IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.
Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.
Rue des Ursins looking from West to East
At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.
In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.
Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget
The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.
Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture
I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.
Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:
Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.
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!
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.
I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.
Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long. It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.
I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.
This is what I saw and heard …
Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:
It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, just before the turn of the year, I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of la Seine from Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes. Here, the communes of Puteaux and Sursenes sit on one side of the river and on the other side is the western edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the very edge of Paris.
I like this walk, I do it three or four times a year, but I’ve never featured it on this blog and it wasn’t my intention to do so on this particular winter’s day. The narration accompanying this walk was intended originally for my personal audio diary but it did occur to me afterwards that it might be of passing interest to those not familiar with this fairly well hidden pathway along the banks of la Seine. So here is the record of my walk on a perfect winter’s day.
Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes – A Soundwalk:
The Water Tower
Ouvrages de Suresnes – The Weir
Pont de Suresnes
Péniche ‘Pourquoi Pas’
A Passing Barge – A ‘Pusher’
La Seine from Pont de Suresnes
IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY rue des Lombards and the area close by was the Wall Street of Paris, the city’s banking centre where a vast amount of money changed hands and fortunes and reputations were made and lost.
The street took its name from the large number of money-changers, natives of Lombardy, who established themselves in Paris at the end of the 12th century. At the time when the King and the lords of his court sold prebendaries, bishoprics and benefices by auction the Lombards lent money at a high rate of interest and made immense fortunes.
The Lombard money-changers were obliged to conduct their activities out in the open on the Grand-Pont linking the Cité to the Right Bank which became known as the Pont des Changeurs (Exchange Bridge) now known as the Pont au Change. Whilst these money-changers worked on the bridge most of them lived close by in rue de la Buffeterie which, in 1322, became rue des Lombards. This imprinting of incorporated trades on the urban landscape was quite common with street names quite often being changed to reflect the occupational specialities of the area.
By the fourteenth century political and economic dislocation caused a xenophobic backlash against the Lombards during which their financial expertise was held against them and they became known less as money-changers lubricating the economy and more pejoratively simply as usurers.
As late as the sixteenth century Gabriel Meurier in his book, Trésor des Sentences, xvie siècle, or book of proverbs published in 1568, quotes:
“Dieu me garde de quatre maisons, de la taverne, du Lombard, de l’hôpital et de la prison.”
“God keep me from four houses, the tavern, the Lombards, hospital and prison.”
The parallel between the Lombards in fourteenth century Paris and today’s Wall Street money-changers, and the popular perception of them both, seemed quite uncanny as I walked along rue des Lombards on a dull early November afternoon recording a soundwalk.
Rue des Lombards – A Soundwalk:
Rue des Lombards begins just off Place Sainte-Opportune at rue Sainte-Opportune and stretches for 228 metres to rue Saint-Martin. It crosses the busy nineteenth century Baron Haussmann creation, the Boulevard de Sébastopol and another medieval street, rue Saint-Denis.
If you listen carefully to my soundwalk you will hear the audio aid for blind people at one of the crossings over the Boulevard de Sébastopol.
Today, rue des Lombards is not only one of the oldest but one of the most vibrant streets in Paris. Although my soundwalk was recorded in the afternoon, the street really comes to life at night. It’s renowned for its three jazz clubs, Le Duc des Lombards at the junction with Boulevard de Sébastopol and Le Baiser Salé and Sunset/Sunside, which sit side by side further along rue des Lombards.
N° 14 rue des Lombards is interesting.
Now a restaurant, this is the site a thirteenth-century house built by the Order of the Knights Templar as a place to conduct their business. Inside is a medieval cellar once used as a chapel. During the French Revolution the clergy used to gather here to celebrate Mass in secret. It was also supposed to be the temporary hiding place of François Ravaillac who, on 14th May 1610, stabbed to death King Henry IV as he was passing in rue de la Feronnerie close to rue des Lombards. Ravaillac was arrested outside N° 13 rue de la Ferronnerie. He was tried, tortured and executed by being pulled apart by four horses, a fate reserved for regicides.
N° 13 rue de la Ferronnerie today
Walking along rue de Lombards it’s worth pausing to catch this view from one of the side streets of La Tour Saint-Jacques listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Rue des Lombards was also once famous for confectionary and in particular for La Renommée, the confiserie owned by Nicolas Appert, inventor of airtight food preservation.
As it has for centuries, money still changes hands along this medieval cobbled street but today you’re more likely to part with your cash in one of the Irish pubs, Auvergne bistros or famous jazz clubs than you are buying bishoprics and benefices.
THERE HAS BEEN a road running in a north-south direction from the banks of the Seine towards the original Romanesque church, which was later to become the Église Saint-Sulpice, since the middle of the 13th century. In 1489, that road was formalised into a street named rue de Seine.
Rue de Seine from North to South
Today, rue de Seine runs for some 665 metres across the 6th arrondissement from quai Malaquais to rue Saint-Sulpice. Whilst the name, quai Malaquais, may not be familiar to you, most visitors to Paris will immediately recognise the magnificent building which is the Institut de France and it is directly behind this building that rue de Seine begins.
Institut de France
In a kind of shorthand, this building is often referred to as the Académie Française but that is only partially true. The Institut de France is a French learned society that groups five academies of which one is the Académie Française. The five academies are: the Académie Française, guardian of the French language, founded in 1635, the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (Academy of Humanities) founded in 1663, the Académie des sciences (Academy of Sciences) founded in 1666, the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) founded in 1816 and the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences) founded in 1795, suppressed in 1803, and re-established in 1832.
Walking from the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts and thorough the Institut de France, I went to explore rue de Seine the other day where I recorded a soundwalk to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive and I took some pictures to share with you. I also encountered a complete surprise … of which more later.
Rue de Seine – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk began at N°1 rue de Seine, the house in which Saint Vincent de Paul, the Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor, once lived. He was canonised in 1737.
Across the street is the Square Honoré-Champion and the statue of the French enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire.
Also in the Square Honoré-Champion, if less conspicuous, is a statue to the French social commentator and political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, usually simply known as Montesquieu. He is perhaps best remembered for his articulation of the separation of powers now taken for granted by modern governments.
La fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes
A few steps away from the Square Honoré-Champion, just across the street, is the Square Gabriel Pierné named after Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné a French composer, conductor, and organist. In the Square is la fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes, which you can hear in my soundwalk. It was created by the French sculptor and painter, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard in 1830 and it was installed in the Square a hundred years later. It’s now a monument historique.
From the fountain in the Square Gabriel Pierné I began walking along rue de Seine accompanied by the sound of building work taking place on the left hand side of the street close to N° 25. I stopped to have a look at N° 25 because this is where Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan once lived. Born around 1611, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. He died in 1673 at the Siege of Maastricht in the Franco-Dutch War. A fictionalised account of his life by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras formed the basis for the d’Artagnan Romances of Alexandre Dumas, perhaps the most famous of which is The Three Musketeers.
Next door, at N° 27, is the former home of the French poet, Charles Pierre Baudelaire.
Two doors further along, at N° 31, a plaque above the door reveals that Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant, best known by her pseudonym George Sand once lived here. George Sand was a French novelist but she he is equally well-known for her much publicised romantic affairs with a number of well-known people including Frédéric Chopin.
Some time later, the American dancer, artist, poet and philosopher Raymond Duncan, brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan, also lived here.
Across the street, N° 26 is now a boutique but in 1618 it was opened as the cabaret, Au petit Maure. On 29th December 1661, the poet, libetine, soldier and diplomat, Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant died here.
N° 39, now the Hôtel Prince de Condé, was once home to the French engineer and physicist, Claude-Louis Navier, best known for being one half of the Navier–Stokes equations, which everyone knows (everyone except me that is, I had to look it up!) give a description of the velocity of a fluid at a given point in space and time.
And with that nugget of information under my belt I needed a drink and where better than the Café La Palette.
Now a monument historique, the Café La Palette dates from the 1930’s. It has always been associated with artists – Cezanne, Picasso and Braque were frequent visitors, and it’s a favourite haunt of students from the prestigious art school, l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which is close by.
Rue de Seine from Rue de Buci
If you know what to look for, rue de Seine is a feast of history and that history continues as we walk beyond La Palette where rue de Seine crosses the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. Once the haunt of intellectuals and revolutionaries and now a favourite tourist spot, this is the world of Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Juliette Gréco.
Crossing rue de Buci, but on this day too late to enjoy the wonderful street market, my soundwalk takes us up to and across the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain passing cafés and delicious food shops on the way.
Rue Saint-Sulpice – the southern end of rue de Seine
My soundwalk ends beyond the Boulevard Saint-Germain at rue Saint-Sulpice, the southern end of rue de Seine close to the Église Saint-Sulpice. This is perhaps my favourite church in Paris, not least because it has a François-Henri Clicquot organ magnificently restored and improved in 1862 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This organ is considered to be Cavaillé-Coll’s best ever creation and it is perhaps the most impressive instrument of the romantic French symphonic-organ era. Apart from the installation of an electric blower and the addition of two pedal stops the organ remains almost exactly as Cavaillé-Coll left it. And as if that wasn’t enough, two of the finest Cathedral organists ever were resident organists in this church, Charles-Marie Widor from1870 to1933 and Marcel Dupré from1934 to 1971.
I know I’ve digressed a little but magnificent church organs are one of my passions and the one in the Église Saint-Sulpice is as good as they get.
I haven’t though yet quite finished with the rue de Seine. At the southern tip of rue de Seine close to rue Saint-Sulpice is this gem that takes us back to the early history to be found at the northern end of the street.
Founded in 1643, Maison de Cire Trudon is the oldest candle maker in the world. It supplied candles and candle holders to the royal court of Louis XIV, as well as most of the great churches of France. Cire Trudon still make and distribute candles throughout France and across the world and they still have the original wax recipes as well as the original moulds used to form candles bearing the royal blazons.
When I was out collecting the sounds and pictures for this blog piece I thought that Cire Trudon at the southern end of rue de Seine with it’s historic connection, by date at least, with the northern end of the street where I began my soundwalk would bring this blog piece to an obvious conclusion. And so it would have had I not decided to retrace my steps to head for the Métro station Louvre-Rivoli and home.
I walked back along rue de Seine as far as the Café La Palette where I stopped, found a table outside, sat down, ordered a coffee and took out my rather dog-eared Moleskine notebook to make notes for this blog piece. Pausing to sip my coffee, I looked up and sitting two tables down from me was a man I thought I vaguely recognised. He was casually dressed but there were three men in suits hovering around him and a very smartly dressed young lady sitting by his side. I returned to my notes and then, in one of those lightening flashes that sometimes strikes one, it came to me. The casually dressed man sitting just two tables from me was the former Président de la République, Jacques Chirac.
He seemed to be on good form if more frail than I remember him from the TV and when he came to leave he had difficulty walking and the men in suits had to support him. And, no, I didn’t take a picture or record his voice – it simply didn’t seem appropriate.
It does show though that if you keep your eyes and ears open being a soundwalking flaneur can sometimes throw up the most unexpected surprises.
As a final note, perhaps I can mention that my soundwalk in rue de Seine is one of the longest sound pieces I’ve published on this blog. The conventional wisdom is that people tend not to listen to sound pieces for longer than two or three minutes at a time because they either lose interest or have something more pressing to do. I think it’s a function of the sound-bite world we have become used to.
In my sound recording practice I take the view that it is not the sound recordist or the listener who dictates how long a sound piece should be but rather the sounds themselves. Sounds need both time and space to breath, to speak and to tell their own story – and the sounds themselves will tell you how long they need to speak. A three minute sound-bite of the edited highlights of rue de Seine would be rather like reading a newspaper headline and completely ignoring the article beneath. It simply wouldn’t tell the story or reflect the sonic tapestry of the street.
So, if you have the time, I encourage you to listen to the whole sound piece. It is after all unique. The sound colours and textures are those that I recorded at that time and on that day. Tomorrow, both they and the actors will have changed and the sounds will be different.