THE RUE MOUFFETARD is a very old Parisian street, a Roman road leading south to Italy. In the eighteenth century the area around the rue Mouffetard gained a reputation for violence and in the nineteenth century men from la Mouffe’ were always to be found on the Paris barricades at every opportunity from 1830 through to 1871. Balzac said that, “No neighbourhood of Paris is more horrible and more unknown”.
Times have moved on. Today, the rue Mouffetard is a street lined with shops, cafés, restaurants and a busy market. It’s a popular place and ideal for a soundwalk.
Much has been written about soundwalks and the art of sound walking and I confess that I find most of it impenetrable. It might be simplistic and perhaps unfair to those who toil over such things with such diligence, but I often think that if you have to explain it in great detail, and usually at great length, then you’ve somehow missed the point.
To me, soundwalks are simply about observing through active listening; listening to the sounds around us. Sometimes, the sounds around us are significant enough to define a particular place but more often they are simply the transitory sounds that provide the sound tapestry without which a place loses part of its identity.
I find soundwalks endlessly fascinating. I love the different textures of the sounds – the chatter of people and snatches of overheard conversations, the transitional sounds from outside to inside and from inside to outside, the clatter of teacups in a busy café, the differing sound texture of the traffic and the captivating sound of footsteps over the pavé.
For this soundwalk, I began by sheltering from the rain opposite a Franprix supermarket at the top of rue Mouffetard. The rain passed and I meandered down the hill calling into the bookshop, a café and another Franprix at the bottom of the hill.
A soundwalk in the rue Mouffetard:
And here is a visual account of my soundwalk:
A word about editing:
The sounds reproduced here are an edited version of my soundwalk which took over an hour. There is no processing or layering of the sounds, so the sounds you hear are the sounds exactly as they were recorded save for reducing a long recording down to a more manageable listening experience of some eight minutes and forty-five seconds.
I spend a lot of time walking the streets of Paris hunting for interesting sounds to record. Sometimes I walk in vain – interesting sounds can be an elusive commodity. More often than not finding good sounds to record is a matter of luck rather than expertise – it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
My sound hunting wanderings take me all over the city of Paris but there are some streets that I return to again and again, partly because of their history, partly because of their character but mostly because of their atmosphere – rue de la Huchette, rue St Jaques, rue de Lappe and the street I went to yesterday, rue Mouffetard, about which Balzac said, “No neighbourhood of Paris is more horrible and more unknown”.
The street market at the bottom of rue Mouffetard
It is true that in Balzac’s day rue Mouffetard had, to put it kindly, a reputation! But it’s reputation today is quite different. It is now a lively, bustling street full of history, character and atmosphere and it just keeps drawing me back time and again.
Sitting in the bistro Le Mouffetard last Saturday afternoon with a glass of Leffe and a copy of Le Monde, I was half watching the world go by and half reading the news of terror plots from cargo aircraft, when a sound drifted in through an open window.
A three man jazz ensemble had installed themselves across the street and they were just beginning their afternoon’s work. I went to investigate.
Rue Mouffetard never fails to provide something interesting for this chasseur de son to record. This was one of those elusive moments that comes from being in the right place at the right time.
I love watching and listening to street musicians. Invariably, they look to be happy and enjoying their work.
I came across this gentleman recently in the rue Mouffetard.
Not only was he making the little organ sing but he was also singing himself.
You can listen to him here …
Like the rue de la Huchette and the rue Saint-Jaques, the rue Mouffetard is one of my favourite streets in Paris. Each are hustling, bustling places steeped in history.
The rue Mouffetard is to be found in the V arrondissement a stone’s throw from the Panthéon and a ten minute walk from the Jardin du Luxembourg. At its northern end, on top of the Mont Sainte-Geneviève, the rue Mouffetard becomes the rue Descartes leading to the Place Contrescarpe. At it’s southern end, at the bottom of the hill, is the Square Saint-Médard where there is a permanent open-air market. It was in this street that I chose to spend my Saturday afternoon.
Dating back to Roman Lutetia, the rue Mouffetard as it became was a major Roman thoroughfare which along with rue Galande, rue Lagrange, rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève and rue Descartes, ran from the Roman Rive Gauche city south to Lyon and on to Italy.
Before the fairly recent gentrification of the area, the rue Mouffetard had a less than glorious past. From the late middle-ages the area was associated with trade including tanneries, starch-makers and dyers some of which only disappeared towards the end of the twentieth century. By the eighteenth century the area had gained a reputation for violence and in the nineteenth century men from la Mouffe’ were always to be found on the Paris barricades at every opportunity from 1830 through to 1871. Balzac said that, “No neighbourhood of Paris is more horrible and more unknown”. Writing in 1920, Georges Duhamel noted that, “Mouffetard country has its own customs and laws which have neither meaning nor jurisdiction over the other side of the rue Monge”. Ernest Hemingway, a resident in la Mouffe’ in the 1920′s, gives a colourful description of the rue Mouffetard that he knew when wrote, “The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard … The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs of each floor with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevation on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse-draw wagons at night. In summertime, with all the windows open, we would hear the pumping and the odour was very strong …”
I am pleased to report that the rue Mouffetard is much improved today. It may be one of the oldest streets in Paris but it is also one of the liveliest with wall-to-wall restaurants, shops, cafés and the daily, open-air market which is one of the oldest street markets in Paris .
Join me for a walk along the rue Mouffetard:
… and a diversion into the only bookshop in the street:
… and, of course, a beer in the bistro Le Mouffetard:
These are binaural recordings. To get the best effect you should listen using headphones.