RUE VAVIN STRETCHES from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Rue d’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. The street is 375 metres long and 12 metres wide at its widest point and two streets, the Boulevard Raspail and Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, intersect it.
Rue Vavin is named after Alexis Vavin (1792-1863), a French politician who, amongst other things, opposed the coup of Napoleon III. As well as the Rue Vavin, the Avenue Vavin (now a short cul-de-sac) and the Métro station Vavin are also named after him.
The other day I decided to explore the Rue Vavin, to search out the places of historical interest and to do a soundwalk.
I began at the Rue d’Assas outside one of the entrances to the Jardin du Luxembourg and I walked along the street to the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the other end.
Rue Vavin – A Soundwalk:
N° 12 rue Vavin
The first building to catch my eye was N° 12.
For over eighty years this was home to the French publishing house founded in 1901 by the orientalist Paul Geuthner. He specialised in Oriental studies and published essays, texts, language textbooks and travelogues on the Near, Middle and Far East.
Paul Geuthner died in 1949 but the business continued and although no longer here at N° 12 rue Vavin (it’s now moved to 16 rue de la Grande Chaumière close by), and despite a change of ownership, the Société Nouvelle Librairie Orientalist Paul Geuthner is still very much alive and well.
Moving on towards the next building I wanted to see I paused to look at two things at the heart of rue Vavin, both of which are emblematic of Paris – a kiosquier selling his newspapers and a Wallace fountain.
The Parisian newspaper kiosk has been around for a 150 years. Today there are about 350 of them in Paris and they account for almost half of all daily newspaper and magazine sales.
And, like the Parisian newspaper kiosk, the Wallace fountain is another piece of iconic Parisian street furniture.
Named after the English philanthropist, Richard Wallace, who lived in Paris and financed their construction, these fountains were designed by the French sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Although originally intended as a source of free, potable water for the poor and also as encouragement to avoid the temptation to turn to strong liquor, everyone uses these fountains today. For the homeless of course, they are often their only source of free drinking water. The fountains operate from 15th March to 15th November (the risk of freezing during the winter months would imperil the internal plumbing) and they are regularly maintained and repainted every two years.
And while the Wallace fountain in rue Vavin might be one kind of watering hole, on the other side of the street there’s another, the Café Vavin.
N° 19 rue Vavin
Further along the street is N° 19.
This building was once home to the École normale d’enseignement du dessin, a school of drawing founded in 1881 by the architect, Alphonse Théodore Guérin. The only private art school in Paris at the time, it was staffed by volunteer teachers and its students paid no fees. The teaching was based on a mixture of workshops and academic classes in decorative composition, perspective, the history of art and anatomy.
N° 26 rue Vavin – Image via Wikipedia
If you’ve seen the film Last Tango in Paris you may recognise the next building I stopped to look at. N° 26 rue Vavin was the creation of the French architects Frédéric-Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin.
In 1903, Sauvage and Sarazin formed the Société anonyme de logements hygiéniques à bon marché, a company whose purpose was to construct good quality, affordable housing for the poorest in society. Built in 1912 as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), N° 26 rue Vavin is a good example of what Sauvage and Sarazin sought to achieve. Designed on the hygienist principles of providing accommodation with plenty of light and air the building has open terraces and is covered with white tiles similar to those found in the Paris Métro which self-clean when it rains.
Unlike with most buildings in Paris, it is forbidden to attach nameplates to the walls of N° 26 partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to avoid damage to the tiles. Consequently, the main door of the building has a very clean and uncluttered look to it.
After pausing to look at a magnificent display of blooms at a flower shop I walked further up rue Vavin to the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail where I found N° 33.
N° 33 rue Vavin
Between the two World Wars, N° 33 rue Vavin was home to the famous cabaret Le Bal de la Boule Blanche. It was here on the evening of 20th February 1931 that Georges Simenon hosted a ball to launch the first two books in the then new but now classic Inspector Maigret series – ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’ and ‘Le pendu de Saint-Pholien’.
Crossing the Boulevard Raspail I wanted to find N° 38 rue Vavin, once the home of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who is perhaps best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, I found a building site with the inevitable site meeting taking place.
N° 50 rue Vavin
The last stop on my soundwalk along the rue Vavin was at N° 50. Today it’s just one of many boutiques along the street but in the second half of the 19th century this was the Maison Voignier, supplier of organ pipes to, amongst others, one of the world’s greatest organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Rue Vavin is a fairly typical Parisian street. It’s home to some or a place of business for others, it’s also a thoroughfare from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Jardin du Luxembourg and it’s a magnet for shoppers. It has its own life, its own history and, of course, its own sounds all of which I think are worth exploring.
