LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.
The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL
In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.
This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.
Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.
The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record
The aircraft fly-past:
The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde
Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.
If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.
The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.
For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.
Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.
It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.
The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense
I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.
The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.
From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.
If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.
All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.
At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.
Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.
Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past
The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.
In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.
Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.
But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.
What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.
The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.
But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.
By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.
With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.
On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.
The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.
Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.
But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Passerelle Debilly, a stone’s throw from the Tour Eiffel and one of the four “passerelles piétonnières”, or footbridges, to cross la Seine within the Paris city limits.
Like some of the other bridges in this part of Paris, the Paserelle Debilly owes its existence to one of the great Expositions Universelles, or World’s Fairs, held on and around the Champs de Mars in the late nineteenth-century. Built as a footbridge for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly was originally positioned to connect the Army and the Navy exhibition halls on one side of the river with the Old Paris halls on the other.
Exposition Universelle 1900 – Passerelle Debilly and the Armées de Terre et de Mer Exhibition Hall.
The Passerelle Debilly was designed by three French engineers Jean Résal, Amédée Alby and André-Louis Lion. Jean Résal held the position of Ingénieur en chef des ponts et chausses, a prestigious civil engineering post dating back to the seventeenth-century and an especially important post during the late nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris. Résal was a pioneer of building metallic bridges in the late nineteenth-century and his work includes as well as the Passerelle Debilly, the Pont Mirabeau, the Pont de Bercy, the Pont Notre-Dame and the magnificent Pont Alexandre III.
The construction work for the Passerelle Debilly was undertaken by the firm of Daydé et Pillé, specialists in metallic construction who also constructed several other bridges in Paris.
Passerelle Debilly From Downstream
The construction work was completed and the Passerelle Debilly was opened on 13th April 1900. To begin with the name of the footbridge was ambiguous, it was called both the Passerelle de l’Exposition Militaire and the Passerelle de Magdebourg. It was only later that it was formally designated as the Passerelle Debilly, after General Jean Louis Debilly who was killed in the Battle of Jena (La bataille d’Iéna in French) in 1806.
The bridge of course was designed as a temporary structure to serve visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. But in 1903, after the Exposition had been deconstructed, the bridge was taken over by the City of Paris and it became a permanent fixture but not before it was moved some two hundred metres upstream opposite the rue de la Manutention, closer to the Pont d’Alma and further away from the Pont d’Iena, the bridge named after the battle in which Jean Louis Debilly died.
Tour Eiffel from under the Passerelle Debilly
The Passerelle Debilly we see today is the original bridge save for several new coats of paint and the addition of the tropical hardwood walkway. It’s 120 metres long and 8 metres wide and it stretches from the Quai de New York on the Right Bank to the Quai Branly on the Left Bank. The bridge comprises three spans anchored on stone piers with the central span forming an arch with an intermediate deck of 75 metres and two half-arch end spans of 22.50 metres.
Passerelle Debilly anchored into one of the stone piers
At either end of the Passerelle Debilly are columns decorated with dark green ceramic tiles giving the impression of waves made by the French ceramic company, Gentil et Bourdet.
Having successfully survived its temporary status after the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly came under threat again in 1941 when the Président of the Architectural Society no less characterised it as an “accessoire oublié d’une fête passée”, a forgotten accessory of a past event. But the Passerelle Debilly snubbed its nose at this intervention and survived to become listed in the supplementary registry of historical monuments in 1966.
Regular readers will know that I have embarked upon a Paris Bridges Project; a project to explore all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. My exploration includes not only researching the history of each bridge but also seeking out the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
On my visit to the Passerelle Debilly I began by recording the sounds under the bridge on the Quai de New York side. I sat on a metal rail, as far under the bridge as I could get, with the metal frame of the bridge and the wooden walkway above my head and began to record.
Sounds under the Passerelle Debilly:
The sounds of boats passing each leaving their sonic footprint in the form of waves lapping on the edge of the quay, a boat moored to my left creaking as if held prisoner and crying out for some means of escape, a sonic glimpse of a tourist guide over the public address system on a passing tourist boat, the testosterone-fuelled sounds of a passing motor-cycle, half-heard conversations of teenagers, and the occasional, almost imperceptible, footsteps echoing from the tropical hardwood floor of the bridge above seemed to be the characteristic sounds from under the Passerelle Debilly.
But the characteristic sounds of any place are as varied as the places you listen from and so I decided to venture up onto the bridge to see what I could find.
