LES PASSAGES COUVERTS, or arcades as they are known in English, conjure up a wonderful picture of Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The history of the passages couverts goes back to the Galerie de Bois in the Palais-Royal. Built in 1786 by Philippe d’Orléans, the Galerie was open to the public for a variety of commercial and entertainment purposes – some more savoury than others. Whilst the Galerie de Bois was built in the classical style of French public architecture of the time, the new arcades begun at the turn of the nineteenth-century represented everything that was modern.
“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need”. So says the ‘Illustrated Guide to Paris’ of 1852.
The 1820’s and 1830’s marked the heyday of the passages couverts. In all, 150 were built of which around 20 survive today.
Inside Passage Verdeau
In the early nineteenth century, the idea of ‘indoor shopping’, with a collection of shops sitting cheek by jowl offering a wide variety of merchandise, was as new as the arcades that provided it. Before the arcades appeared, shopping in Paris was a hazardous business. There were no pavements, the uncertainties of the Parisian climate and the level of street filth and mud made Paris an unsavoury place – not to mention the constant risk of death in the streets. As Baudelaire said, ‘death comes at the gallop from every direction at once’ . The concept of a group of shops, inside, under cover, was an attractive proposition to the Parisian public. I suppose we can say that these arcades were the first ‘shopping malls’ that our consumer society seems to be so much in love with today – but now we do it on an industrial scale and with far less elegance.
Inside Passage Jouffroy
In the bottom right-hand corner of the 9ème arrondissement there remain two passages couverts – the Passage Verdeau and the Passage Jouffroy. Both are on the north side of the Boulevard Montmartre. Cross that Boulevard into the 2 ème arrondissement, and directly ahead, and in line with the other two, is the Passage des Panoramas, not only the first arcade to be opened but the first to be lit by gas lamps. All three are well worth a visit.
Built in 1847, the Passage Jouffroy was the first passage couvert to be built entirely of iron and glass and the first to be heated. Throughout its life it has been home to shops selling a wide variety of merchandise – from books and post cards to La Boîte à Joujoux, with its magnificent collection of doll’s houses and all things miniature, to G. Segas, famed for its selection of walking sticks and other curiosities.
And speaking of curiosities, tucked away at one end of the Passage Jouffroy is the Hôtel Chopin. Surely one of the more curious locations for a hotel.
At the other end of the Passage Jouffroy is another curiosity, the Musée Grévin – a waxworks museum.
The decline of the passages couverts owed much to Haussmann and the Grands Magasins – the department stores – another French invention. Over the years, many of the passages couverts fell into decay and a good number disappeared altogether. Thank goodness the Passage Jouffroy and others have survived to be restored to their former glory.
Ambient recording made inside the Passage Jouffroy last Saturday afternoon
SATURDAY 6th OCTOBER – Place de la Bastille – and yet another manifestation about the French pension reform.
The mild pension reform has passed into law, the tear-gas has dispersed and petrol has returned to the pumps – but still they took to the streets. Even the heavy rain didn’t dampen their spirits.
Sounds from the manifestation:
This manifestation was led by the CGT, Confédération Générale du Travail, the largest French trade union and, although a large demonstration it was nothing compared to the one that took place in the same place on 16th October. That had huge popular support and people turned out in massive numbers to express their opposition to the pension reform. As a passive observer, I couldn’t help feeling that this latest demonstration was largely made up of the hard-core activists determined to keep the fight going even though the battle is lost. So often in the past, French governments have given in to the voice of the street sometimes by repealing legislation that caused the protests after it has been enacted into law. We shall see if that happens this time – but somehow I doubt it.
And maybe it is because the CGT doubt it too that there seemed to be a harder edge to this latest protest – a last gasp of desperation maybe.
I’ve said before that whilst the participants take these protests very seriously, they are almost always good-natured affairs. But just occasionally, someone doesn’t stick to the script. On Saturday, for the first time for a long time, I saw and encountered first-hand, some unpleasantness. At the corner of Place de la Bastille and Boulevard Beaumarchais stands a BNP bank. I rounded the corner into Boulevard Beaumarchais to record the manifestation when I was confronted by three youths wearing white face masks. Their ghostly appearance and aggressive demeanour indicated that they were not going to simply ask if I was having a good day! Instead, they were intent on throwing eggs at the two cash points in the wall of the BNP bank just behind me.
Sound of eggs smashing into cash machines:
Unsettling – yes, but as violence goes I suppose it wasn’t all that important – save for one of the eggs missing my right ear by a whisker.
And what did their particular form of protest achieve? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps for demeaning the thousands of other protestors who genuinely believed in their cause – not to mention the waste of eggs.
