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Pont de Sully and its Sounds

ONE OF THE STRANDS in my Paris Soundscapes Archive focuses on the bridges of Paris and their sounds. There are thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits and I’m recording the sounds on, under and around each of these bridges for my archive. From time to time I share the sounds and some of the history of the bridges I’ve explored on this blog.

Taking advantage of the beautiful Indian summer that Paris has enjoyed recently, I’ve been to explore another Parisian bridge, the Pont de Sully.


The Pont de Sully links the 4th arrondissement on the Right Bank of the Seine with the 5th arrondissement of the Left Bank along the line of the Boulevard Henry IV.

Although regarded as one bridge today, the Pont de Sully originally comprised two quite separate bridges, with each meeting on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis.


Pont de Sully: Linking the Right and Left Banks by crossing the Île Saint-Louis

A royal decree in March 1836 authorised the building of the two original bridges: the Passerelle Damiette linking the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank to the Quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis and the Passerelle de Constantine linking the quai de Bethune on the Île Saint-Louis to the quai Saint-Bernard on the Left Bank. Both bridges were suspension bridges built at a cost of 380,000 Francs. This cost was to be recouped by charging tolls. A twenty-year concession to operate both bridges was awarded to a Monsieur de Beaumont.


The Passerelle de Constantine

Neither bridge was to survive for very long.

The Passerelle Damiette was severely damaged in February 1848 during the revolution that resulted in the abdication of Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Second Republic and the Passerelle de Constantine collapsed in 1872 after its suspension wires were eaten away by corrosion.


The collapse of the Passerelle de Constantine

Work began on the current Pont de Sully in 1874 as part of the Haussmannian renovation of Paris. Named after the minister to Henry IV, Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641), the Pont de Sully was designed by the engineers Paul Vaudrey and Gustave Brosselin. The bridge was opened in March 1876.

Although it only has one name, today’s cast iron and stone Pont de Sully is in fact two bridges and, like their predecessors, each one rests on the eastern end of the Île Saint-Louis.


Pont de Sully from the Right Bank towards the Île Saint-Louis

The northern, Right Bank section of the bridge comprises a 42 metre cast iron central arch supported by two 15 metre semi-circular masonry arches.


Pont de Sully from the the Île Saint-Louis towards the Left Bank

The southern, Left bank section comprises three cast iron arches of 46 metres, 49metres and 46 metres.

Both the Right and Left Bank sections of the bridge rest on masonry foundations and abutments and the piles rest on concrete poured into bottomless caissons down through the sand and silt to the solid limestone below.

I began my sonic exploration of the Pont de Sully in a rather precarious position under the Right Bank section of the bridge.


Building a sonic portrait of a bridge takes time and usually involves several visits. Just as photographers wait for the light, so it is when hunting for sounds; one is always waiting for just the right atmosphere to capture the moment. On previous visits I had captured the sounds of boats passing under the bridge but always one at a time with long gaps in between and with a gusting wind deflecting the sounds.

On my final visit though the Gods were with me. I took up my position, the conditions were ideal and for the next twenty minutes a flotilla of boats passed me in pretty close formation. It is most unusual for this many boats to pass along la Seine more or less together but it was a case of just being in the right place at the right time I guess.


Pont de Sully – Sounds under the bridge:




The boats were mostly tourist boats including a Bateaux Mouches, one of the Vedettes du Pont Neuf, a Vedettes de Paris and a Batobus.

Towards the end of the twenty minutes though I was treated to a cops and robbers drama with a police car with its siren wailing passing along the Quai Henry IV above and behind me and a police dinghy speeding under the bridge ahead of me, both heading in the same direction and both obviously intent on spoiling someone’s day!


Separating the two arms of the 256 metre long and 20 metre wide Pont de Sully at the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis is the Square Barye, a 2,975 m2 espaces verts écologiques, originally opened in 1938. It’s ecological credentials date from 2007. The square is named after the French painter and sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).


The Square Barye

It was from this square that I was able to descend a stone staircase and then, after pausing to admire the Autumn leaves, walk to the south-eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, mid-way between the two sections of the bridge and as close to the water as it’s possible to get without getting one’s feet wet. It was from here that I was anxious to collect some more sounds.


While the sounds of passing boats are interesting, what I find even more interesting is the sonic footprint they leave behind. From the very tip of the Île Saint-Louis I was in a perfect place to capture that footprint.


From my vantage point I looked out over la Seine towards the Pont de Bercy and behind it, the low-slung French Finance Ministry building. It is here, between the Pont de Sully and the Pont de Bercy, that the tourist boats end their upstream voyage along the Seine. They approach through the southerly part of the Pont de Sully, turn round in mid-stream and then return through the northerly section of the bridge.

I set up my microphones on the tip of the Île Saint-Louis and began recording.


Sounds of the sonic footprints:


For the first half of this recording you can hear the boats passing upstream on my right and the sound of the gentle waves from their wake arriving at my microphones. The boats then turn ahead of me and begin to travel downstream on my left.

At 6’ 20” into the recording I began to hear a curious repetitive sound, rather like the sound of a steam engine. This was a sound I’d never heard before. I’m very used to recording the sound of the large Bateaux Mouches as they pass but this time, as the boat turned, for a brief moment it headed straight towards me and as it did so it generated this curious sound. The sound disappeared as the boat realigned and aimed for the northern arch of the Pont de Sully, but there was much more to come from the Bateaux Mouches. 8’ 00” into the recording its unmistakeable, dominating sonic footprint began to arrive at my feet and it continued to do so long after the Bateaux Mouches had passed under the bridge.


On my several visits to the Pont de Sully I recorded many more sounds on, under and around the bridge, but the sounds I’ve featured here, the sounds of a flotilla of boats passing under the northern arch and the sounds of the sonic footprints at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, seem to me to be the best sounds to describe this Parisian bridge.



À la Mémoire d’Edith Piaf

I SPEND QUITE A LOT of time in churches, especially Parisian churches.

I am interested in church architecture, I’m fascinated by the history of individual churches and I enjoy exploring the sounds of churches. One strand of my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds of Parisian churches. I have a particular interest in the work of the master organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the organs he built for Parisian churches and while I’ve made many recordings of these Cavaillé-Coll organs I also record the ambient sounds in churches, especially when they’re empty. In my experience, there are no silent churches in Paris: even without services taking place, without the organ playing and with no people, there are still sounds. It’s as though the very fabric of each church speaks to the attentive listener.

Apart from weddings and funerals (more of the latter than the former these days unfortunately) I seldom go to churches other than to explore their architecture, history and sounds. Imagine my surprise then when, thanks to a confluence of interests, I found myself, despite not being of the Roman Catholic persuasion, attending a Roman Catholic mass yesterday morning.


The twin-spired Église Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville has been on my Parisian church exploration ‘to-do’ list for some time. It was built between 1854 and 1859 in the neogothic style by the architect Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, an expert in the restoration and recreation of medieval architecture, and it replaces a chapel built in 1543 and the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste church dating from 1635.


Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville was one of the first churches in Paris to be built in the neogothic style, which in itself was a good enough reason to visit it, but the fact that it also has a two-keyboard Cavaillé-Coll organ dating from 1863 was an added attraction.


One of the things I knew about the church was that Edith Piaf, the French cabaret singer, songwriter and actress, was baptised here on the 15th December 1917.


It was this confluence of interests: the neogothic l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, a Cavaillé-Coll organ, my enthusiasm for Edith Piaf, in my view one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, together with the sound-rich environment of Belleville that brought me to this place yesterday morning where, to commemorate the 54th anniversary of her death, a Messe à la memoire d’Edith Piaf took place in the church supported by Les Amis d’Edith Piaf.


During the Mass the organ played and, of course, I had to record it for my archive. From my recording I’ve produced the following sound piece of some of the music played, which illustrates some of the voices and textures of the Cavaillé-Coll organ and gives a flavour of the Mass itself.

The Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville:

The piece opens with the full-throated Entrée. The tone changes for the next piece, the music for the Offertoire. Then comes the music for the Communion, an improvisation on “Non, je ne regrette rien”, a French song originally composed by Charles Dumont, with lyrics by Michel Vaucaire, always associated with Edith Piaf’s 1959 recording of it. The Sortie comprises a short organ piece followed by the lady herself singing “Hymne à l’amour” for which she wrote the words and Marguerite Monnot the music.

The organ was played by Laurent Jochum, organiste titulaire des grandes orgues Cavaillé-Coll de l’église Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville et de l’orgue de la Chapelle du collège et lycée Saint-Louis de Gonzague à Paris.


I am old enough to remember listening to Edith Piaf on the radio and I can remember her funeral bringing Paris to a standstill being headline news. For some of her short life she lived just round the corner from where I live now.

Sitting in the church yesterday morning next to the font where she was baptised and with her voice echoing around the church, it seemed ironic that, because of her lifestyle, the Catholic Church denied her a funeral mass when she died – they branded her ‘a categorical sinner’. Instead, her coffin was carried through the streets of Paris to be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery with only a token blessing.

It was only on 10th October 2013, fifty years after her death, that the Roman Catholic Church gave her a memorial Mass in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste in the parish in which she was born.


I don’t propose to document the life of Edith Piaf here; a quick search of Edith Piaf on Google will tell you much of what you need to know about her.

What I can say is that it is said she was born on the steps of N° 72 rue de Belleville on 19th December 1915. Her birth was registered at the Hôpital Tenon, next to what is now Place Edith Piaf in the 20th arrondissement, under the name Edith Giovanna Gassion.

In 2013, a statue of Edith Piaf, known as l’Hommage à Piaf, created by the French sculptor, Lisbeth Delisle, was inaugurated in the Place Edith Piaf.


Following yesterday’s Mass in Belleville I went to Place Edith Piaf to take in the atmosphere. I found a street market in full swing with some sounds that Edith herself might have been familiar with.


Sounds in Place Edith Piaf:


I couldn’t possibly end my own hommage to Edith Piaf yesterday without visiting her grave in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

She died on 10th October 1963 at the age of 47. Denied a funeral mass by the Catholic Church, some 10,000 people came to the cemetery to witness the interment of La Môme Piaf (‘The Little Sparrow’).


Edith Piaf was interred in the same grave as her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, and Theophanis Lamboukas, (Théo Sarapo), whom she married in 1962. She is buried next to her daughter, Marcelle, who died of meningitis at the age of two.

Of the 70,000 graves in the Cimetière Père Lachaise, Edith Piaf’s remains one of the most visited.

From the sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste and the bustling sounds of the street market in Place Edith Piaf, I couldn’t leave the cemetery without recording the sounds of the relative stillness surrounding Edith Piaf’s grave.

Like the fabric of an empty church, cemeteries speak to the attentive listener.

The sounds around Edith Piaf’s grave:


“Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.”

Edith Piaf

“Je ne me repends pas de m’être livrée à l’amour.”

(“I do not repent having given myself up to love.”)

Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux


End of the Line – Château de Vincennes

THE ‘END OF THE LINE’ STRAND in my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds I capture in and around each terminus station on the Paris Métro system. From time to time I will share the atmosphere of some of these terminus stations and their surroundings on this blog.

In my last ‘End of the Line’ post I explored in and around the Métro station Les Courtilles, the branch of Paris Métro Line 13 terminating in the northwest of Paris. Today, I will share with you my exploration in and around Métro station Château de Vincennes, the easterly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1.


Opened in 1900, Métro Line 1 was the first Paris Métro line to be opened although it was shorter then than it is now. Today, it runs for 16.5 km from La Défense in the west of the city to Château de Vincennes in the east and well over half a million people use it each day making it the busiest line on the Paris Métro system.

In 2007, work began to convert the line from being manually driven to becoming a fully automatic, driverless, operation. The work was completed in 2011 and involved the introduction of new MP 05 rolling stock and the erection of platform edge doors in all stations.


I recorded my arrival at Château de Vincennes station, a ride up a creaky escalator, a walk across the station concourse, up another escalator and out into the street above.

Arrival at Château de Vincennes:


Both the name of the station and a display in the station concourse give us a clue to at least one thing we might find outside.


Vincennes is a commune in the Val-de-Marne department in the eastern suburbs of Paris. As well as its famous castle, the Château de Vincennes, once home to French Kings, Vincennes is also known for the adjacent 995 hectare (2,459 acres) Bois de Vincennes, the largest public park in Paris, a zoo, the Paris Zoological Park, a botanical garden, the Parc Floral de Paris, and a large military fort once used as a proving ground for French armaments. Vincennes is also home to the Service Historique de la Défense, which holds the archival records of the French Armed Forces.

A short walk from the Métro station I discovered the Cours Marigny, a promenade between the Château de Vincennes and the Hôtel de Ville undergoing a makeover due to be completed in the Spring of 2018.


In the town square I found a display of old photographs showing Vincennes as it once was.



But in Vincennes, town and crown sit cheek by jowl so the château is never far away.


The Château de Vincennes is a massive former French royal fortress, which originated as a hunting lodge constructed for Louis VII around 1150 in the forest of Vincennes. In the 13th century, Philip Augustus and Louis IX, King of France from 1226 until his death during the eighth crusade in 1270, erected a more substantial manor.


King Louis IX – Saint Louis, outside the Château de Vincennes

By the 14th century, the Château de Vincennes had expanded and outgrown its original site. With the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, it became as much a fortress as a family home. Philip VI added a donjon, or fortified keep, which at 52 meters high was the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe at the time. The grand rectangular circuit of walls was completed in about 1410.

The donjon served as a residence for the royal family and its buildings are known to have once held the library and personal study of Charles V. In 1422, seven years after his victory at Agincourt, Henry V of England died in the donjon from dysentery, which he had contracted during the siege of Meaux.

By the 18th century, the Château de Vincennes had ceased to become a practical fortress. Instead it became home to the Vincennes porcelain manufactory, precursor to the Sèvres porcelain factory, and the keep became a prison housing such distinguished guests as the Marquis de SadeDiderot, and the French revolutionary, the Comte de Mirabeau,


Sounds around the Métro station Château de Vincennes :


To capture the ‘End of the Line’ atmosphere around the Métro station Château de Vincennes I recorded while sitting on a green bench alongside the wall and the moat on the western side of the château, close to one of the Métro entrances and even closer to the donjon and its bell tower. The sounds are the everyday sounds of this leafy part of Vincennes, including the chiming of the donjon bell.


In his book, Nairn’s Paris, a unique guide to Paris published in 1968, the British architectural critic, Ian Nairn, has a particular view about the Château de Vincennes:

“The château must be one of the most bad-tempered collections of buildings in the world, full of the prose of containment without any of the poetry of castellation. The vast medieval curtain-wall is opened out at the south end, towards the Bois, with grumpy classical buildings by Le Vau: on the north side there is the entrance tower, and brooding over the whole cross-grained mixture is the fourteenth-century donjon, which they say is the tallest in Europe; five huge storeys, surrounded by its own curtain-wall. Inside, the tall rooms, each heavily vaulted from a single pillar, give away nothing more than the facts of incarceration, if anything reinforced by the Gothic ribs and corbels that are familiar from less gloomy places. It is no illusion: Vincennes has a grim record and the tiny ill-light cells are still there to prove it.


One final view, the only soft thing at Vincennes: the eastern side of the moat, choked with big trees, Nature at last getting its own back on man. But the town that has grown up opposite this wicked uncle is as different as could be – a kind of French Aldershot. Vincennes has many barracks, some of them still inside the walls, and France has compulsory military service. Across the road from the château is a bus terminus, the end of a Métro, a line-up of cheerful cafés, and a considerable variety of, cheerful, cheap, not very good meals.”

Nairn’s Paris by Ian Nairn – Penguin Books (1968)

Just for clarification: For those not familiar with it, Aldershot, to which Ian Nairn refers, is a garrison town in the south of England, and France no longer has compulsory military service. The bus terminus, the end of the Métro and the line-up of cheerful cafés are still there and, although not as cheap as they were, some of the meals at least have improved!