complete mystery to most of us but since I had the luxury of being able to book my tickets several weeks in advance, I was able to travel in Comfort Class 1 for less than the price of an Economy Class ticket bought close to the day of departure.
Inside Comfort Class 1 at Amsterdam Centraal Station after all the passengers had left
Since I never travel anywhere without microphones and a sound recorder I couldn’t resist recording my departure from Paris.
From Paris by Thalys:
I began recording as I was walking along Platform 9 at the Gare du Nord towards my carriage, N°13. A very smart young man in a Thalys uniform clipped my ticket and I boarded the train.
I am fascinated by what I call ‘transitional sounds’, the changing sounds we experience as we move from one environment to another. In this case, the sounds of the busy station platform merging into the relative silence of the train carriage.
It doesn’t take long though before this relative silence is penetrated by a different range of sounds – people stowing their luggage and settling into their seats, the rustle of papers, snatches of conversation, a lady progressing along the carriage offering to book taxis for those alighting at Brussels (a perk of travelling business class) and the loudspeaker announcements. On Thalys trains, the announcements are made in four languages, French, Dutch, German and English and since my journey started in Paris protocol dictates that the announcements begin in French. On the return journey from Amsterdam they begin with the Dutch version.
The lady announcer, who speaks all four languages, tells us that departure is imminent, the doors close and almost imperceptibly the train moves off. It’s not until we’re well clear of the station that the sound of the wheels rattling over rails is heard.
I continued recording until we passed Saint-Denis in the northeast of Paris and began picking up speed by which time I’d learned from the announcer that I was on the right train, the Thalys bar was open in the adjacent carriage and that I should keep my ticket with me at all times.
Presently, Charles de Gaulle airport hove into view in the distance and I couldn’t resist raising a glass to all the passengers there mired in the endless check-in queues, complex security procedures and all the other irritations associated with air travel. As one who used to make 150+ flights every year I’m quite content now to leave all that behind and let the train take the strain.
AFTER COMPLETING A RECORDING assignment in the 7th arrondissement I found myself in rue du Bac heading for the Métro and home.
Stretching for some 1150 metres from the junction of the Quai Voltaire and the Quai Anatole-France alongside the Seine, rue du Bac crosses the busy boulevard Saint-Germain and ends at rue de Sèvres.
I was at the rue de Sèvres end of the street and so I set off to walk to the Métro station Rue du Bac at the junction of the rue du Bac and the boulevard Raspail, a little over half way along the street, recording the sounds around me as I went.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk and the red arrow shows the continuation of rue du Bac to la Seine
Rue du Bac looking north-east towards la Seine
Rue du Bac takes its name from a ferry (a bac in French) established around 1550 on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The ferry crossed the Seine at the site of today’s Pont Royal, a bridge constructed under the reign of Louis XIV to replace the Pont Rouge built in 1632.
The street was created between 1600 and 1610 and originally named grand chemin du Bac, then ruelle du Bac, grande rue du Bac and finally simply, rue du Bac.
I began my walk along rue du Bac at one of Paris’ largest department stores, Le Bon Marché.
Le Bon Marché department store
Now owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838 by the entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicault. By 1869, it had developed into one of the first department stores in the world heralding a retail revolution that lives with us to the present day.
Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk:
A little further on from Le Bon Marché I came upon the Chapel of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation. It is not a religious institute, but an organisation of secular priests and lay people dedicated to missionary work overseas.
Chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangers
And then, across the street, the Square des Missions Étrangers.
Rue du Bac is in a rather chic part of Paris and that is reflected in the boutiques lining this part of the street.
This shop, Pierre Farman at N°122 for example, sells vintage aircraft parts – heaven for an aircraft enthusiast like me!
Founded in 1903 by the Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named after his stepdaughter, Angelina’s has a world-wide reputation for its elegant Salons de Thé and its classiques de la pâtisserie française including its signature Le Mont Blanc comprising meringue, Chantilly légère and vermicelles de crème de marrons.
This pâtisserie in rue du Bac is one of several Angelina’s in Paris and around the world.
A little further on is the Sotheby’s estate agency. I always think that estate agents who display elegant pictures of properties for sale but no prices are best avoided!
And then I came upon …
And finally …
The Métro Station Rue du Bac.
In the earlier part of the day I’d been concentrating on my sound recording assignment so I hadn’t set out to record a soundwalk in this part of rue du Bac but, as it turned out, I’m rather pleased I did. And I think the sounds of a dog barking, a boutique security guard chasing a shoplifter and a church clock striking the hour, all of which I came upon completely by chance, added to the local colour.
TWICE IN THE LAST few weeks I’ve found myself in rue Dénoyez, the fascinating plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement where the walls are covered with a kaleidoscope of constantly changing street art.
On the first of my two recent visits to this street I was being interviewed for a prospective radio piece and on the second, I was recording a conversation with my good friend, Heather Munro, who was taking a short break from the dramatic sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, USA.
On both occasions I was asked about the banner that has appeared across rue Dénoyez, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez – and I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea why it was there.
But I can now put that right!
Rue Dénoyez is in Belleville in the east of Paris and before 1860 Belleville was a very lively place. Then, it was outside le mur des Fermiers généraux, the tax wall that surrounded Paris, which meant that alcohol was tax-free and therefore much cheaper than within the then Paris City limits. Consequently people from Paris would come to the cafés, bars and cabarets in Belleville in great numbers to drink and dance and have a good time.
After 1860, all that changed. Belleville was absorbed into the City of Paris and with the advantage of tax-free alcohol now gone Belleville began a long and steady decline. And rue Dénoyez suffered from that decline.
In the 20th century immigrants began to arrive in Belleville with Jews fleeing from Germany coming in the early 1930s and Spaniards in 1939. Many Algerians and Tunisian Jews arrived in the early 1960s and then came an influx from the Maghreb. In the 1980s it was the Chinese and more recently, sub-Saharan Africans. All this has contrived to make Belleville the colourful melting pot of different nationalities that it is today.
Revival for rue Dénoyez began with the arrival of the artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents.
Today, rue Dénoyez is home to several art galleries like Frichez-Nous la Paix at N° 22 bis and La Maison de la Plage at N°18 bis for example, which provide a space for artists to work and exhibit their work. And the work of these artists also spills over to the walls and surrounding buildings along the street.
So what’s the story behind the banner across the street, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’?
The banner was erected in early October in response to a proposal to build two subsidised housing projects in the street that could see the end of rue Dénoyez as a plein air street art gallery.
The proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
N° 10 rue de Belleville, Au Vieux Saumer, at the corner of rue Dénoyez
In a city as unaffordable as Paris it’s hard to argue against more subsidised housing but one might ask, as the residents of rue Dénoyez are, why choose this particular street? The local council claim that there is no alternative, this is the only space available they say. Paradoxically, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has expressed her determination to further develop urban art in the city.
Outside the Atelier Hors-Champ I spoke to a man who was about to sign the petition that has been set up. He told me that he thought the development was bound to go ahead and probably the best they could hope for was to delay it. The work is due to start in July 2015.
On the first of my recent visits to rue Dénoyez I recorded a soundwalk along the street, although I didn’t realise at the time that this, along with my other recordings of this street, will become historically significant if and when the development of the street begins and its character inevitably changes. Fairly soon these recordings could become more sounds to add to my list of the ‘vanishing sounds’ of Paris.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
These sounds though are interesting for another reason, a rather amusing and slightly bizarre reason.
Walking along the street I recorded the sounds around me including the sound of the artists shaking their aerosol cans of paint as they went about their work. These sounds were to take a bizarre twist as I came towards the end of my walk.
A middle-aged man, obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis, had been watching an artist at work. When the artist finished and moved off, the man picked up a discarded paint can and for some inexplicable reason decided to bang it against the wall. You can listen to what happened next 6 minutes into my recording.
A little girl was watching the man attentively. She called out to her friend, “Attends! Regarde!”, whereupon the aerosol can exploded showering the man in a haze of white paint. The giggles of the little girl and her friend I thought spoke volumes. As my friend Heather said when I told her this story, “Voilà la justice!”
If the proposed development does go ahead the character of rue Dénoyez will undoubtedly change, but my abiding memory of the street will always be the sound of that exploding aerosol can. Somehow, it seems to portend the arrival of the wrecking ball.
