“BUILD HERE – BUILD HIGH”, commanded the archangel Michael to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in the year 708. “If you build it … they will come”. The bishop resisted, that is until the archangel poked a hole in the bishop’s skull to emphasise the point. It was built … and they did come.
Perched on a rocky islet surrounded by treacherous sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands the Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael together with the village that grew within its protective walls.
For centuries le Mont Saint-Michel has been a place of pilgrimage but it wasn’t the search for salvation that brought me to this rocky islet. Instead, it was a chance remark made in November last year by my Minnesotan friend, Heather. That remark led me, Heather and her husband Steve, to decamp from Paris in mid-September this year to spend a couple of days exploring this remarkable place.
A little history …
Le Mont Saint-Michel stands about one kilometre off the coast of northwest France between Brittany and Normandy at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches.
In prehistoric times, the bay in which it now stands was part of the landmass but millions of years of rising sea levels and erosion reshaped the coastline. The granite rock we now know as le Mont Saint-Michel survived the ocean’s wear and tear leaving it standing in an otherwise flat and ever-changing landscape. The first occupants of the rock, then known as Monte Tombe, were Amorican Gauls who used it as a stronghold of Breton culture and power.
Thanks to the intervention of the archangel Michael (or so legend has it) a church was built on the top of the rock in 708. The Benedictines moved in some two hundred and fifty years later creating the abbey that still stands today.
The mount’s rivalry with neighbouring Normandy came to a head in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany thus making the mount Norman, and Norman ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
During the Middle Ages a village grew up around the abbey, mostly on the eastern side of the island. During the Hundred Years War between France and England the abbey and the village were surrounded by a fortified wall, which successfully fended off repeated attacks by the English.
There were many ups and downs for the abbey and by the time of the French Revolution there were few monks in residence. Post-Revolution the abbey was converted into a prison holding religious and political prisoners.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a religious presence returned. Today, the abbey is maintained by monks and nuns from the Fraternity of Jerusalem.
The connection between le Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Once connected by a tidal causeway uncovered only at low tide, this was converted into a raised, permanently dry causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The coastal flats were polderised to create pastureland, decreasing the distance between the shore and the island, and the Couesnon River was canalised, reducing the dispersion of the flow of water. Together, these developments encouraged the silting-up of the bay.
In 2006, the French Government stepped in with a €164 million project to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and the tides to help remove the accumulated silt and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island again. In July 2014 a new bridge, designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger, was opened linking the island to the mainland. The bridge allows the waters to flow freely around the island and improves the efficiency of the dam.
Approaching le Mont Saint-Michel from the new bridge and then passing through the medieval gate and crossing the drawbridge into the citadel, we discovered the narrow main street, lined with cafés, restaurants and shops selling trinkets, awash with tourists. Of course, a moment’s thought told me that this was nothing new; this same street has been awash with tourists for centuries.
While a good many of today’s visitors may be ticking off yet another item from their bucket-list of ‘things to do before you die’, in the past many of them would have been pilgrims risking their lives crossing the treacherous sandbanks to get here. Then, just like now, this medieval street would have been lined with eating places and traders catering for the needs of the visitors.
Apart from enjoying the company of my friends, my objective during my visit to le Mont Saint-Michel was to capture the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in sound.
Staying on the island overnight revealed that le Mont Saint-Michel has two quite distinct soundscapes: the soundscape during the day when all the tourists are there and the soundscape overnight when they are not. I set out to discover both.
The soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel at dawn:
Listening tip: To get the best effect you should listen to these sounds at the same level that I heard them at the time of recording so it’s best not to crank up the volume too much – less is more!
This soundscape reflects le Mont Saint-Michel coming to life at dawn, the golden hour before the tourist invasion begins.
The first part of the soundscape was recorded from over halfway up the mount next to the cemetery just below the entrance to the abbey. The birds are singing from the rooftops and if you listen very carefully you will hear the distant baa of a sheep and the purr of a motor vehicle being carried on the wind from the mainland beyond.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is still medieval in that there are no motor vehicles so the only access is on foot. Consequently, you can hear the sound of two men manhandling boxes of early morning supplies up the steps to a small hotel close to where I was standing and to another small hotel further up the hill. A bell from the cemetery’s clock tower chimes the quarter-hour interrupting their efforts. The brief sounds of footsteps over gravel are from a nun who has come down from the abbey to pick wild flowers from the cemetery.
From the foot of le Mont Saint-Michel we hear the sounds of waves lapping as the tide comes in and the mount is set to become surrounded by water. The abbey bells give a full-throated peel before fading away to the distant sound of a single bell.
The dawn soundscape passes and as the new day’s visitors arrive the soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel changes dramatically. The sound of a sea of people fills the air.
I wanted to capture the sounds of this sea of people but not simply the sounds of the endless stream of passing tour groups making their way up the Grand Degré, the narrow, steep, main street. Instead, I wanted to capture sounds that inextricably linked these people to le Mont Saint-Michel – sounds that described the location and told a story.
One place on le Mont Saint-Michel with an easily recognisable ambience of course is the abbey and since visiting the abbey is the main reason most people come to the island it seemed to me to be the most appropriate place from which to record the daytime soundscape.
Perched on top of the rock, eighty metres above sea level, on a platform eighty metres long, the abbey church was built in the early eleventh century. The church with its wood-panelled barrel vault roof is mainly Romanesque in style although after the collapse of the Romanesque chancel in 1421 the chancel was rebuilt after the Hundred Years War in flamboyant Gothic style.
The abbey is a complex structure. With the church perched on top of the rock many underground crypts, chapels and gigantic stone pillars had to be built to support its weight.
The soundscape inside the abbey of le Mont Saint-Michel:
Unlike the dawn soundscape, this soundscape was recorded as a long-form soundwalk. I believe that sounds need the space and the time to breathe, to express themselves and to tell their own story. It takes these sounds thirty-six minutes to tell their story. Apart from topping and tailing, this soundscape has not been edited so what you hear is exactly what happened as it happened. To edit the sounds would be to edit the story and by editing the story the integrity of the soundscape as it was in this place at that time on that day would I think be diminished.
To set the scene …
Heather, Steve and I resolved to visit the abbey. We climbed what seemed like an endless number of steps to get to the abbey entrance but once there we heaved a sigh of relief thinking that we’d finally arrived and the hard work was behind us. Imagine our joy then when, having bought our tickets, we discovered that we had another ninety steps still to climb!
But the extra climb was worth the effort.
The soundwalk begins in the abbey church and then follows a prescribed tourist route spiralling down through the abbey around the tip of the rock. As well as the abbey church, the route includes passing through the cloisters, the refectory, the guest’s hall, the great pillared crypt, Saint Martin’s crypt, the monk’s ossuary, the Saint Etienne chapel, the Knight’s hall and the almonry.
We arrived at the abbey quite late in the afternoon, a little before the ticket office closed. As we moved from the abbey church into the cloisters a rather jovial official appeared and gently ushered us on. As we passed through each door on the tourist route this official followed us and closed and locked each door behind us. It was rather like, ‘last one out turn off the lights!’
In fact, this was a blessing. It meant that we had time to see all there was to see without getting snarled up in the crowd. It also helped me to capture a more modulated soundscape than perhaps I would have done at the height of the day.
As you listen to the soundscape you will hear the ambience change as we move from room to room and as the tide of people ebbs and flows. There are rare periods of near silence as I fell back to let the crowd move ahead and there are times when the tour guides have to tell their flocks to ‘Shush’ because they’re making too much noise.
For me, listening attentively to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world. In my all too brief stay on le Mont Saint-Michel I tried to capture the feel of this remarkable place in sound. Capturing the sounds at dawn without tourists and then in the abbey with the tourists in full cry may not reflect all of the intricately woven sound tapestry of the island but it does perhaps reflect a significant part of it.
Had I been there longer I would no doubt have captured many more sounds but economy of opportunity concentrates the mind.
With my thanks to Heather, our brilliant Chef d’Équipe, without whose energy, enthusiasm and meticulous planning this trip would not have happened. And, of course, to Steve whose company it’s impossible not to enjoy.
FOUNDED IN 1635 as a medicinal herb garden, the Jardin des Plantes is now the main botanical garden in France.
Under the patronage of King Louis XIII, the royal garden of medicinal plants was created between the River Bievre and the current rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. It was opened to the public in 1640 offering free education in botany, chemistry and anatomy.
In 1739, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was appointed superintendent of the garden, a position he held until his death in 1788. During his tenure, Buffon expanded the garden significantly..
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
In 1793, a scientific research institution, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) was founded adjacent to the garden and the two have been intimately linked to the present day.
In 1794, a small zoo was added, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, founded by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre from animals of the royal menagerie at Versailles. Today, the Ménagerie covers 6 hectares and comprises some 200 mammals, 300 birds, 200 turtles, crocodiles, lizards, snakes and amphibians and over 300,000 insects, crustaceans and spiders.
Kangaroos in the Ménagerie
In 1832, Charles Rohault de Fleury, was appointed as the architect of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and between 1832 and 1838 he designed the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie, the monkey house and two serres carrées (tropical greenhouses).
The botanist, Sébastien Vaillant built the first greenhouses in the garden in 1714. They were built of stone and glass and were designed to protect fragile trees from frost. Rohault de Fleury’s early nineteenth century designs though were much bigger and were made of iron and glass, a combination of materials that symbolised the new era of modernity and progress.
Connecting the two large greenhouses, the Serre de Nouvelle-Calédonie (formerly the Serre Mexicaine) and the Serre de l’Histoire des Plantes (formerly the Serre Australienne) is a long gallery of the same design.
The greenhouse complex traces the 430 million year evolution of plants and has micro-ecosystems with plant species from tropical rain forests to arid deserts, from Africa, the Americas and South-east Asia to the Sahara and Australia.
The statistics for the Jardin des Plantes are impressive. The gardens cover 28 hectares (280,000 M2) and the complement of 45 gardeners care for around 8,500 species or varieties of plants, 2,000 trees, 2,500 shrubs, 8,500 herbaceous perennials, 2,000 greenhouse plants and 80,000 seasonal plants.
An alpine garden, a wildlife garden, a garden for irises and perennials, a rose garden, an ecological garden, a garden for bees and birds and a labyrinth are among the specialist gardens.
The Alpine Garden
Of all the species to be found in the Jardin des Plantes, one above all others leaves by far the biggest sonic footprint – the human species. Some eight million people visit the gardens each year and the sounds they make dominate the sonic environment.
Sounds in the Jardin des Plantes:
The Jardin des Plantes is just one of the sites belonging to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. As well as the gardens, the greenhouses and the menagerie, the 28-hectare site also includes various galleries and research institutions open to the public:
La Grande Galerie de l’Évolution
La Galerie des Enfants
La Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie
Les Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie
Le Cabinet d’Histoire du Jardin des Plantes
La Galerie de Botanique
The Rose Garden
There are multiple entrances to the Jardin des Plantes and they can be found in rue Cuvier, rue Buffon, rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire and place Valhubert – all in the 5th arrondissement.
The closest Métro stations are:
‘Gare d’Austerlitz’ – Métro Line 5 or Line 10 or …
‘Jussieu’ – Métro Line 7 or Line 10
A Hotel for Bees
IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY it was part of the fossé, the ditch that surrounded the wall built by Charles V to encircle Paris. Today, the Bassin de l’Arsenal (also known as Port de l’Arsenal) is a marina connecting the Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine.
Bassin de l’Arsenal looking towards Place de la Bastille
After the destruction of the Bastille fortress in November 1789 during the French Revolution, the Bassin de l’Arsenal was excavated to replace the ditch that had been in place at the fortress.
The Bastille fortress with the fossé (ditch) in the foreground. The fossé was later converted into the Bassin de l’Arsenal.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries an arsenal existed here, which accounts for the name of the port and the name of the neighbourhood bordering the westerly side of the Bassin.
In the early nineteenth century, the construction of the Canal Saint-Martin was undertaken connecting the Bassin de la Villette to the Bassin de l’Arsenal and the Seine. With the increased barge traffic on the Canal Saint-Martin during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the Bassin de l’Arsenal became an important commercial port handling mainly wine, wheat and wood.
Separated from the Seine by the ninth and final lock on the Canal Saint-Martin, l’Écluse de l’Arsenal, the port was converted into a port de plaisance (a marina) in 1983. At the same time, a 1.4-hectare public park, the Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal, was created along the eastern side of the marina, which includes maple and willow trees and a rose covered pergola.
Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal
The Bassin de l’Arsenal stretches for six hundred metres between Quai de la Rapée and Place de la Bastille and it forms the boundary of the 4th and the 12th arrondissements.
Running over the lock leading to the Seine at the southern end of the Bassin are two bridges, the road bridge Pont Morland and an iron bridge carrying Métro Line 5. The sounds of the Métro trains running over the iron bridge into and out of Quai de la Rapée station dominate the soundscape around the lock.
Sounds of Métro Line 5 running over l’Écluse de l’Arsenal:
The gates of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal at the southern end of the Bassin de l’Arsenal
I’m fascinated by industrial soundscapes and so I’ve made many recordings of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation but all of them have been punctuated by the sounds of passing Métro trains. The sounds of the lock operating are really interesting and so for several years I’ve been trying to capture the sounds of the lock without the Métro sounds in the background. The other day I finally succeeded thanks to a temporary interruption to the service on Métro Line 5.
The lock is operated from la Capitainerie, the Harbourmaster’s office on the eastern side of the Bassin. Against a background of hammering from building work on a neighbouring apartment block, two boats are waiting to leave the Bassin de l’Arsenal to enter la Seine.
Sounds of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation:
In this soundscape we hear the lock filling and then a warning signal before the lock gates creak open. The first boat to enter the lock is a bateau école, a training boat. It passes into the lock almost imperceptibly.
The next boat is larger but its sounds are equally tranquil.
Once the two boats are in the lock the lock gates are closed with more creaking. A grandmother comes alongside and explains the process to her petite-fille. Note the fascinating sounds of the hydraulics after the lock gates are shut.
Water drains out of the lock, the boats drop three metres, the lock gates at the far end of the lock are opened and the boats are free to enter la Seine.
But as the water level is lowered, the soundscape closest to the Bassin de l’Arsenal changes as water seeps into the lock from gaps in the closed but exposed lock gates.
Some of the best sounds in my Paris Soundscapes Archive are sounds of the Paris Métro but even though the sound rich Métro Line 5 was so close this was one occasion when I was pleased that the Métro sounds were absent.
FRENCH FARMERS ARE ANGRY and on Thursday their anger spilled over from the French countryside to the streets of Paris.
Hundreds of farmers and more than 1,300 tractors converged on the city in the latest protest against collapsing incomes.
From all parts of the country, farmers and their tractors trundled along the major roads into the capital on Thursday morning. Many Parisian commuters took police advice and travelled to work by public transport to avoid the disruption.
While the farmers were converging on Place de la Nation in the east of the city, their spokesman Xavier Beulin, Président de la Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles and his delegation were meeting the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is not unsympathetic to their cause.
Following the meeting with the Prime Minister, Xavier Beulin addressed the farmers in Place de la Nation on Thursday afternoon. You can listen to their response in the sound piece below.
French farmers are facing stiff competition. Production costs in neighbouring countries are much lower, they have been hit by tough competition between supermarkets as well as a Russian embargo on EU food imports, and dairy farmers in particular have seen incomes collapse because of over-production on the world market.
Just six weeks ago, the government came up with a package of debt relief worth €600 million. But the farmers say they need much more, arguing that French agriculture is on the verge of collapse. They are seeking tax breaks from the government as well as action from the EU in Brussels.
Sounds of French farmers in Place de la Nation on Thursday:
French farmers have been particularly vocal throughout this summer, blocking roads on the German border and targeting major tourist destinations such as the Mont Saint-Michel peninsula.
Some of the farmers who were in Place de la Nation on Thursday will be joining a pan-European protest on Monday in Brussels during a meeting of EU agriculture ministers.