ONE OF THE MORE unusual sights in Paris at the moment is the recently drained Canal Saint-Martin.
The double lock at the upstream end of the Canal Saint-Martin
Opened in 1825, the Canal Saint-Martin is a 4.5 km stretch of water connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine.
From the Bassin de la Villette at its upstream end to its junction with the Seine at Port de l’Arsenal downstream, the canal comprises nine locks and two swing bridges and from one end to the other it falls some 25 metres.
For the final 2 km at its downstream end, from Rue du Faubourg du Temple to Port de l’Arsenal, the canal runs underground passing under Boulevard Richard Lenoir and Place de la Bastille.
The double lock looking downstream to Place de Stalingrad
On Monday, 4th January, work began to drain and clean the canal and to do some renovation work to some of the locks.
To get things underway a dam was installed at the upstream end of the canal. Once the dam was in place the lock gates along the canal were opened and some 90,000 cubic metres of water drained from the canal into the Seine.
The dam separating the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette
The canal has a large fish population and so some 10 cm of water was left in the bottom of the canal initially so the fish that didn’t manage to escape with the flow of water could be rounded up in nets and transferred to the Seine.
Once a waterway supplying Paris with fresh water, grain and other commodities to support a growing population, the canal trade eventually dwindled and the canal came close to extinction.
Today, with its romantic footbridges and mysterious vaulted tunnels, the tree-lined Canal Saint-Martin conveys passenger boats and pleasure craft and has become one of the key tourist spots in Paris.
In contrast to its romantic image though, the canal takes on a different aspect once the water has been drained.
The canal was last drained and cleaned in 2001 and during that operation 18 tonnes of fish were recovered and 40 tonnes of rubbish gathered. The haul of garbage and occasional treasure could be even more this time around.
The other day, I walked along the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette to Rue du Faubourg du Temple where the canal enters the 2 km tunnel before it reaches the Seine. It is this above-ground stretch of the canal that is being cleaned.
Looking downstream to the tunnel entrance at Rue du Faubourg du Temple
Anxious to capture the cleaning operation in sound and since I couldn’t get close to the canal from either the Quai de Valmy on one side or the Quai de Jemmapes on the other, I chose to record from the top of the footbridge crossing the canal close to Rue du Faubourg du Temple.
The recording doesn’t last for long and it isn’t perfect – but it is historic since these sounds are only heard every ten to fifteen years!
Sweeping bottles in the Canal Saint-Martin:
All the detritus from the canal is being transferred by road to barges on the Canal St-Denis that will take it on for disposal.
At a cost of €9.5 million, the cleaning and renovation work will take three months and the Canal Saint-Martin is due to open for business again on 4th April.
Looking upstream from Rue du Faubourg du Temple
IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY it was part of the fossé, the ditch that surrounded the wall built by Charles V to encircle Paris. Today, the Bassin de l’Arsenal (also known as Port de l’Arsenal) is a marina connecting the Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine.
Bassin de l’Arsenal looking towards Place de la Bastille
After the destruction of the Bastille fortress in November 1789 during the French Revolution, the Bassin de l’Arsenal was excavated to replace the ditch that had been in place at the fortress.
The Bastille fortress with the fossé (ditch) in the foreground. The fossé was later converted into the Bassin de l’Arsenal.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries an arsenal existed here, which accounts for the name of the port and the name of the neighbourhood bordering the westerly side of the Bassin.
In the early nineteenth century, the construction of the Canal Saint-Martin was undertaken connecting the Bassin de la Villette to the Bassin de l’Arsenal and the Seine. With the increased barge traffic on the Canal Saint-Martin during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the Bassin de l’Arsenal became an important commercial port handling mainly wine, wheat and wood.
Separated from the Seine by the ninth and final lock on the Canal Saint-Martin, l’Écluse de l’Arsenal, the port was converted into a port de plaisance (a marina) in 1983. At the same time, a 1.4-hectare public park, the Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal, was created along the eastern side of the marina, which includes maple and willow trees and a rose covered pergola.
Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal
The Bassin de l’Arsenal stretches for six hundred metres between Quai de la Rapée and Place de la Bastille and it forms the boundary of the 4th and the 12th arrondissements.