So, as my tribute to rue Dénoyez and its artists it seemed fitting to use the sounds of the exploding can and turn them into my own small piece of street art – my contribution to the legacy of this colourful street.
Rue Dénoyez – The exploding can: (Best listened to with headphones)
STRETCHING ALONG THE Boulevard de la Chapelle from Barbès Rochechouart Métro station to rue de Chartres, the Marché Barbès is not for the faint hearted. Even getting to the market can be a challenge since some of the market often spills over into the Métro station itself.
Inside Barbès Rochechouart Métro station on market day
From 08.00 to 13.00 on Wednesdays and from 07.00 to 15.00 on Saturdays, the Marché Barbès appears under the overhead section of Métro Line 2 and if you’re looking for a leisurely market with lots of personal space, then the Marché Barbès is not for you.
An assortment of stalls selling clothes, shoes, jewellery and assorted trinkets are clustered at either end of the market but most of the stalls in between are awash with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
From end to end, a multi-ethnic sea of people moving at a snail’s pace, or sometimes not moving at all, fills the market. Getting close to a stall to actually buy something requires grit and determination, not to mention judicious use of the elbows. But the effort can be worth it. Not only is this perhaps the busiest market in Paris it’s also one of the cheapest where most of the fruit and vegetables seem to sell for €1/kilo. A running commentary of what’s on sale and for how much resonates around the market as the stallholders cry out vying to outdo each other to catch the attention of customers from the passing tide of people.
All this of course, together with the Métro trains running overhead, makes for a fascinating sound tapestry and so I set off to capture it. Having negotiated my way through the crowd inside the Métro station, I plunged into the throng of people across the street at the head of the market and set sail through what felt like a tsunami of people.
Progress was slow and not without incident, but I made it to the other end more or less unscathed although the relative calm of the rue de Chartres did come as somewhat of a relief.
Sounds of the Marché Barbès:
If you can cope with the crowds then the Marché Barbès is well worth a visit and there are certainly some bargains to be had – although I’m still not sure about the watches on sale for €2 each!
Rue de Chartres
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to one of the oldest surviving bridges in Paris, the Pont Marie.
The Pont Marie is one of six bridges connecting the Île Saint-Louis to the Right and Left Banks of the Seine. It stretches for 92 metres across the river from Rue des Deux Ponts at the junction of the Quai d’Anjou and the Quai de Bourbon on the Île Saint-Louis to Rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères at the junction of the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank.
Pont Marie – Looking Upstream
One might be forgiven for thinking that with a name like Pont Marie this bridge might have been named after a glamorous French Queen – but it was not. Instead, it was named after Christophe Marie, the French engineer and entrepreneur who designed it and supervised its construction.
Pont Marie and its acute-angled ‘ice aprons’
The Pont Marie we see today is the second oldest surviving bridge to cross the Seine within the Paris city limits, the oldest being the Pont Neuf which lies further downstream.
Conceived at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, the Pont Marie was part of a speculative development plan for the then vacant Île Saint-Louis. The plan called for two bridges to be built, the Pont Marie, connecting the island to the Right Bank of the Seine and the Pont de la Tournelle connecting to the Left Bank. The Pont Marie was to be built first and it would include rows of houses and shops on the top of the bridge. King Henry IV gave his consent to the plan in 1610 and the Paris City authorities also gave their approval, presumably because this was to be a privately financed venture.
Christophe Marie was granted permission to buy two parcels of land at either end of the proposed bridge at a preferential rate and the following year he was joined by two financiers, L. Pulletier and F. Le Regrattier, who sponsored the building materials and so, in 1614, work began. However, the project soon became mired in difficulties. When the legitimate owner of the Île Saint-Louis, the Chapter of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, objected because they had not been informed beforehand they were bought off with an annual revenue of 1200 Livres but even so, recurring financial difficulties plagued the project. The royal secretary, Jean de la Grange, was obliged to take over the financing from 1623 to 1627 when Christophe Marie again took over responsibility. The bridge was eventually completed in 1630 and opened to traffic in 1635.
The Pont Marie comprises five semicircular arches separated by piers each of which are protected on both the downstream and upstream sides by acute-angled ice-aprons, wedge-shaped structures which protect each pier from floating ice. The four piers are decorated with 1,10 m wide niches, the height varying with the rise of the bridge and none of which, perhaps a little surprisingly, have ever contained statues.
