I SPENT THE AFTERNOON of Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries. The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and a gentle breeze.
I had rather expected the Jardin des Tuileries to be a haven of tranquillity, this was Christmas Day after all … but it was not so. I discovered that lots of other people had also decided to spend the afternoon of Christmas Day in this former garden of the Tuileries Palace created by Catherine de Medicis in 1564.
On the afternoon of Christmas Day people were doing what they’ve always done here, meeting friends, promenading and relaxing.
And what was I doing? I was listening to the feast of sounds around me – footsteps over the gravel, half-heard conversations, distinctive Parisian park chairs being hauled into just the right place, birds scavenging for their Christmas lunch, tourists admiring the Louvre, a student singing and two Gendarmes on horseback passing in front of the Café Marly.
So here are the sights and sounds I enjoyed on the afternoon of Christmas Day.
Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries:
LA FONTAINE DE MÉDICIS, or the Medici Fountain, is a monumental fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. I’ve been to it many times but early on a bitterly cold morning last week I went with a special purpose in mind, to record the sounds of the fountain.
The fountain was part of the sumptuous palace and gardens that Marie de Médicis, widow of Henry IV and regent for King Louis XIII, commissioned in the 1630’s. The palace, the Palais du Luxembourg, was based on the Palazzo Pitti and the gardens on the Boboli gardens in Florence both of which she had known from her childhood. The fountain was modelled on the grotto built by Bernado Buontalenti in the Boboli gardens. The palace was the work of architect Salomon de Brosse, but the fountain, or grotto, was most probably the work of Tommaso Francini, the Intendant General of Waters and Fountains of the King.
Fontaine Médicis in 1820
After the death of Marie de Médicis the palace and the gardens went through several changes of ownership and the fountain fell into disrepair. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered some restoration work to be done at the beginning of the 19th century but by the second half of the century Baron Haussmann’s massive urban redevelopment of Paris was in full cry and the future of the fountain was in jeopardy. Haussmann had plans to create the rue de Médicis which was to cut through the site where the fountain stood.
The French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who had already extended the Palais du Luxembourg in the 1830’s, was called upon to move the Fontaine Médicis some thirty meters closer to the palace to make way for Haussmann’s new street and in doing so he radically changed its setting by creating a 50 metre long rectangle of water bounded by an alley of trees and he also changed its appearance.
Alphonse de Gisors’ relocation of la Fontaine Médicis today
It was this rectangle of water that was of particular interest to me when I visited the Fontaine Médicis last week.
Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, by Auguste Ottin (1861)
Looking at the fountain with the giant, Polyphemus, looking down on Acis and Galatea and with Faunus, the god of the forest and Diana, goddess of the hunt (both by Ottin) looking at each other, I was absorbed by the sounds of the fountain.
At this early hour in the morning there were no people around but even so I was not alone. This duck befriended me and stayed close to me the whole time I was there. I had gone to this place to record the sounds around me and although I could hear the sounds of the water I couldn’t help wondering what this duck might hear – assuming ducks can hear.
Anxious to find out, I lowered a microphone to the same level as the duck and began to record. These are the sounds heard by the thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, of people who visit this place each year.
Presently, the duck leapt off the ledge onto the water below and began foraging with its head under the water. I followed by lowering a microphone under the water and I began to hear sounds that only the ducks and none of the visitors hear. Both the duck and I were close to where the water was falling over the ledge so the sounds under the water were an underwater version of the sounds above – the gurgling of the falling water as it hits and then descends below the waterline.
The duck decided to move off to a more interesting feeding ground, a clump of fallen leaves nestling on the water. I let my microphone float down to join the duck and it came to rest under the leaves where I discovered a completely different collection of captivating sounds.
I’ve put together a selection of the sounds I recorded, the sounds from above the base of the fountain, the sounds from below and the sounds from under the bed of leaves so that you can share the sonic tapestry the ducks hear.
The hidden sounds of the Fontaine Médicis:
In Homer’s Odyssey we are told that the man-eating one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, was blinded when Odysseus hardened a wooden stake in a fire and drove it into his eye. If that is so, then from his position on la Fontaine Médicis today Polyphemus will surely be more than compensated by the wonderful sounds around him both above and below the water.
