THE EARLIEST REFERENCES to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis date as far back as the Mérovingians, around 750 AD. The street became popular in the Middle Ages because it was the most direct route between Paris and the increasingly prestigious Abbeye de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France.
The Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis crosses the 10th arrondissement of Paris linking the Boulevard de la Chapelle in the north and the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle further south. The street is called the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis because it’s an extension of the Rue Saint-Denis to the faubourg, the area formerly outside the Paris city walls as marked today by the Porte Saint-Denis.
In September last year I produced a blog piece about the northern part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis from the Boulevard de la Chapelle to the Gare du Nord railway station, the area known as Little Jaffna because of the Tamil population who live and work there. You can see that blog piece here.
Having completed a soundwalk of that part of the street, I thought it was now time to complete my sonic exploration of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis by doing a soundwalk along the remainder of the street from the Gare du Nord to Porte Saint-Denis. The street may have lost the glitter it once had when it formed part of the King’s processional route to the Basilica of Saint Denis and the accents may have changed – you’re more likely to hear Indian, Arabic or Turkish than anything else, but the street has its own character and is full of interest.
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis – A Soundwalk:
PROTESTS TOOK PLACE in Paris and across the rest of France last Saturday in response to the “Marriage and Adoption for All” bill which proposes to legalise gay marriage and adoption for French citizens.
In Paris, somewhere around 100,000 people including Catholic groups and other supporters of traditional family rights, gathered at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement to make their voices heard.
Protests at Place Denfert-Rochereau:
France already allows civil unions between same-sex couples but, despite opposition from more than 1,000 French mayors and the Catholic Church, President Francois Hollande has promised to change French law so that gay and lesbian couples can marry. The government approved a bill on the issue earlier this month and it will be debated by parliament in January.
The proposed legislation will replace the entries in a child’s registry book from “father”’ and “mother” to “parent 1” and “parent 2”.
An Ifop (l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique) poll in August 2012 found that 65% of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage, while 53% supported adoption rights for same-sex couples.
YOU JUST HAVE TO stand in the centre of the Place Vendôme and look around you to see that this is a playground for the rich – the very rich!
The Place Vendôme was laid out in 1702 as a monument to the glory of the armies of Louis XIV and the Vendôme Column at the centre was erected by Napoleon I to commemorate the battle of Austerlitz. It was torn down on 16 May 1871, by decree of the Paris Commune, but subsequently re-erected and remains a prominent feature on the square today.
The Place Vendôme is home to the Ritz Hotel founded by the Swiss hotelier, César Ritz, in collaboration with the chef Auguste Escoffier in 1898. It was reportedly the first hotel in Europe to provide an en suite bathroom, a telephone and electricity for each room. Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway lived at the hotel. Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, King Edward VII and Winston Churchill were regular visitors as was Hermann Göring when the German Luftwaffe set up their headquarters here in the Second World War.
The grandest suite of the hotel, the Imperial, is a national monument in its own right. Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed, dined in the hotel’s Imperial Suite before their fatal car crash in August 1997.
Today, the Ritz is closed for a two-year, 140 million Euro, refurbishment and the work has just got underway. The current owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, has said that he is hoping to honour the hotel founder’s promise of offering guests “all the refinement that a prince could desire in his own home”.
And it’s not only the Ritz that’s being refurbished in the Place Vendôme, other places are too, if more discreetly, behind large screens that hide the building work from view but do little to dampen the sounds.
In November 2012, the Place Vendôme is more like a building site than anything else. The elegant sounds of glasses tinkling in the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz, the sounds of eye-wateringly expensive jewellery dripping from the shelves of Van Cleef & Arpels or Chaumet or the sounds of vast amounts of money changing hands have been overshadowed by the much harsher, more workmanlike sounds of Bob the builder. Frederic Chopin died here in the Place Vendôme in 1849. I wonder what his finely tuned ear would make of the sounds today.
Sounds of Place Vendôme
ARMISTICE DAY WAS MARKED in Paris on Sunday with the national act of remembrance led by François Holland, Président de la République.
Accompanied by the children of two French soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the Président laid a wreath on behalf of the nation under the Arc de Triomphe at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
The act of remembrance is about remembering all those who have died in the service of their country but in a poignant moment, the names of the French servicemen killed in Afghanistan since this time last year were read out while the large crowd stood in absolute silence.
