STRETCHING ALONG THE Boulevard de la Chapelle from Barbès Rochechouart Métro station to rue de Chartres, the Marché Barbès is not for the faint hearted. Even getting to the market can be a challenge since some of the market often spills over into the Métro station itself.
Inside Barbès Rochechouart Métro station on market day
From 08.00 to 13.00 on Wednesdays and from 07.00 to 15.00 on Saturdays, the Marché Barbès appears under the overhead section of Métro Line 2 and if you’re looking for a leisurely market with lots of personal space, then the Marché Barbès is not for you.
An assortment of stalls selling clothes, shoes, jewellery and assorted trinkets are clustered at either end of the market but most of the stalls in between are awash with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
From end to end, a multi-ethnic sea of people moving at a snail’s pace, or sometimes not moving at all, fills the market. Getting close to a stall to actually buy something requires grit and determination, not to mention judicious use of the elbows. But the effort can be worth it. Not only is this perhaps the busiest market in Paris it’s also one of the cheapest where most of the fruit and vegetables seem to sell for €1/kilo. A running commentary of what’s on sale and for how much resonates around the market as the stallholders cry out vying to outdo each other to catch the attention of customers from the passing tide of people.
All this of course, together with the Métro trains running overhead, makes for a fascinating sound tapestry and so I set off to capture it. Having negotiated my way through the crowd inside the Métro station, I plunged into the throng of people across the street at the head of the market and set sail through what felt like a tsunami of people.
Progress was slow and not without incident, but I made it to the other end more or less unscathed although the relative calm of the rue de Chartres did come as somewhat of a relief.
Sounds of the Marché Barbès:
If you can cope with the crowds then the Marché Barbès is well worth a visit and there are certainly some bargains to be had – although I’m still not sure about the watches on sale for €2 each!
Rue de Chartres
THE PARIS MÉTRO comprises 14 lines, some 300 stations and 201.8 kilometres of track. At any one time there are around 540 trains travelling on the system, and at busy times even more, carrying around 5 million passengers every day. Despite the density of the traffic, the Paris Métro is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world.
Nevertheless, there have been two major disasters on the Paris Métro, one in 1943 when an allied bombing raid blew the roof off the station at Porte Saint-Cloud killing 403 people who where sheltering there and another in 1903 when a fire killed 84 people, most of them at Couronnes station – and it is the story of the Couronnes disaster that I want to tell.
Couronnes Métro station is much like any other station on Line 2 of the Paris Métro system. It’s a fairly busy station with a classic Hector Guimard entourage entrance leading down to the ticket hall and the entrance to the trains. At Couronnes, the trains run underground.
The construction of Line 2 began in 1900. It was built in stages and, by April 1903, the Line 2 that we know today, stretching from Porte Dauphine to Nation, was completed. At 12.4 km in length, just over 2 km of the line was built on an elevated section with four stations. One of these aerial stations, Barbès-Rochechouart, or Boulevard Barbès as it was known in 1903, was where the seeds of the disaster were sown.
The aerial Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) Métro station today
Sounds of Barbès-Rochechouart station today:
In 1903, Métro trains were largely made of wood and operated as four-car units. At busy times, two four-car units could be coupled together to make an eight-car unit. All the power for both the four-car and eight-car units was routed through the front car via shoes that connected the motor to the ‘live’ rail.
At just before 7.00 pm on the evening of Monday, 10th August, 1903, just a little over four months after the completion of Line 2, a train entered Boulevard Barbès station with heavy smoke billowing from one of the motors of the front car. The passengers were evacuated from the train onto the platform, the power to the motor was disconnected by raising the shoes, and the burning subsided.
With the urgent need to clear the line at Boulevard Barbès and probably against a chorus of frustrated passengers anxious to be on their way, the staff decided to move the train. They reconnected the power and allowed the train to descend into the tunnel ahead. What they hadn’t realised was that the fire was not simply a case of the train motor overheating it was in fact a short circuit which was bound to cause further trouble. And so it proved.
The burning returned although the train made it as far as the station Combat (now called Colonel Fabian) before the driver stopped for help. The power was once again disconnected and the burning subsided but when the power was reconnected it began again. It became clear that the only way to move the train any further was to use another train to push it.
