ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of living in the west of Paris is the proximity of the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement. Covering an area of 845 hectares (2,090 acres), the Bois de Boulogne is, after the Bois de Vincennes in the east of Paris, the second largest public park in Paris.
From my home it takes me a little over ten minutes to walk to the northern edge of the Bois de Boulogne and the Mere de Saint-James, once a sand and gravel quarry but now a lake with two islands, which are a sanctuary for birds and small animals. The Mere de Saint-James is one of several lakes in the park.
The Mere de Saint-James
Today’s Bois de Boulogne was originally an ancient oak forest, the Forêt de Rouvray, where French monarchs from Dagobert, the King of the Franks in the seventh century, to Louis XVI in the eighteenth century came to hunt bears, deer, and other game.
The landscape of what is now the Bois de Boulogne has changed considerably since the time of Dagobert and Louis XVI. The Hundred Years War ravaged the forest in the fifteenth century and then thousands of trees were cut down for firewood and to build shelters when 40,000 soldiers of the British and Russian armies camped in the forest following the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814, leaving an assortment of bleak ruined meadows, tree stumps and dismal stagnant ponds.
When Napoléon III elevated himself from President of the French Republic to Emperor of the French in 1852, one of his schemes was to create two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and the ordinary people could enjoy themselves. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man responsible for executing most of Napoléon III’s schemes, the French engineer, Jean-Charles Alphand was engaged to turn the bleak remains of the military occupation into the Bois de Boulogne, an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns, and grassy slopes – an idealisation of nature.
And Alphand’s Bois de Boulogne might have been what we see today had it not been for the ‘storm of the century’, the memorable hurricane of 1999. I remember it well!
In the early hours of 26th December 1999 hurricane force winds whipped across France causing immense damage. A ten-minute walk from my home, some 40% of the surface of the Bois de Boulogne was completely devastated with the wind felling around ten thousand trees.
Thanks to prompt action by the Paris City Council oak trees now cover about 50% of what was once the Forêt de Rouvray and cedars, plane trees, ginkgo-bilobas and countless other species share the rest.
As for the wildlife: well, the bears, deer and the other game that Dagobert and his successors hunted with such relish no longer wander amidst the present day oaks. Today, if you can set aside the ever-present noise pollution drifting in on the wind, you might be lucky enough to see and hear a variety of birds; woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, nuthatches and goldcrests along with wrens, robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons and thrushes. The keen-eyed might even spot the occasional sparrowhawk or kestrel passing overhead.
Standing beside the lakes in the Bois de Boulogne though one is almost guaranteed to see and hear a variety of waterfowl. When I went to the Mere de Saint-James the other day I was able record the cacophony of mallard ducks, moorhens, geese and mute swans.
Sounds of the waterfowl in the Bois de Boulogne:
Spending as much time as I do recording and archiving the urban soundscapes of Paris, the sounds of the human species in the Parisian streets, I relish the chance to record wildlife sounds in the urban environment when I can. Sadly, the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often so when it does, I make the most of it.
IN MARCH THIS YEAR I published a blog piece about the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, the botanical garden set within a large greenhouse complex at the southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne.
In that piece I recounted how these gardens, first established in 1761 under Louis XV, are under threat because of plans by the Fédération Française de Tennis to extend the neighbouring Roland Garros international tennis complex into the south east corner of the gardens. This extension, if it goes ahead, will include the demolition of the nineteenth-century Jean-Camille Formigé greenhouses to make way for a new, semi-sunken, tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators.
At the time of writing my last piece about the gardens the Paris City Council had just unanimously adopted a resolution that a further study into an alternative plan proposed by local residents associations and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil should be conducted by an independent organisation so that the Paris City Council could debate and then vote on it.
But now, things have moved on again.
Last Wednesday, despite the unanimous resolution of the Paris City Council, the French Prime Minister, Manual Valls, issued a statement instructing Ségolène Royal, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, to sign the Permis de Construire, the building permit required before work on the Roland Garros extension can proceed. So far, Ségolène Royal has not done so.