Standing on the bridge, I set up my microphones on the downstream side of the bridge pointing upstream across the broad swathe of tropical hardwood lining the floor of the bridge, something those walking across the bridge in 1900 would not have found. From this position I was able to record everyday life passing by.
I found three distinctive sets of sounds on the bridge.
Sounds on the Passerelle Debilly:
Not surprisingly, the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor on the bridge were much clearer than the muffled sounds of footsteps I’d heard earlier from under it. It was interesting to observe the variety of shoes that passed by, not something I would usually take an interest in, but I became quite expert in recognising which shoes would make an interesting sound and which would not. The repetitive sounds of tourist boats passing underneath the bridge were ever present of course but it was the snatches of half-heard conversations in a variety of languages that I found really fascinating. Who were these people, what had brought them to this place and what stories had they to tell?
One distinctive sound that I might have expected was conspicuous by its absence – the sound of vehicular traffic. Save for the inevitable screeching motorcycle in the distance, from the centre of the bridge the sound of traffic was almost imperceptible – a rare thing in Paris.
While the sounds of vehicular traffic were pretty much absent from the centre of the bridge, the sounds of the river traffic were certainly present. I’d heard the sounds of the boats passing from under the bridge and from on the bridge but, since there was so much river traffic at the time I was there and since the sounds of the boats filled the air, I thought I would try to listen to them from a different perspective. I changed my microphones for a pair of tiny lavalier microphones, the same as TV newsreaders wear, which I lowered down from the edge of the bridge so that they were hanging midway between the bridge and the water.
Sounds of the passing boats from between the bridge and the water:
From this perspective I still caught some of the sounds emanating from on the bridge (the microphones were omni-directional) but I was able to capture the sounds of the boats passing underneath with a clarity that would not have been possible from on the bridge. Listening through my headphones I heard snatches of conversation from on the boats often before the boats had actually emerged from under the bridge and most surprisingly, I heard the sound of music from a boat berthed on the Quai Branly which was quite inaudible from my previous recording position on the bridge.
One of the things I’m trying to do in my Paris Bridges Project is to not only discover the characteristic sounds of each bridge but also to try to seek out the sounds that might be unique to each bridge. Finding the unique sounds can be quite a challenge because the sounds are often not immediately obvious and sometimes they can be almost imperceptible to the casual listener.
At the Quai Branly side of the Passerelle Debilly is the Port de la Bourdonnais, a place where some of the large restaurant boats that ply la Seine are berthed. The bridge runs over the top of the port with steps leading down to the quay. Under the bridge, beyond the steps, is a wall behind which run two railway lines of RER Line ‘C’. It seemed to me that the sounds of an RER railway line running under the Passerelle Debilly could be the unique sounds of the bridge that I was looking for so I stood under the bridge, listening and waiting.
Presently, I heard the very faint sounds of a train passing behind the wall, sounds too faint to capture without the aid of contact microphones (microphones designed to pick up sounds from solid objects) but the sounds were definitely there. Since I wanted to capture these sounds but I didn’t have my contact microphones with me I resorted to ‘Plan B’.
From where I was standing, the rail lines were completely hidden from view but a few steps further along the Port de la Bourdonnais metal grills appear in the wall.
I approached one of the metal grills and discovered that it was just, but only just, high enough for me to reach and so with the dexterity of a cat burglar I managed to get my tiny lavalier microphones through the grill and lower them down the other side. I waited to see what would happen.
Sounds of RER Line ‘C’ passing under the bridge:
Standing at the end of two wires protruding from a hole in the wall attracted more attention from the passing tourists than I’d bargained for but I pressed on regardless and I was pleased with the results.
I was struck by the near silence in the tunnel between the trains despite the everyday sounds around me on the outside of the wall. The only time this silence was disturbed was when a very large tourist bus passed behind me, rather too close I thought.
For me at least, these were the unique sounds of the Passerelle Debilly.
Located as it is close to the Tour Eiffel and the site of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly is well used to hosting visitors.
In 1900 visitors came to witness the latest in architecture, machines and inventions including such things as the new Art Nouveau, the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel, Russian nesting dolls, diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone, the first magnetic audio recorder. Today, visitors still come to experience what Paris has to offer and a good number of the visitors, now as then, will pass over the Passerelle Debilly.
But there was a time when the Passerelle Debilly was more than just a passing attraction for tourists.
