YESTERDAY, 14th JULY, WAS a day of national celebration in France. Le Quatorze Juillet, also known as La Fête Nationale, but never Bastille Day as it’s often referred to in English-speaking countries, is the French national day commemorating the 1790 Fête de la Federation held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14th Jul 1789.
Although the day is marked across France, the centerpiece event takes place in Paris with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Élysée to be reviewed by the Président de la République.
Each year on 14th July a huge crowd lines the Champs Élysées to watch the parade, although how many of them actually see anything is questionable. I though always head to the west of Paris, conveniently close to home, to enjoy a close-up view of the defile aérien, the fly past of aircraft and helicopters of the military and civilian services heading for the Champs Élysées. Being a lifelong enthusiast of both sound recording and aviation, recording a flotilla of aircraft and helicopters flying overhead in close formation at 1,000 feet seems to me to be a perfect way to spend a morning.
A note to the loyal readers who come to this blog to learn more about the social and cultural history of Paris and to enjoy the everyday sounds of the city: Although the rest of this post may seem more suited to aviation geeks like me, please stick with it because, if nothing else, I’m sure you will enjoy the sounds!
This year, 64 fixed wing aircraft took part in the defile aérien: 53 from l’armée de l’air (the French Air Force), 6 from la marine nationale (the French Navy), 2 from la sécurité civile and 3 from other countries comprising an M346 advanced training aircraft from the Republic of Singapore, an Alpha Jet from the Belgian Air Force and an A400M military transport aircraft from the German Air Force.
As always, the défilé aérien opened with nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, flying their ‘Big Nine’ formation. But this year there was a twist, an unintentional twist, or as France Info put it: “La Patrouille de France s’est emmêlée les pinceaux dans les couleurs du drapeau.” In other words, the Patrouille de France got in a tangle with the colours of the French flag.
Take a look at the aircraft on the far left of the picture. When a pilot flying in close formation makes a mistake it usually ends badly, but when a pilot in a prestigious aerobatic display team presses the wrong button and emits red instead of blue smoke then that is undoubtedly a bad career move.
Here is a schematic of the aircraft fly past from which you can see the variety of aircraft involved this year.
The logistics involved in parading all these aircraft one after the other are complex, not least because the maximum speed of some of the aircraft is slower than the slowest speed of others.
Here are some facts:
From the first aircraft to the last, the fly past stretches for 50 kilometres with 6 kilometres between each block of aircraft. The space between the aircraft flying in close formation is between 5 and 10 metres.
All the aircraft fly past at 1,000 feet, or 305 metres.
The fighter aircraft fly past at 300 knots, around 550 km/h; the navy fighters at 280 knots, around 520 km/h; the navy patrol aircraft at 200 knots, around 370 km/h and the transport aircraft at 180 knots around 330 km/h.
And this is what they sounded like as they passed me today:
Aircraft Fly Past 2018:
I record the sounds of the défilé aérien every year but this year I was able to find a spot to record from that was devoid of people and almost out of earshot of traffic – a rare find indeed.
Some forty-five minutes after the parade of fixed wing aircraft it was time for the rotary wing flotilla; the helicopters.
Here is a schematic showing the helicopters on display today.
This year, there were 30 helicopters, including 18 light aviation helicopters from the army; five helicopters from the air force; two from the navy; three from the gendarmerie and two from the sécurité civile.
From the first helicopter to the last, the fly past stretched for 8 kilometres with 1 kilometre between the two main aircraft blocks. They flew at a height of 400 feet, 120 metres, at a speed of 90 knots or 170 km/h.
And this is what they sounded like as they passed overhead:
Helicopter Fly Past 2018:
While recording the sounds of the défilé aérien I was able to use my smart phone to take some pictures. Unfortunately, my competence at multitasking didn’t stretch to capturing pictures of every passing aircraft so, for those of you who would like to know more about at least some of the aircraft taking part in this year’s défilé aérien here are some of the pictures I captured.
A C135 air refueling tanker from Flight Supply Group 2/91 “Brittany”, followed by a Mirage 2000N from Fighter Squadron (EC) 2/4 “La Fayette”, and three Rafale from EC 1/4 “Gascogne”.
An Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport), a new multi-role aircraft providing personnel and freight transport, air refueling and intelligence gathering. It is followed by four Mirage 2000D from N° 3 Fighter Wing.
A C135 refueling aircraft from Flight Replenishment Group 2/91 “Brittany” followed by four Rafale (three Rafale C two-seater and one single-seater Rafale B) from the 30th Fighter Wing.
An Awacs E-3F from the Airborne Warning and Control Squadron 00/036 “Berry” followed by four Mirage 2000-5s from EC 1/2 “Cigognes”.
Four Mirage 2000 from the EC 2/5 “Ile-de-France” and two Alpha Jets from the 3/8 “Côte d’Or” training squadron, the only French squadron simulating enemy action to train pilots and confronting them with all types of threats.
Two Alpha Jets from l’École d’aviation de chasse (EAC) at̀ Tours and three Alpha Jets from l’École de transition opérationnelle (ETO) at Cazaux, including one Belgian Alpha Jet, and one Singaporean M346 from the 150th Squadron stationed at Cazaux Air Base. For 20 years, a detachment of the Singapore Air Force has been stationed there to train its fighter pilots.
An Airbus A340 from the 3/60 “Esterel” Transport Squadron.
An A400M Atlas from 61 Wing and two Casa CN 235 from 1/62 “Vercors” and 3/62 “Ventoux” Transport Squadrons.
A Canadair CL415 and a Dash Q400 MR from la sécurité civile used in fighting forest fires. These aircraft have been deployed in the firefighting role in France, Europe and in the rest of the world.
Two Airbus lightweight, multipurpose Fennec helicopters from the helicopter squadron 3/67 “Parisis” and one from 5/67 “Alpilles”.
One EC145 and two EC135 helicopters from the gendarmerie nationale.
An HAP Tiger, followed by a Cougar, and a Gazelle from the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment.
FOLLOWING ON FROM my previous post, this segment of my ‘End of the Line’ series continues my exploration of the sounds in and around La Défense – Grande Arche, the westerly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1.
In the previous post I explored the sounds inside the station complex and so I turn now to my exploration outside the station.
La Défense from Pont de Neuilly
Bearing in mind that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, my exploration of the sounds of a place invariably lead me to explore the history of that place in order to underpin today’s sounds and to give the sounds a broader context.
We know something about the area now known as La Défense long before it came to prominence as the purpose-built business district of Paris that it is today.
Emile Zola touches on it in the opening chapter of his nineteenth-century novel, Le Ventre de Paris:
“Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight wagons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping wagoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables — red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.
And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.”
Le Ventre de Paris: Emile Zola: Published in 1873
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the area of Nanterre, around what we now know as La Défense, was mainly cultivated land growing cereals, vines and vegetables. It was from this cultivated land that Emile Zola’s wagoners were hauling their vegetables to Les Halles, the vast central market in the centre of Paris.
Le Ventre de Paris may be a work of fiction but Emile Zola was known as an astute observer of Parisian life so his description of the wagoners at Pont de Neuilly on their way from Nanterre to Les Halles gives us a sense of what this area was probably like in the nineteenth century.
What is now the business district of La Défense takes its name from a statue erected in 1883. Created by the French sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias, the statue, La Défense de Paris, is a monument to those who defended Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871. The statue depicts a woman dressed in a uniform of the National Guard leaning on a cannon and holding a flag. She represents the allegorical figure of the city of Paris. The defenders of the city take on the features of a young soldier who places a last cartridge in his Chassepot rifle. The two figures were originally looking towards Buzenval, the place of the last combats in January 1871. On the other side of the monument is a prostrate girl who, with her sad expression and miserable appearance, personifies the sufferings of the civilian population.
La Défense de Paris by Louis-Ernest Barrias
From 19th September 1870 to 28th January 1871, Paris was under siege by Prussian forces surrounding the city.
Conditions in Paris deteriorated and there was soon a severe shortage of food. Parisians were forced to eat whatever animals were at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were the first to be slaughtered and became regular fare on restaurant menus. Once the supply of those animals ran low, the citizens of Paris turned on the zoo animals at the Jardin des Plantes. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were slaughtered for their meat.
A Christmas menu on the 99th day of the siege. Dishes include stuffed donkey’s head, elephant consommé, roast camel, kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats, and wolf haunch in deer sauce.
Besieged French troops attempted several breakouts to take the fight to the Prussians. On 19th January 1871, they assembled in the area around today’s La Défense in preparation for an attack on the Prussian army. Led by General Louis Jules Trochu, military governor of Paris and president of the Provisional Government, their efforts were insufficiently prepared and incompetently led and so consequently failed.
“We had conquered several commanding heights which the generals did not arm. The Prussians were allowed to sweep these crests at their ease, and at four o’clock sent forth assault columns. Ours gave way first, then, steadying themselves, checked the onward movement of the enemy. Towards six o’clock, when the hostile fire diminished, Trochu ordered a retreat. Yet there were 40,000 reserves between Mont-Valdérien and Buzenval. Out of 150 artillery pieces, thirty only had been employed. But the generals, who during the whole day had hardly deigned to communicate with the National Guard, declared they could not hold out a second night!, and Trochu had Montretout and all the conquered positions evacuated. Battalions returned weeping with rage. All understood that the whole affair was a cruel mockery.”
History of the Paris Commune 1871: Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray: Published in 1877
The siege of Paris ended on the 28th January 1871 when the French Government, safely housed in Versailles, surrendered, although the City of Paris notably did not formally surrender. It was this division between the leaders and the led that helped created the Paris Commune in 1871.
The prospect from the Grande Arche de la Défense looking over the parvis to the Arc de Triomphe
In Part 1 of this ‘End of the Line’ segment I explored the sounds inside the La Défense – Grande Arche transport hub, which extends underneath the monumental Grande Arche de la Défense and the parvis in front of it. So here are the sounds I discovered after I ascended an escalator out of the station and emerged onto the surface:
Sounds around La Défense – Grande Arche:
La Grande Arche de la Défense
Any exploration of La Défense has to begin with the Grande Arche de la Défense simply because it dominates the area.
Designed by the Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen (1929–1987) and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel (1941-2012), the Grande Arche is a late twentieth century version of the Arc de Triomphe although it is a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. Construction began in 1985 and although Spreckelsen resigned in July 1986 his associate, French architect Paul Andreu, took over. Erik Reitzel continued his work until the monument was completed.
La Grande Arche was inaugurated in July 1989, coinciding with the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It completed the line of monuments that form the Axe historique running through Paris, which includes the Arc de Triomphe in the Champs Elysées, the Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the Louvre.
A curiosity of the Grande Arche is that it is turned at an angle of 6.33° about the vertical axis. This is because with a Métro station, an RER station and a motorway all situated directly underneath the Arche, the angle was the only way to accommodate the structure’s giant foundations.
The two sides of the Arche house government offices and the rooftop is open to the public and includes a restaurant and an exhibition space.
As you can hear in my sound piece, when I came out from the escalator and made my way to foot of the Grande Arche I found a huddle of people getting very excited about an autonomous electric bus that carries people like me who these days often find it a stretch to walk too far.
Forsaking the bus on this occasion though, I walked from the Grande Arche to Les Quatre Temps shopping centre (centre commercial) on the southern side of the parvis of La Défense, reportedly one of the most visited shopping centres in France.