By contrast, there was something to cheer about – this wonderfully satirical take on the French Président, Nicolas Sarkozy. Enjoy!
Paris is a city – and a city with more than its fair share of noise pollution. Often referred to as the City of Light, Paris could also be known by the less glamorous soubriquet, the City of Noise. And the greatest part of the noise comes from the ever-present traffic which never sleeps and which provides a continuous backdrop to all other Parisian sounds.
I like a challenge and at the beginning of this year I set myself the challenge of recording birdsong in Paris without, so far as is possible, wretched traffic noise in the background. This is the result.
Montmartre, in the 18th arrondissement, sits on the Butte Montmartre, one of the highest points in Paris and at its peak rests the Basilica Sacré-Coeur.
Adjacent to Sacré-Coeur is the Place du Tertre with its artists colony much visited by tourists throughout the year.
On the other side of Sacré-Coeur is to be found the much older church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre. It was in the garden of this church on a summer Saturday afternoon that I was able to record these birds.
The Place des Vosges is in the 4th Arrondissement close to Bastille. Formerly known as Place Royale, it was for some time home to the Kings of France.
In one corner of the Place des Vosges, through an unassuming door is to be found the Hotel de Sully and the Centre for National Monuments.
Along one side of the courtyard of the Hotel de Sully is a wall covered in foliage in which nestle hundreds of birds unseen but certainly not unheard.
It was here, at the height of the summer, that I made another recording of Parisian birdsong.
I live in the west of Paris close to the Bois de Boulogne. I have tried many times to record birdsong in the Bois de Boulogne but have always been defeated by the background traffic noise. Big as the Bois is, nowhere within it seems to be completely free from the constant noise pollution.
In the Spring of this year I got up bright and early one morning and I was able to capture this sound much closer to home – on the balcony of my apartment.
As I said at the beginning, I like a challenge – and recording these sounds certainly was a challenge, but a very enjoyable one.
I spend a lot of time walking the streets of Paris hunting for interesting sounds to record. Sometimes I walk in vain – interesting sounds can be an elusive commodity. More often than not finding good sounds to record is a matter of luck rather than expertise – it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
My sound hunting wanderings take me all over the city of Paris but there are some streets that I return to again and again, partly because of their history, partly because of their character but mostly because of their atmosphere – rue de la Huchette, rue St Jaques, rue de Lappe and the street I went to yesterday, rue Mouffetard, about which Balzac said, “No neighbourhood of Paris is more horrible and more unknown”.
The street market at the bottom of rue Mouffetard
It is true that in Balzac’s day rue Mouffetard had, to put it kindly, a reputation! But it’s reputation today is quite different. It is now a lively, bustling street full of history, character and atmosphere and it just keeps drawing me back time and again.
Sitting in the bistro Le Mouffetard last Saturday afternoon with a glass of Leffe and a copy of Le Monde, I was half watching the world go by and half reading the news of terror plots from cargo aircraft, when a sound drifted in through an open window.
A three man jazz ensemble had installed themselves across the street and they were just beginning their afternoon’s work. I went to investigate.
Rue Mouffetard never fails to provide something interesting for this chasseur de son to record. This was one of those elusive moments that comes from being in the right place at the right time.
There is a fascinating series of short daily programmes on the TV cable channel Euronews called ‘No Comment’. It comprises two minutes or so of TV pictures without a commentary. Here is my ‘sound with no pictures’ version of ‘No Comment’.
Paris October 2010 – A protest against pension reform.
Moscow – Lenin addressing the people.
Another Saturday and another manifestation – another in the series of protests and strikes against the Government’s plan to increase the pension age here in France from 60 to 62.
As usual, the starting point yesterday was the Place de la République where an enthusiastic crowd had gathered when I arrived.
The number of people protesting was huge and they completely filled the streets comprising the route from Place de la République to Nation via Place de la Bastille.
This manifestation was made up of all sorts of people representing all sorts of organisations – including these anarchists.
It also included a rich cocktail of unions and students … historically a potentially potent combination in France.
And, of course there was the usual rich tapestry of sound to be heard.
There were several ways the protestors used to get their message across. This was one way …
I find the subtle changes in the rythymn and repetition of the words in this sound clip fascinating.
And this is how the students did it …
Of course there is a another way … simply to explain what the message is but if that doesn’t work then add some more chanting..
Although the demonstrators took their protest very seriously there was also time for fun too …
The next manifestation about pension reform takes place on Tuesday 19th October.