The plans for the Pont Marie included the building of two rows of houses and shops on top of the bridge and extending along the Quai des Ormes, now the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. Christophe Marie and his partners left the project in 1643 by which time a large part of this work had been completed. On 10th June, 1643, the master carpenter Claude Dublet, along with Denis Hébert and Louis Le Vau, later architect to the king, took over the work and built forty-six further bridge houses at a cost of 172 000 Livres each. Most of the buildings were completed by 1647 and occupied by 1652.
But tragedy was just around the corner.
On the night of 1st March 1658, the river Seine flooded and the force of the water swept away two of the arches of the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side destroying twenty houses at a cost of sixty lives.
Two years later, a temporary wooden bridge was constructed to restore the link from the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank of the Seine. This was a toll bridge and the funds collected were used to reconstruct the stone bridge. The work was completed in 1670 but the lost houses were not replaced.
Pont Marie in 1760 looking downstream. The damaged part of the bridge has been reconstructed but a gap remains where the destroyed houses once stood. Image via Wikipedia
All the bridge houses on the Pont Marie, and on all the other bridges in Paris, were finally demolished following an edict of 1786, just before the French Revolution.
The bridge underwent some restoration work in 1851, including flattening the rise a little in the centre of the bridge but without changing its overall appearance, so the Pont Marie we see today is the original 1635 bridge with the 1670 rebuilt section on the Île Saint-Louis side, minus the houses of course.
My Paris Bridges Project is not only about exploring the history of all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about seeking out and capturing the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Before I went to the Pont Marie to explore its characteristic sounds I happened to come across this photograph of two men fishing under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side in 1942.
Under the Pont Marie in 1942 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Since I wanted to capture today’s sounds under the bridge on both sides of the river, I thought a good place to start would be on the Île Saint-Louis side in the same place as the fishermen were in 1942. Unlike then, it’s now possible to pass under the bridge at this point with or without the aid of a boat.
And these were the sounds I found …
Sounds Under the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side:
Today, the sound of passing river traffic is present at all the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. And so it must have been for our fishermen in 1942, although I don’t know whether or not the boats of the Compagnie des Bateaux Mouches (as shown above) that have plied la Seine since 1917, were actually doing so under the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1942. The sound of the water lapping under the bridge though would have been very familiar I’m sure.
Voie Georges Pompidou from on the Pont Marie
Having captured the sounds from under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side I wanted to explore what sounds I might find under the bridge on the other side of the river. I climbed up onto the bridge and crossed over towards the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. As I looked over the bridge on the downstream side I could see what was in store.
The Voie Georges Pompidou runs under the last arch of the Pont Marie on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville side complete with its seemingly never-ending stream of traffic.
Georges Pompidou was the French Prime Minister from 1962 to 1968 and then President of France from 1969 until his death in 1974. He was a lover of the automobile and he argued that a freeway should replace the grass-covered banks of the Seine by saying: “les Français aiment leurs bagnoles” (the French love their motors).
On March 27, 1966, the decision was made that the existing roadways along the Seine should be connected to create a continuous expressway along the banks of the river through the centre of Paris. The Voie Georges Pompidou (George Pompidou Expressway) was completed in 1967, and runs along the right bank of the Seine for 13 kilometres from the Porte du Point-du-Jour in the south-west to the Porte de Bercy in the south-east.
Fortunately, there was only room on the riverbank for a two-lane expressway. Pompidou actually wanted to cover the Seine with concrete to create room for an even wider expressway but the environmental movement and others managed to put a brake on that and any further freeway expansion in Paris.
Voie Georges Pompidou from under the Pont Marie
And so the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie surely deserve a place in history since they are one example of several modernising legacies that Georges Pompidou left to the city.
Sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie:
Leaving the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou behind, I climbed back up onto the Pont Marie to see what the characteristic sounds on the bridge might be.
On the Pont Marie
Researching the archives before my visit I found another photograph of the Pont Marie, this one taken in 1900 showing the bridge from above, and so I decided to use a landmark from this photograph from which to record the contemporary sounds on the bridge.
On the Pont Marie in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I selected the second lamppost on the downstream side towards the centre of the bridge, the one with the man passing on a bicycle. And this is what I heard …
Sounds on the Pont Marie:
These sounds tell us that the Pont Marie has its fair share of traffic on the bridge as well as under it although it sounds much less aggressive from above. For me, the pavé on the bridge seems to add a texture to the sound of the traffic that makes it almost appealing.
On the Pont Marie looking downstream
I wonder what the people on the bridge in the 1900 photograph would have made of these sounds? Of course, there were motorcars in Paris in 1900. Maybe they would have seen and heard the occasional de Dion Bouton Voiturette or a Renault Voiturette 1CV passing and looked upon them quizzically and wondered if this was ‘progress’. I doubt though that they could have begun to imagine Georges Pompidou’s ‘racetrack’ under the far end of the bridge. I was particularly pleased to capture the sounds, if only fleetingly, of two or three bicycles passing. I suspect that the man cycling past the lamppost in the photograph would have felt at home with these sounds, if with little else.
The Pont Marie looking downstream
As I was recording the contemporary sounds of the Pont Marie, I couldn’t help contemplating the long history of this bridge and imagining what the sounds on, under and around it would have been like in 1635 when it was opened, almost four hundred years ago. Or in 1658, when a raging torrent ripped the bridge apart, or in 1900, a little over a hundred years ago, when a man on a bicycle and a family with a handcart were calmly crossing the bridge. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to wondering how much the sounds of this bridge will change in the next hundred or even four hundred years.
WHEN IT WAS BUILT in 1885, this pont levant, or lifting bridge, was at the cutting edge of technology. With its mechanism hidden in the sewers below and using pressurised water from the Paris drinking water system to power it, this was the first hydraulically operated bridge in Paris.
The Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée crosses the junction of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement and it’s the fifth bridge to stand here.
The first bridge was built in 1808 upon the completion of the Bassin de la Villette and it was a wooden pont à double bascule, a double-leaf bridge with a deck composed of two spans joining each other in the middle of the bridge and pivoting around a vertical axle at each abutment. During the Second Empire this bridge was replaced with another wooden bridge, this time a drawbridge. The third bridge, also in wood came to an ignominious end when it, together with two of the warehouses alongside it belonging to the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris, were burnt down during the Paris Commune of 1871. This bridge was replaced by a pont tournant, a metal swing bridge.
Some twelve years later, the creation of a new road, rue de Crimée, together with the widening of the channel connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette, meant that the swing bridge had to be replaced and the option of a lifting bridge was adopted. This is the bridge we see today and it was opened on 2nd August, 1885.
This bridge worked continuously from 1885 until 2010 by which time it was beginning to show its age. Towards the end of 2010, the bridge was temporarily closed for a much-needed makeover to make it more economical to operate, more environmentally friendly and safer.
The steel deck was suffering from corrosion so it was replaced. The hydraulic system, which was buried in the sewers and had leather joints that were constantly leaking, was modernised so that it no longer depended on the Paris drinking water system for its operation. The moving parts of the bridge were completely refurbished, the sidewalks widened and a cycle lane was incorporated.
Great pains were taken though to ensure that modernising the bridge didn’t detract from its historical significance, it is after all an official monument historique.
I went to the Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée to see and listen to it in action.
Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée in action:
The movement of this bridge is controlled remotely from the control room of L’Ecluse du Pont de Flandre, the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, which is a considerable distance away and completely out of sight of the bridge.
The first indication that the bridge is about to embark upon a lifting cycle is when the signs at each end of the bridge indicate ‘Pont en Manoeuvre’. A beeping sound then indicates that the two arms of each gate at either side of the bridge are about to close. The gates close one arm at a time so that those caught on the bridge have time to escape before the lifting cycle begins.
Once the bridge is clear of traffic and pedestrians and the gates are closed, a gentle thudding sound is heard as the bridge separates from the roadway and begins it journey upwards.
Since the overhaul of the hydraulic system the operation of the bridge is very smooth. Two hydraulic rams, one under each end of the bridge, push it upwards and then lower it once the lift is completed. Four metal cables gliding over the wheels mounted on iron pillars above the bridge, two at each end, help to support the bridge during the cycle.