On Sunday afternoon, as Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic were locking horns on the Philippe Chatrier court in the Men’s Final of the French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros, friends and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil were making their voices heard at the entrance to the gardens on the avenue de la porte d’Auteuil.
I went along to offer my support and I was able to speak to Madame Lise Bloch-Morhange, Speaker of the Comité de Soutien des Serres d’Auteuil, the lead opposition group to the proposed extension. This is what she told me:
The recently opened Fondation Louis Vuitton, the privately financed modern art gallery designed by Frank Gehry, has, with government acquiescence, encroached on to what was supposed to be an environmentally protected part of the northern Bois de Boulogne. The government claims to have conceded to the choice of site because of the prestige the gallery brings to the city.
In the southern Bois de Boulogne the Fédération Française de Tennis claims that retaining the prestigious French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros depends upon extending their facilities and that the only credible plan is to extend into the Jardin des Serres. In addition, France intends to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games and it is claimed that, as part of that bid, an extended Roland Garros is essential.
Undoubtedly, a Frank Gehry designed modern art gallery, the French Open Tennis Championships and the Olympic Games are smothered in prestige, probably adding millions if not billions to the economy. But one is surely entitled to ask, at what cost?
Imagine a desecrated Jardin des Serres with a semi-sunken tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators standing empty and completely unused for fifty weeks of the year. The cost of that would not be measured in millions or billions of Euro’s but in a more intangible and equally important currency, what the French call patrimoine, our heritage, the value of which lies in our hearts not in our pockets.
My thanks to Lise Bloch-Morhange for taking time out of her very busy afternoon to stop and record these comments.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, just before the turn of the year, I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of la Seine from Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes. Here, the communes of Puteaux and Sursenes sit on one side of the river and on the other side is the western edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the very edge of Paris.
I like this walk, I do it three or four times a year, but I’ve never featured it on this blog and it wasn’t my intention to do so on this particular winter’s day. The narration accompanying this walk was intended originally for my personal audio diary but it did occur to me afterwards that it might be of passing interest to those not familiar with this fairly well hidden pathway along the banks of la Seine. So here is the record of my walk on a perfect winter’s day.
Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes – A Soundwalk:
The Water Tower
Ouvrages de Suresnes – The Weir
Pont de Suresnes
Péniche ‘Pourquoi Pas’
A Passing Barge – A ‘Pusher’
La Seine from Pont de Suresnes
SITUATED AT THE WESTERN edge of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne is the second largest public park in the city covering some 2,090 acres, which makes it two and a half times bigger than Central Park in New York and about the same size as Richmond Park in London.
Amongst other things, the Bois de Boulogne is home to the Hippodrome de Longchamp where each year, on the first Sunday in October, one of Europe’s most prestigious horse races, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe takes place. It’s also home to the Stade Roland Garros, the stadium where the French Open tennis tournament is held each year.
World-class horse racing and tennis are not the only sports played in the Bois de Boulogne. At weekends especially, ad hoc games of football, rugby and even the occasional game of cricket can be found taking place here. Few games though can be as curious as the one I stumbled across recently.
On a stroll through the park late one afternoon last week I came upon a game of football – but football with a difference. Young men and women encased in plastic bubbles trying to kick a football seemed to me a bizarre way to spend an afternoon.
‘Bonding’ in the Bois de Boulogne:
It soon became clear though that this was more than simply a curious game of football. This was an idea dreamt up by some overpaid management consultancy where they take perfectly normal employees in a perfectly normal company and encourage them to make complete fools of themselves in the interests of team-building or ‘bonding’ – a ghastly phrase only a management consultant could come up with!
I learnt that this was only one of several activities that these people were put through throughout the day – each one becoming more bizarre as the day went on.
Throughout each activity, each individual was being watched and scored against a range of criteria no doubt also dreamt up the management consultants. All seemed to be having fun but I couldn’t help wondering if that was genuine, or simply an act to impress the scorers.
