IN JULY EACH YEAR, the Champs Elysées hosts two major events, the défilé, the large parade on 14th July, the centrepiece of La Fête National, and in the last week of the month, the final stage of the Tour de France. Both events occupy the whole of the Champs Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde and both attract large crowds. But while the former is of largely national interest, the latter commands a global audience.
The Champs Elysées from on top of l’Arc de Triomphe
The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event and it’s the greatest free show on earth. Only the Olympic Games and the FIFA football World Cup, which take place every four years, attract a bigger audience. Each year some 12 million spectators watch le Tour along the route each spending on average six hours at a time at the roadside. But that number is tiny compared to the television audience. This year, 121 different television channels across the world broadcast the race in 188 countries to a worldwide television audience of 3.5 billion people.
Running for three weeks from Saturday 5th July to Sunday 27th July, this year’s Tour de France, the 101st, comprised 21 stages covering a total distance of 3,664 kilometres. There were nine flat stages, five hill stages, six mountain stages with five altitude finishes, one individual time trial stage and two rest days.
I follow le Tour every year but for a long-time ex-pat like me, this year’s Tour was extra special. The Grand Départ, the first stage of le Tour, is always a showpiece often taking place in countries outside France. This year, the first three stages took place in the UK, but more that that, the first two stages took place in Yorkshire, a place where I lived for twenty years and a place I know very well. With Day 1 of le Tour stretching some 190 km from Leeds to Harrogate and Day 2, 201km from York to Sheffield, the local wits quickly dubbed this year’s Tour as le Tour de Yorkshire!
After leaving the UK, le Tour travelled to France and, with a detour into Belgium, paid it’s respects to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by racing through Ypres, Arras and the haunting plateau of the Chemin des Dames.
Le Tour de France route 2014
I didn’t go to the start of le Tour in Yorkshire but I did go to the finish in the Champs Elysées on Sunday.
And there I found that the UK theme continued in the shape of a couple of London buses.
Since 1975, the final stage of le Tour de France has ended in the Champs Elysées and the format is the same as with all the other stages of le Tour.
First comes the caravane publicitaire, the colourful and noisy procession of sponsor’s vehicles. The numbers vary from year to year but there are usually around 250 vehicles in the procession, they arrive 90 minutes before the race riders and it takes them 40 minutes to pass.
Then comes the race itself. This year the final stage began at Évry just to the south of Paris and it finished with eight laps around the Champs Elysées. Copying last year’s 100th edition of le Tour, the route up and down the Champs Elysées was extended to include a circuit around the Arc de Triomphe and a fly-past by the Patrouille de France as the riders arrived.
After the vibrancy of the caravane publicitaire and the excitement of the finish of the race comes the ceremonie protocolaire, the awards ceremony.
The podium waiting to be pushed into place for the ceremonie protocolaire
I record the end of le Tour every year in the Champs Elysées so I’m very familiar with the routine. My first task is always to walk up and down the avenue looking for a vantage point from which to record. This is not always as easy as it sounds.
I usually record the sounds of the caravane publicitaire from just beyond the finish line but because the public address system is so awful finding a spot from which to record the commentary is much more difficult. It often takes quite a long time to find just the right place but once I’ve found it I usually head off to a café I know just off the Champs Elysées where I’m guaranteed a seat, a cool glass of beer and a TV to watch the riders’ progress. As soon as I see the riders arrive in Paris I head back to my recording pitch and take up position.
To actually see any of the race it’s necessary to get there early, occupy a vacant place and then spend several hours waiting for something to happen. The enthusiasts get themselves very well organised.
France Télévisions always have by far the best view with their outside broadcast cameras hoisted on cherry pickers stretching across the road and more cameras in the helicopters flying overhead. Their pictures are shared on the big-screen televisions situated at various points around the course.
A France 3 OB camera ready to be hoisted over the Champs Elysées
On Sunday I spent just over six hours at work in the Champs Elysées, waiting for and then recording the caravane publicitaire, searching out a site from which to record the commentary and recording the race and the ceremonie protocolaire. Altogether, I recorded just over three hours of sound a good part of which has now been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
For those of you who haven’t got three hours to spare, here is a flavour of the end of le Tour de France 2014.
Le Tour de France 2014 in the Champs Elysées:
And what about the commentator and that distinctive voice, the voice of the Tour de France?
For those of you who may have wondered, his name is Daniel Mangeas and he’s been the commentator of the Tour de France, and other cycle races, since 1974. He commentates on some 200 events a year. For le Tour he spends two hours at the microphone presenting the riders at the start of each day’s race and then he drives to the finish to commentate on the last 50km of the race. He was, of course, in Yorkshire for this year’s Grand Départ and this being le Tour de France, he commentated in French. I can’t help wondering what all those Yorkshire Tykes made of that!
On 5th July, 219 riders set off on the Grand Départ from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. After three weeks, 3,664 kilometres and for the winner at least 89 hours 59 minutes and 6 seconds on the bike, 164 riders arrived at the finish line in the Champs Elysées on Sunday. Some riders didn’t make it to the finish, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome being perhaps the most notable to crash out en route.
The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France 2014, a race he led for eighteen days out of twenty-one. This year also saw a return of French riders to the podium with Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot finishing second and third respectively.
The last stage on the Champs-Elysées went to Marcel Kittel just like last year. The German outsprinted Alexander Kristoff in a spectacular final sprint on the Champs-Elysées.
Peter Sagan won the Green Jersey for the best sprinter, Rafal Majka won the Polka-Dot jersey for the best climber, Thibaut Pinot won the white jersey for the best young rider and Alessandro De Marchi won the prix de la combativité. AG2R La Mondiale won the team prize.
And spare a thought for the man who finished last, the lanterne rouge, Ji Cheng, the first Chinese rider to compete in the Tour de France. The fact that he came last, just over 6 hours on aggregate time behind the winner, doesn’t mean that he was the worst rider in the race. Like many riders, Ji Cheng is a domestique, whose job is to sacrifice his own position in the race to protect his team leader, to supply him with food and drink during each stage and to chase down riders who break away from the peloton. Ji Cheng won the affection of the crowds because he did his job so well.
LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.
The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL
In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.
This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.
Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.
The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record
The aircraft fly-past:
The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde
Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.
If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.
The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.
For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.
Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.
It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.
The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense
I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.
The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.
From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.
If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.
All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.
At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.
Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.
Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past
The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.
In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.
Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.
But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.
What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.
The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.
But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.
By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.
With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.
On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.
The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.
Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.
But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Passerelle Debilly, a stone’s throw from the Tour Eiffel and one of the four “passerelles piétonnières”, or footbridges, to cross la Seine within the Paris city limits.
Like some of the other bridges in this part of Paris, the Paserelle Debilly owes its existence to one of the great Expositions Universelles, or World’s Fairs, held on and around the Champs de Mars in the late nineteenth-century. Built as a footbridge for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly was originally positioned to connect the Army and the Navy exhibition halls on one side of the river with the Old Paris halls on the other.
Exposition Universelle 1900 – Passerelle Debilly and the Armées de Terre et de Mer Exhibition Hall.
The Passerelle Debilly was designed by three French engineers Jean Résal, Amédée Alby and André-Louis Lion. Jean Résal held the position of Ingénieur en chef des ponts et chausses, a prestigious civil engineering post dating back to the seventeenth-century and an especially important post during the late nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris. Résal was a pioneer of building metallic bridges in the late nineteenth-century and his work includes as well as the Passerelle Debilly, the Pont Mirabeau, the Pont de Bercy, the Pont Notre-Dame and the magnificent Pont Alexandre III.
The construction work for the Passerelle Debilly was undertaken by the firm of Daydé et Pillé, specialists in metallic construction who also constructed several other bridges in Paris.
Passerelle Debilly From Downstream
The construction work was completed and the Passerelle Debilly was opened on 13th April 1900. To begin with the name of the footbridge was ambiguous, it was called both the Passerelle de l’Exposition Militaire and the Passerelle de Magdebourg. It was only later that it was formally designated as the Passerelle Debilly, after General Jean Louis Debilly who was killed in the Battle of Jena (La bataille d’Iéna in French) in 1806.
The bridge of course was designed as a temporary structure to serve visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. But in 1903, after the Exposition had been deconstructed, the bridge was taken over by the City of Paris and it became a permanent fixture but not before it was moved some two hundred metres upstream opposite the rue de la Manutention, closer to the Pont d’Alma and further away from the Pont d’Iena, the bridge named after the battle in which Jean Louis Debilly died.
Tour Eiffel from under the Passerelle Debilly
The Passerelle Debilly we see today is the original bridge save for several new coats of paint and the addition of the tropical hardwood walkway. It’s 120 metres long and 8 metres wide and it stretches from the Quai de New York on the Right Bank to the Quai Branly on the Left Bank. The bridge comprises three spans anchored on stone piers with the central span forming an arch with an intermediate deck of 75 metres and two half-arch end spans of 22.50 metres.
Passerelle Debilly anchored into one of the stone piers
At either end of the Passerelle Debilly are columns decorated with dark green ceramic tiles giving the impression of waves made by the French ceramic company, Gentil et Bourdet.
Having successfully survived its temporary status after the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly came under threat again in 1941 when the Président of the Architectural Society no less characterised it as an “accessoire oublié d’une fête passée”, a forgotten accessory of a past event. But the Passerelle Debilly snubbed its nose at this intervention and survived to become listed in the supplementary registry of historical monuments in 1966.
Regular readers will know that I have embarked upon a Paris Bridges Project; a project to explore all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. My exploration includes not only researching the history of each bridge but also seeking out the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
On my visit to the Passerelle Debilly I began by recording the sounds under the bridge on the Quai de New York side. I sat on a metal rail, as far under the bridge as I could get, with the metal frame of the bridge and the wooden walkway above my head and began to record.
Sounds under the Passerelle Debilly:
The sounds of boats passing each leaving their sonic footprint in the form of waves lapping on the edge of the quay, a boat moored to my left creaking as if held prisoner and crying out for some means of escape, a sonic glimpse of a tourist guide over the public address system on a passing tourist boat, the testosterone-fuelled sounds of a passing motor-cycle, half-heard conversations of teenagers, and the occasional, almost imperceptible, footsteps echoing from the tropical hardwood floor of the bridge above seemed to be the characteristic sounds from under the Passerelle Debilly.
But the characteristic sounds of any place are as varied as the places you listen from and so I decided to venture up onto the bridge to see what I could find.
Standing on the bridge, I set up my microphones on the downstream side of the bridge pointing upstream across the broad swathe of tropical hardwood lining the floor of the bridge, something those walking across the bridge in 1900 would not have found. From this position I was able to record everyday life passing by.
I found three distinctive sets of sounds on the bridge.
Sounds on the Passerelle Debilly:
Not surprisingly, the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor on the bridge were much clearer than the muffled sounds of footsteps I’d heard earlier from under it. It was interesting to observe the variety of shoes that passed by, not something I would usually take an interest in, but I became quite expert in recognising which shoes would make an interesting sound and which would not. The repetitive sounds of tourist boats passing underneath the bridge were ever present of course but it was the snatches of half-heard conversations in a variety of languages that I found really fascinating. Who were these people, what had brought them to this place and what stories had they to tell?
One distinctive sound that I might have expected was conspicuous by its absence – the sound of vehicular traffic. Save for the inevitable screeching motorcycle in the distance, from the centre of the bridge the sound of traffic was almost imperceptible – a rare thing in Paris.
While the sounds of vehicular traffic were pretty much absent from the centre of the bridge, the sounds of the river traffic were certainly present. I’d heard the sounds of the boats passing from under the bridge and from on the bridge but, since there was so much river traffic at the time I was there and since the sounds of the boats filled the air, I thought I would try to listen to them from a different perspective. I changed my microphones for a pair of tiny lavalier microphones, the same as TV newsreaders wear, which I lowered down from the edge of the bridge so that they were hanging midway between the bridge and the water.
Sounds of the passing boats from between the bridge and the water:
From this perspective I still caught some of the sounds emanating from on the bridge (the microphones were omni-directional) but I was able to capture the sounds of the boats passing underneath with a clarity that would not have been possible from on the bridge. Listening through my headphones I heard snatches of conversation from on the boats often before the boats had actually emerged from under the bridge and most surprisingly, I heard the sound of music from a boat berthed on the Quai Branly which was quite inaudible from my previous recording position on the bridge.
One of the things I’m trying to do in my Paris Bridges Project is to not only discover the characteristic sounds of each bridge but also to try to seek out the sounds that might be unique to each bridge. Finding the unique sounds can be quite a challenge because the sounds are often not immediately obvious and sometimes they can be almost imperceptible to the casual listener.
At the Quai Branly side of the Passerelle Debilly is the Port de la Bourdonnais, a place where some of the large restaurant boats that ply la Seine are berthed. The bridge runs over the top of the port with steps leading down to the quay. Under the bridge, beyond the steps, is a wall behind which run two railway lines of RER Line ‘C’. It seemed to me that the sounds of an RER railway line running under the Passerelle Debilly could be the unique sounds of the bridge that I was looking for so I stood under the bridge, listening and waiting.
Presently, I heard the very faint sounds of a train passing behind the wall, sounds too faint to capture without the aid of contact microphones (microphones designed to pick up sounds from solid objects) but the sounds were definitely there. Since I wanted to capture these sounds but I didn’t have my contact microphones with me I resorted to ‘Plan B’.
From where I was standing, the rail lines were completely hidden from view but a few steps further along the Port de la Bourdonnais metal grills appear in the wall.
I approached one of the metal grills and discovered that it was just, but only just, high enough for me to reach and so with the dexterity of a cat burglar I managed to get my tiny lavalier microphones through the grill and lower them down the other side. I waited to see what would happen.
Sounds of RER Line ‘C’ passing under the bridge:
Standing at the end of two wires protruding from a hole in the wall attracted more attention from the passing tourists than I’d bargained for but I pressed on regardless and I was pleased with the results.
I was struck by the near silence in the tunnel between the trains despite the everyday sounds around me on the outside of the wall. The only time this silence was disturbed was when a very large tourist bus passed behind me, rather too close I thought.
For me at least, these were the unique sounds of the Passerelle Debilly.
Located as it is close to the Tour Eiffel and the site of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly is well used to hosting visitors.
In 1900 visitors came to witness the latest in architecture, machines and inventions including such things as the new Art Nouveau, the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel, Russian nesting dolls, diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone, the first magnetic audio recorder. Today, visitors still come to experience what Paris has to offer and a good number of the visitors, now as then, will pass over the Passerelle Debilly.
But there was a time when the Passerelle Debilly was more than just a passing attraction for tourists.
For those of us of a certain age and for whom memories of the Cold War are still vivid, the Passerelle Debilly, when viewed from a certain angle and in a certain light, has a rather sinister look to it. It’s perhaps not surprising then to discover that the Passerelle Debilly was a meeting place for spies and particularly secret agents of the former East Germany. In 1989, a German diplomat working for the Secret Service of the Democratic Republic of Germany was found dead on this footbridge several days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Knowing that gave me a whole new perspective on the Passerelle Debilly – The Bridge of Spies!