THE PASSAGE DU PONCEAU may not be the oldest, the largest or the most elegant of the nineteenth century passages couverts in Paris but at least it has survived. Of the one hundred and fifty original passages couverts built, only twenty now remain and I’ve been to all of them to record and archive their contemporary soundscapes for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Built as an extension to the neighbouring Passage du Caire in the 2nd arrondissement, the Passage du Ponceau was opened in 1826.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in rue Saint-Denis
Originally intended to link rue Saint-Denis to rue du Ponceau, the length of the passage was reduced in 1854 to make way for the new boulevard Sébastopol.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in boulevard Sébastopol
At ninety metres long and just two-and-a-half metres wide, the Passage du Ponceau is a narrow passage comprising two floors under a glass roof. Little remains of the original decoration save for the upper reaches of the façades and some of the mouldings.
We know that two of the original tenants to occupy the Passage du Ponceau were a wine merchant and a coal merchant but no evidence of their presence survives. Today, the passage is mainly occupied by clothing and media enterprises: it is after all in the heart of the multicultural textile and garment district, which has increasingly become home to many Internet start-up companies.
Sounds in the Passage du Ponceau:
The Passage du Ponceau fell into decline in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the railways became established, the nearby stagecoach terminus, always a ready source of custom, closed and this, together with the arrival of the new department stores heralding a retail revolution, meant that the days of the Parisian passages couverts were numbered. As the French writer and journalist, Alfred Delvau noted in 1867, “Life has withdrawn to go elsewhere on the boulevards.”
And yet, twenty of the original Parisian passages couverts, including the Passage du Ponceau, have survived – even though they may not now be, as the 1852 edition of the Illustrated Guide to Paris said, “ a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.”
I LAST FEATURED rue Dénoyez, the plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement, in this blog in November 2014. At that time, under the banner ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.
‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – November 2014
The other day, I went back to rue Dénoyez to see what has happened since I was last there.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
The development proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months it seems the project is still going ahead.
Although the demolition work was due to have been completed by April this year I found that little seems to have happened so far except that the occupants have left and the buildings stand hauntingly empty.
Undaunted though, I found one street artist still leaving his mark.
A soundwalk in rue Dénoyez:
At the end of my soundwalk I came upon a man who had lived in rue Dénoyez in the early 1970s and he reflected upon life here in those days.
If all goes to plan, work on the new development will be completed in the spring of 2018.
While new social housing is to be welcomed one can’t help feeling that some of the character of this unique street will be lost in the process. As the man who spoke to me said, “il faut que ça change”.
You can see the presentation prepared by the local authority about the new development here.
MY LAST THREE POSTS on this blog have had a connection to the attacks in Paris on 13th November. Although I will never forget watching the terrible events unfold on that Friday evening or the anguish of the aftermath, it’s now time to move on – at least as far as this blog is concerned.
My local Christmas market opened last Saturday. Although small, it’s my favourite Christmas market because as well as the displays of artisanal products, a nineteenth-century carousel and children’s entertainers, it also features excellent street musicians.
Last Sunday this Dixieland jazz quartet took centre stage.
Dixieland Jazz Quartet
Dixieland Jazz for Christmas:
Dixieland Jazz Quartet – Plus One!
IT’S BEEN A WHILE since I last featured any street music on this blog but I now have the opportunity to put that right.
Changing trains at the Métro station Charles de Gaulle Étoile the other day I came upon a street musician who is often to be found playing his xylophone on the platform of Métro Line 6, the line that follows a semi-circular route around the southern half of the city from Étoile to Nation.
Getting a seat on a train on Line 6 at Étoile can sometimes be a challenge. A large crowd often assembles on the platform and I usually find myself forsaking the pleasure of listening to the music in favour of elbowing my way through the crowd in the hope of securing a seat on the arriving train. Which is a shame really because most of the musicians playing in the Métro stations are very good.
It’s not generally known, but musicians who play in the Métro – at least those who play there legally – have actually been selected to play there following a formal audition process.
The auditions were introduced because the Métro was becoming infested with itinerant so-called musicians who could barely scrape out a note from their battered violins or accordions.
Now, some 2,000 musicians attend the auditions and the artistic director of the Musiciens du Métro programme and representatives of RATP, the Paris mass-transit authority, judge their performances. Only 300 of them will be awarded the coveted badge that lets them play legally in the Métro and so, with a potential audience of some four million passengers a day, that’s a gig worth having.
When I was changing trains at Étoile the other day I had time on my side so I stopped to listen to the xylophone player, one of the successful badge holders, playing his music. And what a delight it was!