THE THIRTY-SIXTH PARIS MARATHON took place earlier today. More than forty thousand runners from over one hundred countries competed over the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) course from the Champs-Elysées to avenue Foch via the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne.
The Paris Marathon is one of the five biggest marathons in the world (along with New-York, London, Berlin and Chicago), not only in terms of the size of the field but also by the performances achieved.
I went along to watch the finish in the Avenue Foch. I emerged from Porte Dauphine Metro station just in time to see the Kenyan runner, Stanley Biwott, surge past to win the men’s race in a record time of 2hrs 05 min 12 sec beating the previous record by thirty-six seconds.
Biwott attacked at the 30km mark and came home more than a minute ahead of Ethiopian duo Raji Assefa and Sisay Jisa.
In the women’s race Tirfi Beyene came first in a new record time of 2hrs 21min 39sec.
Although I saw but couldn’t photograph Beyene on the home stretch, I did capture Turkey’s Sultan Haydar who finished second in 2hr 25:09.
The Paris Marathon is a serious and gruelling athletics event, but for the crowd it is also a festive occasion with an atmosphere to match.
This was the first time that I’ve seen the Paris Marathon, or any marathon for that matter, and I was very impressed by the performance of the ‘elite’ women runners. No doubt we shall be seeing them and their male colleagues in the London Olympic Marathon later this year.
Away from the finish line into the Bois de Boulogne I found some more ‘atmosphere’ that was certainly encouraging both the runners and the crowd.
Adding more atmosphere:
Whether an ‘elite’ runner or an enthusiastic amateur, I’m sure that any sort of encouragement is more than welcome as the 42 kilometre mark comes into view!
A “SOUND RIDE” IS a term I invented this afternoon. Sound Walks are familiar; lots of people do them including me. But this afternoon I thought I would do something a little different. Taking advantage of the delicious late autumnal weather, I made the ten-minute walk from my apartment across to the Bois de Boulogne and recorded a cycle ride on a Velib.
The Velib system we have in Paris is a wonderful invention. I think it’s been copied in other cities but it appeared here first. I’ll let the sounds tell the story of my Sunday afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne.
My Sound Ride in the Bois de Boulogne:
My Velib together with my black bag which contains my street recording studio
The Bois de Boulogne in summer
The Bois de Boulogne in springtime
The Bois de Boulogne in winter
THE BOIS DE BOULOGNE, on the edge of the 16th arrondissement, was once the Royal hunting ground of the King’s of France and the refuge for a one time King of England and of the British Empire, Edward VIII, together with his American wife, Wallace Simpson.
Today, it is associated with Roland Garos, the French aviator, whose name was given to the home of the French Open Tennis Championship and of course, the Hippodrome Longchamps, host to the annual horseracing classic, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. At the northern end, close to where I live, is the Jardin d’Acclimatation, an amusement park with a ménagerie and other attractions not least, a miniature steam train that has featured twice in this Blog.
The Bois de Boulogne comprises an area of 8.459 km² (3.266 sq. miles, or 2,090 acres), which is 2.5 times larger than Central Park in New York, and comparable in size to Richmond Park in London.
In the summer, the Bois de Boulogne is a hive of activity especially at weekends. Biking, jogging, dog walking, boat rowing, remote control speed-boats, ad hoc football games and picnics are common currency – almost everything you can think of except barbeques which are strictly forbidden.
It is just a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment to the Bois de Boulogne – and it was this fifteen-minute walk that I did on the afternoon of Christmas Day. I was in need of fresh air and exercise!
The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and the winter sun low in the clear bright blue sky. There was snow on the ground.
I was not alone. Other people were out enjoying the Christmas Day afternoon – the joggers, the dog-walkers and family groups walking off their Christmas lunches.
The snow was crisp and the ground was frozen – but the lakes were not sufficiently frozen to allow one to trespass on them as the sign above shows.