AT THE END OF the 12th century, Ville Neuve Saint Ladres was little more than a hamlet alongside the Roman road leading from Paris to Flanders. When a church was constructed in 1426 the hamlet’s name was changed to La Villette Saint-Ladres-lez-Paris. In 1790, La Villette, then with a population of some 1,800 souls, was formerly recognised as a commune and in 1860, by which time the population had increased to around 30,000, it was incorporated into the City of Paris.
Bassin de la Villette
La Villette though was to play an important role in the life of the city before its formal incorporation.
In 1802, mindful that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and to public morale, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered work to begin on the construction of a canal, the Canal de l’Ourcq, stretching one hundred and eight kilometres from Picardy to Paris. When completed, this canal would not only provide a plentiful supply of water to the city but also provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning the city.
The Bassin de la Villette was created at the Paris end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from where the canal would link, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis, which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Napoleon Bonaparte opened the Bassin de la Villette in 1808.
Bassin de la Villette with the lock gates leading to the Canal Saint-Martin
Once the Canal Saint-Martin and the Canal Saint-Denis were completed in the 1820s the area around the Bassin de la Villette became not only a transit centre but also a busy commercial hub.
Warehousing companies including the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux set up on the quays alongside the Bassin mainly to store grain and flour as did a cattle market and several abattoirs.
Bassin de la Villette – Les Entrepôts
Image via Wikipedia
Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux: Share certificate from 1952
This industrialisation of the Bassin de la Villette lasted until the late 1960s by which time decline had set in and the warehouses were either abandoned or demolished. The cattle market and the abattoirs closed in the early 1970s.
Bassin de la Villette looking towards the Canal de l’Ourcq with some of the original and now renovated warehouses just beyond the boats
The Bassin de la Villette is in effect a man-made lake and at eight hundred metres long and seventy metres wide it’s the largest artificial lake in Paris but, despite its industrial decline, it still plays an important part in the life of the city.
The Canal de l’Ourcq, which terminates at the Bassin de la Villette, still supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The Bassin is still a transport hub with the intersection where the Canal de l’Ourcq meets the Canal Saint-Denis with its mainly industrial canal traffic and the Canal Saint-Martin with its now thriving and lucrative tourist traffic.
But the Bassin de la Villette has also undergone a revival with some of the former warehouses being converted into cinemas and restaurants and some of the barges into cultural venues.
La Péniche Opéra for example is berthed on one side of the Basin de la Villette on the Quai de Loire. It’s a former industrial barge now billed as the smallest opera house in the world and it puts on a wide range of operatic events.
At the head of the Bassin de la Villette in what is now the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad is another reminder of the history of La Villette.
La Rotonde de la Villette
Built by one of the earliest exponents of French Neoclassical architecture, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the Rotonde de la Villette was originally one of the barrières d’octroi in the mur des Fermiers généraux, the Wall of the Farmers-General.
This wall, built between 1784 and 1791 by the Ferme générale, the corporation of tax farmers, surrounded Paris and was intended to ensure the payment of a toll (octroi) on all goods entering Paris.
The Rotonde de la Villette or the barrière Saint-Martin as it was known at the time, was one of sixty-two such tax collection points in the wall. With the expansion of Paris in 1860 and with the octroi by then abolished most of these tax collection points were demolished. The Rotonde de la Villette escaped demolition and survived to become a bonded warehouse for the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux. Today, it’s a restaurant unsurprisingly called La Rotonde.
On my visit to the Bassin de la Villette I not only wanted to explore its history but also its sounds.
I recorded a soundwalk for my Paris Soundscapes Archive beginning at the fountain next to La Rotonde de la Villette. I walked along the Quai de Seine on one side of the Bassin, then over the Passerelle de la Moselle to the Quai de Loire on the other side, which brought me back to the head of the Bassin but this time at the Écluses de la Villette, the double lock at the head of the Canal Saint-Martin.
Écluses de la Villette – Picture taken from on top of the Passerelle des écluses de la Villette from which all distances on the Canal Saint-Martin are measured
The Canal Saint-Martin links the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine. It’s four and a half kilometres long, two kilometres of it run underground and it passes through nine locks and two swing bridges. From the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine the canal drops a height of twenty-five metres, the first eight metres of which occurs at the Écluses de la Villette.
The first set of lock gates at the Écluses de la Villette
The sounds of a boat full of tourists passing through the Écluses de la Villette seemed to be too good to miss since it seemed to me that they would represent a good part of the life of today’s Bassin de la Villette so I positioned myself just beyond the first pair of lock gates and waited.
This was one of those occasions when I felt that the story would be best told by fixing my microphones in one position and simply waiting for something to happen – a technique I learned from studying the work of the great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The red arrow indicates my recording position
Sounds at the first Écluse de la Villette:
And presently something did happen – something completely unexpected.