There are no spectacular sounds from the bridge itself during the cycle, just a slight groan as it begins to lift, a gentle purring of the hydraulics during the lift, a gentle thud as it begins its descent, more purring as it comes back down and a final sigh of relief as it nestles back into position joining the roadway.
And, of course, the reason for all this is to allow the canal traffic to pass to and from the Bassin de la Villette.
The length of time the bridge stays aloft depends on how much canal traffic needs to pass. During this particular cycle a Canauxrama tourist boat passed followed by these guys …
Once the canal traffic has passed the bridge is lowered and locked into place, the gates open and the pedestrians, the cyclists and the traffic can resume their passage along Rue de Crimée.
I think there’s something really fascinating about bridges that actually move and so I stayed around to watch and listen to this one manoeuvre through several more of the 9,000 or so lifting cycles it completes every year.
AS PART OF MY RESEARCH for an audio project I’m working on about the Paris Commune of 1871, I found myself in the 13th arrondissement in the Butte-aux-Cailles area of Paris. My intention was to visit the office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871) in rue des Cinq-Diamants to browse the literature they have about the Paris Commune and see what might help with my research. I should have known though that it would be folly to turn up without checking first to make sure that the office was open and, of course, it was not!
Office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871)
Still, thanks to the tail end of our Indian summer, the weather was delightful and so I decided to stay and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring this part of Paris including doing a soundwalk along the main street, rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the little square at the western end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, Place de la Commune de Paris 1871, one of twenty-three squares and streets in Paris named after the Paris Commune or the people associated with it. There’s another example at the eastern end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where another square, Place Paul Verlaine, is named after the French poet and member of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune, and yet another at the foot of the Butte-aux-Cailles, Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, named after the French socialist and revolutionary who was one of the group that briefly seized the reins of power on 31 October 1870 for which he was condemned to death in absentia on 9 March 1871.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
As I walked along the street listening to the everyday sounds around me, I couldn’t help reflecting upon the Paris Commune of 1871 since that’s what had brought me here on this sunny October afternoon.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
In 1870, thanks to his increasing unpopularity at home and France’s waning power abroad, Napoleon III decided to embark upon an ill-fated war against a coalition of German states led by Prussia. On 1st September 1870, France was defeated at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III was deposed and the Second Empire collapsed.
After the debacle of Sedan, Prussian forces advanced on Paris and the city was besieged for four months until it was finally captured in January 1871 bringing the war to an end.
A new French government of National Defence was quickly established and an armistice, ratified on 1 March 1871, included a provision for the election of a French National Assembly, which would have the authority to conclude a peace with Germany.
However, provincial royalists dominated this new French national government and when the government moved from Paris out to Versailles republican Parisians feared a return to a monarchy.
Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government, disarmed the National Guard, a citizens’ militia organised to assist in the defence of Paris during the siege and made up primarily of ordinary working people – and another French revolution was born.
The revolutionaries dominated municipal elections in March 1871 and organized a communal government, the Commune de Paris. Commune members included Jacobins who followed Revolutionary traditions of 1793, Proudhonists who supported a nation-wide federation of communal governments, and Blanquistes who demanded violent action to bring about change.
Following the quick suppression of several communes across France, the Versailles government attacked the revolutionaries, the Fédérés as they became known, completely crushing them. In what can only be described as a spectacular act of state terrorism, some 20,000 Communards, as well as those suspected of being Communards, were massacred during a single week known as La Semaine Sanglante, Bloody Week. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the national government continued to take harsh repressive measures following their victory, imprisoning and exiling many of the remaining Communards.
In the short time it existed as a communal government, the Paris Commune implemented the separation of the church from the state, the introduction of free and obligatory primary education, the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended), the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries, the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service, the free return by the city pawnshops of all workmen’s tools and household items valued up to 20 francs pledged during the siege, the postponement of commercial debt obligations and the abolition of interest on the debts, the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner (the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner’s right to compensation) and the prohibition of fines imposed by employers on their workmen.
