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An Altercation in Montmartre

IT ALL STARTED QUITE innocently.  A Sunday afternoon in Montmartre, a light lunch in the extraordinary Bistro La Petaudiére, a quick look into the Espace Salvador Dali and then a walk across the Place du Tertre in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

The artists were working at their easels in the centre of the Place du Tertre and the tourists – yes, such is the magnetism of Montmartre, that there are tourists even in January – were filling the thoroughfares on all four sides of the Place du Tertre either watching the artists at work or searching for tables for a late lunch.

The entrance to the Place du Tertre by the Brasserie au Clairon des Chasseurs is a bottleneck at the best of times but particularly so on this Sunday afternoon.  A group of bare-footed street performers had pitched up completely blocking the thoroughfare.  The tourists were being particularly tolerant even though they were in gridlock.  Less so the artists.  Tourists mean money and any distraction that prevents the flow of tourists is unwelcome.  These street performers were definitely a distraction and therefore very unwelcome.

Despite exhortations for them to move on, the street performers remained resolute and continued their performance.

One artist was so incensed that he took matters into his own hands.  He emerged from the artist’s colony in the centre of the Place du Tertre with a glass bottle filled with water.  He sprinkled the water onto the road where the street performers were strutting their stuff and then he threw the bottle to the ground smashing it to pieces.  In the best French tradition, a huge altercation then ensued in which everyone joined in.

In situations like this, waving a camera around to capture the scene was probably unwise, or so I judged, since I was right in the thick of it.  Capturing the action in sound though is quite another matter!

For the French speakers amongst you, the colourful language is sufficient to capture the scene.  For those of you who are anxious to speak French by repeating what you hear, a warning.  Be very careful as to which of the words you hear in this sound clip you repeat in public – unless of course you too want to start an altercation in Montmartre or anywhere else for that matter!

Paris as seen from Montmartre:


Impasse de la Poissonnerie

THE MARAIS DISTRICT of Paris, in the 4th arrondissement, is hugely popular.  Home to a Royal residence in the 17th century, it was abandoned to the people during the French Revolution and descended into an architectural wasteland before being rescued in the 1960’s.  Today, the area is very fashionable again with galleries, restaurants, chic fashion boutiques and cultural centres. All year round, the Marais is a busy, bustling place – so sometimes it’s nice to find a quieter, less crowded spot.

The Impasse de la Poissonnerie is to be found in the Marais between the rue Jarente and the Marché Sainte-Catherine.

What would be called in English a “dead-end street” becomes an Impasse in French – a much more elegant way of expressing the term I always think.

I came across the Impasse de la Poissonnerie recently for the first time. It’s another of those surprises that delight those of us who search this city for the unexpected.

In times gone by this used to be an open street, one of several used to supply goods to the Marché Sainte-Catherine just beyond.  Although this street is now blocked off, the original fountain remains.

Sounds of the fountain:

The clue as to what might have happened in this street in former times comes from its name.  The word Poissonnerie suggests an association with fish and so it comes as no surprise to find that this street was originally home to the fish vendors who supplied the market.

Today, the street is largely deserted.  Only the name of the street and the fish included in the fountain façade serve to remind us that this too was once a busy, bustling place.


Amsterdam Centraal Station

This blog is mainly about capturing the street sounds of Paris. But sometimes I have to remind myself that there is life outside of this wonderful city and that other cities have their street sounds too.

Earlier this week I found myself in Amsterdam, a city full of character – with tall, thin, houses and canals.

And, of course, Amsterdam is also a city of bicycles which, during the day, seem to concentrate in swarms rather like bees in a hive.

Having completed my business in Amsterdam it was time to return to Paris so I found myself at Amsterdam Centraal Station (yes, Centraal is the Dutch way of saying Central) waiting for my four hour high-speed Thalys train home.

I never go anywhere without a sound recorder – I record anything and everything – so whilst waiting for my train it was quite normal for me to record the sonic environment around me.

Railways stations are guaranteed to provide a rich sonic environment – and Amsterdam Centraal is no exception.

So, share with me the sonic environment I found there earlier this week.

Platform 14a Amsterdam Centraal Station


Summoned by Bells

THE BASILIQUE DU SACRE-COEUR is situated on the top of the butte Montmartre.  Built in a Romano-Byzantine style using white travertine stone, which whitens with age, the Basilica provides a commanding view of Paris.

Montmartre and the Basilica of Sacré-Couer are magnetic attractions for tourists each year.  But how many of these tourists know that Sacré-Couer is a relatively recent construction?  Completed in 1919, the Basilica of Sacré-Couer was built as a monument to the end of the Franco Prussian war and the ensuing Paris Commune of 1870-71.

I like going to Sacré-Couer to listen to the sounds – notably the sound of the very fine Cavaille Coll organ inside the Basilica and the sound of the bells outside.