Running over the lock leading to the Seine at the southern end of the Bassin are two bridges, the road bridge Pont Morland and an iron bridge carrying Métro Line 5. The sounds of the Métro trains running over the iron bridge into and out of Quai de la Rapée station dominate the soundscape around the lock.
Sounds of Métro Line 5 running over l’Écluse de l’Arsenal:
The gates of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal at the southern end of the Bassin de l’Arsenal
I’m fascinated by industrial soundscapes and so I’ve made many recordings of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation but all of them have been punctuated by the sounds of passing Métro trains. The sounds of the lock operating are really interesting and so for several years I’ve been trying to capture the sounds of the lock without the Métro sounds in the background. The other day I finally succeeded thanks to a temporary interruption to the service on Métro Line 5.
The lock is operated from la Capitainerie, the Harbourmaster’s office on the eastern side of the Bassin. Against a background of hammering from building work on a neighbouring apartment block, two boats are waiting to leave the Bassin de l’Arsenal to enter la Seine.
Sounds of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation:
In this soundscape we hear the lock filling and then a warning signal before the lock gates creak open. The first boat to enter the lock is a bateau école, a training boat. It passes into the lock almost imperceptibly.
The next boat is larger but its sounds are equally tranquil.
Once the two boats are in the lock the lock gates are closed with more creaking. A grandmother comes alongside and explains the process to her petite-fille. Note the fascinating sounds of the hydraulics after the lock gates are shut.
Water drains out of the lock, the boats drop three metres, the lock gates at the far end of the lock are opened and the boats are free to enter la Seine.
But as the water level is lowered, the soundscape closest to the Bassin de l’Arsenal changes as water seeps into the lock from gaps in the closed but exposed lock gates.
Some of the best sounds in my Paris Soundscapes Archive are sounds of the Paris Métro but even though the sound rich Métro Line 5 was so close this was one occasion when I was pleased that the Métro sounds were absent.
AT THE END OF the 12th century, Ville Neuve Saint Ladres was little more than a hamlet alongside the Roman road leading from Paris to Flanders. When a church was constructed in 1426 the hamlet’s name was changed to La Villette Saint-Ladres-lez-Paris. In 1790, La Villette, then with a population of some 1,800 souls, was formerly recognised as a commune and in 1860, by which time the population had increased to around 30,000, it was incorporated into the City of Paris.
Bassin de la Villette
La Villette though was to play an important role in the life of the city before its formal incorporation.
In 1802, mindful that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and to public morale, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered work to begin on the construction of a canal, the Canal de l’Ourcq, stretching one hundred and eight kilometres from Picardy to Paris. When completed, this canal would not only provide a plentiful supply of water to the city but also provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning the city.
The Bassin de la Villette was created at the Paris end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from where the canal would link, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis, which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Napoleon Bonaparte opened the Bassin de la Villette in 1808.
Bassin de la Villette with the lock gates leading to the Canal Saint-Martin
Once the Canal Saint-Martin and the Canal Saint-Denis were completed in the 1820s the area around the Bassin de la Villette became not only a transit centre but also a busy commercial hub.
Warehousing companies including the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux set up on the quays alongside the Bassin mainly to store grain and flour as did a cattle market and several abattoirs.
Bassin de la Villette – Les Entrepôts
Image via Wikipedia
Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux: Share certificate from 1952
This industrialisation of the Bassin de la Villette lasted until the late 1960s by which time decline had set in and the warehouses were either abandoned or demolished. The cattle market and the abattoirs closed in the early 1970s.
Bassin de la Villette looking towards the Canal de l’Ourcq with some of the original and now renovated warehouses just beyond the boats
The Bassin de la Villette is in effect a man-made lake and at eight hundred metres long and seventy metres wide it’s the largest artificial lake in Paris but, despite its industrial decline, it still plays an important part in the life of the city.
The Canal de l’Ourcq, which terminates at the Bassin de la Villette, still supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The Bassin is still a transport hub with the intersection where the Canal de l’Ourcq meets the Canal Saint-Denis with its mainly industrial canal traffic and the Canal Saint-Martin with its now thriving and lucrative tourist traffic.
But the Bassin de la Villette has also undergone a revival with some of the former warehouses being converted into cinemas and restaurants and some of the barges into cultural venues.
