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The Sounds of Rue de Belleville

I REALLY LIKE BELLEVILLE. It’s in the east of Paris, straddling the 19th and 20th arrondissements but it also incorporates parts of the 10th and 11th as well.  Like many of the independent communes surrounding Paris, Belleville was incorporated into the city in 1860.

The people of Belleville played a large part in the Revolution of 1848 helping to establish the Second French Republic and in 1871 they were strong supporters of the Paris Commune.

The French singer and cultural icon, Edith Piaf, emerged from these working class roots. The story is that she was born in the street, in the snow, under a lamp post, outside N° 72 rue de Belleville.

Further down the rue de Belleville is Aux Folies, a former theatre where Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and many others performed regularly.

The Rue de Belleville is the main artery through the commune and it’s home to its fair share of traffic.

Although we accept the sound of traffic as part and parcel of city living it can be irritating and a nuisance, but if we stop and actually listen to the sound of traffic it can often take on a different hue. It’s sometimes possible for traffic and pedestrians to exist in harmony rather than at odds with each other. I recorded these sounds in the Rue de Belleville last Saturday and I think they illustrate the point.

Traffic in the Rue de Belleville:

Today, Belleville has a culturally diverse population and it’s home to one of the city’s two Chinatowns which means that, along with echoes of Edith Piaf and the sound of traffic, there is a rich and diverse tapestry of sounds to be heard.

On Saturday I walked along the Rue de Belleville amidst the Chinese traders selling their wares in the shops and on the street.

I also called into the Chinese supermarket to wonder at the range of Chinese foods and spices most of which I’d never heard of and certainly didn’t recognise.

Chinese Shopping:

One of the features of Belleville that I find fascinating is the Chinese men who gather close to Belleville Métro station in the late afternoon. They form in groups to talk and to exchange news and gossip and although I can’t understand a word they say, I find the sounds endlessly fascinating.

Chinese Chatter:

As I said, I really like Belleville.


“Play Me, I’m Yours”

I LEFT PARIS earlier this week and went to London for a couple of days. I travelled on the Eurostar so two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving the Gare du Nord in Paris I was in St Pancras railway station in London.

Arriving at St-Pancras:

London of course has just hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games and some reminders of that remarkable few weeks this summer remain in St Pancras station.

I like St Pancras station not only for its stunning Victorian architecture but also because it has a Foyles bookshop that gives me endless pleasure and which seems to extract money from my wallet quite effortlessly. It was while I was in Foyles earlier this week that I heard the sound of a piano. I went to investigate.

A Man and a Piano:

Although the sound of a piano is not something that one expects to hear in a railway station, St Pancras has given me musical surprises before as you can see here.

Today’s surprise though came from one of the pianos I discovered placed around the station which is actually an artwork by British artist Luke Jerram called, “Play Me, I’m Yours”. Reaching over two million people worldwide – more than seven hundred pianos have already been installed in cities across the world bearing the simple instruction ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’.

Located in public parks, bus shelters and train stations, outside galleries and markets and even on bridges and ferries, the pianos are available for any member of the public to play and enjoy. Many pianos are personalised and decorated by artists or the local community. By creating a place of exchange ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ invites the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment.

“Play Me, I’m Yours”:

Taking ownership of this particular piece of the urban environment was this delightful, foot-tapping, American gentleman who brightened up everyone’s afternoon including mine.

And ….

Play Me, I’m Yours‘ has also been to Paris. I found it in the CNIT at La Défense in July.



The Voice of the 39 Bus – continued …

AT THE BEGINNING of June I published a blog piece entitled “The Voice of the 39 Bus” in which I described the recording of the bus stop announcements for the 39 bus route in Paris. I also introduced Andréa, the voice of the 39 bus.

I had been given exclusive access to attend the recording session held at the studios of Sixième Son, Europe’s leading audio branding and sound identity agency. Song Phanekham, the man responsible for the sound identity of RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the Paris mass transit authority, was there and he directed the recording session.

All the names on the 39 bus route were recorded by Andréa by repeating them two or three times, sometimes with a slightly different inflection, so as to give Song more choice in the editing.  Great care was taken to ensure exactly the correct pronunciation and inflection for each name.

An extract from the recording session:

The 39 bus travels from the Gare du Nord in the north of Paris to Issy – Frères Voisin in the south-west. The journey takes about an hour depending on the traffic.

The terminus at Issy – Frères Voisin is simply an ordinary bus stop in an ordinary leafy street surrounded by tall rather plain buildings.

I travelled the full length of the 39 bus route on Saturday from the Gare du Nord to Issy – Frères Vosin and back again and the good news is that I was accompanied by Andréa, or at least by her voice, which has now been installed in the 39 buses. I recorded my journey in both directions.

Travelling this route is rather like travelling on a tour bus, you get a really fascinating view of this city.

