MARKETS HAVE BEEN a feature of Saint-Denis since the seventh century. Then the markets were held at Place Panetière, in front of the Basilique de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France; final resting place of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, spoke of Place Panetière as a place where “everything to buy or sell may be found”.
Today, Place Victor Hugo and Place Jean-Jaures occupy the former Place Panetière but the markets have survived and nothing much has changed – everything to buy or sell may be found.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday an indoor market, housed in the 19th century Grande Halle, opens for business and an outdoor market appears on Place Jean-Jaures and in the surrounding streets.
The outdoor market is rather like an African souk selling everything from clothes and fabrics to a range of footwear, cosmetics, bags, clay cooking pots and other assorted household goods, tools and plants, as well as some high-end, branded goods at suspiciously low prices.
But for me, the indoor market inside the Grande Halle is the main attraction. With its sights, sounds and exotic smells, visiting the Grande Halle is a multi-sensory experience not to be missed.
Sounds inside the Grande Halle, Marché de Saint-Denis:
To get to the Grande Halle I passed a man on the street selling boxes of what he claimed were top-of-the-range perfumes, Givenchy, Dior etc., for knock down prices and a fascinating lady selling couscoussières. I stopped to listen to their sales patter, which you can hear in my sound piece.
Although tempted, I did though decline an invitation from another stallholder to buy a ‘genuine’ Longines watch for the bargain price of six Euros!
The Grande Halle is a food market but it’s also a microcosm of French history, gastronomy and successive waves of immigration and the sounds inside the Grande Halle reflect this cultural kaleidoscope.
Produce from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and North Africa sits beside Caribbean cooks, spice sellers from Morocco, magnificent displays of fruit and vegetables from around the world and even more exotic fish. The butchers, including Halal butchers and a horse butcher, sell conventional cuts of meat as well as tripe and meat you won’t find in the swanky shops in the centre of Paris including pig’s heads, feet and everything in between. Nothing goes to waste.
Sunday is the busiest day at the market when whole families turn out to hunt for bargains and they seldom leave disappointed.
Just as in Abbot Suger’s day, everything to buy or sell may be found.
LAST YEAR, I WALKED the full length of the Canal Saint-Denis from its junction with the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette to the final lock, l’Écluse de la Briche, where the canal discharges into la Seine.
The last leg of that walk took me to the western edge of the municipality of Saint-Denis and since then I’ve been back to Saint-Denis many times to capture more of its sound tapestry.
Saint-Denis is one of the poorest municipalities around Paris and it often gets a bad press, not least because of its high crime rate – not to mention the dramatic headlines it made a couple of weeks ago in the aftermath of the 13th November attacks in Paris.
Mairie de Saint-Denis
The other day I went to Saint-Denis to record more sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive and among the sounds I captured were those from a soundwalk I did in Rue de la République, one of the main shopping streets.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, Saint-Denis hosts a huge market made up of an outdoor street market in the Place Jean Jaurès, which spills over into the surrounding streets, and a fabulous indoor food market in the neighbouring Grande Halle. I’ve recorded the sounds of these markets several times and I will feature some of them in a future blog piece.
Since Rue de la République is close to the outdoor market it becomes overwhelmed with people when the market is open but on my recent recording trip to Saint-Denis I wanted to capture the sounds in this street when it wasn’t at its liveliest – I simply wanted to capture the ordinary, everyday sounds of an ordinary street in Saint-Denis.
Soundwalking is a fascinating way of exploring and exploring ordinary streets can often reveal the unexpected.
I discovered that Rue de la République has an interesting ecclesiastical symmetry. At its eastern end is a masterpiece of Gothic art, the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France, containing the tombs of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm.
The eastern end of Rue de la République with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
At the western end of the street is another church, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée, still referred to as the ‘new church’. Compared to the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis of course, which dates from the 12th century, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée is relatively new since it was completed as recently as 1867.
The western end of Rue de la République with l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée
I began my soundwalk along Rue de la République at its eastern end with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis and the Mairie de Saint-Denis behind me.
Soundwalk along Rue de la République:
I didn’t realise it at the time but my soundwalk also reflected another symmetry in the street – the sound of a passing bus ringing its warning bell at the start and the sound of a warning bell on a tram on the recently opened Tram Line 8 passing by at the end.
The first fifty metres or so of the street is open to traffic but after that Rue de la République is reserved for pedestrians.
About halfway along Rue de la République I came upon the post office whose elegant exterior belies its rather scruffy interior.
What I discovered next was quite unexpected.
Directly opposite the post office is Rue du Corbillon, a seemingly ordinary side street leading off Rue de la République. But sometimes the ordinary is not what it seems.