Meanwhile, the passengers from the stricken train were still at the Boulevard Barbès station.
Passengers waiting at Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) today
Presently, a four-car train arrived and the passengers piled on. This train took them as far as the Rue d’Allemagne (now called Jaures) station where they again disembarked. As their now empty train moved on to Combat to join up with the stricken train another four-car train arrived at the Rue d’Allemagne and the frustrated passengers boarded that already overcrowded train.
Up ahead, the stricken train was being pushed by the empty four-car train. This combination was being driven by the motor in the four-car train at the rear but the short-circuited motor on the stricken train was still live and by now burning again.
The combination of trains arrived at Couronnes and the following train complete with passengers was close on its heels.
Couronnes station today – Most of the deaths occurred on the platform on the right
The motor on the leading train combination was by this time well on fire but instead of continuing into the tunnel ahead, the driver stopped the train halfway along the platform. The train with the passengers pulled up behind. The passengers were once again told to get off their train. Understandably perhaps, their frustration boiled over and some passengers refused to get off whilst others began an altercation with the staff – but by then it was too late. The stricken train moved off into the tunnel ahead and travelled to the next station, Ménilmontant, by which time the fire had got out of control. The fire destroyed the electrical circuit supplying the Couronnes station lighting and the station was plunged into darkness just as a cloud of dense black smoke appeared out of the tunnel ahead. Chaos ensued as people scrambled for the exits which many couldn’t find. Some survived but many did not. In total, eighty-four people died, seven at Ménilmontant and the rest at Couronnes.
Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.
The news of the disaster was greeted with shock and crowds gathered as the bodies of the victims were evacuated from the stricken station.
Evacuating the bodies – Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.
Sounds of Couronnes station today:
Within days of the disaster, measures were put in place to ensure that events like this could never happen again.
As I said at the beginning, the Paris Métro today is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world. Long may it continue.
EACH PARIS METRO station has a name. These names are often taken from current or former street names in the area close to the station, which in turn are associated with people, places or events significant to the French. To travel on the Paris Metro is to travel the gamut of French history.
The station Barbès-Rochechouart is a good example. Situated at the point where the 9th, 10th and 18th arrondissements meet, the station is home to two metro lines, Line 2 and Line 4. At this station, Line 4 is underground and Line 2 becomes another one of Fulgence Bienvenûe’s aerial metro lines.
The sound Barbès-Rochechouart station Line 2:
The station was named after two streets close by – Boulevard Barbès and Boulevard de Rochechouart. These streets were named after two people – Armand Barbès and Marguerite de Rochechouart.
Armand Barbès (1809 – 1870) was a radical politician who twice attempted to overthrow the French Government and twice escaped the worst of the consequences. The first time was an attempted coup in 1832 against the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the last King of France, for which Barbès was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Thanks to a petition to the court for leniency by Victor Hugo his sentence was commuted to life in prison. In fact, he was released from prison at the beginning of the 1848 revolution. His second attempt was in May 1848 when he failed to overthrow the Provisional Government. For this he was convicted and imprisoned again until 1854 whereupon he was exiled to The Hague in the Netherlands.
Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau (? – 1727) was the Abbess of a convent called Les Dames de Montmartre from 1717 to 1727. The Boulevard Rochechouart was laid out on property owned by the Abbey. Being an Abbess of itself probably didn’t qualify Marguerite de Rochechouart to have a street named after her but being the sister of Mme de Montespan, long-time mistress to Louis XIV, probably helped.
The Boulevard de Rochechouart enjoyed a period of notoriety later in the eighteenth-century when it became home to a selection of cabarets one of which was called Aux Armes de Madame l’Abbess and another Le Caprice des Dames – perhaps a more evocative memorial than a mere street name.
But it was not to last. By the mid-nineteenth century the area around the Boulevard de Rochechouart had become a very poor working-class neighbourhood. In his book, L’Assommoir, Emile Zola tells a classic tale of poverty and alcoholism set almost entirely around what is now the metro station Barbès-Rochechouart.
The sound of the Boulevard de Rochechouart: