Eight sounds that tell you you're definitely in Paris

Evie Burrows-Taylor
Evie Burrows-Taylor - [email protected]
Eight sounds that tell you you're definitely in Paris
Photo: AFP

There are certain sounds that let you know you are in the City of the Light.


There are a few sounds that everyone associates with Paris: impatient drivers beeping their horns at traffic lights, sirens on speeding police cars and the sound of scooters cruising past cafés. Then there's the bell ringing cyclists, the din from the packed bars and terraces and the sounds of tour guides on buses or boats. 
But it's rare for people to take the time to appreciate the hidden aural gems just waiting to be discovered, the city's resident sound expert and author of the Soundlandscapes' blog, Des Coulam, told The Local.
"We live in a very visual world," Coulam said. "But Paris is a very sound rich city if you take time to explore it in this way." 
So while the tourists are out instagramming themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower en masse, it's often the sounds of the French capital that are the most memorable. 
Here are eight that Coulam says define Paris: 
Cars driving over cobbles
 (The famous cobbles of the Champs Elysée)
Paris is full of cobbles and one of the pleasures that comes with the uneven streets is the sound of cars driving over them, "particularly when driving slowly", says Coulam. 
"This sound characterizes Paris above all else," Coulam told The Local. "It sounds like a 50s French film noir".
Crunching over the gravel
When we think of the typically Parisian white gravel, we're likely to associate it with the sound of tourists around the Tuileries Gardens and the Jardin de Luxembourg, but in fact it can be found all over the city.
The white gravel that runs alongside much of the Bassin de la Villette on the city's canal is where hoards of Parisians and visitors to the city congregate to play pétanque and have picnics in the warmer months. 
Noisy demonstrations
The French people are known for demonstrations and nowhere is this more true than in the capital. From union protests and student demonstrations to anti-gay marriage marches, Paris has seen it all. 
From the blowing of whistles to the chants and the loud music systems and from the police sirens and the sounds of riot police charging and of course the sound of tear gas being fired and bottles smashing, demonstrations in Paris hare made up of a cacophony of different noises.
Coulam recommends visiting one of the bigger French cafés like the famous Deux Magots, in the Saint Germain district, closing your eyes and taking in one of the great sounds of Paris.
"You get layers of sound at a café," he said. "There's the general hum, the sound of people's conversation and the sound of the waiters taking orders and clearing up the plates."
Paris is known for its markets and anyone familiar with them will know how loud they can be. 
"The sound of the Saint Denis market is really special," Coulam says, highlighting the layers of foreign languages and general hubbub of the open-air and indoor market where visitors will find vendors from all over the world selling fruits, spices and pastries. 
Coulam also noted the flower and bird market which takes place on Sundays on the Ile de la Cité as a more touristy option for discovering the sounds of the city's markets.
Bells of Notre-Dame
The bells of Notre-Dame are particularly special to Coulam who is an expert on their history. 
The world famous cathedral has had bells ringing out since the 12th century (before it was even completed) and while more bells were added over time, adding to the majesty of the sound, they were removed during the French revolution and all except one were melted down. 
Later the bells were replaced with substandard versions and it was only in 2013 that the former majesty was returned to the cathedral when replicas of the original bells in place before the revolution were fitted. Unlike many of the sounds you associate with Paris, this one isn't modern at all. 
Gare du Nord 
It's far from the most popular station in Paris but it's hard to deny that Europe's busiest rail station, Gare du Nord has its uses. And according to Coulam, there is more to this much maligned part of life in the French capital than meets the eye.
"The unique sound of the trains stopping on the tracks is down to the iron used to build the station in the early 1800s," he said. But that will all change during the two-stage modernisation of Gard du Nord due to end 2023 and Coulam is busy archiving the station's sounds so that this piece of the city's history isn't lost. 
Bird wall (at Hôtel de Sully)
Keen to encourage others to appreciate the sounds around them as he does, Coulam points out that sometimes listening carefully will reveal things we can't see. This is particularly true at the Hôtel de Sully in the Marais. 
Along one side of the courtyard, a wall covered in leaves hides hundreds of birds which can be heard singing, particularly during spring. 




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