At about 4.20 on the morning of 18th November, five days after the Paris attacks, the police sealed off the entire Rue de la République, evacuated local residents, and focussed their attention on N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
N° 8 Rue du Corbillon
What followed was an intense gun battle with around a hundred heavily armed elite special forces, supported by the army, firing more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition amidst heavy explosions. The operation ended at 11.37 am by which time three people had died: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, his 26-year-old cousin, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, and an unidentified third person. Eight people were arrested.
Listening to the everyday sounds at the junction of Rue de la République and Rue du Corbillon, I couldn’t help imagining the sounds that would have been heard here on the morning of 18th November – echoes of sounds heard across the city five days before.
Unlike at the sites attacked in Paris, there are no floral tributes or messages of sympathy outside the boarded up N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
For me, the image of this building will soon be forgotten – quite unlike the images of the shuttered cafés and restaurants attacked on 13th November, which will live with me for a very long time.
Yesterday, the Café Bonne Biere in Rue du Faubourg du Temple, where five people died in the Paris attacks, reopened – the first of the attack sites to do so.
You can read about my walk along the Canal Saint-Denis by clicking the links below:
MY LAST THREE POSTS have covered my recent exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds.
In Part 1, I walked along the western side of the canal from its starting point in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. In Part 2, I crossed over the Pont MacDonald, left the Paris city limits, and walked along the eastern side of the canal to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, in the commune of Aubervilliers. In Part 3, I left Aubervilliers and continued walking along the eastern side of the canal until I reached the heart of Saint-Denis where I had to cross over to the western side again in order to continue to the end of the canal at L’Écluse de la Briche where the canal discharges into la Seine. As I walked along the canal I stopped from time to time to capture the sights and sounds of the canal and I made several detours to look at and to listen to other things that caught my interest.
I’ve included some of the sights and sounds I captured along the canal in my previous three posts but now I want to add something else I captured, something that I think captures the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
As I passed the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N°6, L’Écluse Saint-Denis, I discovered that my way was barred because of renovation work to the walls of the quay and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare to the other side. As I crossed over this footbridge I had no idea that it would be a further hour before I continued my journey along the canal.
My diversion over the Passerelle de la Gare, across the Place de la Gare, then over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis and back again to the western quay
Saint-Denis; Place de la Gare
I crossed the footbridge and entered the Place de la Gare, the concourse outside Saint-Denis railway station, when I came upon something completely unexpected and something that occupied me for the next hour or so.
I found that I was in the midst of an African street market complete with its colourful sights and sounds.
Street Market in the Place de la Gare – Saint-Denis:
The market stretched across the Place de la Gare and over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis but it’s not an official market, on the contrary, it’s an ad hoc and technically illegal market that appears most days of the week. The police though seem to tolerate it, they patrol the area regularly, always in groups of three, whereupon the vendors hastily pack their goods away and wait until the police leave before they get back to work.
Of course, the police haven’t always been so tolerant and I was reminded of this when I saw a sign attached to lamppost with an alternative name for this space – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961.
October 1961 was a particularly inglorious time for the police as the two memorial plaques I found explain.
Memorial plaque in the Place de la Gare
Memorial plaque on the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis
I’ve referred to these events elsewhere in this blog so here I’ll just leave the plaques to tell their own story.
In my walk along the entire length of the Canal Saint-Denis, I photographed many images and recorded many sounds but, for me, it is the sounds of this market that capture the real essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
At the end of Part 3 of my exploration of the canal I said:
“My walk along the canal made me think not only about my immediate surroundings but also about history; the medieval history of the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis, the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and the more recent de-industrialisation with the urban decline and attempts at renewal that have followed in its wake.”
With a little imagination, I think the contemporary sounds I discovered in the Place de la Gare illustrate some of that history.
At first glance, it might not be obvious how to connect these sounds with a medieval past but markets and their sounds are nothing new to Saint-Denis or to the surrounding area.
The first market hereabouts, la foire de la Saint-Denis, the Fair of Saint-Denis, dates back to the seventh century when an autumn fair was held beginning on October 9th each year, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint-Denis and the date of the annual pilgrimage to his tomb. The fair was held at the Place Panetière and in covered markets, but also in the main cemetery of the Abbeye de Saint-Denis. It lasted for seven-weeks, from October 9th to November 29th, Saint Andrew’s Day, and since it was held well after the harvest and during grape-picking it allowed the abbey to sell its grain and surplus wine produced by its extensive vineyards.
The subsequent arrival of the Vikings interrupted this annual fair but the monks of Saint-Denis revived it again in 1053 with the Lendit Fair. In the early twelfth century, the market was moved to the La Plaine Saint-Denis, halfway between Paris and Saint-Denis, where it began on the second Wednesday in June and lasted until June 23, the eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The market returned to the Place Panetière in 1556.
