WALKING ALONG THE RUE du Faubourg Saint-Antoine from Bastille towards L’hôpital Saint-Antoine, past the clutch of wonderful half-hidden passageways, it’s easy to slip back in time. Since the 13th century the Faubourg Saint-Antoine has been full of artisans plying their trade. An exemption from guild membership and the associated fees and taxes attracted carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, ironworkers and a variety of other craftsmen to the area. Even today, if it’s furniture you want, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is the place to be.
On a Saturday in late February I found other artisans also plying their trade. On the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, just beyond the Square Trousseau, I came upon these street musicians thoroughly enjoying themselves.
As someone who is in love with sound, I couldn’t help imagining the cacophony of the 13th century carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths and ironworkers nearby.
The sounds of the 13th century remain firmly fixed in my imagination but I can share the sound of today’s artisans with you just as they shared them with me … but I can’t help wondering what our 13th century friends would make of it.
THE PLACE DES VOSGES is a square of perfect symmetry. Comprising thirty-six grand houses, nine on each side, with deep slate roofs with dormer windows over brick and stone arcades – the Place des Vosges is a Parisian treasure.
The Place des Vosges dates back to King Henry IV and the Grand Siècle. Henry was somewhat of a city planner and his original idea for the Place Royale as it was then called was to use the shell of the old Tournelles palace in the Marais as a site in which to develop a silk industry which could, he hoped, combat the Italians and boost the domestic economy. But his scheme quickly took on a different life. With the aid of his Chief Minister, Sully, the idea of providing a workers’ village in the Place was transformed into creating an elegant urban square dominated by the aristocracy.
The famous literary hostess, Madame de Séveigné, was born here in 1626, Cardinal Richelieu stayed here in 1615, the poet Théophile Gautier and the writer Victor Hugo both lived here in the nineteenth-century.
I find the Place des Vosges attractive at any time of the year but it is in the summer when the tourists flock to this space.
As well as the architecture, the green space in the centre and the history, the tourists can also enjoy the up-market street music. The Place des Vosges boasts the aristocracy of street musicians in Paris. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, especially in the summer, classically trained musicians, including opera singers and classical instrumentalists of the highest standard, perform here for free.
But even in the winter – on a cold Saturday in January – excellent street music can be found.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Place des Vosges hunting for interesting sounds. I started recording as I was walking around the Place with no particular objective in mind – and then I came across this – a walk under the arcade arches, past the front of a café and then, further on, three musicians, a bass player, a guitarist and an accordionist, playing to an audience of one – me! What impressed me was that they were playing music because they thoroughly enjoyed playing music – audience or no audience.
I hope you enjoy the sounds and the enthusiasm of the musicians as much as I do.
I couldn’t help feeling that the ghosts of Madame de Séveigné, Théophile Gautier and Victor Hugo were enjoying it too – but what would Cardinal Richelieu make of it?
It’s Friday and it’s Christmas Eve.
I went out late this afternoon to explore this wonderful city and to see what I could find.
My first stop was the Place Hôtel de Ville. When I emerged from the Métro, light snow was falling. It wasn’t a huge amount, but enough to ensure that this was a ‘white’ Christmas Eve.
The carousel, a permanent fixture, was doing good business.
And, as always at Christmas, in the shadow of the Hôtel de Ville, was the patinoire, the outdoor skating rink, which is always well attended. People of all ages come to the patinoire and all of them much braver than me!
I left the Hôtel de Ville and walked across to the Cathedral of Notre Dame where people were going inside without having to wait in the long lines that seem to be quite normal for most of the year. It will be a different story late this evening of course when they will be queuing up to get into the Midnight Mass.
I walked on to the Square Viviani which was covered in snow. The green benches that I have so often sat on in late summer evenings looking at the Church of Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre, were today covered in snow.
It was all very pretty, especially the view across the square and La Seine towards the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Inevitably, from there I just had to call into the world’s greatest bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, where I bought Gertrude Stein’s memoire of Picasso which I’m sure will make a good Christmas read. Look out for it; I shall put it up on the ‘Books’ section of this blog in due course.
From there I walked on, across the Boulevard Saint-Michel, across the Place Saint-André des Arts into the rue Saint-André des Arts and then, taking a left turn, into the ‘Passage’ that is home to the oldest coffee house in Paris, Le Procope.
This coffee house has been here since 1686. All the 18th century philosophes were regulars in the Café Procope – Voltaire, Rousseau, Beaumarchais and many others. The French revolution brought another swath of visitors including Danton, Marat, Camille Desmoulins and numerous members of the sans-culotte. In later years the Café Procope played host to George Sand, Gautier, Balzac and Victor Hugo.
It was a great joy for me, on this Christmas Eve 2010, to drink coffee in the footsteps of these great 18th century philosophes. A highlight indeed!