Last weekend the weather in Paris was absolutely gorgeous. Rather than a Saturday in October it could have been an Saturday in mid-summer. I took advantage of it and went out and about sound hunting.
My first port of call was to my favourite bookshop in the shadow of the cathedral of Notre Dame.
To be found at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, the eclectic Shakespeare & Company is a small bookshop with a big reputation. As well as selling English language books, it is also a reading library as well as housing young writers who earn their keep by working in the shop. A dozen or so beds nestle in amongst the books and it is reckoned that as many as 40,000 people have slept in the shop over the years.
A Parisian curiosity indeed and well worth a visit.
Leaving Shakespeare and Company I walked along by La Seine to the flower market and then on to the Prefecture de Police where I found an “Open Day” in progress. Not only were the police on show but also other emergency services including the Sapeurs-Pompiers (Fire Brigade) and the Croix-Rouge (Red Cross).
I particularly enjoyed looking at the collection of old police motorcycles on display and also this wonderful old fire engine.
The biggest attraction though were the police horses who were far more concerned with eating their lunch than with the cameras of inquisitive tourists.
A delightful and inexpensive dinner in the rue de la Huchette rounded off my Saturday afternoon.
And …. oh yes …. the sound ….
I found this man singing and playing his electric guitar on the Pont D’Arcole … Ray Charles if I’m not mistaken.
I am not by nature a protestor. But I am delighted to live in a country that not only allows free protests in the streets but also a country that has turned protesting into an art form. In France the street protest or the “manifestation” is a way of life. The French do it all the time, they protest about anything and everything.
Saturday 2nd October – the axis between Place de Bastille and Place de la République … a solid wall of people marching, singing, chanting, shouting – protesting.
Paris has many beautiful sounds but it also has cold, raw sounds too, all of which make up the wonderful Paris Soundscape.
And what are all these people protesting about?
Pension reform of course. While some countries in Europe are contemplating raising the retirement age to 70, the French government is taking the modest step of raising the retirement age in France from 60 to 62 – and the people don’t like it.
This was a huge demonstration, so big that the route was split into two parts. One part left the Place de la République and marched down the Boulevard du Temple, the Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire and the Boulevard Beaumarchais to Bastille while the other part left République and marched along the Boulevard Voltaire and on to Nation.
I followed the part of the demonstration heading for Bastille. As always, the manifestation was loud with people determined to make their views known but it was also, for the most part, good natured.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the politics, I was only concerned with capturing the atmosphere of the manifestation but I was also fascinated by the tribal quality of the sounds, the chanting, the repetition of phrases, the leaders and the followers.
Listen to how one man by using rhythm and repetition whips the crowd to a near frenzy.
Street protests in France are often much misunderstood. What may seem to those who don’t live here as extreme political protests are in reality usually no more than ordinary people expressing their voice – a voice that is more often than not listened to by the Government.
Long may the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest continue.
I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – The Soundscape – Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer.
The Soundscape – a term coined by the author – is our sonic environment, the ever-present array of noises with which we all live. Beginning with the primordial sounds of nature, we have experienced an ever-increasing complexity of our sonic surroundings. As civilisaton develops, new noises rise up around us: from the creaking wheel, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, and the distant chugging of steam trains to the “sound imperialism” of airports, city streets and factories. The author contends that we now suffer from an over-abundance of acoustic information and a proportionate diminishing of our ability to hear the nuances and subtleties of sound. Our task, he maintains, is to listen, analyse, and make distinctions.
As a society we have become aware of the toxic wastes that can enter our bodies through the air we breath and the water we drink. In fact, the pollution of our sonic environment is no less real. Schafer emphasises the importance of discerning the sounds that enrich and feed us and using them to create healthier environments. To this end, he explains how to classify sounds, appreciating their beauty or ugliness, and provides exercises and “soundwalks” to help us become more discriminating and sensitive to the sounds around us.
The book is challenging but to anyone interested in our sonic environment it is well worth a read.
I was out sound hunting yesterday around Les Halles at Châtelet.
No sooner had I got there than a manifestation hove into view.
It was a manifestation to mark La Journée Mondiale des Sourds, literally – World Day of the Deaf. More particularly, it was to promote the use of sign language in everyday life. The irony didn’t escape me. Here was I trying recording an almost completely silent manifestation. As with most manifestations in Paris it was all very good natured and everyone was enjoying themselves but there was none of the usual chanting, shouting and singing. What the participants lacked in making sound they more than made up for in the use of signing which was very enthusiastic..
The manifestation was not completely devoid of sound though. These guys were having fun beating their drum.
And all this was taking place in the shadow of the magnificent Eglise Saint Eustache.