Today, as well as the ad hoc street market in the Place de la Gare, Saint-Denis is well-known for its thriving indoor and street markets clustered around the former Place Panetière, now the Place Victor Hugo.
When it was opened in 1821, the Canal Saint-Denis created a ribbon of water cutting through the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and stretching across the agricultural Plaine Saint-Denis and through medieval Aubervilliers as far as Saint-Denis. In its wake came the railway and a wave of industrialisation. The canal became a major artery feeding the burgeoning industries; it became the lifeblood of the communities along its banks.
Today, save for the stretch along the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement, a walk along the Canal Saint-Denis reveals little of the sonic environment that might have existed in the nineteenth century. Of course, barges still pass up and down the canal and trains cross it, there is mechanical activity – trucks take on loads of ready-mix concrete and JCB’s load and off-load construction materials, but there is little of the bustle of human activity that would have characterised the canal during the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The sounds I came upon in the Place de la Gare reminded me that this canal, in its hey-day, would have had a pulse reflecting the heartbeat of the human communities along its banks.
After industrialisation came de-industrialisation along with its bedfellows, increased unemployment, increased poverty, the flight of the wealthiest part of the population and increased immigration.
Issues around immigration seem to make big headlines today but immigration is nothing new along the Canal Saint-Denis. Nineteenth century industrialisation saw waves of immigrants arrive just as de-industrialisation has. The sounds I found in the Place de la Gare seemed to me to reflect the ebb and flow of these populations.
I’ve said that the sounds I happened upon in the Place de la Gare were sounds that for me at least captured the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis. Out of context they are simply the sounds of yet another street market but in the context that they are the sounds of human activity lying alongside and straddling the Canal Saint-Denis they seem to me to represent a series of footprints stretching from the present day to the distant past.
The essence of the Canal Saint-Denis surely rests with its location, its history and the activity on and around it. The sounds of this ad hoc market in the Place de la Gare with accents from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere may represent this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis today but I would argue that they are also a reflection of the medieval markets in the Plaine Saint-Denis which themselves were not attended exclusively by the French.
The modern-day sounds I think also represent a similar heartbeat to that which might have been found alongside the canal at the height of industrialisation – bustling activity against a background of competing accents. The period of de-industrialisation, of course, is to some extent represented by the very people I found in the Place de la Gare.
The one piece of history that is perhaps not represented by these sounds is the retrieval of the dead bodies from the canal in October 1961. Maybe that’s appropriate though because I suspect that they would have been treated with a respectful silence.
Place de la Gare – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961
In my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I recorded many sounds all of which are a faithful record of the canal as it is today. But, for me, none of them conjure up as much of the essence of the canal as the sounds in the Place de la Gare.
IT WAS SOMEWHERE AROUND the year 270 AD when Denis, a Christian missionary and Bishop of Paris, was martyred on the hill we now call Montmartre. Denis was beheaded during the period of Christian persecution under the Roman Emperors Decimus and Valerian. It is said that after his head was chopped off, Denis picked it up and walked six miles or so preaching a sermon as he went. The place where he eventually fell and died was marked by a small shrine which eventually became the Basilique Saint-Denis and the burial place of the Kings of France.
The Basilique Saint-Denis is a medieval abbey church in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. The abbey church was created a cathedral in 1966 and is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis. The building is of unique importance historically and architecturally.
In Roman times the site was a Gallo-Roman cemetery but around 475 Saint-Genevieve purchased some of the land and built a church. This became a place of pilgrimage and in the 7th century, Dagobert I had this church replaced with something grander. By the 12th century it had grown to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in France. The abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features turning it into a masterpiece of what came to be known as Gothic art. The basilica provided an architectural model for the cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
From the 6th century onwards, the Basilique Saint-Denis became the necropolis of French monarchs. Most of the kings and queens of France were buried here. The list is impressive: 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. With I think three exceptions, all the French monarchs were buried here from Hugues Capet onwards.
Over the years, the Abbey was plunged into decline by wars and the Revolution. During the Revolution the tombs were opened and the bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby and dissolved with lime. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church and the royal remains were left in their mass graves. Thankfully, most of the tombs survived the Revolution and today they lie resplendently in the much-visited “Royal Necropolis of France”.
Sounds from the Necropolis:
Clovis I (465 – 511) and Childebert I (496 – 558)
Henry II and Catherine de Médicis
Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon
The fate of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette of Austria is well known. Both were guillotined in the Place de la Concorde during the Revolution. They were though not initially buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis, but rather in the churchyard of the Madeleine, where they were covered with quicklime. Louis XVIII, the last king of France to be buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis, ordered that the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette be transferred from the Madeleine cemetery and today they lie side by side in the crypt of the Basilique Saint-Denis.
The two centre tombs: On the left is Marie-Antoinette and on the right is Louis XVI
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.