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Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk

AFTER COMPLETING A RECORDING assignment in the 7th arrondissement I found myself in rue du Bac heading for the Métro and home.

Stretching for some 1150 metres from the junction of the Quai Voltaire and the Quai Anatole-France alongside the Seine, rue du Bac crosses the busy boulevard Saint-Germain and ends at rue de Sèvres.

Rue du Bac

I was at the rue de Sèvres end of the street and so I set off to walk to the Métro station Rue du Bac at the junction of the rue du Bac and the boulevard Raspail, a little over half way along the street, recording the sounds around me as I went.


The green arrow shows my soundwalk and the red arrow shows the continuation of rue du Bac to la Seine

Rue du Bac

Rue du Bac looking north-east towards la Seine

Rue du Bac takes its name from a ferry (a bac in French) established around 1550 on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The ferry crossed the Seine at the site of today’s Pont Royal, a bridge constructed under the reign of Louis XIV to replace the Pont Rouge built in 1632.

The street was created between 1600 and 1610 and originally named grand chemin du Bac, then ruelle du Bac, grande rue du Bac and finally simply, rue du Bac.

I began my walk along rue du Bac at one of Paris’ largest department stores, Le Bon Marché.

Rue du Bac

Le Bon Marché department store

Now owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838 by the entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicault. By 1869, it had developed into one of the first department stores in the world heralding a retail revolution that lives with us to the present day.

Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk:

A little further on from Le Bon Marché I came upon the Chapel of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation. It is not a religious institute, but an organisation of secular priests and lay people dedicated to missionary work overseas.

Rue du Bac

Chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangers

And then, across the street, the Square des Missions Étrangers.


Rue du Bac is in a rather chic part of Paris and that is reflected in the boutiques lining this part of the street.

Rue du Bac

This shop, Pierre Farman at N°122 for example, sells vintage aircraft parts – heaven for an aircraft enthusiast like me!

Rue du Bac

Founded in 1903 by the Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named after his stepdaughter, Angelina’s has a world-wide reputation for its elegant Salons de Thé and its classiques de la pâtisserie française including its signature Le Mont Blanc comprising meringue, Chantilly légère and vermicelles de crème de marrons.

This pâtisserie in rue du Bac is one of several Angelina’s in Paris and around the world.

Rue du Bac

A little further on is the Sotheby’s estate agency. I always think that estate agents who display elegant pictures of properties for sale but no prices are best avoided!

And then I came upon …

Rue du Bac

Rue du Bac

Rue du Bac

Rue du Bac

And finally …


The Métro Station Rue du Bac.

In the earlier part of the day I’d been concentrating on my sound recording assignment so I hadn’t set out to record a soundwalk in this part of rue du Bac but, as it turned out, I’m rather pleased I did. And I think the sounds of a dog barking, a boutique security guard chasing a shoplifter and a church clock striking the hour, all of which I came upon completely by chance, added to the local colour.

Rue du Bac


Sauvons la rue Dénoyez

TWICE IN THE LAST few weeks I’ve found myself in rue Dénoyez, the fascinating plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement where the walls are covered with a kaleidoscope of constantly changing street art.

Rue Dénoyez

On the first of my two recent visits to this street I was being interviewed for a prospective radio piece and on the second, I was recording a conversation with my good friend, Heather Munro, who was taking a short break from the dramatic sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, USA.

On both occasions I was asked about the banner that has appeared across rue Dénoyez, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez – and I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea why it was there.

But I can now put that right!

Rue Dénoyez

Rue Dénoyez is in Belleville in the east of Paris and before 1860 Belleville was a very lively place. Then, it was outside le mur des Fermiers généraux, the tax wall that surrounded Paris, which meant that alcohol was tax-free and therefore much cheaper than within the then Paris City limits. Consequently people from Paris would come to the cafés, bars and cabarets in Belleville in great numbers to drink and dance and have a good time.

After 1860, all that changed. Belleville was absorbed into the City of Paris and with the advantage of tax-free alcohol now gone Belleville began a long and steady decline. And rue Dénoyez suffered from that decline.

In the 20th century immigrants began to arrive in Belleville with Jews fleeing from Germany coming in the early 1930s and Spaniards in 1939. Many Algerians and Tunisian Jews arrived in the early 1960s and then came an influx from the Maghreb. In the 1980s it was the Chinese and more recently, sub-Saharan Africans. All this has contrived to make Belleville the colourful melting pot of different nationalities that it is today.

Revival for rue Dénoyez began with the arrival of the artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents.

Rue Dénoyez

Today, rue Dénoyez is home to several art galleries like Frichez-Nous la Paix at N° 22 bis and La Maison de la Plage at N°18 bis for example, which provide a space for artists to work and exhibit their work. And the work of these artists also spills over to the walls and surrounding buildings along the street.

Rue Dénoyez

So what’s the story behind the banner across the street, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’?

The banner was erected in early October in response to a proposal to build two subsidised housing projects in the street that could see the end of rue Dénoyez as a plein air street art gallery.

Rue Dénoyez

The proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.

Rue Dénoyez

N° 10 rue de Belleville, Au Vieux Saumer, at the corner of rue Dénoyez

In a city as unaffordable as Paris it’s hard to argue against more subsidised housing but one might ask, as the residents of rue Dénoyez are, why choose this particular street? The local council claim that there is no alternative, this is the only space available they say. Paradoxically, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has expressed her determination to further develop urban art in the city.

Rue Dénoyez

Outside the Atelier Hors-Champ I spoke to a man who was about to sign the petition that has been set up. He told me that he thought the development was bound to go ahead and probably the best they could hope for was to delay it. The work is due to start in July 2015.

Rue Dénoyez

Rue Dénoyez

On the first of my recent visits to rue Dénoyez I recorded a soundwalk along the street, although I didn’t realise at the time that this, along with my other recordings of this street, will become historically significant if and when the development of the street begins and its character inevitably changes. Fairly soon these recordings could become more sounds to add to my list of the ‘vanishing sounds’ of Paris.

Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:

Rue Dénoyez

These sounds though are interesting for another reason, a rather amusing and slightly bizarre reason.

Walking along the street I recorded the sounds around me including the sound of the artists shaking their aerosol cans of paint as they went about their work. These sounds were to take a bizarre twist as I came towards the end of my walk.

A middle-aged man, obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis, had been watching an artist at work. When the artist finished and moved off, the man picked up a discarded paint can and for some inexplicable reason decided to bang it against the wall. You can listen to what happened next 6 minutes into my recording.

A little girl was watching the man attentively. She called out to her friend, “Attends! Regarde!”, whereupon the aerosol can exploded showering the man in a haze of white paint. The giggles of the little girl and her friend I thought spoke volumes. As my friend Heather said when I told her this story, “Voilà la justice!”

Rue Dénoyez

If the proposed development does go ahead the character of rue Dénoyez will undoubtedly change, but my abiding memory of the street will always be the sound of that exploding aerosol can. Somehow, it seems to portend the arrival of the wrecking ball.

So, as my tribute to rue Dénoyez and its artists it seemed fitting to use the sounds of the exploding can and turn them into my own small piece of street art – my contribution to the legacy of this colourful street.

Rue Dénoyez – The exploding can: (Best listened to with headphones)

Rue Dénoyez


The Marché Barbès and its Sounds

STRETCHING ALONG THE Boulevard de la Chapelle from Barbès Rochechouart Métro station to rue de Chartres, the Marché Barbès is not for the faint hearted. Even getting to the market can be a challenge since some of the market often spills over into the Métro station itself.

Marché Barbès

Inside Barbès Rochechouart Métro station on market day

Marché Barbès

From 08.00 to 13.00 on Wednesdays and from 07.00 to 15.00 on Saturdays, the Marché Barbès appears under the overhead section of Métro Line 2 and if you’re looking for a leisurely market with lots of personal space, then the Marché Barbès is not for you.

Marché Barbès

An assortment of stalls selling clothes, shoes, jewellery and assorted trinkets are clustered at either end of the market but most of the stalls in between are awash with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.

From end to end, a multi-ethnic sea of people moving at a snail’s pace, or sometimes not moving at all, fills the market. Getting close to a stall to actually buy something requires grit and determination, not to mention judicious use of the elbows. But the effort can be worth it. Not only is this perhaps the busiest market in Paris it’s also one of the cheapest where most of the fruit and vegetables seem to sell for €1/kilo. A running commentary of what’s on sale and for how much resonates around the market as the stallholders cry out vying to outdo each other to catch the attention of customers from the passing tide of people.

Marché Barbès

All this of course, together with the Métro trains running overhead, makes for a fascinating sound tapestry and so I set off to capture it. Having negotiated my way through the crowd inside the Métro station, I plunged into the throng of people across the street at the head of the market and set sail through what felt like a tsunami of people.

Progress was slow and not without incident, but I made it to the other end more or less unscathed although the relative calm of the rue de Chartres did come as somewhat of a relief.

Marché Barbès

Sounds of the Marché Barbès:

Marché Barbès

If you can cope with the crowds then the Marché Barbès is well worth a visit and there are certainly some bargains to be had – although I’m still not sure about the watches on sale for €2 each!

Rue de Chartres

Rue de Chartres


The Pont Marie and its Sounds

FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to one of the oldest surviving bridges in Paris, the Pont Marie.


The Pont Marie is one of six bridges connecting the Île Saint-Louis to the Right and Left Banks of the Seine. It stretches for 92 metres across the river from Rue des Deux Ponts at the junction of the Quai d’Anjou and the Quai de Bourbon on the Île Saint-Louis to Rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères at the junction of the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank.

Pont Marie

Pont Marie – Looking Upstream

One might be forgiven for thinking that with a name like Pont Marie this bridge might have been named after a glamorous French Queen – but it was not. Instead, it was named after Christophe Marie, the French engineer and entrepreneur who designed it and supervised its construction.

Pont Marie

Pont Marie and its acute-angled ‘ice aprons’ 

The Pont Marie we see today is the second oldest surviving bridge to cross the Seine within the Paris city limits, the oldest being the Pont Neuf which lies further downstream.

Conceived at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, the Pont Marie was part of a speculative development plan for the then vacant Île Saint-Louis. The plan called for two bridges to be built, the Pont Marie, connecting the island to the Right Bank of the Seine and the Pont de la Tournelle connecting to the Left Bank. The Pont Marie was to be built first and it would include rows of houses and shops on the top of the bridge. King Henry IV gave his consent to the plan in 1610 and the Paris City authorities also gave their approval, presumably because this was to be a privately financed venture.

Christophe Marie was granted permission to buy two parcels of land at either end of the proposed bridge at a preferential rate and the following year he was joined by two financiers, L. Pulletier and F. Le Regrattier, who sponsored the building materials and so, in 1614, work began. However, the project soon became mired in difficulties. When the legitimate owner of the Île Saint-Louis, the Chapter of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, objected because they had not been informed beforehand they were bought off with an annual revenue of 1200 Livres but even so, recurring financial difficulties plagued the project. The royal secretary, Jean de la Grange, was obliged to take over the financing from 1623 to 1627 when Christophe Marie again took over responsibility. The bridge was eventually completed in 1630 and opened to traffic in 1635.

The Pont Marie comprises five semicircular arches separated by piers each of which are protected on both the downstream and upstream sides by acute-angled ice-aprons, wedge-shaped structures which protect each pier from floating ice. The four piers are decorated with 1,10 m wide niches, the height varying with the rise of the bridge and none of which, perhaps a little surprisingly, have ever contained statues.

The plans for the Pont Marie included the building of two rows of houses and shops on top of the bridge and extending along the Quai des Ormes, now the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. Christophe Marie and his partners left the project in 1643 by which time a large part of this work had been completed. On 10th June, 1643, the master carpenter Claude Dublet, along with Denis Hébert and Louis Le Vau, later architect to the king, took over the work and built forty-six further bridge houses at a cost of 172 000 Livres each. Most of the buildings were completed by 1647 and occupied by 1652.

But tragedy was just around the corner.

On the night of 1st March 1658, the river Seine flooded and the force of the water swept away two of the arches of the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side destroying twenty houses at a cost of sixty lives.

Two years later, a temporary wooden bridge was constructed to restore the link from the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank of the Seine. This was a toll bridge and the funds collected were used to reconstruct the stone bridge. The work was completed in 1670 but the lost houses were not replaced.


Pont Marie in 1760 looking downstream. The damaged part of the bridge has been reconstructed but a gap remains where the destroyed houses once stood. Image via Wikipedia

All the bridge houses on the Pont Marie, and on all the other bridges in Paris, were finally demolished following an edict of 1786, just before the French Revolution.

The bridge underwent some restoration work in 1851, including flattening the rise a little in the centre of the bridge but without changing its overall appearance, so the Pont Marie we see today is the original 1635 bridge with the 1670 rebuilt section on the Île Saint-Louis side, minus the houses of course.

Pont Marie

My Paris Bridges Project is not only about exploring the history of all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about seeking out and capturing the characteristic sounds of each bridge.

Before I went to the Pont Marie to explore its characteristic sounds I happened to come across this photograph of two men fishing under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side in 1942.


Under the Pont Marie in 1942 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images

Since I wanted to capture today’s sounds under the bridge on both sides of the river, I thought a good place to start would be on the Île Saint-Louis side in the same place as the fishermen were in 1942. Unlike then, it’s now possible to pass under the bridge at this point with or without the aid of a boat.

Pont Marie

And these were the sounds I found …

Sounds Under the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side:

Today, the sound of passing river traffic is present at all the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. And so it must have been for our fishermen in 1942, although I don’t know whether or not the boats of the Compagnie des Bateaux Mouches (as shown above) that have plied la Seine since 1917, were actually doing so under the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1942. The sound of the water lapping under the bridge though would have been very familiar I’m sure.

Pont Marie

Voie Georges Pompidou from on the Pont Marie

Having captured the sounds from under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side I wanted to explore what sounds I might find under the bridge on the other side of the river. I climbed up onto the bridge and crossed over towards the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. As I looked over the bridge on the downstream side I could see what was in store.

The Voie Georges Pompidou runs under the last arch of the Pont Marie on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville side complete with its seemingly never-ending stream of traffic.

Georges Pompidou was the French Prime Minister from 1962 to 1968 and then President of France from 1969 until his death in 1974. He was a lover of the automobile and he argued that a freeway should replace the grass-covered banks of the Seine by saying: “les Français aiment leurs bagnoles” (the French love their motors).

On March 27, 1966, the decision was made that the existing roadways along the Seine should be connected to create a continuous expressway along the banks of the river through the centre of Paris.  The Voie Georges Pompidou (George Pompidou Expressway) was completed in 1967, and runs along the right bank of the Seine for 13 kilometres from the Porte du Point-du-Jour in the south-west to the Porte de Bercy in the south-east.

Fortunately, there was only room on the riverbank for a two-lane expressway.  Pompidou actually wanted to cover the Seine with concrete to create room for an even wider expressway but the environmental movement and others managed to put a brake on that and any further freeway expansion in Paris.

Pont Marie

Voie Georges Pompidou from under the Pont Marie

And so the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie surely deserve a place in history since they are one example of several modernising legacies that Georges Pompidou left to the city.

Sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie:

Leaving the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou behind, I climbed back up onto the Pont Marie to see what the characteristic sounds on the bridge might be.


On the Pont Marie

Researching the archives before my visit I found another photograph of the Pont Marie, this one taken in 1900 showing the bridge from above, and so I decided to use a landmark from this photograph from which to record the contemporary sounds on the bridge.


On the Pont Marie in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images

I selected the second lamppost on the downstream side towards the centre of the bridge, the one with the man passing on a bicycle. And this is what I heard …

Sounds on the Pont Marie:

These sounds tell us that the Pont Marie has its fair share of traffic on the bridge as well as under it although it sounds much less aggressive from above. For me, the pavé on the bridge seems to add a texture to the sound of the traffic that makes it almost appealing.

Pont Marie

On the Pont Marie looking downstream

I wonder what the people on the bridge in the 1900 photograph would have made of these sounds? Of course, there were motorcars in Paris in 1900. Maybe they would have seen and heard the occasional de Dion Bouton Voiturette or a Renault Voiturette 1CV passing and looked upon them quizzically and wondered if this was ‘progress’. I doubt though that they could have begun to imagine Georges Pompidou’s ‘racetrack’ under the far end of the bridge. I was particularly pleased to capture the sounds, if only fleetingly, of two or three bicycles passing. I suspect that the man cycling past the lamppost in the photograph would have felt at home with these sounds, if with little else.

Pont Marie

The Pont Marie looking downstream

As I was recording the contemporary sounds of the Pont Marie, I couldn’t help contemplating the long history of this bridge and imagining what the sounds on, under and around it would have been like in 1635 when it was opened, almost four hundred years ago. Or in 1658, when a raging torrent ripped the bridge apart, or in 1900, a little over a hundred years ago, when a man on a bicycle and a family with a handcart were calmly crossing the bridge. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to wondering how much the sounds of this bridge will change in the next hundred or even four hundred years.

Pont Marie