For those of us of a certain age and for whom memories of the Cold War are still vivid, the Passerelle Debilly, when viewed from a certain angle and in a certain light, has a rather sinister look to it. It’s perhaps not surprising then to discover that the Passerelle Debilly was a meeting place for spies and particularly secret agents of the former East Germany. In 1989, a German diplomat working for the Secret Service of the Democratic Republic of Germany was found dead on this footbridge several days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Knowing that gave me a whole new perspective on the Passerelle Debilly – The Bridge of Spies!
ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.
The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.
I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.
Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.
Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.
While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.
The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.
Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.
Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.
I then took another picture to the left …
… and one to the right.
But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?
Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.
A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:
Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.
In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.
Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I recounted how I went to the Marché aux Fleurs last Saturday shortly after the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and how the market had been renamed in her honour as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The next day I returned to this flower market to witness its transformation into the Marché aux Oiseaux, a bird market.
The main part of the Marché aux Fleurs comprises two iron pavilions filled with a cornucopia of plants, shrubs, flowers and garden accessories. But on Sundays the road between the two pavilions is taken over by temporary stalls selling a wide variety of birds, from the rare and exotic to the more prosaic, together with a selection bird related accessories.
When I went there on Sunday, the road between the iron pavilions of the flower market was awash with people who, as with most markets, obviously come here not only to buy and sell but also to meet friends and other like-minded people.
Marché aux Oiseaux – A Soundwalk:
I found the soundscape in the Marché aux Oiseaux fascinating – an intriguing interweaving of sounds from two different species in close proximity, the avian and the human, with both speaking to themselves but not to each other. It seemed as though the air was filled with a cacophony of conversation.
At the end of my Sunday morning walk through the Marché aux Oiseaux this cacophony of avian and human conversation seemed to be reconciled by the unifying, man-made sounds of the distant bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris drifting across the market on the warm, summer air.
Here are some more sights of the Marché aux Oiseaux:
THE FRENCH SELDOM name places after living people but in the case of the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris they’ve made an exception.
Last Saturday, at the end of a three-day State Visit to France which included attending the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Anne Hidalgo, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, and the French Président, François Hollande, visited the Marché aux Fleurs, which has been renamed the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II in her honour.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been to the Marché aux Fleurs so I thought I would go along on Saturday and reaquaint myself with this renowned Parisian flower market.
Close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs, in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808. Housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof, the market offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories as well as other hidden treasures.
Sounds of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II:
I arrived at the market shortly after the Queen had left and so, on this beautiful sunny day, I was able to walk around unencumbered by the restrictions surrounding Royal visits.
I spoke to some of the stallholders and they seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and with the new name of the market. I also came upon two young ladies clutching an iPhone who were particularly excited since they had just found a photograph of themselves meeting the Queen on a French Television website.
Not everyone is happy with the new name though. Some on the Left said it was ‘ridiculous’ that an unelected monarch was getting such an accolade in a republic that executed most of its royals more than 200 years ago.
At the entrance to the market next to the Paris Préfecture de Police, where earlier the Queen had unveiled a street sign with the new name of the market, I discovered that work was well underway deconstructing the paraphernalia that had been erected for the unveiling ceremony. The four white, padded chairs that moments ago had hosted distinguished bottoms were now stacked on top of each other looking rather forlorn as if contemplating their fate.
In my next blog piece I will reveal what happens to the Marché aux Fleurs on Sunday mornings when the flowers and plants take a back seat and the market is transformed into the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market.
In the meantime, here are some more sights of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The Queen visiting the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II
Image via PA
RUE DE STEINKERQUE must be one of the most visited streets in Paris and yet I doubt that few people who pass along it will know it by name. At a little over one hundred and fifty metres long and seven metres wide it’s quite a small street but it has a footfall that far outweighs its size.
Rue de Steinkerque was originally a pathway in the commune of Montmartre. It was formally recognised as a street by decree in 1868 and it was officially named in 1877.
Its name comes from the Battle of Steinkerque fought near the village of Steenkerque, fifty kilometres south-west of Brussels, on 3rd August 1692. The battle was won by the French under Marshal François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg against a joint English-Scottish-Dutch-German army under Prince William of Orange.
Today, rue de Steinkerque is a well-trodden tourist trail leading from the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Métro station Anvers to the Place Saint-Pierre and Montmartre.
And sitting at the top of the street on the summit of la butte Montmartre is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which seems to act like a magnet for the swathe of tourists in the street below.
But to get to this towering monument built as a penance for the excesses of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune of 1871, tourists have to negotiate the rue de Steinkerque with the crowds of people, the lines of gift shops, the trinket peddlers – and the thieves determined to surreptitiously remove anything of value from the unsuspecting tourists.
I went to explore rue de Steinkerque the other day and to record a soundwalk and, not for the first time in this street, I arrived at the top find that one of the pockets of my shoulder bag had been completely unzipped without me being aware of it. Thankfully, nothing was taken – this time!
Rue de Steinkerque – A Soundwalk:
Not quite all the shops lining the rue de Steinkerque are gift and trinket shops. At the bottom of the street is the Sympa store, a place to find cheap clothing, often big brand names at unbelievably low prices.
No investment in marketing here, the clothes are just dumped into bins by the roadside for the customers to rummage through.
By contrast, the street also boasts La Cure Gourmande, a renowned maker of biscuits, chocolates and confectionary …
… as well as la Maison Georges Larnicol and le Petit Musée du Chocolat, which is well worth a visit …
… and a couple of antique shops.
A lot of people who come to rue de Steinkerque come as part of a tourist group and so it’s quite common to see tourist guides with their distinctive umbrellas gathering their flocks for the trek up the street.
If you find yourself heading for Montmartre you will more than likely find yourself in rue de Steinkerque at some point. Enjoy the atmosphere – but beware those who might be out to spoil your day!
IF THINGS HAD GONE to plan, the iconic logo – blue letters on a background of Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles – would not have said ‘TATI’ at all.
In 1948, when Jules Ouaki opened a small textile shop in Boulevard de Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement of Paris he wanted to call it ‘TITA’ after the nickname of his mother, Esther, but that name had already been registered by someone else and so by rearranging the letters, ‘TITA’ became ‘TATI’.
The iconic TATI logo
Jules Ouaki was born in Tunis in 1920, the eldest of nine children. He arrived in Paris at the end of the Second World War penniless but not without ambition. He found work in the ‘rag trade’ selling lingerie but, like others before him, Jules Ouaki was not content to be a small time salesman.
In the second-half of the nineteenth-century, the new and phenomenally successful Parisian department stores revolutionised the concept of retailing. All of them had grown from very humble beginnings to become successful retail giants thanks to great entrepreneurs like Aristide Boucicaut at Le Bon Marché, Ernest Cognacq at La Samaritaine, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos at Printemps and Albert Kahn at the Galeries Lafayette. Jules Ouaki was an entrepreneur and he too would seek to grow a giant retail business.
In 1948, Jules Ouaki opened a 50 M2 shop on the Boulevard de Rochechouart in the Barbès district of Paris selling mainly textiles and clothing. This first TATI self-service store emulated the by then well-established retailing principle of ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ but Ouaki also needed to differentiate his business in what was becoming an overcrowded market. To do that he decided to position TATI not only to sell its goods at low prices – but at the lowest prices. And thus was born the advertising slogan still proclaimed today from on top of the site of the original store – ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
This slogan, ‘TATI – The Lowest Prices’, attracted customers and served Jules Ouaki well. He was able to expand his enterprise turning the original 50 M2 shop into the sprawling 2,800 M2 retail space we see in the Boulevard Rochechouart today. In the 1970’s TATI expanded even further opening new stores in Paris in Place de la République and Rue de Rennes as well as beginning an expansion into the provinces with stores opening in Nancy, Lille, Rouen, Marseille and Lyon.
So the TATI success seemed assured – but there was a sting in the tail for this family business founded on the mantra of ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
In 1982, Jules Ouaki died leaving his wife, Eleanor, and five children but no clear plan of succession for the running of the business. Who was now to take up the reins and lead the business? It was left to Eleanor to choose a successor. Her choice was Fabien, the youngest of the five children and he, after much vacillation, agreed ‘but only to please his mother’ he later said.
Under its new leadership TATI continued to expand through the 1980’s and 1990’s adding more brands, an increased product offering and a wider geographical presence.
As well as selling textiles and clothing, TATI now offered household products, cosmetics, wedding dresses, sweets, jewellery, spectacles and even a travel agency. It also began to expand outside France. Stores were opened in Europe, South Africa and the United States, including one store on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Fabien Ouaki became the largest shareholder in TATI in 1995 and by then he was heading a successful enterprise that had 29 stores and well over 1,000 employees.
But, remember the sting in the tail …
In the early days, Jules Ouaki had differentiated TATI not only by selling at low prices – but at the lowest prices, a formula that worked well and led to great success. But commercial differentiation only works if it does what it says and actually differentiates an enterprise from its competitors. Once competitors muscle in and copy a successful commercial model the enterprise faces serious trouble unless it acts quickly and decisively.