What else the Paris Commune might have achieved had it not been so brutally repressed we can only guess.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
Of course, what I’ve set out above is only a thumbnail sketch of the events leading up to the Paris Commune and the life – and death – of the Commune itself. But it was this sketch that I had in my mind as I walked along rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles. And I also had in mind that, in the fight to suppress the Paris Commune, the Bataille de la Butte-aux-Cailles took place hereabouts. The Polish politician and Communard General, Walery Antoni Wróblewski, successfully defended the advance of Thiers’ forces, the Versaillais, here for some time until he was eventually pushed back which enabled the Versaillais to capture the entire Left Bank of the Seine and enter the eastern suburbs of Paris where the dénouement was finally played out.
And as I was thinking of all these things, I looked across the street and saw this restaurant, Le Temps des Cerises.
Le Temps des Cerises – The Time of the Cherries
This seemed to be entirely appropriate because Le Temps des Cerises is, in the spirit of the Paris Commune, a Société Coopérative Ouvrière de Production, a workers cooperative. But the name, Le Temps des Cerises, also has another significance.
In 1866, a French socialist, journalist and songwriter, Jean-Baptiste Clément, wrote a song called Le Temps des Cerises which was to become inextricably linked with the Paris Commune. Clément was very active within the Paris Commune and was present at the barricades during La Semaine Sanglante. But, facing the risk of arrest or worse, he managed to flee Paris, went to Belgium and then to London and was then condemned to death in absentia. Parisians had sung Le Temps des Cerises during both the Prussian and Versailles sieges but now Clément dedicated it to:
“Valiant Citizen Louise, the volunteer doctor’s assistant of rue Fontaine-au-Roi, Sunday, 28 May, 1871”
Standing in rue de la Butte-aux-Cailes looking at this restaurant and reflecting on the Paris Commune and particularly on La Semaine Sanglante, the words of Le Temps des Cerises, a sentimental love song that became the anthem of the struggle, and defeat, of the Communards, came back to me …
I will always love the time of the cherries.
I will keep this time in my heart,
An open wound.
Le Temps des Cerises:
Le Temps des Cerises:
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Et gai rossignol et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreille…
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang…
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour
Évitez les belles!
Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai pas sans souffrir un jour…
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des peines d’amour !
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte!
Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne pourra jamais fermer ma douleur…
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !
Maximilien Luce – A Street in Paris in May 1871 – Google Art Project
MY LAST THREE POSTS have covered my recent exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds.
In Part 1, I walked along the western side of the canal from its starting point in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. In Part 2, I crossed over the Pont MacDonald, left the Paris city limits, and walked along the eastern side of the canal to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, in the commune of Aubervilliers. In Part 3, I left Aubervilliers and continued walking along the eastern side of the canal until I reached the heart of Saint-Denis where I had to cross over to the western side again in order to continue to the end of the canal at L’Écluse de la Briche where the canal discharges into la Seine. As I walked along the canal I stopped from time to time to capture the sights and sounds of the canal and I made several detours to look at and to listen to other things that caught my interest.
I’ve included some of the sights and sounds I captured along the canal in my previous three posts but now I want to add something else I captured, something that I think captures the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
As I passed the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N°6, L’Écluse Saint-Denis, I discovered that my way was barred because of renovation work to the walls of the quay and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare to the other side. As I crossed over this footbridge I had no idea that it would be a further hour before I continued my journey along the canal.
My diversion over the Passerelle de la Gare, across the Place de la Gare, then over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis and back again to the western quay
Saint-Denis; Place de la Gare
I crossed the footbridge and entered the Place de la Gare, the concourse outside Saint-Denis railway station, when I came upon something completely unexpected and something that occupied me for the next hour or so.
I found that I was in the midst of an African street market complete with its colourful sights and sounds.
Street Market in the Place de la Gare – Saint-Denis:
The market stretched across the Place de la Gare and over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis but it’s not an official market, on the contrary, it’s an ad hoc and technically illegal market that appears most days of the week. The police though seem to tolerate it, they patrol the area regularly, always in groups of three, whereupon the vendors hastily pack their goods away and wait until the police leave before they get back to work.
Of course, the police haven’t always been so tolerant and I was reminded of this when I saw a sign attached to lamppost with an alternative name for this space – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961.
October 1961 was a particularly inglorious time for the police as the two memorial plaques I found explain.
Memorial plaque in the Place de la Gare
Memorial plaque on the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis
I’ve referred to these events elsewhere in this blog so here I’ll just leave the plaques to tell their own story.
In my walk along the entire length of the Canal Saint-Denis, I photographed many images and recorded many sounds but, for me, it is the sounds of this market that capture the real essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
At the end of Part 3 of my exploration of the canal I said:
“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.”
With a little imagination, I think the contemporary sounds I discovered in the Place de la Gare illustrate some of that history.
At first glance, it might not be obvious how to connect these sounds with a medieval past but markets and their sounds are nothing new to Saint-Denis or to the surrounding area.
The first market hereabouts, la foire de la Saint-Denis, the Fair of Saint-Denis, dates back to the seventh century when an autumn fair was held beginning on October 9th each year, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint-Denis and the date of the annual pilgrimage to his tomb. The fair was held at the Place Panetière and in covered markets, but also in the main cemetery of the Abbeye de Saint-Denis. It lasted for seven-weeks, from October 9th to November 29th, Saint Andrew’s Day, and since it was held well after the harvest and during grape-picking it allowed the abbey to sell its grain and surplus wine produced by its extensive vineyards.
The subsequent arrival of the Vikings interrupted this annual fair but the monks of Saint-Denis revived it again in 1053 with the Lendit Fair. In the early twelfth century, the market was moved to the La Plaine Saint-Denis, halfway between Paris and Saint-Denis, where it began on the second Wednesday in June and lasted until June 23, the eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The market returned to the Place Panetière in 1556.
Today, as well as the ad hoc street market in the Place de la Gare, Saint-Denis is well-known for its thriving indoor and street markets clustered around the former Place Panetière, now the Place Victor Hugo.
When it was opened in 1821, the Canal Saint-Denis created a ribbon of water cutting through the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and stretching across the agricultural Plaine Saint-Denis and through medieval Aubervilliers as far as Saint-Denis. In its wake came the railway and a wave of industrialisation. The canal became a major artery feeding the burgeoning industries; it became the lifeblood of the communities along its banks.
Today, save for the stretch along the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement, a walk along the Canal Saint-Denis reveals little of the sonic environment that might have existed in the nineteenth century. Of course, barges still pass up and down the canal and trains cross it, there is mechanical activity – trucks take on loads of ready-mix concrete and JCB’s load and off-load construction materials, but there is little of the bustle of human activity that would have characterised the canal during the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The sounds I came upon in the Place de la Gare reminded me that this canal, in its hey-day, would have had a pulse reflecting the heartbeat of the human communities along its banks.
After industrialisation came de-industrialisation along with its bedfellows, increased unemployment, increased poverty, the flight of the wealthiest part of the population and increased immigration.
Issues around immigration seem to make big headlines today but immigration is nothing new along the Canal Saint-Denis. Nineteenth century industrialisation saw waves of immigrants arrive just as de-industrialisation has. The sounds I found in the Place de la Gare seemed to me to reflect the ebb and flow of these populations.
I’ve said that the sounds I happened upon in the Place de la Gare were sounds that for me at least captured the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis. Out of context they are simply the sounds of yet another street market but in the context that they are the sounds of human activity lying alongside and straddling the Canal Saint-Denis they seem to me to represent a series of footprints stretching from the present day to the distant past.
The essence of the Canal Saint-Denis surely rests with its location, its history and the activity on and around it. The sounds of this ad hoc market in the Place de la Gare with accents from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere may represent this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis today but I would argue that they are also a reflection of the medieval markets in the Plaine Saint-Denis which themselves were not attended exclusively by the French.
The modern-day sounds I think also represent a similar heartbeat to that which might have been found alongside the canal at the height of industrialisation – bustling activity against a background of competing accents. The period of de-industrialisation, of course, is to some extent represented by the very people I found in the Place de la Gare.
The one piece of history that is perhaps not represented by these sounds is the retrieval of the dead bodies from the canal in October 1961. Maybe that’s appropriate though because I suspect that they would have been treated with a respectful silence.
Place de la Gare – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961
In my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I recorded many sounds all of which are a faithful record of the canal as it is today. But, for me, none of them conjure up as much of the essence of the canal as the sounds in the Place de la Gare.
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.