As a Paris Canal boat hove into view people were passing behind me and then I heard the sound of horses hooves. I turned round to see two splendid horses from the Gendarmerie passing by. They passed very quickly but it was long enough for their sounds to transport me back for a fleeting moment to the Bassin de la Villette in a different age.
Presently, the first lock gates opened and the Paris Canal boat, complete with its running commentary, slowly and carefully entered the first part of the lock. Once in, the gates behind it were closed and the sluices on the gates ahead of it were opened and the boat began the first part of its descent.
Going down ….
The sounds tell the story as the boat descends.
In making this recording I left the microphones and the recording levels untouched throughout so what you hear is what I heard. If you listen carefully, you will hear the sound texture change as the boat descends and, as the boat gets lower, the voices of the passengers can be heard more clearly.
Eventually, the lock gates ahead of the boat open and the boat slowly moves forward into the second stage of the lock and the sounds get fainter.
If you listen really carefully, above the hissing sound of the water leaking through the first set of lock gates, you will hear two faint thuds as the second set of lock gates close one after the other behind the boat. Immediately after, the sluice on the first set of gates opens and water gushes in to refill the first part of the lock.
That’s where my sound portrait ends but for the boat and its passengers, now in the second part of the lock, they began their second descent until they were completely out of sight from street level. They then moved off into the tunnel taking them under the road and onto the next part of their journey along the Canal Saint-Martin. Meanwhile, the first part of the lock was continuing to refill ready for the next boat to repeat the process.
I came away from the Bassin de la Villette with a good and varied collection of sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I couldn’t help wondering what rich pickings there might have been for a sound hunter like me if I’d been there when it had been a centre of industry rather than of tourism.
THE THIRTY-EIGHTH PARIS MARATHON took place yesterday. More than forty thousand runners from over one hundred countries competed over the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) course from the Champs-Elysées to the Avenue Foch via the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne.
In 2012, I watched the race and recorded sounds close to the finish in the Avenue Foch so this year I thought I would find a vantage point somewhere near the start.
I wanted to capture the sounds of all the runners passing by so at just before eight o’clock on Sunday morning I established my pitch and set up my microphones in the rue de Rivoli just beyond the one-mile point.
When I arrived, the rue de Rivoli seemed a little eerie. It was the only time since I’ve lived in Paris that I’ve seen this most elegant of streets completely deserted – save for the police trucks hastily towing away the last remaining parked cars which I’m sure completely ruined several people’s day!
The Paris Marathon starts in the Champs Elysées and the first to start were the wheelchair athletes. At a little after 8.30 and accompanied by a convoy of police and official cars they passed by me.
Following the wheelchairs came the handisports athletes including several blind runners each tethered to a guide.
Paris Marathon 2014 – Wheelchair and Handisports Athletes:
The sound of these athletes passing was soon subsumed by the sound of the French television helicopter slithering sideways overhead with its powerful cameras trained on the elite athletes who were about to enter the rue de Rivoli.
At the head of the elite group was a tightly packed bunch of world-class marathon athletes setting what was to prove to be a blistering pace.
And quite close behind came another elite group including two of the fastest women in the race.
And next came the best of the rest.
Paris Marathon 2014:
After the elite group and the best of the rest, a mass of runners converged in the rue de Rivoli each with their own personal challenge ahead of them. Wave after wave of them passed me right down to the very last man.
The last runner to enter the rue de Rivoli
I stayed in my place on rue de Rivoli and recorded the sounds until every one of the competitors in this year’s Paris Marathon had passed by me. It took a little under two hours for them all to pass.
I didn’t think about it at the time but I now know that about ten minutes after the last runner entered the rue de Rivoli with about 26 miles of running still ahead of him, the winner was crossing the finishing line in the Avenue Foch.
And the winner was Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia.
Image via ethiopiaforums.com
Bekele, the three-time Olympic champion on the track and 5,000m and 10,000m record holder, crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 3 seconds – breaking the previous course record set by Kenya’s Stanley Biwott in 2012.
In the women’s race, the pre-race favourite, Flomena Cheyech of Kenya finished in a new personal best time of 2 hours, 22 minutes, 41 seconds.
The double Paralympic silver medallist, Marcel Hug, won the wheelchair race.
The first six men and women finishers were:
1. Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:05:03
2. Limenih Getachew (ETH) 2:06:49
3. Luca Kanda (KEN) 2:08:01
4. Robert Kwambai (KEN) 2:08:48
5. Jackson Limo (KEN) 2:09:05
6. Gideon Kipketer (KEN) 2:10:35
1. Flomena Cheyech (KEN) 2:22:44
2. Yebrqual Melese (ETH) 2:26:21
3. Zemzem Ahmed (ETH) 2:29:35
4. Faith Chemaoi (KEN) 2:31:59
5. Gebisse Godana Derbi (ETH) 2:36:27
6. Martha Komu (FRA) 2:36:33
All the sounds I recorded in the rue de Rivoli have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive as a permanent record of yesterday’s event.
Incidentally, why is it that some women runners who see a man wearing headphones standing behind a microphone on the edge of the road give a wave and a friendly smile whereas some men insist on leaning over and shouting into the microphone? Maybe it’s a question of testosterone overload!
In all, 39,115 athletes completed the 2014 Paris Marathon. Here are more images of some of them as they began their marathon run around Paris.
WHEN I TRAVEL IN Paris I mostly use either the Métro or the buses but rarely the RER. The RER, or Réseau Express Régional, of course does crisscross Paris but I only seem to use it when travelling further afield to the Parisian suburbs.
The RER Network across Paris and the Île-de-France
The other day I was on an RER train returning to Paris from a sound recording assignment in the suburbs when I alighted at the RER station ‘Champs de Mars – Tour Eiffel’. Although I pass this station frequently on my regular 82 bus journeys I had never actually been inside so I took this opportunity to have a look round and, of course, to capture the atmosphere in sound.
Inside the Gare du Champs de Mars:
There are two unassuming entrances to the station, one at the junction of the Quai Branly and the Avenue de Suffren …
… and the other further along the Quai Branly at the Pont Bir-Hakeim.
Entering the station from the entrance close to the Avenue de Suffren the unassuming feel continues. There is no huge concourse but rather a narrow corridor leading to the ticket barrier.
There are only two platforms at the station conveniently named ‘A’ and ‘B’ and the signage is good too, which is just as well since thousands of tourists use this station to get to and from the most visited attraction in Paris, Le Tour Eiffel. Many tourists wanting to venture from the city centre to the Palace of Versailles also use this station.
It’s only once you pass the ticket barrier and have figured out which platform you need (for the Palace of Versailles you need Platform ‘A’ by the way) that you begin to get a different feel for this station.
RER Line ‘C’ – Direction Pontoise
The sweeping platforms are very long and from Platform ‘B’ you can look out across La Seine.
RER Line ‘C’ – Direction Versailles
Today’s Champs de Mars – Tour Eiffel station dates from 1988 when the Vallée de Montmorency – Invalides branch of RER Line ‘C’ opened. This stretch of line used a large part of the infrastructure of the former ligne de petite ceinture dating from 1867.
Today’s station may have only been here since 1988 but it is in fact the fifth railway station to have occupied this site.
The first Gare du Champs de Mars was built to connect the Petite-Ceinture to the Champ de Mars and the site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair. This station was demolished shortly after the Exposition.
Bird’s Eye view of the site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle in the Champs de Mars
Image via Wikipedia
For the 1878 Exposition Universelle, again held in Paris on the Champs de Mars, another Gare du Champs de Mars was built.
Gare du Champs de Mars in 1878
Image via Wikipedia
This station was designed and built by the French architect, Juste Lisch who, amongst other things, also designed the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. This station survived longer than its predecessor and it was used for the 1889 Exposition Universelle as well. In 1897 though the station was demolished and moved to Bois-Colombes on the outskirts of Paris.
The 1878 Gare du Champs de Mars in situ at Bois-Colombes
Image via Wikipedia
For the 1900 Exposition Universelle, this time featuring the newly built Tour Eiffel, another Gare du Champs de Mars was built and the line was moved closer to la Seine and extended to Invalides.
Gare du Champs de Mars in 1900
Image via Wikipedia
As well as a station for passengers, a goods station was built close by between the Avenue de Suffren and the Boulevard de Grenelle. After the 1900 Exposition the passenger station was closed, the goods station became a coal depot and from 1937 it was transformed into engine sheds. The former goods station was finally closed in 1971.
Although the 1900 Gare du Champs de Mars no longer exists it is possible to imagine something of it by walking along the Promenade du quai Branly between the Pont d’Iéna (opposite the Tour Eiffel) and the Pont Bir-Hakeim and looking back towards the Tour Eiffel. Along this stretch of the Promenade du quai Branly some of the original wall of the 1900 station remains.
Part of the original wall of the 1900 Gare du Champs de Mars
The Gare du Champs de Mars and its association with the Expositions Universelle held in the Champs de Mars close by is of interest to me partly because I find the history of these Expos fascinating (Paris also hosted the 1937 one as well) but also because Paris is bidding to hold the Exposition Universelle in 2025.
It just so happens that my local Mayor and Deputé (Member of Parliament) is leading the bid so I must ask him if we can expect yet another new Gare du Champs de Mars in 2025!