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La Campagne à Paris

ON A HOT, SUNNY, SATURDAY afternoon I found myself in the east of Paris in the 20th arrondissement, in Charonne, which was incorporated into the city of Paris in 1860.

The historic centre of Charonne is located around the parish church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne at the junction of Rue de Bagnolet and Rue Saint-Blaise. This church is a little unusual in that it is one of only two churches in Paris, the other being the Eglise Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre, where the cemetery actually adjoins the church.

Interesting as it is, it wasn’t either the church or its cemetery that I’d come to visit. Instead, I was on my way to one of the most coveted areas of Paris, La Campagne à Paris – The Countryside in Paris – and two streets in particular, Rue Irénée-Blanc and Rue Jules-Siegfried.

Both of these streets lie at the heart of La Campagne à Paris and they are so picture perfect that they feel as though they are either in the depths of the French countryside or that they have come direct from a film set.

One has to pinch oneself to remember that this is neither the depths of the French countryside nor an elegant film set, this is Charonne, a working-class district of Paris with no pretentions to be anything else. Charonne has so far resisted the tide of gentrification that has engulfed some of the other extremities of the city.

La Campagne à Paris is built on a hill, a man-made hill, and every route to get to it requires effort.  There is no escaping the endless steps.

The hill was created from the rubble generated by the Haussmann reconstruction of Avenue de la République and Avenue Gambetta that was deposited in a former gypsum quarry.

The hill was bought in 1908 by a co-operative set up to create low cost housing called La Campagne à Paris. This co-operative undertook to build ninety-two houses each with a front yard and lots of and varied vegetation.

The houses were built between 1907 and 1928 and they were designed by several different architects which created interest because of the lack of uniformity.

The idea was to create affordable homes financed by loans paid off by monthly instalments for those with modest but steady incomes like bank clerks or low-level civil servants.

Sounds of La Campagne à Paris:

From what we see today, the idea was a great success. The homes still exist and they have all been exceptionally well maintained. I can’t help wondering how many bank clerks and low-level civil servants live here today … but if they do they are very lucky and I wish them well.


Street Music in Rue de Francs-Bourgeois

AT THIS TIME OF YEAR the air in Paris is filled with music – the music of the streets. I’ve said before that the standard of the street music here is exceptionally high and it’s always a pleasure to listen to. I have an extensive archive of the Parisian street music I’ve recorded but I’m always on the look out for something unusual.

Recently, I stumbled upon this group of musicians in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district. It was a Sunday, the day when all the shops are open in this neck of the woods and when the street seems to be at its busiest.

Street Music in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois:

In the midst of the crush of Sunday tourists these musicians were performing. There were five of them, one on bass, one on banjo, two sax players, one of whom also played clarinet, and the leader who sang and played the cornet.

Two things made this ensemble stand out as being slightly unusual for me. The first was the lady who danced endlessly to the music. I don’t know if she was connected with the musicians or just a ‘fan’ but she was certainly very enthusiastic and a joy to watch. The second was the choice of music.  “The White Cliffs of Dover” is not quite what one expects to hear on the streets of Paris but I’m sure Vera Lynn would approve.


The Smallest House in Paris

WE DON’T KNOW TOO MUCH about the smallest house in Paris but we do know that it’s wedged between two tall buildings in the Rue du Château d’Eau, at N° 39, and if you don’t know it’s there it’s easily missed.

The house is approximately 1.10 metres wide and 5 metres high and it comprises a ground floor shop and one upstairs room. It is said that it was built as a result of a family quarrel.

The land where the house now stands used to be a passage connecting the Rue du Château d’Eau to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin. It seems that in a dispute, the heirs to the land were unable to reach agreement so the owner resolved the problem by building this tiny house and blocking the passage.

There is however, more to the Rue du Château d’Eau than just the smallest house in Paris. The street stretches for almost half a mile from the Boulevard de Magenta to Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis.

I always think of this street as comprising two parts. The first part, from the Boulevard de Magenta close to République to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin, is fairly quiet and very French. It includes the popular Marché Saint-Martin.

From the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis the street takes on a very different hue reflecting the multi-cultural atmosphere of this city. We move from France to Africa.

Sounds of Rue du Château d’Eau:

Hairdressers, beauty salons, nail bars, noisy African men, beautiful African women and a mélange of sounds dominate this part of the fascinating Rue du Château d’Eau.


Passage des Panoramas

THE PASSAGE DES PANORAMAS was opened in 1799, which makes it the oldest of the passages couverts in Paris. It takes its name from the two round towers that once stood outside in the Boulevard Montmartre. Each tower contained giant circular frescos, or Panoramas, which were very popular at the time.

The passage was built on the site of the former Hôtel Montmorency in the prestigious 2nd Arrondissement. The site became even more prestigious when the Théâtre des Variétés was built next door in 1807. In 1865, Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène premiered here. The theatre is now listed as an historical monument and it’s been fully restored to its original décor.  The artist’s entrance to the theatre opens directly onto the Passage des Panoramas.