Some sounds from the 39 bus route:

Here I have selected a montage of some, but by no means all, of the sounds of the journey which, for those of you who know Paris, will conjure up fascinating images … Porte Saint-Martin, Porte Saint-Denis, Poissonnière – Bonne Nouvelles, Grand Boulevards, Bibliothèque Nationale, Palais Royal – Comedie Française, Musée du Louvre, Pont du Carroussel – Quai Voltaire, Saint-Germain des Près, Sèvres – Babylon, not to mention the Hôpital des Enfants Malade, Colonel Pierre Avia and of course the not quite so glamorous, Issy – Frères Voisin. All this comes for the price of a bus ticket and the joy of having one’s bones rattled as the bus bounces over the all too frequent pavé.

There are couple of things you might find of interest.

First, Paris bus stop names are derived from the names of streets or buildings in the vicinity of the bus stop so, for example, the stop for the Hôpital des Enfants Malade is right outside the hospital. Some bus stop names though comprise two names like Palais Royal – Comedie Française for example. This simply means that the bus stop is between the Palais Royal and the Comedie Française just as the stop Pont du Carroussel – Quai Voltaire is at the junction of the Pont du Carroussel and the Quai Voltaire. It’s simple really.

Second, the bell often heard on a Parisian bus is not, as in some countries, a signal from a passenger to the driver to stop at the next stop but rather a signal from the driver to those outside the bus to beware. A signal best heeded!



DID YOU KNOW that the Battle of Alésia is the oldest event commemorated on the Paris Métro? It took place in France in 52 BC when the Romans took on the Celts.

The Romans were led by Caesar and the Celts by Vercingétorix and the Romans won when Vercingétorix eventually surrendered. Vercingétorix was banished to Rome and after spending six years in prison Caesar had him strangled to death.

A more recent piece of history associated with the Alésia Métro station is this wonderful 1960’s Métro sign. Very few of these were used so this one is quite rare.

Next to the Alésia Métro station is the church of Saint-Pierre de Montrouge with its tall bell tower looking out over the centre of the quartier, the Place Victor-et-Hélène-Basch. The church was built in 1863 by the French architect Joseph Auguste Émile Vaudremer who was noted for building several public buildings including Paris’s Prison de la Santé.

I was in the 14th arrondissement on Saturday in the Alésia quartier and I went into the church to find that it was all decked out for a wedding. So, with my sound recorder to hand I was once again in the right place at the right time!

The Bride Arrives:

I didn’t stay for the entire service but I did stay long enough to see the bride enter the church and to hear the organist improvise brilliantly when it became clear that bride’s walk up the aisle was going to extend beyond the end of the music!

As the service got underway I left and walked across the street to a café where I toasted the happy couple and became engaged in a fascinating conversation with an elderly gentleman sitting next to me.

The Bells:

Before I knew it, the church bells were ringing as the service came to an end. Family and friends gathered outside the church waiting for the bride and groom to appear while I watched from the café. I raised a glass and wished them well.


Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé

IT ALWAYS SEEMS to me, that the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé suffers a little from standing in the shadow of its larger cousin, the Passage du Grand-Cerf, which is just across the Rue Saint-Denis.

The Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé was built in 1828 by Auguste Lusson and it was designed to continue the line of the Passage du Grand-Cerf to the Rue Saint-Martin by linking up with the open-air Passage de l’Ancre. Thanks to Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in the Second Empire, the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé lost its eastern end to make way for the Boulevard Sébastopol in 1854.

Sounds inside the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé:

It was in 1879 that Henri Blondel, architect of the Bourse du Commerce, the French Stock Exchange, tidied up the amputated eastern end of the passage by building the Empire style entrance (shown above) with its two caryatides sculpted by Aimé Millet.

The arched glass roof is impressive as are the clock and the barometer at either end of the passage.

The Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé has had a chequered history. Thanks to Baron Haussmann it’s not as long as originally intended whereas its cousin, the Passage du Grand-Cerf, is the largest of all the Parisian passage couverts.  Over many years, the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé became run down and, not all that long ago, it was ravaged by fire.  But today, it’s been restored and although still smaller than it’s cousin across the street it is equally as elegant and home to thriving niche businesses.

Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé:

120, rue Saint-Denis / 3, rue Palestro

Métro: Etienne-Marcel


La Fête de Ganesh 2012

INDIAN COMMUNITIES across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year. Yesterday, I went to join the celebrations in Paris.

Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in the rue Pajol. And it was from here that a colourful procession set off on its tour of the surrounding area. As always with these kinds of events perhaps it’s best simply to let the pictures and the sounds tell the story.

Sounds of La Fête de Ganesh:

Sounds of La Fête de Ganesh:

Sounds of La Fête de Ganesh:

Sounds of La Fête de Ganesh:

You can find the sights and sounds of last year’s Fête de Ganesh here.