At the turn of the millennium TATI faced exactly this problem. Competitors like H & M , Babu and Zara were striking at the very heart of the TATI business, the discount textile market. TATI was over-diversified and overstretched and couldn’t respond. The company eventually ran out of cash and on 28th August 2003, TATI filed a petition for bankruptcy with the Tribunal de Commerce de Paris.
The court gave Fabien Ouaki some breathing space to try to right the ship but to no avail. At the end of 2004, the Ouaki family decided that after fifty-six years of trading they were going to pull out and let the business go.
Soon after, TATI was bought by a subsidiary of Groupe Eram for €10 million payable in cash plus €4.5 million for the store inventories. Since then, the new owners seem to have been able to breathe new life into the enterprise.
Today, TATI has 129 outlets in France and is making a rapid expansion into Eastern Europe. Its central focus is on the 25% of households earning less than €20,000 per year across Europe whilst attracting a significantly higher proportion of French consumers. To that end it has to some extent moved away from the former ‘bazaar’ type presentation of its products to a more formal in-store presentation and it now has a presence on the internet. Yet, despite this slightly more up-market approach, the average selling price of items in a TATI store is €5.
I went to explore TATI in the Boulevard de Rochechouart the other day and walking round listening to the soundscape inside the store I couldn’t help pondering its history, its near death experience and its subsequent revival.
Inside TATI on the Boulevard de Rochechouart:
Jules Ouaki founded TATI in 1948 as a lowest price retailer. Whatever his motives, the effect of what he did was to democratise shopping – to make at least some of the essentials of life, clothing in particular, accessible to the poorest in society.
We will never know whether Jules Ouaki, the entrepreneur, could have weathered the storm of competition that descended upon TATI at the turn of the century or whether he would have been ahead of the game and foreseen the challenge and responded to it before it happened.
It seems to me that the old TATI suffered from a condition common to many failing businesses – a myopic view of the world unadorned with any semblance of reality coupled with ambitions exceeding the depth of its pocket.
Groupe Eram appear to have secured TATI’s future for the time being but they have done one thing that seems to me at least to be completely inexplicable. They have allegedly done away with the iconic TATI logo. The Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles have completely gone and the blue letters have been replaced with letters in, can you believe it, raspberry!
The new TATI logo
Groupe Eram may be anxious to shed the image of the former failed TATI but I’m sure the original logo will live on in the minds of many Parisians as one of those things you just don’t mess with. Anyway, although introduced in February 2013, I for one am delighted to see that news of the new logo has yet to reach the TATI store in the Boulevard de Rochechouart!
MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me recently to one of the iconic bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
Linking the 15th and 16th arrondissements and crossing the artificial island, the Île aux Cygnes in the middle of la Seine, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim crosses the river just downstream from the Tour Eiffel.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking downstream
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim we see today is the second bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first was a metal footbridge, the Passerelle de Passy, which was built for the 1878 Universal Exposition. When Paris hosted the Universal Exposition in 1900 it was decided to draw up plans to replace the existing footbridge with something more substantial.
In 1902, the Métropolitan railway and the Seine Navigation department organised a competition for a two-tier bridge, with a road bridge on the lower level comprising two lateral roadways separated by a central walkway and, on the upper level, a Métropolitan railway viaduct supported by metal columns resting on the central space.
A proposal by the French engineer, Louis Biette, was accepted and the firm, Daydé & Pillé, were charged with constructing the new bridge. Construction work began in 1903 and was completed in 1905. The new bridge, the bridge we see today, was called the Viaduc de Passy, reflecting the name of both the original footbridge and the commune of Passy which is located at the Right Bank end of the bridge.
The monumental stone arch across the tip of the Île aux Cygnes
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim comprises two unequal metal structures, each comprising three cantilever spans separated by a monumental stone structure on the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes. The larger of the two structures connects to the Right Bank and its arches measure 30 metres, 54 metres and 30 metres and for the smaller structure connecting to the Left bank, the arches measure 24 metres, 42 metres and 24 metres. The two structures are anchored by an abutment at each end and by a common abutment on the Île aux Cygnes.
The larger of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The smaller of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The lower level of the bridge comprises two roadways each 6 metres wide, two pavements each 2 metres wide and a central walkway 8.7 metres wide, which also doubles up as two cycle lanes. The total length of the bridge is 237 metres.
The upper deck carrying Métro Line 6 comprises a metal deck supported by cast-iron pillars 6 metres apart. The upper deck is 7.3 metres wide.
A Paris municipal architect, Jean Camille Formigé, was responsible for the decoration of the bridge. He engaged three sculptors, Gustave Michel, Jules-Felix Coutan, and Jean Antoine Injalbert to create sculptures to adorn the bridge.
‘Les forgerons-riveteurs’ by Gustave Michel
The bridge retained the name ‘Viaduc de Passy’ until 1948 when it was renamed to commemorate the Battle of Bir Hakeim, fought by Free French forces against the German Afrika Korps in 1942.
My Paris Bridges project is not only about exploring the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about exploring the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Since one of the characteristic features of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the viaduct carrying Métro Line 6 on the upper level of the bridge, the sounds of Métro trains crossing the viaduct are clearly one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge and so I went to investigate.
My exploration began at the Métro station Passy at the Right Bank end of the bridge from where I caught a Métro train and made the short journey across the bridge to the next station, Bir-Hakeim.
From Passy to Bir-Hakeim:
Another characteristic feature of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the spectacular view of the Tour Eiffel from the bridge and especially from a Métro train crossing the viaduct. Even on the dullest of days the view is quite special.
Tour Eiffel from a Métro train crossing the viaduct
And when standing on the bridge the view is equally impressive.
Tour Eiffel from on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Having crossed the viaduct I alighted at Bir-Hakeim station from where I could get an excellent view of the Métro line crossing the viaduct.
Métro Line 6 crossing the viaduct on Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Next, I wanted to explore the sounds on the lower level of the bridge. I walked across the bridge on the central walkway underneath the viaduct from the Right Bank to the Left Bank listening carefully to the sounds around me. I then walked back in the opposite direction this time not only pausing to listen but also to record.
Sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim on the bridge:
I discovered two characteristic sounds on the bridge – the sounds of the Métro passing overhead and of course, the sounds of the passing traffic.
I found the sounds of the traffic to be different here to that found on some of the other Parisian bridges. Traffic lights at both ends of the bridge regulate the flow and so the traffic passes in waves rather than in a constant stream and the bridge is also long enough to avoid endless queues of traffic backing up across the bridge, at least for most of the time. In addition, the very smooth road surface together with the large expanse of open space either side of the bridge along its length seems to help dampen the more aggressive sounds of the traffic.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim – On the bridge underneath the viaduct
The sounds of the Métro passing overhead were interesting. As the Métro line approaches the stations at either end of the bridge, Passy on one side and Bir-Hakeim on the other, the sounds of the trains passing over the viaduct are much clearer than they are around the centre of the bridge. The reason for this could be that there are buildings close to both ends of the bridge that reflect and thus amplify the sounds whereas the expanse of open space on either side of the bridge in the centre helps to dissipate the sounds.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking across towards Passy from the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes
As well as recording the sounds of the traffic and the Métro crossing the bridge, both of which are clearly characteristic sounds of the bridge, I was eager to see if I could find any sounds that might be unique to the bridge.
On the hunt for any such sounds I walked back and forth across the bridge several times and even went under the bridge but, after much very careful listening, none of the sounds I heard seemed to strike me as being unique to this bridge. After all, this is not the only Parisian bridge to carry a roadway with traffic and a viaduct for the Métro. As part of my Paris Bridges project I published a piece on this blog some time ago about the Pont de Bercy, which although made of stone, is functionally similar to the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
While the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the Métro are characteristic sounds of both these bridges I wanted to see if there was any sound on or around the Pont de Bir-Hakeim that would distinguish it from its upstream cousin.
My experience of hunting for sounds in the urban environment has taught me that patience is a virtue and that if you search hard enough and wait long enough something almost always turns up.
Seeking somewhere to sit down after all the walking I’d done, I ventured down the steps beside the bridge to the Allée des Cygnes, the pathway that runs along the length of the Île aux Cygnes. A bench hove into view and I sat down and pondered where I might go next to search out the sounds I was seeking.
I sat there for almost twenty minutes before I decided that it was time to get up and leave. And then, quite suddenly, I found that I didn’t have to go and search for more sounds after all — instead, the sounds were coming to me!
Emerging from under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim from the upstream side was a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine. Tourist boats ply la Seine all the time and the sound of them passing under the bridges is quite normal and hardly unique – or is it?
Well, the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches passing under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are, believe it or not, unique to this bridge. But why should that be?