The passage comprises sixty one-story houses with boutiques on the ground floor.  It was here in 1817 that the first tests of gas lighting took place.

Inside the Passage des Panoramas – Everything You Need to Know:

In 1831, the rotundas were demolished. In 1834 the passage was renovated and the architect Jean-Louis Grisart created the additional galleries, Saint-Marc, Variétés, Feydeau and Montmartre.

Today, the Passage des Panoramas has retained much of its authenticity. L’Arbe à Cannelle, today a restaurant, retains the decorated ceiling, columns and mirrors from the original chocolatier Marquis.

In 1849, the renowned graveur (printer and engraver) Maison Stern rented premises in the Passage des Panoramas. These premises are now listed as an historical monument but alas Maison Stern left some time ago.

Today the passage is renowned for its postcard and philately boutiques.

There’s even an autograph shop.

Like all the passage couverts in Paris, the Passage des Panoramas enjoyed huge early success but as competition appeared decline set in.  Today, the passage retains its former nineteenth-century ambience and it seems to be as busy as ever.

Passage des Panoramas: 11 Boulevard Montmartre and 158 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris

You can see more passages couverts here:

Galerie Véro-Dodat

Passage des Princes :

Passage du Grand-Cerf:

Passage Brady:

Passage Verdeau:

Passage Jouffroy:


Music in the Metro

THE METRO STATION AT Bastille is a station I use quite a lot. Three Paris Metro lines run through the station, Line 1, Line 5 and Line 8 and the station is busy most of the time. Usually, passing through the station is rather tedious but occasionally it can be a complete joy.

Music in the Metro:

More Music in the Metro:


Le Changement C’est Maintenant

LA PRESIDENTIELLE, the French Presidential election is over for another five years. The climax came on Sunday when the result of the second round of voting was declared at 8.00 pm. The French people voted for change and elected François Hollande over the incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was back in 1981 when the last socialist President, François Mitterand, was elected in France so this Sunday’s result was very significant for the Hollande supporters. They gathered in vast numbers in the Place de la Bastille and I joined them to savour the atmosphere.

I arrived in Place de la Bastille some two hours before the election result was declared but even then the enthusiastic crowd was gathering.

Atmosphere in La Place de la Bastille:

You have to hand it to the French, they certainly know how to celebrate in vast numbers and with good humour.

As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.

François Hollande Wins:

Sarkozy Concession Speech:

Hollande Acceptance Speech:

Nicolas Sarkozy is the eleventh Euro-Zone leader to lose office since the debt crisis took hold in 2009. Le Changement does indeed seem to be Maintenant!


The First of May in Paris

TUESDAY, 1st MAY WAS a public holiday in France – La Fête du Travail. In Paris, it was an opportunity for the whole spectrum of political opinion to take to the streets. The Left marched from Denfert-Rechereau to Bastille, Nicolas Sarkozy held a UMP rally at Trocadéro and the far-right Front National used the occasion to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d’Arc, Maid of Orléans and national heroine of France.

Such a wide political spectrum on display and the prospect of interesting sounds to collect gave me quite a problem in deciding whom to follow.

In the end, I decided to follow the Front National, the smallest of the events but perhaps, I thought, the most interesting. Since I’ve lived in Paris I’ve seen, followed and recorded endless marches and demonstrations by the Left in various guises but never anything by the far Right. This seemed like an opportunity to redress that balance. I joined their march at the statue of Jeanne d’Arc in the rue Rivoli and followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.

Sounds of the march:

More sounds of the march:

At the Place de l’Opéra the procession congregated in front of and around the Opéra Garnier. A stage had been erected on the steps of the Opéra with a large backdrop featuring Jeanne d’Arc.

I arrived at l’Opéra about forty-five minutes before the speeches began so I had time to look around. I found this delightful lady whose politics I couldn’t share but whose personality was absolutely infectious.

I was also reminded that although this was a public holiday, for at least one radio reporter this was a working day. She had recorded some vox pops and was editing them on her Nagra ARES before sending them by satellite link to her radio station.

For the Front National faithful the centrepiece of the day came at midday with the speeches. Given the Front National’s remarkable result in the first round of La Presidentielle where they achieved almost 20% of the vote the speeches were eagerly anticipated.

Jean-Marie Le Penn spoke first. He is the former leader of the Front National and now the Président d’Honneur. At the end of his speech he introduced his daughter, Marine Le Penn, the current Président of La Front National.

Jean-Marie Le Penn:

Marine Le Penn:

After following the march and listening to the speeches (Marine Le Penn spoke for about an hour) I was exhausted. I did though find the energy to go to Trocadéro where I emerged from the Métro station into a crowd of 200,000 Sarkozy supporters … but that is another story.