Mort pour la France:
Of all the sounds to be heard at the Arc de Triomphe, it seemed to me that this one best expressed my feelings about this act of remembrance. Some sounds, however simple, can often say all that needs to be said.
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.
THE PARIS MÉTRO comprises 14 lines, some 300 stations and 201.8 kilometres of track. At any one time there are around 540 trains travelling on the system, and at busy times even more, carrying around 5 million passengers every day. Despite the density of the traffic, the Paris Métro is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world.
Nevertheless, there have been two major disasters on the Paris Métro, one in 1943 when an allied bombing raid blew the roof off the station at Porte Saint-Cloud killing 403 people who where sheltering there and another in 1903 when a fire killed 84 people, most of them at Couronnes station – and it is the story of the Couronnes disaster that I want to tell.
Couronnes Métro station is much like any other station on Line 2 of the Paris Métro system. It’s a fairly busy station with a classic Hector Guimard entourage entrance leading down to the ticket hall and the entrance to the trains. At Couronnes, the trains run underground.
The construction of Line 2 began in 1900. It was built in stages and, by April 1903, the Line 2 that we know today, stretching from Porte Dauphine to Nation, was completed. At 12.4 km in length, just over 2 km of the line was built on an elevated section with four stations. One of these aerial stations, Barbès-Rochechouart, or Boulevard Barbès as it was known in 1903, was where the seeds of the disaster were sown.
The aerial Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) Métro station today
Sounds of Barbès-Rochechouart station today:
In 1903, Métro trains were largely made of wood and operated as four-car units. At busy times, two four-car units could be coupled together to make an eight-car unit. All the power for both the four-car and eight-car units was routed through the front car via shoes that connected the motor to the ‘live’ rail.
At just before 7.00 pm on the evening of Monday, 10th August, 1903, just a little over four months after the completion of Line 2, a train entered Boulevard Barbès station with heavy smoke billowing from one of the motors of the front car. The passengers were evacuated from the train onto the platform, the power to the motor was disconnected by raising the shoes, and the burning subsided.
With the urgent need to clear the line at Boulevard Barbès and probably against a chorus of frustrated passengers anxious to be on their way, the staff decided to move the train. They reconnected the power and allowed the train to descend into the tunnel ahead. What they hadn’t realised was that the fire was not simply a case of the train motor overheating it was in fact a short circuit which was bound to cause further trouble. And so it proved.
The burning returned although the train made it as far as the station Combat (now called Colonel Fabian) before the driver stopped for help. The power was once again disconnected and the burning subsided but when the power was reconnected it began again. It became clear that the only way to move the train any further was to use another train to push it.
Meanwhile, the passengers from the stricken train were still at the Boulevard Barbès station.
Passengers waiting at Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) today
Presently, a four-car train arrived and the passengers piled on. This train took them as far as the Rue d’Allemagne (now called Jaures) station where they again disembarked. As their now empty train moved on to Combat to join up with the stricken train another four-car train arrived at the Rue d’Allemagne and the frustrated passengers boarded that already overcrowded train.
Up ahead, the stricken train was being pushed by the empty four-car train. This combination was being driven by the motor in the four-car train at the rear but the short-circuited motor on the stricken train was still live and by now burning again.
The combination of trains arrived at Couronnes and the following train complete with passengers was close on its heels.
Couronnes station today – Most of the deaths occurred on the platform on the right
The motor on the leading train combination was by this time well on fire but instead of continuing into the tunnel ahead, the driver stopped the train halfway along the platform. The train with the passengers pulled up behind. The passengers were once again told to get off their train. Understandably perhaps, their frustration boiled over and some passengers refused to get off whilst others began an altercation with the staff – but by then it was too late. The stricken train moved off into the tunnel ahead and travelled to the next station, Ménilmontant, by which time the fire had got out of control. The fire destroyed the electrical circuit supplying the Couronnes station lighting and the station was plunged into darkness just as a cloud of dense black smoke appeared out of the tunnel ahead. Chaos ensued as people scrambled for the exits which many couldn’t find. Some survived but many did not. In total, eighty-four people died, seven at Ménilmontant and the rest at Couronnes.
Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.
The news of the disaster was greeted with shock and crowds gathered as the bodies of the victims were evacuated from the stricken station.
Evacuating the bodies – Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.
Sounds of Couronnes station today:
Within days of the disaster, measures were put in place to ensure that events like this could never happen again.
As I said at the beginning, the Paris Métro today is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world. Long may it continue.