The answer is that the route for most of the tourist boats, irrespective of where they start their journey, stretches from the upstream Pont de Sully to the downstream Pont de Bir-Hakeim. Both these bridges are used as turning points for the tourist boats. At the Pont de Sully, the boats travel quite a long way beyond the bridge before turning round whereas at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim they all, save for the Bateaux Mouches, turn round on the upstream side of the bridge without passing under it. The Bateaux Mouches on the other hand does pass under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, but only just, before turning round and passing through it again in the opposite direction.
It is the sounds of this nautical ballet as the Bateaux Mouches turns round almost within its own length just beyond the bridge that I contend are the unique sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
This ballet is played out here in sound and in pictures:
Sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning just beyond the bridge:
Some might argue that the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are not unique to this bridge because the sounds of it turning upstream at the Pont de Sully might be the same, or at least similar. I would counter that by saying that at the Pont de Sully the Bateaux Mouches turns so far beyond the bridge that its sounds cannot be heard or, given a favourable wind, can barely be heard from that bridge. I know that because I’ve been to find out.
In any event, if you listen to the sound piece carefully you will hear towards the end of the piece the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches completing its turn accompanied by the sounds of a Métro train passing over the viaduct on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim. That confluence of sounds doesn’t happen anywhere else in Paris!
And finally, and nothing at all to do with the sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, I was captivated by the lamps suspended from the viaduct on this iconic Parisian bridge.
* Louis Biette also built the Viaduc d’Austerlitz, a metal viaduct that crosses the Seine in a single span.
* Daydé & Pillé also built other bridges in Paris including the Pont de Mirabeau (1896), the Pont Saint-Michel (1890) and the Viaduc du quai de la Rapée (1905). They also built the Grand Palais for the 1900 Universelle Exposition.
THE FIRST OF MAY is a public holiday in France, La Fête du Travail or Labour Day as it’s known in some countries.
Traditionally, the First of May is also the day when Lily of the Valley, or Muguet, is sold everywhere on streets across France as a of the symbol of springtime and of good luck.
Muguet (Lily of the Valley) being distributed in rue de Rivoli
La Fête du Travail is primarily an opportunity to campaign for and to celebrate workers’ rights and in Paris many people take to the streets to make their voices heard.
For me, as a sonic journalist and dedicated collector of the sounds of Paris, the First of May always marks the start of the Parisian marching season. I know that over the next few months I will spend many hours on the streets capturing the sounds of marches, demonstrations and protests covering every shade of political opinion.
In Paris it’s become traditional for the two extremes of political opinion to take to the streets on the First of May. In the morning the right-wing Front National march from the Palais-Royal to Place de l’Opéra and in the afternoon the left-wing Socialists and Trades Unions march from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation. I used to record both of these marches each year but latterly I’ve taken to recording them alternately, the left one year and the right the next.
This year it was the turn of the Front National and so an hour before the march was due to begin I arrived in the Place des Pyramides in front of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine to the far right, and jostled with the seasoned TV and Radio crews and the press photographers to get the best vantage point.
I recorded the march as it approached along the rue de Rivoli and then passed the statue of Jeanne d’Arc and then I followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.
Front National March:
Two things struck me about this year’s march. First, the last time I recorded this Front National march was in 2012 and my impression was that there were more marchers then than there were this year. I have no statistical evidence to base that on but it was just my impression. And second, although this year’s marchers were vociferous, they seemed to me to be a little more subdued than in 2012.
If, like me, you are a seasoned observer of Parisian political marches and demonstrations from whatever part of the political spectrum, you cannot fail to be impressed by the importance that sound plays. I believe that the rhythm and constant repetition of the chants not only gives everyone a voice but it also acts as a means of discipline.
As an outside observer on the street, you can see that the rhythm and repetition of the chanting has an almost hypnotic effect on the marchers – although I doubt that they would probably accept that. In any of these political marches there are leaders who dictate what the chant should be, the pace and the rhythm of the chant and how many times it should be repeated and then there are the followers who do exactly that, follow the leader’s command.
It seems to me that through this constant chanting the marchers not only have a voice but they feel that their voice is being heard.
I am convinced that the power of sound through rhythm and constant repetition is the main reason why marches like this seldom become unruly or descend into mindless violence.
I followed the march to Place de l’Opéra but, unlike in 2012, I didn’t stay to record the speeches. Instead I had a fascinating chat with a French radio reporter who gave me a guided tour of her Nagra ARES C sound recorder before she went off to file her report for the lunchtime news bulletin.
RUE VAVIN STRETCHES from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Rue d’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. The street is 375 metres long and 12 metres wide at its widest point and two streets, the Boulevard Raspail and Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, intersect it.
