N° 40, RUE DU TÉLÉGRAPHE, in the 20th arrondissement, is the highest point in Paris weighing in at 144.48 metres or 474 feet.
Today, N° 40, rue du Télégraphe, is home to Belleville cemetery occupying land once owned by Louis Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau … and this site has a history.
It was on this site in 1792 that Claude Chappe (1763 – 1805), a French physicist, first demonstrated his ingenious semaphore system that eventually spanned the whole of France. Mounted on a series of towers 10 – 15km apart, the system comprised a pair of telescopes and a mechanical semaphore whose arms could be moved to angular positions that corresponded to letters and numbers contained in a codebook.
Chappe’s semaphore, or telegraph, grew to a network of 556 towers covering some 5,000km. This ingenious form of communication was revolutionary since it reduced the time taken to transmit messages over long distances from days to hours or even minutes. The first major achievement came in 1794 when the telegraph informed Parisians of the capture of Condé-sur-l’Escaut from the Austrians less than an hour after it occurred. Chappe’s telegraph became the fastest means of communication of it’s day, a sort of mechanical internet, but it only lasted until the mid 1800’s when it was superseded by the new and even faster electric telegraph.
Looking across the cemetery at N°40 rue du Télégraphe today, two modern towers stand more or less where Chappe’s first semaphore tower once stood. And, given their location, it’s perhaps not surprising that these towers carry a communications antenna providing a firm connection with the past.
As well as being home to Belleville cemetery, today’s rue du Télégraphe is also home to a busy street market which, when I went to explore the story of Claude Chappe, was packing up for the day. I found the ‘end of the day’ sounds unlike the usual Paris street sounds and fascinating enough to include in my Paris Soundscapes archive.
Packing up the market stalls:
Like the rue du Télégraphe, the local Métro station, Télégraphe, takes its name from Claude Chappe’s invention. It’s on Métro Line 11 and it’s one of the deepest stations on the Paris Métro system.
The depth of the station is obvious when looking at the escalator leading up part way from the platforms to the surface. Although escalators of this size are quite common on the London Underground they are quite rare on the Paris Métro.
Télégraphe station is also a little unusual in that the two tracks are separated by a wall giving it more of the feel of a London Underground station than a Paris one. The wall is necessary because the station is built on unstable ground, something I prefer not to think about too much when visiting the station! They do though have holes in the wall so that you can at least get a glimpse of the opposite platform.
I love the sounds of the Paris Métro. The trains, particularly the older trains with metal wheels, seem to come alive as they wheeze and clatter entering and leaving the stations. But it’s not only the sounds of the trains themselves that I enjoy. I find the sounds between the trains coming and going equally fascinating. They almost always have a much softer, more delicate but none the less interesting appeal. The sound of women’s shoes reverberating as they walk along the platforms, the sound of distant, half-heard, conversations, the unzipping of a bag, the rustle of clothing are all very rich sounds that contrast starkly with the very masculine, dominating sounds of the trains. These sounds are always there if you take time to stop and listen.
Métro Station Télégraphe:
Télégraphe may be off the tourist track and you probably won’t find it in a guidebook of Paris but it is worth a visit. Like most places in Paris, hidden or otherwise, it has its history, its sounds and a story to tell.
THE PARIS MÉTRO SYSTEM is reputedly the second busiest Métro system in Europe after Moscow and the Métro station Châtelet – Les Halles is said to be the largest Métro station in the world.
Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place Sainte-Opportune
Châtelet Métro station is named after the medieval Place du Châtelet, which in turn is named after the Grand Châtelet, a castle over the northern approach to the old Pont au Change over the Seine to the Île de la Cité, which was demolished by Napoléon in 1802. The Grand Châtelet lost its defensive purpose in 1190 when Philip Augustus built a rampart around the perimeter of the city; from then on it served as the headquarters of the prévôt de Paris, the official “charged with protection of royal rights, oversight of royal administration, and execution of royal justice” in late medieval Paris. Amongst other things, the Grand Châtelet was known for its subterranean dungeons and, for the ordinary citizen, it was a place to avoid at all costs.
Nothing much has changed! The Métro station has the feel of a subterranean dungeon, a cavernous place with little to commend it except for its utilitarian use as a means to get from one place to another. Few people come to this place except to pass through it to get somewhere else.
Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place du Châtelet
The station is home to five Métro lines. Lines 7 and 11 run under the Place du Châtelet and the Quai de Gesvre, site of the original medieval river port of Paris, and lines 1, 4 and 14 are towards the Rue Saint-Denis and the Rue de Rivoli.
I found this potted history of the development of the Métro lines at Châtelet via Google and from my knowledge of the Paris Métro, it seems to be a good and accurate summary:
‘The station was opened on 6 August 1900, three weeks after trains began running on the original section of line 1 between Porte de Vincennes and Porte Maillot on 19 July 1900. The line 4 platforms were opened on 21 April 1908 as part of the original section of the line from Porte de Clignancourt to Châtelet. It was the southern terminus of line 4 until the opening of the connecting section of the line under the Seine to Raspail on 9 January 1910.
The line 7 platforms were opened on 16 April 1926 as part of the line’s extension from Palais Royal to Pont Marie with the name Pont Notre-Dame-Pont au Change. It had no direct connection with Châtelet. On 15 April 1934 a connecting corridor was opened to the platforms of lines 1 and 4 and the line 7 station was renamed. The line 11 platforms were opened near the line 7 platforms on 28 April 1935 as part of the original section of the line from Châtelet to Porte des Lilas.
On 9 December 1977 the Châtelet – Les Halles RER station was opened with a connecting corridor with a moving walkway to Châtelet. The line 14 platforms were opened near the line 1 and 4 platforms on 15 October 1998 as part of the original section of the line from Madeleine to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand. On 7 and 8 March 2009 the line 1 platforms were restored during the automation of line 1, including the installation of platform screen doors.’
I’ve passed through the Châtelet Métro station many times but I’ve never visited it as a place itself. The other day, I put that right. I went and explored all five of the Métro lines that connect there although I left the three RER lines for another day.
I recorded the sounds of all five Métro lines, together with sounds of the passengers and the musicians who are a delightful feature of this station. This is what I came up with:
Châtelet Métro Station – A Sound Portrait:
The Moving Walkway
After spending an entire afternoon in the station I came away with some delicious sounds for my Paris sound archive, a snapshot of which you’ve heard here, but I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was in a subterranean dungeon.
For the Métro buffs who take an interest in these things, the trains in my sound piece appear in the following order:
Line 4, Line 11, Line 14, Line 7 and Line 1 … but then you knew that already!