FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Pont au Double in the heart of Paris close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
The Pont au Double is 45 metres long and 20 metres wide and it links the 4th and 5th arrondissements of Paris from the Île de la Cité to the quai de Montebello.
Work began on the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point in 1626. Designed by the French architect, Christophe Gamard, the bridge was deemed necessary as part of the development of the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.
The Hôtel Dieu today seen from the northern end of the Pont au Double
Originally, the Hôtel Dieu was situated on the opposite side of the parvis Notre-Dame (the square now known as Place Jean-Paul II) from where it stands today. Then it was next to la Seine but during the Middle Ages the hospital had grown in an unplanned and rather chaotic way. By the early part of the seventeenth-century the Hôtel Dieu was grossly overcrowded, often with four patients to a bed, and in order to provide more space a part of the Hôtel Dieu had spilled over la Seine to occupy a parcel of land on the Left Bank. The new bridge was seen as a way of connecting the two parts of the hospital.
The bridge was completed in 1634. It was a stone bridge on to which a two-story building was constructed which was used as extra hospital wards for the Hôtel Dieu. This building occupied almost two-thirds of the width of the bridge. It was decided that the remaining one-third should be open for public use for which a toll was levied. The proceeds from this toll were used to pay for the bridge. The toll to cross the bridge was a ‘double denier’, a denier being a medieval coin taking its name from the Frankish coin first issued (as the denarius) in the late seventh century. In English it is sometimes referred to as a silver penny. It was from this ‘double denier’ toll that the bridge took its name, the Pont au Double.
In 1709, the original bridge collapsed and it was replaced with a new bridge, which survived until 1847. The Pont au Double we see today was opened in 1883 as a one arch cast-iron bridge designed by Henri-Prosper Bernard and Jules Lax.
The other day, I went to explore the Pont au Double and I began by seeing what I could find under the bridge.
The first thing I discovered was that this is one of the embarkation points for the Bateaux Parisiens, one of the many tourist boats that ply la Seine. And it is the sounds of tourist and other boats passing that dominate the soundscape under the bridge.
Pont au Change – Under the Bridge:
I was also reminded of two pieces of history as I was exploring the underside of the bridge.
These steps leading down to the quai de Montebello reminded me that in the seventeenth century steps like these also emerged from the bridge onto the quay and la Seine. It was from here that the nuns from the Hôtel Dieu used to spend up to nine hours a day doing their washing and that of the sick and infirm from the hospital above. I was also reminded that in the seventeenth century this would have been rather an obnoxious place to be since the hospital poured its waste directly into the Seine around here.
The plaque in the wall bearing the legend ‘1910’ reminded me that this was the height to which the Seine reached in the Great Flood of Paris in January 1910. Although the water threatened to overflow the tops of the quay walls that line the river, workmen were able to keep the Seine back with hastily built levees.
Having explored underneath the bridge, I climbed up the steps from the quai de Montebello to explore the bridge from above. From here it is hard to imagine that in the seventeenth century hospital wards belonging to the Hôtel Dieu would have occupied two-thirds of this bridge, on the left-hand side.
Today, the Pont au Double is a thoroughfare for tourists heading to or from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. These days, no toll is required to cross the bridge but a pourboire, or a tip, is always appreciated by the street musicians who can often be found on the bridge.
Pont au Double – On the Bridge:
In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.
The soundscape under the Pont au Double with the sounds of tourist and other boats passing was fairly predictable but I found the soundscape on the bridge really quite interesting.
The young lady pictured above wearing her tap shoes and playing her ukulele together with the accordionist, who was reluctant to be photographed, gave a colourful perspective to the soundscape but it was the sounds at the beginning and at the end of my exploration on top of the bridge that really fascinated me.
At the northern end of the Pont au Double is the Square Jean XXIII, a park named after Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in France from 1945 to 1953, who subsequently became Pope Jean XXIII. I began and ended my exploration on top of the Pont au Double here and it was here that I found two very similar but contrasting sounds. The chorus of the tourist’s voices, mostly Chinese (or were they Japanese?) outside the park at the outset seemed to contrast beautifully with the chorus of the birds hidden in the foliage in the park at the end of my walk across the bridge.
The sounds of the boats passing under the bridge, the sounds of the street musicians and the sounds of the tourists on the bridge are certainly characteristic sounds of the Pont au Double but they are transient sounds, they come and go, they vary day by day and similar sounds can be heard on and around several other Parisian bridges.
For me, it is the sounds of the birds that are the unique sounds of the Pont au Double.
THE HÔTEL DIEU was founded in the middle of the 7th century, which makes it the oldest hospital in Paris. It sits on the Parvis du Notre Dame alongside its more prestigious neighbour, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, which was founded some four hundred years later.
Originally, the Hôtel Dieu was situated on the other side of the Parvis next to the river Seine. During the Middle Ages it grew in an unplanned and rather chaotic way and by the 17th century it had spilled over the river occupying two bridges and a parcel of land on the Left Bank.
Of course, to say that the Hôtel Dieu was founded as a hospital is not exactly true; there were no hospitals as such in the 7th century. It did cater for the sick after a fashion but it was founded more as a refuge for the poor and it continued to be a refuge for Parisians until the 17th century. By this time though it had gained a terrible reputation and by the time of the Revolution in 1789, a quarter of those admitted died often of diseases contracted within its walls.
It was only in the mid-19th century when the hospital moved to a new, purpose-built home on the other side of the Parvis, the home that it occupies today, that it began to shed its reputation as a disease trap and became a place where people might be treated and even cured.
Today, the Hôtel Dieu has 350 beds and it’s the primary casualty centre for emergency cases in the first nine arrondissements in Paris. It also specialises in research into and the treatment of diabetes and it has a major ophthalmology department, which caters for ophthalmic emergencies, surgery and research.
Recently, I went to have a look at the Hôtel Dieu. From both the outside and the inside it has the feel of rather a cold, unwelcoming place.
Like most 19th century hospitals its buildings are arranged around a central courtyard connected by colonnaded walkways.
Beneath these walkways are long, seemingly endless corridors, which have a rather haunting feel to them.
Whilst these long corridors have a curious haunting elegance about them and the hospital wards themselves are perfectly clean and functional, the spaces in between are rather shabby and have a run-down feel. The entrance to the ophthalmic emergency unit for example doesn’t really inspire confidence even though it’s a state-of-the-art facility.
Regular visitors to this blog will know that, whilst I have a passion for the city of Paris, I have an even greater passion for its sounds and I found the sounds inside the Hôtel Dieu simply fascinating.
To illustrate that, I offer you two sound pieces, both recorded inside the hospital but both recorded in different ways. Both illustrate how sound can describe the atmosphere a place and create images equally as powerful as words or pictures.
The first piece is a soundwalk inside the hospital. I simply recorded as I walked along the corridors and in and out of any door that would let me pass. I didn’t of course invade any private areas – the emergency room, the wards or the laboratories, I simply kept to the public spaces.
Hôtel Dieu – A Soundwalk:
In the first piece I walked through the hospital discovering the sounds. In the next piece, I sat in one place and let the hospital walk past me.
I sat on a long wooden bench in the seemingly endless corridor shown above, outside what I discovered was the bloc opératoire which to my ear at least sounds much more elegant than the operating theatres.
Hôtel Dieu – Outside the bloc opératoire:
If you listen carefully, amongst other things you can hear the soft tread of operating theatre staff dressed in hospital scrubs and white coats returning to work after lunch.
Both these sound pieces illustrate the everyday sounds of a busy hospital, sounds that would go largely unnoticed to the ordinary visitor or to someone with more important things on their mind.
People often ask me why I record sounds like these and my answer is always the same.
For most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last ten seconds or so on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound. Almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
In the 16th century this hospital catered for some 3,500 patients at a time often with four or more to a bed. In 1832 it was overwhelmed with victims of the great cholera outbreak. We have written and pictorial evidence of what the hospital was like during those times but we have none of its contemporary sounds to listen to. Sitting on my long wooden bench in a seemingly endless corridor I was not only able to listen to and record today’s sounds of this place but to create a record of these sounds for others, now and in the future, to explore. I think I may even have been able to hear faint echoes of this place’s past.
As a final note, I have to record that the Hôtel Dieu has an uncertain future.
Thanks to a restructuring of l’Assistance Publique Hôpiteaux de Paris, the body that oversees the hospital, changes are afoot. There are proposals to close the emergency department and to change the hospital into a Hôpital Universitaire de Santé Publique, in effect, a teaching hospital which will take walk-in patients without appointment. That’s why there are banners up on the hospital walls and why the CGT union were collecting signatures for a petition on the day I went.
If these changes come to pass then maybe the sounds I recorded in the Hôtel Dieu will become more important than I thought – a genuine piece of history captured before this hospital as we know it disappears.