Rue Vavin is named after Alexis Vavin (1792-1863), a French politician who, amongst other things, opposed the coup of Napoleon III. As well as the Rue Vavin, the Avenue Vavin (now a short cul-de-sac) and the Métro station Vavin are also named after him.
The other day I decided to explore the Rue Vavin, to search out the places of historical interest and to do a soundwalk.
I began at the Rue d’Assas outside one of the entrances to the Jardin du Luxembourg and I walked along the street to the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the other end.
Rue Vavin – A Soundwalk:
N° 12 rue Vavin
The first building to catch my eye was N° 12.
For over eighty years this was home to the French publishing house founded in 1901 by the orientalist Paul Geuthner. He specialised in Oriental studies and published essays, texts, language textbooks and travelogues on the Near, Middle and Far East.
Paul Geuthner died in 1949 but the business continued and although no longer here at N° 12 rue Vavin (it’s now moved to 16 rue de la Grande Chaumière close by), and despite a change of ownership, the Société Nouvelle Librairie Orientalist Paul Geuthner is still very much alive and well.
Moving on towards the next building I wanted to see I paused to look at two things at the heart of rue Vavin, both of which are emblematic of Paris – a kiosquier selling his newspapers and a Wallace fountain.
The Parisian newspaper kiosk has been around for a 150 years. Today there are about 350 of them in Paris and they account for almost half of all daily newspaper and magazine sales.
And, like the Parisian newspaper kiosk, the Wallace fountain is another piece of iconic Parisian street furniture.
Named after the English philanthropist, Richard Wallace, who lived in Paris and financed their construction, these fountains were designed by the French sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Although originally intended as a source of free, potable water for the poor and also as encouragement to avoid the temptation to turn to strong liquor, everyone uses these fountains today. For the homeless of course, they are often their only source of free drinking water. The fountains operate from 15th March to 15th November (the risk of freezing during the winter months would imperil the internal plumbing) and they are regularly maintained and repainted every two years.
And while the Wallace fountain in rue Vavin might be one kind of watering hole, on the other side of the street there’s another, the Café Vavin.
N° 19 rue Vavin
Further along the street is N° 19.
This building was once home to the École normale d’enseignement du dessin, a school of drawing founded in 1881 by the architect, Alphonse Théodore Guérin. The only private art school in Paris at the time, it was staffed by volunteer teachers and its students paid no fees. The teaching was based on a mixture of workshops and academic classes in decorative composition, perspective, the history of art and anatomy.
N° 26 rue Vavin – Image via Wikipedia
If you’ve seen the film Last Tango in Paris you may recognise the next building I stopped to look at. N° 26 rue Vavin was the creation of the French architects Frédéric-Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin.
In 1903, Sauvage and Sarazin formed the Société anonyme de logements hygiéniques à bon marché, a company whose purpose was to construct good quality, affordable housing for the poorest in society. Built in 1912 as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), N° 26 rue Vavin is a good example of what Sauvage and Sarazin sought to achieve. Designed on the hygienist principles of providing accommodation with plenty of light and air the building has open terraces and is covered with white tiles similar to those found in the Paris Métro which self-clean when it rains.
Unlike with most buildings in Paris, it is forbidden to attach nameplates to the walls of N° 26 partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to avoid damage to the tiles. Consequently, the main door of the building has a very clean and uncluttered look to it.
After pausing to look at a magnificent display of blooms at a flower shop I walked further up rue Vavin to the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail where I found N° 33.
N° 33 rue Vavin
Between the two World Wars, N° 33 rue Vavin was home to the famous cabaret Le Bal de la Boule Blanche. It was here on the evening of 20th February 1931 that Georges Simenon hosted a ball to launch the first two books in the then new but now classic Inspector Maigret series – ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’ and ‘Le pendu de Saint-Pholien’.
Crossing the Boulevard Raspail I wanted to find N° 38 rue Vavin, once the home of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who is perhaps best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, I found a building site with the inevitable site meeting taking place.
N° 50 rue Vavin
The last stop on my soundwalk along the rue Vavin was at N° 50. Today it’s just one of many boutiques along the street but in the second half of the 19th century this was the Maison Voignier, supplier of organ pipes to, amongst others, one of the world’s greatest organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Rue Vavin is a fairly typical Parisian street. It’s home to some or a place of business for others, it’s also a thoroughfare from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Jardin du Luxembourg and it’s a magnet for shoppers. It has its own life, its own history and, of course, its own sounds all of which I think are worth exploring.