THE ‘END OF THE LINE’ STRAND in my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds I capture in and around each terminus station on the Paris Métro system. From time to time I share the atmosphere of some of these terminus stations and their surroundings on this blog.
In previous ‘End of the Line’ posts I’ve explored the sounds in and around the Métro station Les Courtilles, the branch of Paris Métro Line 13 terminating in the northwest of Paris, and the sounds in and around Métro station Château de Vincennes, the easterly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1. Now I’m going to explore the sounds in and around the Métro station La Défense – Grande Arche, the westerly terminus of Métro Line 1.
However, to make this ‘End of the Line’ segment more manageable I will divide it into two parts. Today’s post, Part 1, explores inside La Défense – Grande Arche station and the next post, Part 2, will explore the sounds around the station in what is said to be Europe’s largest purpose-built business district containing most of the Paris urban area’s tallest high-rise buildings.
La Défense looking to the West
Because it serves the largest business district in the Paris region, La Défense – Grande Arche is a multi-functional transport hub. Not only is it home to the western terminus of Métro Line 1, it also houses a Transilien suburban train station, an RER station, a tram station and a bus station, all designed principally to handle the huge number of commuters who travel to and from work in La Défense each day.
La Défense – Grande Arche: The main concourse
The business district of La Défense is so big that it actually has two Métro stations. Esplanade de la Défense is the first of these so it was approaching here on my way to La Défense – Grande Arche that I began my sonic exploration.
Exploring La Défense – Grande Arche station in sound:
Opened on 19th July 1900, Métro Line 1 is the oldest line on the Paris Métro network. Built by the one-armed railway engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, to connect various sites of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the original line comprised eighteen stations between Porte Maillot and Porte de Vincennes. In 1934, the line was extended to the east from Porte de Vincennes to Chateau de Vincennes and in 1937 it was extended to the west from Porte Maillot to Pont de Neuilly. In 1992, Line 1 was extended again to the west from Pont de Neuilly to La Défense. In 2007, work began to automate Line 1 and on 15th December 2012 a fully automatic service was introduced. Today the 16.5 km Métro Line 1 is the most utilised line on the Paris Métro network handling over 600,000 passengers per day.
Arriving at the La Défense – Grande Arche terminus, I alighted and made my way up to the cavernous station concourse. This used to be a dingy, inhospitable place but a recent coat of paint has brightened it up a bit and now, the usual suspects cater for the commuters.
From the main concourse I headed off to explore the tram station, home to Tram Line T2.
Tram Line T2, linking the south-west suburbs of Paris with La Défense, began operating in 1997. The tramway was built on the former train line thus making it independent from the road. An extension In 2009 added five more stations towards the south, extending to Port de Versailles and in November 2012, another 4.2 km northern extension beyond La Défense to Bezons added a further seven stations.
The extensions to Tram Line 2 are part of a larger scheme in the Île-de-France aiming to increase connectivity of the suburbs by creating up to 70km of bus and tramways around Paris.
The Transilien suburban trains operate from platforms adjacent to but separated from the tram platforms.
While the public address announcements in the main station concourse are almost unintelligible, those in the tram station are much better – even if they do seem to appear end-to-end.
From the tram station I went back to the concourse and on to the RER station and RER Line A.
With more than one million passengers a day, RER Line A is the busiest Parisian urban rail line.
With the section of the line running through the city centre closed each summer for maintenance and construction work, much to the dismay of commuters, and with the line badly affected by alerts for suspect packages, which have doubled in the last year, it’s hardly surprising that, according to a 2017 survey by transport authorities in the greater Paris region, trains on RER Line A run on time only 85.3% of the time. Add to that grossly overcrowded trains and the occasional strike and RER Line A can sometimes be a challenge.
Despite the introduction of advanced traffic control systems that enable extremely short spacing between trains during rush hour (under 90 seconds in stations, under 2 minutes in tunnels) together with several upgrades in rolling stock, ever-increasing traffic volume and imminent saturation continues to blight the line.
Still, it’s not the worst performing RER line. According to the 2017 survey, that accolade goes to RER Line D.
The sounds of La Défense – Grande Arche presented in this post are a distillation of my original ninety minute recording now consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I hope they give you at least a flavour of the sonic tapestry hidden below the monumental Grande Arche de la Défense. In Part 2, I shall explore the sounds up on the surface.
Even with this extensive transport facility complete with its coffee shops and fast food outlets, travelling to and from La Défense during the rush hour each day can be a grim experience. I know, I did it for thirteen years!
LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.
The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL
In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.
This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.
Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.
The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record
The aircraft fly-past:
The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde
Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.
If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.
The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.
For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.
Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.
It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.
The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense
I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.
The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.
From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.
If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.
All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.
At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.
Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.
Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past
The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.
In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.
Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.
But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.
What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.
The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.
But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.
By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.
With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.
On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.
The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.
Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.
But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.
LA DÉFENSE IS A MAJOR business district in the far west of Paris. It lies at the extreme western end of the axis that begins at the Louvre and continues along the Champs Elysées beyond the Arc de Triomphe to La Défense.
At this time each year, La Défense is host to a large Christmas market built in front of La Grande Arche, one of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets. Designed by Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel, La Grande Arche was built as a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals.
Standing in front of La Grande Arche last Saturday afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the 350 tiny wooden châlets and the giant office blocks that surround them. I was also struck by the stark contrast of the traders in the châlets trying to sell their wares to ordinary punters like me with some of the madness associated with these giant buildings.
Take the building on the left for example, Coeur Défense. At the height of the financial madness in 2008, Coeur Défense became the most expensive piece of real estate on the planet when it was bought by Lehman Brothers for an astonishing €2.1bn. They bought it just as the property market peaked and we know what happened next. Property prices fell, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and disposing of Coeur Défense become Europe’s largest distressed property sale.
I was also thinking about Société Générale, France’s second largest bank, whose offices are a short walk from the Christmas Market in La Défense. On January 24, 2008, the bank announced that a single futures trader had fraudulently lost the bank €4.9 billion, the largest such loss in history.
All this stands in stark contrast to the individual stallholders at the Christmas market trying to make a living and bringing some Christmas cheer in the process.
Music at the Christmas market:
Christmas markets in Paris are always enjoyable to visit even if you do tend to see the same stalls in more or less the same places each year selling more or less the same things. Each year, I set off to capture the sounds of the Christmas markets but, as each year passes, I find it more difficult to find something different to record. These musicians for example, good as they are, are always at the Christmas market in La Défense, in the same place and often playing the same music.
So this year, even though the sounds I found at La Défense were pretty much the same as every year, I’ve tried to capture a different emphasis by putting the individual stallholders centre stage as they go about selling their wares.
Consider it a poke in the eye to the ‘suits’ who plundered the pension funds of the unsuspecting public to the tune of billions!
La Défense Christmas Market – A Soundwalk:
LA DEFENSE, IN THE FAR WEST of Paris, is a high-rise business ghetto and home to many French and multi-national companies. It is quite unlike any other area of Paris.
In early November each year on the Parvis of La Défense, in front of La Grande Arche, construction of the annual Christmas market begins.
With its wooden châlets selling almost everything you can think of, this Christmas market looks quite surreal against the landscape that is La Défense.
This year the market opened for business on 24th November and it lasts until 27th December.
Of course, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is not the only show in town.
The huge Christmas market in the Champs Elysées, with its rows of white châlets lining both sides of the avenue from the Rond Point all the way down to Place de la Concorde, is expected to host around 15 million visitors this year. Although the Marché de Noël in La Défense is much smaller, it is also more intimate and, since it is just two Metro stops from my quartier, I prefer it.
Of all the wide variety of things on sale, my favourites are the wonderful food stalls of which there are many.
As well as being rich in delicious food, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is also rich in sound and this group of South Americans are well-known street musicians in Paris.
They can be found playing on the streets and in the Metro – and they are also an annual feature of the Marché de Noël in La Défense.
Not the Christmas fare that some of us would expect – but delicious nevertheless.
I shall keep the writing very brief for this post and let the music speak instead.
Here are two of the several recordings that made from the feast of music that was to be found in Paris on Midsummer’s Day. These recordings were made at the jazz festival on the Esplanade of La Défense.
The originals were recorded in broadcast wav format and compressed to mp3 for this post.