La Péniche Opéra for example is berthed on one side of the Basin de la Villette on the Quai de Loire. It’s a former industrial barge now billed as the smallest opera house in the world and it puts on a wide range of operatic events.
At the head of the Bassin de la Villette in what is now the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad is another reminder of the history of La Villette.
La Rotonde de la Villette
Built by one of the earliest exponents of French Neoclassical architecture, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the Rotonde de la Villette was originally one of the barrières d’octroi in the mur des Fermiers généraux, the Wall of the Farmers-General.
This wall, built between 1784 and 1791 by the Ferme générale, the corporation of tax farmers, surrounded Paris and was intended to ensure the payment of a toll (octroi) on all goods entering Paris.
The Rotonde de la Villette or the barrière Saint-Martin as it was known at the time, was one of sixty-two such tax collection points in the wall. With the expansion of Paris in 1860 and with the octroi by then abolished most of these tax collection points were demolished. The Rotonde de la Villette escaped demolition and survived to become a bonded warehouse for the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux. Today, it’s a restaurant unsurprisingly called La Rotonde.
On my visit to the Bassin de la Villette I not only wanted to explore its history but also its sounds.
I recorded a soundwalk for my Paris Soundscapes Archive beginning at the fountain next to La Rotonde de la Villette. I walked along the Quai de Seine on one side of the Bassin, then over the Passerelle de la Moselle to the Quai de Loire on the other side, which brought me back to the head of the Bassin but this time at the Écluses de la Villette, the double lock at the head of the Canal Saint-Martin.
Écluses de la Villette – Picture taken from on top of the Passerelle des écluses de la Villette from which all distances on the Canal Saint-Martin are measured
The Canal Saint-Martin links the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine. It’s four and a half kilometres long, two kilometres of it run underground and it passes through nine locks and two swing bridges. From the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine the canal drops a height of twenty-five metres, the first eight metres of which occurs at the Écluses de la Villette.
The first set of lock gates at the Écluses de la Villette
The sounds of a boat full of tourists passing through the Écluses de la Villette seemed to be too good to miss since it seemed to me that they would represent a good part of the life of today’s Bassin de la Villette so I positioned myself just beyond the first pair of lock gates and waited.
This was one of those occasions when I felt that the story would be best told by fixing my microphones in one position and simply waiting for something to happen – a technique I learned from studying the work of the great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The red arrow indicates my recording position
Sounds at the first Écluse de la Villette:
And presently something did happen – something completely unexpected.
As a Paris Canal boat hove into view people were passing behind me and then I heard the sound of horses hooves. I turned round to see two splendid horses from the Gendarmerie passing by. They passed very quickly but it was long enough for their sounds to transport me back for a fleeting moment to the Bassin de la Villette in a different age.
Presently, the first lock gates opened and the Paris Canal boat, complete with its running commentary, slowly and carefully entered the first part of the lock. Once in, the gates behind it were closed and the sluices on the gates ahead of it were opened and the boat began the first part of its descent.
Going down ….
The sounds tell the story as the boat descends.
In making this recording I left the microphones and the recording levels untouched throughout so what you hear is what I heard. If you listen carefully, you will hear the sound texture change as the boat descends and, as the boat gets lower, the voices of the passengers can be heard more clearly.
Eventually, the lock gates ahead of the boat open and the boat slowly moves forward into the second stage of the lock and the sounds get fainter.
If you listen really carefully, above the hissing sound of the water leaking through the first set of lock gates, you will hear two faint thuds as the second set of lock gates close one after the other behind the boat. Immediately after, the sluice on the first set of gates opens and water gushes in to refill the first part of the lock.
That’s where my sound portrait ends but for the boat and its passengers, now in the second part of the lock, they began their second descent until they were completely out of sight from street level. They then moved off into the tunnel taking them under the road and onto the next part of their journey along the Canal Saint-Martin. Meanwhile, the first part of the lock was continuing to refill ready for the next boat to repeat the process.
I came away from the Bassin de la Villette with a good and varied collection of sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I couldn’t help wondering what rich pickings there might have been for a sound hunter like me if I’d been there when it had been a centre of industry rather than of tourism.
THE CANAL DE L’OURCQ was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. He recognised that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and so, in 1802, he ordered the construction of the canal to begin.
Work began well away from Paris in Picardy where the river Ourcq was canalised and construction began to bring the waters the one hundred and eight kilometres to the Basin de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. From here the Canal de l’Ourcq linked, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north, and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Building the Canal de l’Ourcq was not only a considerable engineering feat it was also a very smart move. On the one hand it provided a plentiful supply of water to the city but it also provided an efficient means of communication for provisioning of the city. The canal’s construction was in part funded by a tax on wine so it’s a good example of turning wine into water!
The canal is still an important source of water for the city of Paris today. It supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The canal’s commercial traffic may have declined but it still exists to some degree. Working barges are still to be seen and heard passing by leaving their extended sonic footprint behind them.
A Passing Barge:
All working waterways attract industry around them. Inevitably, some of that industry doesn’t survive and we are often left with its ghostly reminder.
Buildings like this have an almost magnetic attraction for me. I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and I always think that buildings like this demand to be explored. The fact that this building is fenced off and made distinctly unwelcoming somehow adds to its attraction.
I understand that psychogeography is the contemporary term for this sort of exploration but with my interest in sound, I much prefer the term sonic archaeology.
Some of the industry though associated with the Canal de l’Ourcq has survived. The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin was founded in 1883 as an industrial laundry. Under a different name, but in the same premises, it survives today doing exactly the same thing.
The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin:
Before reaching the Basin de la Villette, the Canal de l’Ourcq bisects the enormous Parc de la Villette. Designed by the French architect Bernard Tschumi and built on the site of the former Parisian abbatoirs, the Parc de la Villette includes the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, City of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in Europe; La Géode, an IMAX theatre inside a 36 metre diameter geodesic dome; the Cité de la Musique, City of Music, an interactive museum of historical musical instruments and a concert hall and Le Zénith, a 6,300 seat concert arena, among the largest in Paris.
The Parc de la Villette is a parent’s delight. There’s something here to keep the kids entertained all day long.
Children playing in the Parc de la Villette:
One day I shall travel the full length of the Canal de l’Ourcq but in the meantime, I am quite content to spend an afternoon walking from the Basin de la Villette to Pantin on one side of the canal and then back again on the other. I recommend it.
THE WEATHER IN PARIS in early November has been quite exceptional, more like late summer than late autumn. It’s the ideal weather to stroll around Paris and search out places I haven’t been to for a while, places like the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement.
Stretching from the Place de Stalingrad to Porte d’Arsenal, the canal was born in the mind of Napoleon I as a means of supplying much needed fresh water to the city. The building of the canal was funded by a tax on wine – a case of turning wine into water then!
As well as supplying fresh water, the canal was also a working thoroughfare supplying Paris with grain and other commodities. The canal trade eventually dwindled and the canal came close to extinction but today, the canal and the surrounding area, is a vibrant, rather chic place to be.
The Hotel du Nord, on the Quai de Jemmapes, stands close to the canal. The hotel has been here since 1885 but it’s perhaps best known as the star of the film of the same name. The 1938 film, directed by Marcel Carné and starring Annabella, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Louis Jouvet, was shot on location here.
Standing in front of the Hotel du Nord today it’s very easy to slip back in time to 1930’s, black and white, Paris. Inside, with the zinc bar, the white tiles on the walls and the black and white mosaic tiles on the floor the feeling is enhanced.
Inside the Hotel du Nord:
Today, the Canal Saint-Martin is a waterway largely for tourist boats. The canal has several locks to be negotiated, which ensures that no journey along the canal will be made in a hurry.
Navigating the locks is usually watched by people who gather on top of the bridges and it was on top of one of these that I recorded the process.
Navigating a lock:
The process is simple. The lock fills to allow the boat in and then empties to allow the boat out at a lower level. The lock gates operate by hydraulics and the water operates by gravity. Today, no heavy-lifting is required, it’s all done at the push of a button.
And I can reveal that in this neck of the woods the earth moves! Well, not quite, but the roadway certainly does.
At the locks where the road is at the same level as the boats, one of them has to give way to the other and the road always loses this contest. The traffic is stopped and the road swings out of the way.
Once the boat has passed, the road swings back into place … at least until the next time.
A walk along the Canal Saint-Martin is always interesting at any time but especially so in an unusually sunny November.