NAMED AFTER THE French socialist, journalist, songwriter and communard, Place Jean-Baptiste Clément sits atop the Butte de Montmartre between Rue Norvins and Rue Lepic.
To the passing tourists perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément is an unnamed octagonal structure hidden behind iron railings.
This structure is now home to la Commanderie du Clos Montmartre, an association bringing together wine lovers of Paris, but in the 19th century it was essential to the survival of the inhabitants hereabouts. It is in fact the remains of la fontaine du Château d’eau de Montmartre, the first water tower in Montmartre.
Montmartre sits on top of a hill and because of its altitude and topography getting water up to the 19th century village was a major problem. To alleviate this the water tower, powered by a hydraulic pump installed on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Ouen, was built in 1835. The water tower was abandoned at the end of the 19th century and replaced by reservoirs built close to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
While the water tower and its history is interesting there is, for me at least, another distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément – the delightful pavé surface of the pavements and the road.
I spent most of a Saturday afternoon recently sitting on a Parisian green bench beside the bus stop in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément listening to the captivating sounds of people walking past over the pavé.
Sounds in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément:
Of course, not everyone thinks that pavé is captivating; it can be uncomfortable for pedestrians and particularly cyclists, some argue that traffic passing over it causes too much noise and it has been known for the pavé to be ripped up to form barricades, something Jean-Baptiste Clément would have been very familiar with.
But on the plus side, the pavé does have at least one environmental benefit, especially in an area like Montmartre. It forms a water-permeable surface that helps to prevent the clogging of sewers and flooding during periods of heavy rain.
And as for the noise …
As a professional listener to Paris, I have long thought that the sound of pedestrians and traffic passing over the pavé is as much part of the fabric of the Parisian landscape as the bricks in the walls. Far from being ‘noise’, these sounds are, to my ear at least, some of the defining sounds of the city.
IT WAS ORIGINALLY a very ordinary square in Montmartre, a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills but today, Place du Tertre is one of the most visited squares in Paris. Standing in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur the square is filled with cafés, tourists, artists, street performers and buskers.
Place du Tertre dates back to 1635 when it occupied land owned by the Abbaye de Montmartre, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 12th century. It stands on top of a hill, the Butte Montmartre, and it is from its location that the square derives its name; tertre is the French word for hillock.
As its population increased, Montmartre became an independent commune in 1790 and then in 1860, along with a clutch of other surrounding communes, it was absorbed into the City of Paris.
Although Montmartre is a popular tourist magnet today, it wasn’t always so.
The commune was partially destroyed at the end of March, 1814 in the Battle of Paris when the French surrendered to the coalition forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia forcing the Emperor Napoleon to abdicate and to go into exile. During this time Russian Cossack soldiers set up camp on the hill and, so the story goes, it was at N°6 Place du Tertre, in the café La Mère Catherine, that the Cossacks first introduced the term bistro (Russian for ‘quickly’) into the French lexicon.
Montmartre suffered again during the Revolution of 1848 when the insurgents hid in the underground galleries of the gypsum mines and in the Paris Commune of 1870-71 when it became the cradle of the insurrection. During the Paris Commune, the Communards seized all the canons used for the defence of Paris and gathered them on Place du Tertre.
By the end of the 19th century the character of Montmartre was changing. The extraction of gypsum in the many quarries came to an end, new buildings slowly replaced the vineyards and orchards and some of the windmills were transformed into cabarets.
Place du Tertre, around 1900 : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
“In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colourful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.”
A thriving bohemian culture driven by its critique of decadent society attracted artists, intellectuals and writers to Montmartre where they frequented its vibrant halls of entertainment and celebrated them in their paintings, literature, and poems. Vincent van Gough, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were just some of the artists who took up residence in the district.
Montmartre reached its artistic zenith around the time of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 by which time it boasted over forty venues comprising cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theatres, and circuses. But it wasn’t to last. The area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre’s nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere.
Artists though are still to be found in Place du Tertre, some with regular pitches in the square and others, more itinerant, walking around capturing the willing, and sometimes the unsuspecting tourists.
Over the years many artists have migrated to Montmartre but one of the few famous ones to have been born there was Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). Utrillo specialised in painting cityscapes and it was with him in mind that I recorded my soundwalk; my sonic equivalent of an Utrillo cityscape.
Place du Tertre – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk around Place du Tertre captures some of its contemporary atmosphere but, alas, it doesn’t capture the moment on Christmas Eve 1898, when Louis Renault’s first car was driven up the Butte Montmartre to the Place du Tertre, marking the advent of the French automobile industry.
The plaque to mark the arrival of Louis Renault’s first motorcar in Place du Tertre.
Whilst its artists and entertainers might not be quite as illustrious as in the past, Place du Tertre continues to be at the heart of the vibrant community that is Montmartre.
RUE DE STEINKERQUE must be one of the most visited streets in Paris and yet I doubt that few people who pass along it will know it by name. At a little over one hundred and fifty metres long and seven metres wide it’s quite a small street but it has a footfall that far outweighs its size.
Rue de Steinkerque was originally a pathway in the commune of Montmartre. It was formally recognised as a street by decree in 1868 and it was officially named in 1877.
Its name comes from the Battle of Steinkerque fought near the village of Steenkerque, fifty kilometres south-west of Brussels, on 3rd August 1692. The battle was won by the French under Marshal François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg against a joint English-Scottish-Dutch-German army under Prince William of Orange.
Today, rue de Steinkerque is a well-trodden tourist trail leading from the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Métro station Anvers to the Place Saint-Pierre and Montmartre.
And sitting at the top of the street on the summit of la butte Montmartre is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which seems to act like a magnet for the swathe of tourists in the street below.
But to get to this towering monument built as a penance for the excesses of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune of 1871, tourists have to negotiate the rue de Steinkerque with the crowds of people, the lines of gift shops, the trinket peddlers – and the thieves determined to surreptitiously remove anything of value from the unsuspecting tourists.
I went to explore rue de Steinkerque the other day and to record a soundwalk and, not for the first time in this street, I arrived at the top find that one of the pockets of my shoulder bag had been completely unzipped without me being aware of it. Thankfully, nothing was taken – this time!
Rue de Steinkerque – A Soundwalk:
Not quite all the shops lining the rue de Steinkerque are gift and trinket shops. At the bottom of the street is the Sympa store, a place to find cheap clothing, often big brand names at unbelievably low prices.
No investment in marketing here, the clothes are just dumped into bins by the roadside for the customers to rummage through.
By contrast, the street also boasts La Cure Gourmande, a renowned maker of biscuits, chocolates and confectionary …
… as well as la Maison Georges Larnicol and le Petit Musée du Chocolat, which is well worth a visit …
… and a couple of antique shops.
A lot of people who come to rue de Steinkerque come as part of a tourist group and so it’s quite common to see tourist guides with their distinctive umbrellas gathering their flocks for the trek up the street.
If you find yourself heading for Montmartre you will more than likely find yourself in rue de Steinkerque at some point. Enjoy the atmosphere – but beware those who might be out to spoil your day!
OVER THE LAST YEAR, I’ve collected many sounds in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement. It’s one of the most visited parts of Paris and it’s easy to see why.
People come here to experience the atmosphere, to see the artists at work, to savour the food, to sample the nightlife and to enjoy the magnificent view of Paris.
In this soundwalk I’ve tried to capture some of that atmosphere.
A Soundwalk in Montmartre:
Those of you who have visited Montmartre will recognise some of these sounds I’m sure. For those of you who have never had the Montmartre experience, the soundwalk includes the sound of con men busily ripping off unsuspecting tourists on a Sunday morning at the foot of La Butte de Montmartre. Yes, I’m afraid that Paris does have its ugly side too! We take the funicular to the top of the hill where the bell on the tourist train is beckoning customers. The man making key rings from coloured wool is a permanent fixture, as is his running commentary. A walk along the rue Norvins brings us to the bistro, La Petaudiere and lunch complete with piano. We hear an Edith Piaf sound-alike, one of the better ones in Paris. We cross the Place du Tertre and come upon an altercation, a perfect demonstration of the way the French turn an argument into an art form. I’ve written about this before on this Blog. And finally, we are summoned by bells – the bells of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur peeling out on a Sunday afternoon.
I hope these sounds give you a flavour of Montmartre and for those of you who have never been, I hope it will tempt you to come and listen to the sounds for yourself.
Montmartre has its own website so you can catch up with all the news here.
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but as I get older, the prospect of climbing hills becomes much less attractive. There aren’t that many hills in Paris but, if you want to visit Montmartre, then you have no option but to negotiate a hill.
Walking up the hill is one option but there is an alternative – the funicular railway. The original funicular was built in 1900 and was water powered. In 1935 it was converted to electricity. The funicular we see today was modernised in 1991.
Climbing 36 metres in a little over a minute, the funicular carries over two million passengers a year.
It’s easier to walk down hills than to walk up them so it’s not surprising that more people use the funicular to go up than to go down. Occasionally, I do take the down trip.
The Montmartre funicular has become part of the Paris Metro system so a simple Metro ticket will avoid the need for the alternative – a 220-step climb. I recommend the funicular!
I ARRIVED AT THE METRO station Abbesses by travelling the short, one stop from the neighbouring station, Pigalle, on Line 12.
The Metro from Pigalle to Abbesses:
Thirty-six metres below ground, buried in the former Plaster-of-Paris mines of Montmartre, Abbesses is one of the deepest stations on the Paris Metro network – so deep that a lift is provided to carry passengers to the surface.
For the more adventurous, it’s possible to do it the hard way by climbing the long, winding, seemingly never-ending, staircase. The effort does have its rewards, like the original tiles lining the walls of the stairwell.
Whether ascending by the lift or the stairs, the rewards waiting upon reaching the surface are certainly worth it.
This has to be the most photographed Metro entrance in the world. It’s one of Hector Guimard’s originals and one of only three that are left – the others being at Porte Dauphine and Place Sainte-Opportune. The Abbesses entrance was originally the entrance to the Hôtel de Ville station but it was moved to the Place des Abbesses in 1970.
The Place des Abbesses takes its name from the former Abbey of the Dames des Abbesses founded as far back as 1133 by Adelaide of Savoy, the wife of Louis VI. The reputation of the abbey – and of the Abbesses for that matter – waxed and waned over the years but it managed to survive in one form or another until the French Revolution when it was finally suppressed. Madame de Montmorency-Laval was the last abbess and she came to a sticky end – she was sent to the guillotine in 1794!
If Madame de Montmorency-Laval were with us today, what would she find on the site of her former home?
She would find that there are still ecclesiastical references. The Crypt of the Martyrium, which she would have known well, is the chapel built on the site where, allegedly, Denis, Bishop of Lutetia, (later Saint Denis) was decapitated in 250AD. She would be pleased to know that the chapel is still alive – but only open to the public on Friday afternoons. She would find the Eglise-Saint Jean-de-Montmartre, a more recent ecclesiastical structure, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist in 1904.
She would be very familiar with the cobblestones in the Place des Abbesses and I like to think that she would approve of the rather delicate sound of traffic slowly rumbling over the pavé which has a curiously romantic feel to it.
She would no doubt find the sound of today’s street musicians in the Place des Abbesses curious but, since music was an integral part of abbey life, maybe she would not entirely disapprove.
I like to think she would also approve of the contemporary creation – the “I Love You” wall – a wall of deep blue glazed tiles with dashes of pink inscribed with the words “I Love You” in over three hundred languages.
All in all, I think Madame de Montmorency-Laval, like the flocks of tourists who visit each year, would be well pleased with today’s Place des Abbesses.
THE MOULIN ROUGE in Pigalle is a magnet for tourists. At almost any time of the day or night you will find people standing in front of it queuing to buy tickets or waiting to get in to see the scantily clad dancers perform. Across the street, people with cameras in hand flirt with the traffic trying to capture images of this Paris icon.
Of all the tourists who flock to this place I suspect very few venture a few steps to the left of the Moulin Rouge and explore its next-door neighbour, the Cité Véron.
Named after a local resident and Mayor of Montmartre from 1830 – 1841, this charming cul-de-sac sits cheek by jowl with its more well-known and lively neighbour in quiet contentment. On a beautiful spring day I went to explore the Cité Véron.
This cobblestone alley has an intimate feel. It’s eighty metres long and just three metres wide and in the springtime the lush vegetation leans over to occupy what little space there is for pedestrians.
The sound of the traffic from the busy Boulevard de Clichy close by seems to almost disappear the further along this alley you go. But on the day I went, the sound of the traffic was replaced by a completely different sound.
Not surprisingly on a beautiful spring day, birdsong was in the air but there was something else too … the sound of a piano. The Cité Véron is lined with high walls causing the sound to reverberate so it was difficult to tell exactly where the sound was coming from. I could tell though that it was not coming from an extra loud CD player, this was the real thing – somewhere, someone was playing a piano.
Further investigation eventually led me up some stone steps to an open window and a wonderful surprise. Through the window came the sounds as a répétiteur played the piano accompanying a full-blown ballet class.
This was no children’s Saturday afternoon dance class – this was the real thing. Beautiful, supple young women gracefully pushing their bodies further than bodies should be pushed – all under the command of an authoritative, elderly gentleman issuing his orders in time to the music.
Beautiful young women, arabesques, pliés and the sound of a piano through an open window is not quite what I expected when I arrived in the Cité Véron. But, it seems that this place does, after all, have something in common with its more raucous next-door neighbour.
This post is dedicated to a friend of mine, a former ballet dancer. I’m sure these sounds will bring back mixed feelings for her – the pain of the tortuous practising rewarded only by the joy of performing.
IT ALL STARTED QUITE innocently. A Sunday afternoon in Montmartre, a light lunch in the extraordinary Bistro La Petaudiére, a quick look into the Espace Salvador Dali and then a walk across the Place du Tertre in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
The artists were working at their easels in the centre of the Place du Tertre and the tourists – yes, such is the magnetism of Montmartre, that there are tourists even in January – were filling the thoroughfares on all four sides of the Place du Tertre either watching the artists at work or searching for tables for a late lunch.
The entrance to the Place du Tertre by the Brasserie au Clairon des Chasseurs is a bottleneck at the best of times but particularly so on this Sunday afternoon. A group of bare-footed street performers had pitched up completely blocking the thoroughfare. The tourists were being particularly tolerant even though they were in gridlock. Less so the artists. Tourists mean money and any distraction that prevents the flow of tourists is unwelcome. These street performers were definitely a distraction and therefore very unwelcome.
Despite exhortations for them to move on, the street performers remained resolute and continued their performance.
One artist was so incensed that he took matters into his own hands. He emerged from the artist’s colony in the centre of the Place du Tertre with a glass bottle filled with water. He sprinkled the water onto the road where the street performers were strutting their stuff and then he threw the bottle to the ground smashing it to pieces. In the best French tradition, a huge altercation then ensued in which everyone joined in.
In situations like this, waving a camera around to capture the scene was probably unwise, or so I judged, since I was right in the thick of it. Capturing the action in sound though is quite another matter!
For the French speakers amongst you, the colourful language is sufficient to capture the scene. For those of you who are anxious to speak French by repeating what you hear, a warning. Be very careful as to which of the words you hear in this sound clip you repeat in public – unless of course you too want to start an altercation in Montmartre or anywhere else for that matter!
Paris as seen from Montmartre:
THE BASILIQUE DU SACRE-COEUR is situated on the top of the butte Montmartre. Built in a Romano-Byzantine style using white travertine stone, which whitens with age, the Basilica provides a commanding view of Paris.
Montmartre and the Basilica of Sacré-Couer are magnetic attractions for tourists each year. But how many of these tourists know that Sacré-Couer is a relatively recent construction? Completed in 1919, the Basilica of Sacré-Couer was built as a monument to the end of the Franco Prussian war and the ensuing Paris Commune of 1870-71.
I like going to Sacré-Couer to listen to the sounds – notably the sound of the very fine Cavaille Coll organ inside the Basilica and the sound of the bells outside.
The Bells of Sacré Coeur:
The bells of Sacré Coeur are housed in the bell tower which is detached from the Basilica itself. The most distinguished and majestic of the bells is the giant “Savoyarde”. Cast in Annecy in 1895, the bell weighs in at a massive 19 tons making it one of the heaviest bells in the world.
Some people visit Sacré Coeur as tourists, others to worship and some for quite different reasons…
As for me – I am simply Summoned by Bells*.
*Summoned by Bells, is the blank verse autobiography by John Betjeman, first published in November 1960 by Betjeman’s London publishers, John Murray.
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.