There are thirty-five kilometres of footpaths, eight kilometres of cycle paths and twenty-nine kilometres of riding tracks in the Bois de Boulogne. It was amongst these highways and byways that I walked on the afternoon of Christmas Day. The landscape of the Bois de Boulogne is much changed from when I first came to live here. In the great hurricane of Christmas in 1999, which I remember well, 10,000 trees were felled by the vicious wind that raged through the Bois de Boulogne but, thanks to a vigorous re-planting programme, on Christmas Day this year, the landscape was set to return to that which I remember all those years ago.
The sound of a walk in the Bois de Boulogne late in the afternoon Christmas Day:
In May this year, I put a post on to this blog with the sound of the little steam train in the Bois de Boulogne which runs from the Jardin d’Acclimatation to Porte Dauphine and is a regular summer attraction.
I live close to the Bois de Boulogne so a couple of weeks ago I went back to take some photographs of the train.
To record the train I stood in the trees close to the narrow gauge railway line that it runs on.
The train came, passed me and went on its way to Porte Dauphine and then back to the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
This is the sound I recorded – a sound very familiar to all those who visit the Bois de Boulogne.
This is a binaural recording so to get the best effect it’s best to listen through headphones.
Having reached a certain age, I now reluctantly admit to being a fully paid-up member of that not so exclusive club of “Grumpy Old Men”. To qualify for membership it is necessary to be irritated by almost anything and everything however irrational that irritation might be. People who walk up escalators irritate me. Hotel receptionists who answer the telephone while checking me in irritate me. People who send those wretched newsletters instead of Christmas cards irritate me. People who break off a conversation with me to answer their mobile phone irritate me. TV advertisements irritate me. CNN irritates me. Noise irritates me.
Noise, according to my dictionary, is “a sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct or disagreeable”.
The same dictionary refers to noise pollution as, “environmental noise of sufficient loudness to be annoying, distracting or physically harmful”.
I think most people would agree that noise pollution is on the increase and, although it’s sometimes difficult to define precisely what constitutes noise pollution, people generally recognise it when they hear it and conclude that it is a bad thing. Defining what constitutes “noise” on the other hand can be more problematic.
I live in Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world. Tourists come here to sample all the delights that this wonderful city has to offer. They do not come here to listen to the traffic noise which is constant and almost impossible to escape from. I live close to the Bois de Boulogne a former Royal hunting ground and now a vast area of trees, lakes and greenery. One might think it possible to gain some respite from the sound of the internal combustion engine here but no, it is not possible. I know that because I’ve done experiments to prove it. I have taken my sound recorder into the depths of the Bois de Boulogne during both the day and the night and all the recordings I have made contain some traffic noise.
So, traffic noise is a bad thing. Or is it? I once saw a person knocked down by a car, a Toyota Prius. This car is a hybrid and was running on the battery at the time and consequently was completely silent. Thankfully, apart from the odd bruise, the person was not hurt but their first words upon recovering their composure were, “I just didn’t hear it coming”. Maybe some degree of traffic noise is necessary if only for the safety of pedestrians.
Being unable to escape the sound of traffic noise I have decided to capitalise on it. Being a street sound recordist I have recorded traffic noise on the basis that it forms part of the tapestry of life here in Paris. I have been surprised by the variation of sounds the traffic makes and by the transformation of traffic “noise” into traffic “sounds”. What one hears as simply a constant background noisy irritation can, upon careful listening, turn into something quite interesting – a melange of lorries, buses, vans, cars, motorcycles and screaming motor-scooters each with their own distinctive sound. I often think that it would be inetresting to stand by a busy street and record the sound of the traffic and then compare that to a recording made in the same place ten years ago and then every ten years before that since 1900. To my knowledge, that particular experiment has never been done but one can’t help thinking how interesting the result would be.
Having said all that, I do subscribe to the view that traffic “noise” is a significant contributor to the sound pollution that we all have to endure today. However, think of steam trains, also major polluters in every sense in their day. Today, recordings of steam trains are much sought after and are listened to with great nostaligia even by those of us who qualify to be “Grumpy Old Men”. Will today’s motor car become tomorrow’s steam train?
Maybe “noise” is just “sound” in the wrong place and in the wrong quantity. What one person hears as noise just might be an interesting or even beautiful sound to others.