Inside Les Quatre Temps
The 120,000 m2 shopping center was completely renovated between 2006 and 2008. The renovation took place in several phases and involved the interior spaces, the exterior facades and the shops. At first, the shopping mall was extended to the west, encompassing the former colline de l’automobile. This extension, located on the 3rd floor of the center called “The Dome” included twenty-two restaurants and a new sixteen screen multiplex cinema, UGC Cine Cité La Défense. The renovation to the east, included a Castorama store replacing the original UGC cinema. The exterior facades of Les Quatre Temps are currently undergoing further renovation.
Looking ahead, a new station, part of the Grand Paris Express, is to be built under Les Quatre Temps. It is due to be completed in 2027.
Inside Les Quatre Temps
Coming out of Les Quatre Temps I came upon this man sitting on the steps playing his drum.
When it was first installed, the statue La Défense de Paris, to which I referred earlier, was installed in the middle of a roundabout at a busy road junction. As the business district of La Défense was being developed, the statue was moved several times; the current parvis of La Défense was built over the site of the roundabout. In January 2017, the statue was moved to the place where it now stands, just beyond the Fontaine monumentale.
The Fontaine monumentale was created by Yaacov Agam, an Israeli sculptor and experimental artist best known for his contributions to optical and kinetic art. The fountain’s 57m by 26m pool has a polymorphic mosaic surface comprising enamel of different colours made in Venice. The fountain is powered by 66 vertical autonomous water jets shooting water up to 14 meters.
Incidentally, recording the sounds of a fountain is not as easy as you might think!
To complete my exploration I walked back to northern side of the parvis to the very distinctive CNIT.
Built in 1958, the CNIT (Centre des nouvelles industries et technologies) was the first building to be built in La Défense. Its characteristic shape is due to the triangular plot it occupies. Since it was built, it has undergone two major renovations; in 1988 and 2009.
Designed by the architects Robert Camelot, Jean de Mailly and Bernard Zehrfuss, the most distinctive feature of the CNIT is its freestanding 22,500 m2 reinforced concrete vaulted roof, which has a span of 218 meters and is only 6 cm thick.
Today the CNIT houses offices and a two-level shopping centre hosting enterprises like Fnac, Decathalon, Habitat, La Poste and Monoprix as well as a several restaurants and a Hilton hotel.
A station, part of the extension of RER Line E is to be built under the CNIT and is expected to open in 2020.
The CNIT with its distinctive concrete roof
I couldn’t possibly leave La Défense without stopping to look at La Pouce, César Baldaccini’s iconic sculpture of a 40-foot thumb in Place Carpeaux next to the CNIT.
Baldaccini created this sculpture from an enlarged moulding of his own thumb using the 3-D pantographic technique.
To digress for a moment:
I used to work in La Défense. For thirteen years my office was in the Ernst & Young building (the tall building on the left in the picture above) so every time I went to my office I used to walk past Baldaccini’s 18-ton, cast iron thumb.
The building directly behind Baldaccini’s thumb in the picture is the GDF – Suez building, which I can remember when it was nothing more than a car park. I was looking down from my office window at the car park one day when men arrived and began to erect a fence around it. Several days later a procession of diggers arrived and began tearing up the car park and digging what turned out to be the biggest hole I’d ever seen. Over the coming months there emerged from this hole layer after layer of what is now the 185 metre, 37 storey, GDF –Suez building. My audio diary is littered with entries at the time reporting that yet another floor of the building was in place.
Another view of the GDF – Suez building
So that completes my exploration of the area outside, around the station La Défense – Grande Arche. As always, it was exploring the sounds of this place that brought me here and led me to discover much more about the history of La Défense as well as encouraging me to revisit some of the parts of La Défense that I knew from when I worked here.
The sounds you heard were:
Rising up the escalator out of the underground station; people around the autonomous electric bus; excited children on the parvis watching a man creating huge soap bubbles; inside Les Quatre Temps; the African drummer; the Fontaine monumentale; sounds inside Le CNIT and out on the Parvis de la Défense.
I hope both these sounds and the underground sounds in Part 1 give you a flavour of the sonic tapestry that is La Défense.
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 share the atmosphere of some of these terminus stations and their surroundings on this blog.
In previous ‘End of the Line’ posts I’ve explored the sounds in and around the Métro station Les Courtilles, the branch of Paris Métro Line 13 terminating in the northwest of Paris, and the sounds in and around Métro station Château de Vincennes, the easterly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1. Now I’m going to explore the sounds in and around the Métro station La Défense – Grande Arche, the westerly terminus of Métro Line 1.
However, to make this ‘End of the Line’ segment more manageable I will divide it into two parts. Today’s post, Part 1, explores inside La Défense – Grande Arche station and the next post, Part 2, will explore the sounds around the station in what is said to be Europe’s largest purpose-built business district containing most of the Paris urban area’s tallest high-rise buildings.
La Défense looking to the West
Because it serves the largest business district in the Paris region, La Défense – Grande Arche is a multi-functional transport hub. Not only is it home to the western terminus of Métro Line 1, it also houses a Transilien suburban train station, an RER station, a tram station and a bus station, all designed principally to handle the huge number of commuters who travel to and from work in La Défense each day.
La Défense – Grande Arche: The main concourse
The business district of La Défense is so big that it actually has two Métro stations. Esplanade de la Défense is the first of these so it was approaching here on my way to La Défense – Grande Arche that I began my sonic exploration.
Exploring La Défense – Grande Arche station in sound:
Opened on 19th July 1900, Métro Line 1 is the oldest line on the Paris Métro network. Built by the one-armed railway engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, to connect various sites of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the original line comprised eighteen stations between Porte Maillot and Porte de Vincennes. In 1934, the line was extended to the east from Porte de Vincennes to Chateau de Vincennes and in 1937 it was extended to the west from Porte Maillot to Pont de Neuilly. In 1992, Line 1 was extended again to the west from Pont de Neuilly to La Défense. In 2007, work began to automate Line 1 and on 15th December 2012 a fully automatic service was introduced. Today the 16.5 km Métro Line 1 is the most utilised line on the Paris Métro network handling over 600,000 passengers per day.
Arriving at the La Défense – Grande Arche terminus, I alighted and made my way up to the cavernous station concourse. This used to be a dingy, inhospitable place but a recent coat of paint has brightened it up a bit and now, the usual suspects cater for the commuters.
From the main concourse I headed off to explore the tram station, home to Tram Line T2.
Tram Line T2, linking the south-west suburbs of Paris with La Défense, began operating in 1997. The tramway was built on the former train line thus making it independent from the road. An extension In 2009 added five more stations towards the south, extending to Port de Versailles and in November 2012, another 4.2 km northern extension beyond La Défense to Bezons added a further seven stations.
The extensions to Tram Line 2 are part of a larger scheme in the Île-de-France aiming to increase connectivity of the suburbs by creating up to 70km of bus and tramways around Paris.
The Transilien suburban trains operate from platforms adjacent to but separated from the tram platforms.
While the public address announcements in the main station concourse are almost unintelligible, those in the tram station are much better – even if they do seem to appear end-to-end.
From the tram station I went back to the concourse and on to the RER station and RER Line A.
With more than one million passengers a day, RER Line A is the busiest Parisian urban rail line.
With the section of the line running through the city centre closed each summer for maintenance and construction work, much to the dismay of commuters, and with the line badly affected by alerts for suspect packages, which have doubled in the last year, it’s hardly surprising that, according to a 2017 survey by transport authorities in the greater Paris region, trains on RER Line A run on time only 85.3% of the time. Add to that grossly overcrowded trains and the occasional strike and RER Line A can sometimes be a challenge.
Despite the introduction of advanced traffic control systems that enable extremely short spacing between trains during rush hour (under 90 seconds in stations, under 2 minutes in tunnels) together with several upgrades in rolling stock, ever-increasing traffic volume and imminent saturation continues to blight the line.