The Bells of Sacré Coeur:

The bells of Sacré Coeur are housed in the bell tower which is detached from the Basilica itself.  The most distinguished and majestic of the bells is the giant “Savoyarde”.  Cast in Annecy in 1895, the bell weighs in at a massive 19 tons making it one of the heaviest bells in the world.

Some people visit Sacré Coeur as tourists, others to worship and some for quite different reasons…

As for me – I am  simply Summoned by Bells*.

*Summoned by Bells, is the blank verse autobiography by John Betjeman, first published in November 1960 by Betjeman’s London publishers, John Murray.



I USED TO BE AN aficionado of the London Underground – or the Tube as they call it over there. I prided myself on being able to travel around London on the Underground with ease and without having to use a map.

Not any more I’m afraid. After twelve years of living in Paris, most of what I used to know about the London Underground appears to have been consigned to some dark corner of my brain, seemingly lost forever.

I was though, reacquainted with my old friend some time ago on a visit to London. Everything seemed to be much as I remembered it. That is to say, everything except the incessant security and health and safety announcements that were quite new to me and which seemed to pollute every corner of every station.Out of this maelstrom of new sounds, one stood out from all the others – “MIND THE GAP!”

It seems that, presumably in the interests of the great God, Health and Safety, or more likely, to protect the Underground authorities from litigious passengers, someone has decided that passengers or, as I believe we are called these days, customers, must be warned of the danger of falling down the gap between the train and the platform. Hence the public address announcement – “MIND THE GAP!”

Health a Safety and litigious customers travel with the wind so, not surprisingly, “MIND THE GAP!, has travelled across La Manche to the Paris Metro – although, as so often, the French do it far more elegantly.

“MIND THE GAP! – The French Way:

As always, The French use three words for every one word in English so “MIND THE GAP!” becomes, “Attention a la marche en descendant du train” – more of a request than a command.

The question is: “What constitutes a gap?”  And how big does the gap have to be to warrant an official warning to the great travelling public? Who decides?

This gap at the Metro Station Concorde on Line 1 warrants a warning, as does a similar gap at Charles de Gaulle – Etoille. Several other platforms have a similar warning but the same gap on other Metro station platforms do not. Why?

Is there “gap” prejudice?

As so often in France, a fonctionnaire in an office somewhere, appointed but not elected, clearly has the supreme authority to determine the course of our lives – to authorise whether or not the travelling public should be warned to “MIND THE GAP!”

Line 1 from Tuilleries to Concorde – including advice about “pickpockets” and, of course, “MIND THE GAP!

Wherever you travel, stay safe and, above all, “MIND THE GAP!” – with or without a warning!


A Practical Solution

THE PARIS METRO HAS an endless fascination for me.  It makes up part of the superb public transport system that threads its way into the remotest corners of this city – but more than that, most of the Paris Metro system has character.

Take the Metro station Passy in the XVI arrondissement that I visited on Saturday.

Sounds at Passy Metro Station:

Whilst most of the Paris Metro system is underground, a good part of it is actually above ground – and in some cases, a considerable way above ground.  Read more »


Another Good Read

For more than a generation , Gertrude Stein’s Paris home at 27 rue de Fleures was the centre and of a glittering coterie of artists and writers, one of whom was Pablo Picasso. In this intimate and revealing memoir, Gertrude Stein tells us much about the great man (and herself) and offers many insights into the life and art of the twentieth-century’s greatest painter.

Gertrude Stein’s close relationship with Picasso furnished her with a unique vantage point in composing this perceptive and provocative reminiscence. It is indispensable to understanding modern art.

I bought my copy of this book from the best bookshop in the world, Shakespeare & Company, on the Left Bank here in Paris. I also happen to know someone who lives in the Boulevard Raspail in an atelier once occupied by Pablo Picasso so this book has a special resonance for me. I recommend it to you.

This book was published by B.T. Batsford, London, 1938


Le Réveillon Saint-Sylvestre

THE AVENUE DES CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES – La plus belle avenue du Monde, as the French call it, the second most expensive strip of real estate in Europe, is a focus for French national celebration – and no more so than for the Réveillon Saint-Sylvestre – New Year’s Eve.

I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Eve in the Champs-Élysées, walking the two kilometres from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde recording my walk, people-watching and window-shopping.

The car showrooms in the Champs-Élysées are guaranteed to provide fascinating displays at any time of the year and, on New Year’s Eve, the Peugeot showroom didn’t disappoint.

On show wsa a Peugeot concept car and a wonderful Peugeot touring car, neither of which, sadly, appeared under my Christmas tree!

I can’t help wondering why a prestigious French car company who can afford the €1.1 million annual rent per 100 square metres of floor space in the Champs-Élysées, and who can put on such an elegant display, should feel the need to accompany it with sound of such banality.

The sound inside the Peugeot showroom:

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