After that delight, I retraced my steps – a quick stop for dinner in La Braserade in the Rue de la Huchette and then the Métro and home.
Thus was my Christmas Eve.
I leave you with this Christmas gift to all of you who have followed this blog throughout the year and have offered me so much support.
More from the singers in Saint-Séverin …
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.
MY LAST POST WAS ABOUT the Christmas market in La Défense. This post is about a Christmas market even closer to home – the Christmas market here in Neuilly sur Seine.
This Christmas market is a short hop from the bottom of my little street. Walking past a couple of cafés, the best boulangerie in Paris, a Chinese traiteur and an electrical shop, one comes to the Parvis of the Hôtel de Ville which hosts our Christmas market. It comprises about thirty wooden châlets nestling close together on the Parvis selling everything one would expect to find at a Christmas market. It’s all very local and very intimate.
Small it may be but this Christmas market still manages to throw up surprises.
Much to my delight, I found this gentleman playing his little street organ and singing as I was walking through the market the other day.
And more was to follow. A small group of children from the Ecole Maternelle close by were being shown round the market. When this gentleman saw them he ushered them around him and began to play a popular French children’s Christmas song – and the children all joined in enthusiastically. It was a real delight to listen to.
Compared to the giant Christmas market in the Champs Elysées our little market here in Neuilly is tiny – but I know which I prefer.
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.
ON MONDAY MORNING of this week I found myself at St Pancras station in London. I had survived unscathed the Eurostar disruption caused by the recent snow in both France and the UK and so, here I was, with time to spare, waiting to meet some people for a meeting.
I ventured into the excellent Foyles bookshop on the lower level of St Pancras and browsed the books on sale – a wonderful feast as always. I received a call to say that the people I was due to meet were in the Costa Café at the other end of the station so I left Foyles and set off to meet them.
On the way, and much to my surprise, I came across this group of people standing in a huddle in the middle of the station concourse They were singing.
Had I arrived earlier I could have recorded more but as it was I was only able to record this short piece. Nevertheless, it brightened up my day.
ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON I was buying books in a very over-crowded W.H. Smiths on the corner of the rue Rivoli and the rue Cambon. I came out of the warmth of the bookstore into the chill of Paris in early winter. I turned left into the rue Cambon heading for one of my regular watering holes, Chez Flotte, where I intended to have a well-earned sit down, a small pichet of Beaujolais Nouveau and a good read. As I approached the hostelry I could hear shouting in the distance. I decided to go and investigate.
The rue Cambon was once home to Coco Chanel and her first fashion house in Paris still remains alive and well.
Other glamorous fashion shops also line the rue Cambon.
How appropriate then that at the intersection of the rue Cambon and the rue Saint-Honoré I should find a demonstration taking place – an animal rights demonstration.
A group of young women were protesting about the killing of animals and the use of their skins to provide fur coats and leather handbags for the fashion conscious Parisiennes who frequent this particular quartier of Paris.
Their message was:
These young lady protesters were clearly passionate about their cause … and I found it hard to disagree with them.
I AM NOT A FAN of shopping but even I have to admit that a trip to the Galeries Lafayette is an experience – especially at Christmas.
Located in the Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement, close to the Opéra Garnier, the Galaries Lafayette welcomes around 100,000 visitors a day – more than Harrod’s in London or Bloomingdales in New York.
The sound of a walk through the Galeries Lafayette
Compared to its status today as a 70,000M2 ‘Temple of Shopping’ and Paris icon, the Galeries Lafayette had humble beginnings. In 1895, Albert Kahn rented a shop in Paris at the corner of Chaussée-d’Antin and rue Lafayette to sell gloves, ribbons, veils, and other goods. The shop was small, but sales were good. It was eventually enlarged, and in 1898 Kahn was joined by his cousin, 34-year-old Théophile Bader. The partnership flourished and they soon purchased the entire building along with adjacent buildings on the Chaussée-d’Antin. The Galeries Lafayette was born.
The magnificent glass dome and wrought iron balconies dominate one end of the store – a vivid reminder of 19th century Paris – contrasting starkly with the clean-cut, up-market, brand-named, cosmetics counters that lie beneath.
The Galeries Lafayette is famed for its stylish window displays – no more so than at Christmas when crowds of people gather to see the show.
Today, the Galeries Lafayette is a magnet for tourists with the Chinese leading the way followed by Americans and then Japanese. A walk through the store reveals a cosmopolitan mix of people some of whom come just to look and others who come to spend, spend, spend!
It may have begun life as a modest corner shop, but the Galeries Lafayette, along with the other new-fangled 19th century department stores, Printemps, Bon Marché and La Samaritaine, started a revolution in retail shopping which continues today.
The sound of a walk outside past the window displays.
LES PASSAGES COUVERTS, or arcades as they are known in English, conjure up a wonderful picture of Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The history of the passages couverts goes back to the Galerie de Bois in the Palais-Royal. Built in 1786 by Philippe d’Orléans, the Galerie was open to the public for a variety of commercial and entertainment purposes – some more savoury than others. Whilst the Galerie de Bois was built in the classical style of French public architecture of the time, the new arcades begun at the turn of the nineteenth-century represented everything that was modern.
“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need”. So says the ‘Illustrated Guide to Paris’ of 1852.
The 1820’s and 1830’s marked the heyday of the passages couverts. In all, 150 were built of which around 20 survive today.
Inside Passage Verdeau
In the early nineteenth century, the idea of ‘indoor shopping’, with a collection of shops sitting cheek by jowl offering a wide variety of merchandise, was as new as the arcades that provided it. Before the arcades appeared, shopping in Paris was a hazardous business. There were no pavements, the uncertainties of the Parisian climate and the level of street filth and mud made Paris an unsavoury place – not to mention the constant risk of death in the streets. As Baudelaire said, ‘death comes at the gallop from every direction at once’ . The concept of a group of shops, inside, under cover, was an attractive proposition to the Parisian public. I suppose we can say that these arcades were the first ‘shopping malls’ that our consumer society seems to be so much in love with today – but now we do it on an industrial scale and with far less elegance.
Inside Passage Jouffroy
In the bottom right-hand corner of the 9ème arrondissement there remain two passages couverts – the Passage Verdeau and the Passage Jouffroy. Both are on the north side of the Boulevard Montmartre. Cross that Boulevard into the 2 ème arrondissement, and directly ahead, and in line with the other two, is the Passage des Panoramas, not only the first arcade to be opened but the first to be lit by gas lamps. All three are well worth a visit.
Built in 1847, the Passage Jouffroy was the first passage couvert to be built entirely of iron and glass and the first to be heated. Throughout its life it has been home to shops selling a wide variety of merchandise – from books and post cards to La Boîte à Joujoux, with its magnificent collection of doll’s houses and all things miniature, to G. Segas, famed for its selection of walking sticks and other curiosities.
And speaking of curiosities, tucked away at one end of the Passage Jouffroy is the Hôtel Chopin. Surely one of the more curious locations for a hotel.
At the other end of the Passage Jouffroy is another curiosity, the Musée Grévin – a waxworks museum.
The decline of the passages couverts owed much to Haussmann and the Grands Magasins – the department stores – another French invention. Over the years, many of the passages couverts fell into decay and a good number disappeared altogether. Thank goodness the Passage Jouffroy and others have survived to be restored to their former glory.
Ambient recording made inside the Passage Jouffroy last Saturday afternoon
SATURDAY 6th OCTOBER – Place de la Bastille – and yet another manifestation about the French pension reform.
The mild pension reform has passed into law, the tear-gas has dispersed and petrol has returned to the pumps – but still they took to the streets. Even the heavy rain didn’t dampen their spirits.
Sounds from the manifestation:
This manifestation was led by the CGT, Confédération Générale du Travail, the largest French trade union and, although a large demonstration it was nothing compared to the one that took place in the same place on 16th October. That had huge popular support and people turned out in massive numbers to express their opposition to the pension reform. As a passive observer, I couldn’t help feeling that this latest demonstration was largely made up of the hard-core activists determined to keep the fight going even though the battle is lost. So often in the past, French governments have given in to the voice of the street sometimes by repealing legislation that caused the protests after it has been enacted into law. We shall see if that happens this time – but somehow I doubt it.
And maybe it is because the CGT doubt it too that there seemed to be a harder edge to this latest protest – a last gasp of desperation maybe.
I’ve said before that whilst the participants take these protests very seriously, they are almost always good-natured affairs. But just occasionally, someone doesn’t stick to the script. On Saturday, for the first time for a long time, I saw and encountered first-hand, some unpleasantness. At the corner of Place de la Bastille and Boulevard Beaumarchais stands a BNP bank. I rounded the corner into Boulevard Beaumarchais to record the manifestation when I was confronted by three youths wearing white face masks. Their ghostly appearance and aggressive demeanour indicated that they were not going to simply ask if I was having a good day! Instead, they were intent on throwing eggs at the two cash points in the wall of the BNP bank just behind me.
Sound of eggs smashing into cash machines:
Unsettling – yes, but as violence goes I suppose it wasn’t all that important – save for one of the eggs missing my right ear by a whisker.
And what did their particular form of protest achieve? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps for demeaning the thousands of other protestors who genuinely believed in their cause – not to mention the waste of eggs.
By contrast, there was something to cheer about – this wonderfully satirical take on the French Président, Nicolas Sarkozy. Enjoy!