IT IS SAID THAT Paris is the most visited city in the world and during the month of August when most Parisians are away on holiday the tourists usually have the city pretty much to themselves.
The other day I went to the Hôtel de Sully, an hôtel particulier, or private mansion, in the Marais district of Paris. It was designed by the architect Jean Androuet du Cerceau and built between 1625 and 1630 in the Louis XIII style.
Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, former Superintendent of Finances to King Henri IV, purchased the property in 1634 and since then it’s had a variety of owners. It was classified as a monument historique in 1862 and then bought by the state in 1944. Today, it’s the Centre des monuments nationaux, a public body under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Communication responsible for the management of historic buildings and monuments in the care of the state.
Not surprisingly, since it’s both an historic monument and it’s next to the fashionable Place des Vosges, the Hôtel de Sully is a popular stop on the Parisian tourist trail and, especially in the summer, it becomes awash with tourist groups.
I’ve been to, or passed by, the Hôtel de Sully many times so I’m quite familiar with it and I can quite understand why it should be on the tourist itinerary. But when I went the other day it wasn’t the sights that fascinated me but rather the sounds.
Sounds of the tourist trail around the Hôtel de Sully:
I spend a good deal of my time listening attentively to the sounds of Paris and it’s not always the obvious sounds that capture my attention. The sounds of brilliant Parisian street musicians, the endless street demonstrations, the Paris Métro and the colourful sounds of the annual fêtes are all part of the sonic tapestry of this city but the less obvious and equally compelling snatches of half-heard conversations, the rustle of clothing, the sound of footsteps over the pavé or over the gravel, all create never to be forgotten images and stories waiting to be told.
For me, the sounds of visitors to Paris pounding the tourist trail across the gravel in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully are some of the characteristic sounds of Paris, sounds that you can also hear in most of the city centre parks.
I always try to make time to stop and listen to sounds like these because I find them fascinating and even compelling. But what I also find fascinating is that while most of the people responsible for these sounds, those trudging wearily from one tourist spot to another, may be aware of these sounds I doubt that many, if any, actually stop to listen to them. And yet these sounds are as just as much a part of the fabric of the Hôtel de Sully as the building itself.
Unlike hearing, listening is an art and it requires hard work and constant practice. I spend most of my time listening to Paris. And when one listens one’s curiosity is aroused.
If you’ve listened to the whole of my recording in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully you will have probably drawn your own picture of the scene. My photographs may have given you the context but you will have undoubtedly created your own pictures in your mind. If you’ve listened attentively you will have heard a rather curious and unexplained sound – a repetitive chanting in the background, a rather eerie sound.
That sound came from this lady. Not everyone who pounds the tourist trail through the Hôtel de Sully is a tourist.
THE JARDIN ANNE-FRANK is easily missed. It’s tucked away in a cul-de-sac, the Impasse Berthaud, in the 3rd arrondissement next to the Musée de la Poupée, a private museum housing a collection of some 500 French dolls.
The Jardin Anne-Frank, as the name suggests, is a green space dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank who gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published in which she documented her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, aged 15.
Sounds of the Jardin Anne-Frank:
Covering some 4,000 M2, the Jardin Anne-Frank stands in the former gardens of l’Hôtel Saint-Aignan, now the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme, a museum dedicated to the art and history of Judaïsme.
The garden was opened in June 2007 in the presence of Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, Pierre Aidenbaum, Mayor of the 3e arrondissement, and Hans Westra, Director of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
The Jardin Anne-Frank is a delightful and tranquil place to spend a sunny summer afternoon.
14 Impasse Berthaud
Métro Station Rambuteau: Line 11
SITUATED AT THE WESTERN edge of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne is the second largest public park in the city covering some 2,090 acres, which makes it two and a half times bigger than Central Park in New York and about the same size as Richmond Park in London.
Amongst other things, the Bois de Boulogne is home to the Hippodrome de Longchamp where each year, on the first Sunday in October, one of Europe’s most prestigious horse races, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe takes place. It’s also home to the Stade Roland Garros, the stadium where the French Open tennis tournament is held each year.
World-class horse racing and tennis are not the only sports played in the Bois de Boulogne. At weekends especially, ad hoc games of football, rugby and even the occasional game of cricket can be found taking place here. Few games though can be as curious as the one I stumbled across recently.
On a stroll through the park late one afternoon last week I came upon a game of football – but football with a difference. Young men and women encased in plastic bubbles trying to kick a football seemed to me a bizarre way to spend an afternoon.
‘Bonding’ in the Bois de Boulogne:
It soon became clear though that this was more than simply a curious game of football. This was an idea dreamt up by some overpaid management consultancy where they take perfectly normal employees in a perfectly normal company and encourage them to make complete fools of themselves in the interests of team-building or ‘bonding’ – a ghastly phrase only a management consultant could come up with!
I learnt that this was only one of several activities that these people were put through throughout the day – each one becoming more bizarre as the day went on.
Throughout each activity, each individual was being watched and scored against a range of criteria no doubt also dreamt up the management consultants. All seemed to be having fun but I couldn’t help wondering if that was genuine, or simply an act to impress the scorers.
A “SOUND RIDE” IS a term I invented this afternoon. Sound Walks are familiar; lots of people do them including me. But this afternoon I thought I would do something a little different. Taking advantage of the delicious late autumnal weather, I made the ten-minute walk from my apartment across to the Bois de Boulogne and recorded a cycle ride on a Velib.
The Velib system we have in Paris is a wonderful invention. I think it’s been copied in other cities but it appeared here first. I’ll let the sounds tell the story of my Sunday afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne.
My Sound Ride in the Bois de Boulogne:
My Velib together with my black bag which contains my street recording studio
The Bois de Boulogne in summer
The Bois de Boulogne in springtime
The Bois de Boulogne in winter
I DON’T KNOW WHY but I don’t visit the Parc Monceau all that often, which is silly really because it’s quite close to where I live and always well worth a visit.
This English-style park is in the 8th arrondissement and last Saturday, on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I ventured down there for the first time this year.
Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Chartres established a formal garden here between 1769 and 1778 on twenty-eight acres of land he had accumulated. It began life as a French formal garden but the anglophile Philippe had it transformed it into an English-style garden where people were allowed to sit and picnic on the lawn much as they still do today.
During the French revolution Philippe d’Orléans was sent to the guillotine and the Parc Monceau was confiscated and nationalised. It was returned to the Orléans family during the Restoration Monarchy only to be confiscated again at the beginning of the Second Republic. Napoléon III stopped this ping-pong ownership by dividing the property, keeping part of it for the State and returning the rest to the Orléans family. The Parc Monceau we know today is the part retained by the French State.
The Parc Monceau has a relaxed, intimate feel to it and it’s enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Whilst I enjoy the wild flowers, the Greek columns, the lake and the Temple of Mars it’s the sounds that always captivate me. Amongst the sounds of people chattering and children playing are the ever-present sounds of the footsteps over the gravel paths.
There are always people strolling, power walking or jogging and this mélange of footsteps seems to have a rhythmical, almost musical effect. I never tire of listening to it.
THE PARC MONTSOURIS, in the 14th arrondissement, was born in the minds of Napoleon III and his préfet, Baron Haussmann. Paris already had three large parks, the Buttes-Chaumont in the north, the Bois de Boulogne in the west and the Bois de Vincennes in the east. Given Haussmann’s love of symmetry, a park in the south of Paris was also needed. The quarry land around the former hamlet of Montsouris was the chosen site.
A decree for the creation of the park was issued in 1865 and it was to Jean-Charles-Adolphe-Alphand, Inspecteur Général des Ponts et Chaussées, (he was also responsible for the city’s parks) that the task of planning the new park fell. The plans were drawn up, the landscaping completed and the park was opened in1878.
The sounds of the Parc Montsouris today:
Today, the Parc Montsouris covers sixteen hectares (forty acres) and rises to some twenty metres (just over sixty-five feet) at its highest point. On the eastern side there is an artificial lake and a restaurant, the Pavillon Montsouris, which is somewhat of an institution with prices to match.
The park is traversed by two railway lines.
The RER commuter line B crosses the park and the sounds of this can be clearly heard as one explores the southern side. There are also the remains of the railway line of the old Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture, the Little Belt, railway line that was the first public urban transportation service in Paris, and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro.
The park boasts many statues one of which is the Mire du Sud. This pinpoints the old Paris meridian, calculated in 1667 and subsequently replaced by the Greenwich meridian in 1911.
The Parc Montsouris is everything that a Parisian park should be. It is well designed, it has rich and lush vegetation with a huge variety of trees, plants and flowers, it has a wide variety of birdlife and, at weekends especially, it is full of people relaxing and enjoying the surroundings.
It is well worth a visit.
I HAD NEVER BEEN to a horsemeat market before until I visited the Parc Georges-Brassens, a nineteen acre green space in the 15th arrondissement. Where today witch hazel brightens the winter landscape and magnolia heralds the spring, a gruesome past is never far away.
From 1898 until 1978 this was the site of the Vaugirard abattoirs, six groups of buildings surrounding a vast courtyard covering almost six acres where slaughtering and butchering took place on an industrial scale to feed the Parisian appetite.
At the eastern end, bordering the rue Brancion, was the half-acre or so reserved for the slaughtering and butchering of horses.
The only surviving buildings from the original abattoir complex are two former administrative buildings at what was the main entrance in the Rue des Morillons, a campanile where auction sales were held and the iron pavilion of the former horsemeat market.
This pavilion still hosts a market but a less gruesome one than that for which it was originally designed. Each weekend throughout the year a market for old and second-hand books takes place here.
Bibliophiles travel from far and wide to visit this market where everything from comics to rare and sometimes very expensive books can be found.
Inside the market:
Today, this iron pavilion has survived to satisfy a different sort of appetite but the former sounds within it, like the horsemeat, are gone forever.
THE BOIS DE BOULOGNE, on the edge of the 16th arrondissement, was once the Royal hunting ground of the King’s of France and the refuge for a one time King of England and of the British Empire, Edward VIII, together with his American wife, Wallace Simpson.
Today, it is associated with Roland Garos, the French aviator, whose name was given to the home of the French Open Tennis Championship and of course, the Hippodrome Longchamps, host to the annual horseracing classic, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. At the northern end, close to where I live, is the Jardin d’Acclimatation, an amusement park with a ménagerie and other attractions not least, a miniature steam train that has featured twice in this Blog.
The Bois de Boulogne comprises an area of 8.459 km² (3.266 sq. miles, or 2,090 acres), which is 2.5 times larger than Central Park in New York, and comparable in size to Richmond Park in London.
In the summer, the Bois de Boulogne is a hive of activity especially at weekends. Biking, jogging, dog walking, boat rowing, remote control speed-boats, ad hoc football games and picnics are common currency – almost everything you can think of except barbeques which are strictly forbidden.
It is just a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment to the Bois de Boulogne – and it was this fifteen-minute walk that I did on the afternoon of Christmas Day. I was in need of fresh air and exercise!
The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and the winter sun low in the clear bright blue sky. There was snow on the ground.
I was not alone. Other people were out enjoying the Christmas Day afternoon – the joggers, the dog-walkers and family groups walking off their Christmas lunches.
The snow was crisp and the ground was frozen – but the lakes were not sufficiently frozen to allow one to trespass on them as the sign above shows.
There are thirty-five kilometres of footpaths, eight kilometres of cycle paths and twenty-nine kilometres of riding tracks in the Bois de Boulogne. It was amongst these highways and byways that I walked on the afternoon of Christmas Day. The landscape of the Bois de Boulogne is much changed from when I first came to live here. In the great hurricane of Christmas in 1999, which I remember well, 10,000 trees were felled by the vicious wind that raged through the Bois de Boulogne but, thanks to a vigorous re-planting programme, on Christmas Day this year, the landscape was set to return to that which I remember all those years ago.
The sound of a walk in the Bois de Boulogne late in the afternoon Christmas Day: