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August 5, 2014


The Gare de l’Est and its Sounds

by soundlandscapes

THE GARE DE L’EST is one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. Designed by the French architect, François Duquesnay, it was opened in 1849 by the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Paris à Strasbourg, the Paris-Strasbourg Railway Company. In 1854, the service was expanded and the Gare de l’Est also became the western terminus of the Paris – Mulhouse Railway.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est today

October 4th, 1883, was a key date for the Gare de l’Est because that was the day that saw the first departure of the original Express d’Orient from the Gare de l’Est bound for Istanbul.


The first Orient Express in 1883 – Image via Wikipedia

Run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the original route was from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to pick up another train to Varna. They then completed their journey to Istanbul (then called Constantinople) by ferry. It wasn’t until six years later, on June 1st, 1889, that the first non-stop train left the Gare de l’Est for Istanbul.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est was renovated in 1885 and again in 1900 and then in 1931 it was doubled in size with a new extension built symmetrically with the old station.

Gare de L’Est

‘Strasbourg’ by Lemaire

At the top of the west façade of the original part of the Gare de l’Est is a statue by the sculptor Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire, representing the city of Strasbourg.

Gare de L’Est

‘Verdun’ by Varenne

At the east end of the station, the newer part, is a statue personifying Verdun, by Varenne. Both Strasbourg and Verdun are important destinations served by Gare de l’Est but Verdun in particular reminds us the role the Gare de l’Est played in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

The railway network from the Gare de l’Est stretches towards the east of France and it was from this station that thousands of French troops, the poilus, were despatched to the Western Front in 1914.

We can get an impression of the contemporary scene from a painting that hangs in the western concourse of the Gare de l’Est by the American painter, Albert Herter.

Gare de L’Est

Le Départ de poilus, août 1914 by Albert Herter

Herter painted this in memory of his son, a volunteer in the French army, who was killed at Bois-Bellau in the last few month of the war.

The painting includes the artist himself, on the right holding a bouquet in his hand, while his wife is on the far left with her hands clasped together. These two figures draw our eye towards the centre of the painting and their son, standing in the doorway of the carriage with a flower in his gun and his cap held high. His enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the tears of the women on the platform.

The painting was given to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Est by the painter as a gift in 1926.

Gare de L’Est

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, the Gare de l’Est is hosting a photographic exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by the photographer Didier Pazery.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

After the death in 2008 of Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the Poilus, Didier Pazery made pictures of the old front line and of artefacts belonging to the Meaux Great War Museum. The exhibition includes some of these pictures together with portraits made ​​between 1996 and 2007 of the last survivors of the conflict.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

Before moving on to the sounds of the Gare de l’Est, there is one other feature of the station that has a connection with war, this time with the Second World War.

Gare de l’Est

This innocuous looking ventilation shaft on one of the platforms of the station hides something that the thousands of passengers who pass through this station each day are probably completely unaware of.


Image via the compelling website

There are a series of bunkers under this platform. Built just before the outbreak of war and with space to accommodate seventy people, they were intended for use as bomb shelters, to protect against gas attacks and as a communications centre. They are all still intact but not open to the public.

Gare de L’Est

On my visit to the Gare de l’Est I was very much aware of its history, the Orient Express, the poilus and the bunkers, but I wanted to explore the station as it is today and particularly its contemporary sounds.

The Gare de l’Est and its sounds:


Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est is a big station and its glass roof is listed as a monument historique. I don’t know whether its clocks share that distinction but, if not, perhaps they should.

Gare de L’Est

The movement of people within the station seems to pass in waves as trains arrive and depart.

Gare de L’Est

And in between train arrivals and departures people do what they always do, they sit and wait.

Gare de L’Est

My exploration of the sounds of the Gare de l’Est took an unexpected turn when, in the midst of a very hot and very humid early August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm of tropical proportions appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

Gare de L’Est

I learned pretty quickly that when it rains the Gare de l’Est is far from waterproof. Not only did the rain splatter the trains waiting at the platforms but it also bounced off the entrance to the platforms as well.

Gare de L’Est

And it also seemed to permeate through every available nook and cranny.

Gare de L’Est

But the rain soon passed and the station was quickly returned to the balm of a summer’s afternoon.

Gare de L’Est

I couldn’t help wondering though how the sounds I’d recorded in the Gare de l’Est in early August 2014 would compare to the sounds to be heard in the same station one hundred years ago in August 1914 as a generation of young men set off to a conflict from which few would return.

Gare de L’Est


7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 9 2014

    What a fascinating history this station has! You have brought to life the layers of history that echo inside its space (that bunker!). I love the natural fade in of the rain as it slowly drowns out the previously dominant sounds. Really great work.

    • Aug 28 2014

      Thanks JD. I enjoy recording the sounds inside stations but the rain was a very unexpected bonus.

  2. hmunro
    Aug 27 2014

    I love this post almost as much for your wonderful recording as I do for your musings. Your observation about the young men who left from these platforms to fight wars, never to return, was very poignant — just as your explanation of what lies beneath those grates was intriguing! I wonder how one might get access to the shelter to record its sounds? Hmmm. On a more personal note, I was delighted to hear that SNCF jingle again. Because I’ve had the good fortune to hear it only under pleasant circumstances, I’ve come to associate it strongly with an impending adventure. In any case, thank you for this marvelous slice of a summer’s afternoon in Paris.

    • Aug 28 2014

      Thanks Heather.

      I think getting access to the bunkers depends less on what you know and much more upon ‘who’ you know. Isn’t that often the case!

      Herter’s painting is a permanent fixture in the western concourse of course but alongside Pazery’s photographs it takes on an extra significance in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.

      It’s interesting that you should mention the SNCF jingle. The Gare de l’Est is one of the few Parisian stations where you can actually hear the jingle and the announcements throughout most of the station. There are one or two blind spots but for the most part they’ve done a good job with the sound inside the station.

  3. Apr 12 2015

    Greetings, preparing a tangentially related story and, as always happens when doing research, you stumble across even m-o-r-e interesting research! (This post!) Loved the piece, as it craftily combines my favorite passions: History, compelling Photos and Paris Info not generally known. All the best!

  4. Apr 12 2015

    oops. forgot to say…leaving a link to your story in a small piece I’m doing….


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  1. Paris in 6 Links at 300 Stations, Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 300 Stations

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