Music on the Métro:
EARLIER THIS WEEK I had to travel from Paris to Amsterdam.
After years of criss-crossing Europe courtesy of Air France, I’ve come to realise that being seduced into thinking that a one-hour flight might be the quickest and most convenient way to travel between these two cities is a myth perpetuated only by the prospect of accumulating more, usually unclaimed, air miles.
Now, I’m more than happy to avoid the endless angst associated with airports and opt for a much more civilised mode of travel – the train.
My Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam
After walking to the bus stop at the end of my little street I caught the 43 bus, which took me to the Gare du Nord in time for me to catch my 10.25 Thalys train to Amsterdam Centraal Station.
Thalys is an international high-speed train operator originally operating on the LGV Nord high-speed line between Paris and Brussels, a line shared with Eurostar trains going from Paris or Brussels to London via Lille and the Channel Tunnel. The line is also shared with French domestic TGV trains.
Beyond Brussels, the main cities Thalys trains reach are Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Liège, Bruges, Ghent, Charleroi, Aachen and Cologne.
The main Thalys routes
En route to Amsterdam the Thalys crosses France, Belgium and The Netherlands stopping at Brussels (Bruxelles in French), Antwerp (Anvers in French), Rotterdam and Schiphol, before arriving at Amsterdam Centraal Station three hours and seventeen minutes after leaving Paris.
Thanks to a very sensible piece of joined-up thinking, Schiphol railway station is directly under Schiphol airport so for anyone flying from Schiphol, a short escalator ride from the train platform will deposit you directly inside the airline departures area.
Just as with the airlines, train ticketing remains a complete mystery to most of us but since I had the luxury of being able to book my tickets several weeks in advance, I was able to travel in Comfort Class 1 for less than the price of an Economy Class ticket bought close to the day of departure.
Inside Comfort Class 1 at Amsterdam Centraal Station after all the passengers had left
Since I never travel anywhere without microphones and a sound recorder I couldn’t resist recording my departure from Paris.
From Paris by Thalys:
I began recording as I was walking along Platform 9 at the Gare du Nord towards my carriage, N°13. A very smart young man in a Thalys uniform clipped my ticket and I boarded the train.
I am fascinated by what I call ‘transitional sounds’, the changing sounds we experience as we move from one environment to another. In this case, the sounds of the busy station platform merging into the relative silence of the train carriage.
It doesn’t take long though before this relative silence is penetrated by a different range of sounds – people stowing their luggage and settling into their seats, the rustle of papers, snatches of conversation, a lady progressing along the carriage offering to book taxis for those alighting at Brussels (a perk of travelling business class) and the loudspeaker announcements. On Thalys trains, the announcements are made in four languages, French, Dutch, German and English and since my journey started in Paris protocol dictates that the announcements begin in French. On the return journey from Amsterdam they begin with the Dutch version.
The lady announcer, who speaks all four languages, tells us that departure is imminent, the doors close and almost imperceptibly the train moves off. It’s not until we’re well clear of the station that the sound of the wheels rattling over rails is heard.
I continued recording until we passed Saint-Denis in the northeast of Paris and began picking up speed by which time I’d learned from the announcer that I was on the right train, the Thalys bar was open in the adjacent carriage and that I should keep my ticket with me at all times.
Presently, Charles de Gaulle airport hove into view in the distance and I couldn’t resist raising a glass to all the passengers there mired in the endless check-in queues, complex security procedures and all the other irritations associated with air travel. As one who used to make 150+ flights every year I’m quite content now to leave all that behind and let the train take the strain.
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
I WAS WALKING THROUGH the Jardin du Luxembourg heading for my 82 bus when I came upon something quite unusual, something I couldn’t possibly walk past without stopping to record.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me on this particular day so here’s a picture of the Jardin du Luxembourg I prepared earlier!
A group of young musicians were assembled on the bandstand and I just caught the very end of their performance. They were high school and college students from the United States called the Virginia Ambassadors of Music and they were on a summer European tour.
Virginia Ambassadors of Music:
Unfortunately, this was one of those rare days when I didn’t have my camera with me but no matter, their spirited performance of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever more than makes up for that.
As you can hear, the audience gathered around the bandstand were very enthusiastic. And special congratulations to the two young lady flute players who earned their own well-deserved round of applause.
The Virginia Ambassadors of Music don’t seem to have a web site, or at least I can’t find one, so if anyone knows more about them perhaps you’d like to get in touch.
REGULAR FOLLOWERS OF this blog will know that most of my work involves capturing the street sounds of Paris. I do though sometimes venture further afield.
I’ve just spent a long weekend in the north-east of England partly to spend valuable time with family over there, partly to recharge my batteries and partly to record the sights and sounds of that delightful part of the world.
But while I was there, echoes of Paris were never far away. Sometime ago, I wrote a blog piece about Les Passages Couverts, the wonderful early nineteenth-century Parisian arcades that first introduced the notion of primitive ‘shopping malls’ – a group of shops clustered together, inside, under cover. Delightful as these passage couverts are, they are not exclusive to Paris – they are to be found in England too.
I discovered this one, the Central Arcade, whilst visiting Newcastle-upon-Tyne the other day. It’s Edwardian, built in 1906, designed by Oswald and Son of Newcastle and I think equally as elegant as the Passage Verdeau or the Passage Jouffroy in Paris.
What made the Central Arcade particularly special was the completely unexpected surprise I came upon whilst I was exploring it. In the arcade is one the UK’s longest established and largest music stores which goes by the unlikely name of JG Windows. It’s a veritable emporium of all things musical – acoustic and digital pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, electric, acoustic and classical guitars and much, much more.
Stepping inside, I was delighted to find my sound of the day.
Inside JG Windows:
A man walked in off the street and sat down at an £8,000 digital piano. He put his briefcase down beside him, and began playing. The lower register of the piano was transformed into a string bass for his left hand whilst his right hand caressed the piano sounds in the upper registers. I was transfixed. When he finished playing, he simply picked up his briefcase and left just as quickly as he came without speaking a word to anyone.
I couldn’t help wondering what his story was. Was he a frustrated musician who couldn’t afford an £8,000 digital piano? Maybe he was road testing it with a view to buying it – or maybe he just needed a musical fix before heading off for his next appointment. Who knows? Whatever his motivation the sound he made obviously pleased him … and it certainly pleased me.
I will share more sights and sounds from the north-east of England over the coming weeks.
SIGNS OF THE ARAB SPRING have reached Paris. The Village du Jasmin, set up on the parvis of the Hotel de Ville over the weekend, was a celebration of la Tunisie nouvelle – the new, post-revolution, Tunisia.
The sights, smells, tastes and sounds of Tunisia, complimented by the wonderful weather, were on show and they attracted a large number of visitors of which I was one.
There were exhibits of wickerwork, furniture made from palm wood, weaving, jewellery and traditional pottery as well as a selection food of course including various olive oils and traditional delicacies. The sounds of Tunisia were also present particularly from the enthusiastic and energetic musicians.
The sounds of Tunisia in Paris:
I’ve never been to Tunisia but, having now had a taste of it, I just might go and see la Tunisie Nouvelle first hand.
IT’S ONE YEAR AGO since I began this blog … and the past year has been a great adventure and a great joy. A year ago, the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me.
The result is this three-dimensional blog comprising words, pictures and sounds, mainly of Paris but occasionally of other places too.
If I do my job properly, the sounds should add an extra dimension to the words and the pictures and create a sense of atmosphere and a sense of place. The sounds should also allow the audience to create their own pictures of this wonderful city. Whether I have succeeded or not is not for me to say, but I hope I have.
Much to my surprise, creating this blog has led to several things I hadn’t expected. I’ve been forced to explore the city of Paris to a much greater extent than I had before. That in itself has been a great delight. I’ve developed an ear for the everyday sounds of Paris which is more acute now than it was before and my technique for capturing those sounds has been fine-tuned. Being in the right place at the right time is often a matter of luck – but sometimes it’s a matter of judgement. My skill at differentiating the one from the other has been sharpened.
Without doubt, the thing that I least expected a year ago is the number of people who would show an interest in this blog and the number of people who would keep coming back to see what I’m up to. Knowing that I’ve accumulated a regular audience is a great spur to do even more and to do it even better.
I’m also astonished by the number of friends I’ve made through this blog. I’m in contact with people all round the world, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in person. Without exception, all of these people have been very friendly, often complimentary about my work and always willing to share experiences and to offer advice and support.
Through these contacts and friends I’ve also been introduced to the work of other bloggers – sound blogs, Paris blogs and blogs on almost every subject you can imagine. This has taught me that the standard of blogging is exceptionally high – another spur for me to do even better.
I make hundreds of recordings of the sounds this city each year. Some of them feature on my blog but many of them never reach the front page. As a ‘thank you’ to both my regular and occasional readers and listeners on this, the first anniversary of this blog, I offer this petit cadeau – a recording that didn’t make the front page but which is a particular favourite of mine.
Singers rehearsing in the Eglise Saint–Séverin:
I am looking forward very much to what the second year of this blog will bring.