Still, it’s not the worst performing RER line. According to the 2017 survey, that accolade goes to RER Line D.
The sounds of La Défense – Grande Arche presented in this post are a distillation of my original ninety minute recording now consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I hope they give you at least a flavour of the sonic tapestry hidden below the monumental Grande Arche de la Défense. In Part 2, I shall explore the sounds up on the surface.
Even with this extensive transport facility complete with its coffee shops and fast food outlets, travelling to and from La Défense during the rush hour each day can be a grim experience. I know, I did it for thirteen years!
WRITING ABOUT PARIS IN his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, also known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, Victor Hugo said:
“And if you wish to receive of the ancient city an impression with which the modern one can no longer furnish you, climb – on the morning of some grand festival, beneath the rising sun of Easter or of Pentecost – climb upon some elevated point, whence you command the entire capital; and be present at the wakening of the chimes.”
“… Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing.”
Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, one of Hugo’s grand festivals, I took his advice and climbed upon some elevated point and was present at the wakening of the chimes.
To listen to the city singing, I climbed to an elegant apartment on the fourth floor of a very old building on the Île de la Cité in the heart of medieval Paris and while my elevated point did not command the entire capital as Hugo suggested it should, it did nevertheless command a stunning view of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
From this exclusive vantage point I was able to listen to and to capture the pealing bells of Notre-Dame while being shielded from many of the other sounds that usually surround the cathedral.
Any Sunday morning in Paris will echo to the sound of church bells but the sound of the bells of Notre-Dame are different. Not only do they represent the contemporary soundscape, they also reflect something unique: a genuine soundscape pre-dating the French Revolution.
Les cloches de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris:
Bells have rung out from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris since the end of the twelfth century, long before the building of the cathedral was completed. As the cathedral’s life evolved and its influence developed more bells were added to reflect its increasing importance.
By the middle of the eighteenth century Notre-Dame had a magnificent array of bells: eight in the north tower, two bourdons, or great bells, in the south tower, seven in the spire and three clock bells in the north transept.
But their days were numbered. The ravages of the French Revolution took their toll and the bells were removed, broken up and melted down. One bell though escaped this destruction. The biggest of the cathedrals’ bells, the great Emanuel bell, was saved and reinstalled on the express orders of Napoleon I and it still hangs in the south tower today.
After the dust of the Revolution settled new bells were installed in Notre-Dame: four in the north tower, three in the spire and three in the roof of the transept. Unfortunately, the best that can be said about these new bells is that they were second rate. Poor quality metal was used to cast them and they were out of tune with each other and with the magnificent Emanuel bell. And these second rate bells are what Parisians lived with from just after the Revolution until 2013, when everything changed.
To mark the 850th anniversary of the founding of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris it was decided to replace the existing cathedral bells with new ones, exact replicas of the bells that were in place before the Revolution. With eight new bells in the north tower cast at a foundry in Normandy and a new bourdon cast in the Netherlands sitting beside the frail and now very carefully used Emanuel in the south tower, once again the soundscape of eighteenth century Paris, lost for over two centuries, could be heard.
Every time I hear the bells of the cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris I pause and remember that I am listening to a very rare thing: a genuine eighteenth century soundscape or, as Victor Hugo would have it, “ … this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.”
AFTER A VISIT TO PARIS in the early 1950s to record everyday sounds of the city, the pioneering sound recordist Ludwig Koch said, “There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris”. For the last ten years or so I’ve been working to record and archive the Parisian atmosphere in sound that Ludwig Koch found so entrancing.
The Parisian urban soundscape is a complex mixture of intricately woven sounds ranging from the spectacular, to the ordinary, everyday sounds around us – the sounds we all hear but seldom stop to listen to, and although I find the Parisian soundscape endlessly fascinating there are two aspects of it that particularly interest me. The first is how the soundscape changes as one moves from the centre of the city to the periphery and the second is how the soundscape changes over time.
Walking from the city centre to the periphery while listening attentively to the surrounding soundscape one can trace not only the city’s physical history but also its social, cultural and political history. For example, the sounds one hears in the centre of the city, in the Champs Elysées, Place Vêndome or Avenue Montaigne lets say, are very different to those one will hear in the rue de Belleville in the east of the city. The sounds of conspicuous consumption emanating from high-end luxury goods emporia and exclusive haute-couture fashion houses in the former stand in stark contrast to a sub-Saharan street market, a Moroccan café or a Chinese supermarket in the latter.
Observing how the city’s soundscape changes over time is important because it gives an insight into the contemporary changes in the social, cultural and political landscape. For example, over the last ten years I’ve recorded many Parisian street demonstrations covering a wide range of issues representing a range of social concerns and political sentiments. Those concerns and sentiments often change over time so by listening to the recordings it’s possible to follow changes in the contemporary social, cultural and political history of the city.
There are many examples of how changing sounds reflect a changing social, cultural and political landscape so I will use one current example to illustrate the point. This I think is a really good example because it’s a hot topic in Paris at the moment.
The story begins 1966 with the then French President, Georges Pompidou.
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.
In 2014, as part of my Paris Bridges Project, I went to the Pont Marie, one of the thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits, to record the sounds on, under and around the bridge for my Paris Soundscapes Archive. I discovered that Georges Pompidou’s Expressway ran underneath the arch of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine.
One didn’t have to be an expert in urban soundscapes to realise that the incessant stream of traffic passing under the bridge would impact the soundscape both under and around the bridge.
The Georges Pompidou Expressway from on top of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine in 2014
Let’s scroll forward now to September 2016 when the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, signed a decree on behalf of the Paris City Council banning motor vehicles from a 3.3 km section of the berges de la rive droite, the right bank of the Seine, stretching from the tunnel at the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre to the Henri IV tunnel near the Bastille, transforming it into a park for pedestrians and cyclists. The Paris City Council debate on the matter was quite contentious but Anne Hidalgo won the day declaring the “end of the urban motorway in Paris and the reconquest of the Seine”.
In 2002, Paris began closing a section of the right bank of the Seine to create a temporary summer beach complete with real sand and sun loungers and in 2013, Anne Hidalgo pedestrianised a 2.5 km section of the left bank.
By comparing the soundscape around the Pont Marie both before and after the 2016 decree we can assess the impact that politics has had on this part of the Parisian environment.
This was the scene from under the right bank arch of the bridge in 2014:
And this was the scene from the same place earlier this week:
And now let’s listen to the sounds of the Pont Marie from the berges de la rive droite in 2014.
Pont Marie from the right bank in 2014:
And from the same place in March 2018.
Pont Marie from the right bank in 2018:
I think the sounds from 2014 speak for themselves: incessant passing traffic creating excessive noise pollution quite possibly having a debilitating effect on our hearing as well as our mental and physical health – not to mention the noxious emissions to the atmosphere.
A political decision in 2016 though has created a completely different sonic environment. Now, the sound of traffic can still be heard from the Quai de la Hôtel de Ville above and behind the right bank, from the roadway on the Pont Marie and from the quai on the left bank opposite, but now the sound of the traffic has become part of the sonic environment rather than dominating it. The sounds that feature now are sounds that could not be heard from the same place in 2014: children’s voices, footsteps, the swish of passing bicycles, the sonic footprint of a passing Batobus, not to mention two Gendarmes on horseback. This part of the right bank has become a completely different sonic experience.
So, was the decision led by the Mayor of Paris to pedestrianise this part of the right bank a good thing?
Anne Hidalgo sees it as part of a comprehensive policy to reduce the number of cars in Paris, one spin-off of which should be a reduction in the amount of noxious emissions added to an already over polluted Parisian atmosphere. The use of diesel engines is already restricted in central Paris and a low-emission zone bans trucks on weekdays.
Although not an expert in atmospheric pollution, I do know something about noise pollution, which is broadly described as unwanted sound that either interferes with normal activities such as sleep or conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. Excessive traffic and construction work are the major contributors to noise pollution in central Paris, although the construction work is often at least temporary.
It can be argued of course that noise is subjective and we are conditioned by our culture as to how much noise we consider acceptable. If you want to explore more about this I recommend R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.
For some reason, noise pollution seems to get less attention than atmospheric pollution even though we know it affects our psychological and physiological health and our behaviour.
I hope my examples show that, what ever else it’s done, the pedestrianisation of this part of the right bank has much reduced the noise pollution and generally enhanced the sonic environment.
So, the decision to pedestrianise this part of the right bank is a good thing then?
Well, not everyone agrees. Motorist groups vehemently opposed both left and right bank road closures, accusing the city’s socialist administration of a vendetta against drivers.
Pont Marie from the right bank of the Seine
In February this year, the tribunal administratif de Paris annulled the Paris City Council’s September 2016 decree saying that the decree had been adopted “after a public inquiry drawn up on the basis of an impact study” that “contained inaccuracies, omissions and deficiencies as to the effects of the project on automobile traffic, atmospheric pollutant emissions and noise pollution, which is key data for evaluating the general interest of the project”. The Mayor of Paris immediately launched an appeal and shortly after, signed another decree re-designating this stretch of the right bank a car-free zone.
This debate is much wider than it seems. It’s really a debate that, as France 24 put it, “pits pedestrians against motorists, urbanites against suburbanites, and left-wingers against conservatives, all battling under a hail of studies advancing curiously contradictory traffic, noise and pollution data at the service of competing agendas.”
So much for politics!
I would like to leave you with one other sound from the right bank of the Pont Marie, a sound that simply could not be heard before the 2016 decree.
The second arch of the bridge on the right bank includes a pedestrian walkway and walking through this archway now it’s actually possible to hear the sounds of the river, sounds that were completely subsumed by traffic noise in 2014.
Pont Marie under the pedestrian arch:
Whatever the fate of the berges de la rive droite turns out to be, I hope I’ve shown that a changing soundscape can provide a commentary on the social, cultural and political events of the day.
IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN, the Christmas market season, and yesterday, on a very chilly Saturday, the Christmas market at the bottom of my little street opened for business.
Twenty-eight wooden chalets bedecked with local and regional artisanal products stretch from the parvis of the Hôtel de Ville to the local church. Small it may be but it’s an intimate and friendly local Christmas market.
Amidst its wooden chalets, and the ever-present Père Noël, the market also boasts a variety of street entertainers, always a great attraction to both children and adults alike.
Yesterday, the street entertainment included a swing jazz band, Le Quartet Swing Connection, along with Lombardi, a concertina-playing clown on stilts.
I went along to the market yesterday to look at the stalls but also to record the street entertainers to add to my collection of Parisian Christmas Market sounds. As well as capturing the sounds of the jazz quartet I was also lucky enough to capture Lombardi the clown singing to the children.
Swing jazz and a fluttering bird:
Lombardi’s song was À la volette, a traditional French children’s song that first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century.
The song is about a little bird that takes flight and flutters its way to an orange tree (referring to a bird, À la volette means to flutter, or to flap). The bird lands on a branch in the orange tree, which breaks and the bird falls to the ground breaking its wing and injuring its foot. When asked if he can look after himself the bird says that he just wants to heal himself and flutter back to the orange tree and get married.
There are various versions of the song and yesterday Lombardi gave a slightly truncated version although the story is quite clear.
After the song, Lombardi teases out from the children the name of the instrument he’s playing: a con – cer – ti – na!
And, of course, let’s not forget Le Swing Connection and their afternoon playing swing jazz.
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:
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.
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.”
“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
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 Sade, Diderot, 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!