When visiting Paris, a piece of life experience will be lost to you if you do not take the slow stroll down the Champs-Elysees. Parisians have always regarded their special street as their ‘Plus Belle Avenue du Monde’. And so it is. For most of us, the Champs-Elysees is a form of virtual fantasy. We can look but never touch. We can’t really afford to contribute to it, but we can feel it and be part of it for half an afternoon. I sometimes take the air along this concourse to admire a grand nation state. I never feel like an intruder and feel that part of it is mine in a way, as a devoted Francophile.
The Champs-Elysees is a wide avenue of affluence, light, inspiration and all that perhaps could be. The route is the Princess of Paris and runs between the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triumph in the distant eighth arrondissement. It is the grandest component of the 10 kilometre long ‘Axe Historique’ or ‘Triumphant Route’. It blends perfectly with the apparently dead straight line of iconic architecture from the Royal Palaces to the Grande Arch so far away in the La Defense district.
The Champs-Elysees means Elysian Fields, the paradise for dead heroes in Greek mythology. It was originally laid out by Andre le Notre in 1667 as an extension of the Jardin des Tuileries. Prior to its inception, the route was just an area of suburban fields and kitchen gardens. Louis XIV found the inspiration to get it all going and it has become the iconic symbol of Parisian grace and urban sophistication.
The Champs-Elysees today is filled with luxury shops and one or two very polished modern fast food outlets. There are a number of upmarket theatres, cinemas, restaurants and places of other culture. It has changed a bit from the way that it was in previous decades. It has been evolved to meet more contemporary tastes to suit current Parisians and visitors. Earlier it was an island of highly regarded culture and exclusive artistic inspiration available only to the few.
The Champs-Elysees is home to an annual Bastille Day military parade held each year on 14th July. The parade is always a symbol of the current military strength of the French nation. It is also a reminder of the historic liberation of French society that emerged from the Revolution that ended over two hundred years ago.
The Tour de France is a gruelling national cycle race reminding the world of a strong sporting culture held by the French nation. This always ends along the Champs-Elysees in glamorous style with a very honourable final non contest. All of the riders provide a vibrant scene as they allow the overall winning rider from the multiple previous stages to cross the line first. Top level cycle racing and France are synonymous.
The route is also home to the Jardin des Champs-Elysees or urban park. This is a sort of extension to the Tuileries gardens just beyond the eastern edge of the street. The garden is a place for contemplation of the beauty and peace of City life. Grand architectural features of the Avenue Foch and the Course-la-Reine can be savoured in this park too.
At the western end of the avenue rests the Arc du Triumph. Close up, this is such a massive, prominent and imposing architectural feature. It was inaugurated to mark the victory of Napoleon at the battle of Austerlizt in 1818. Sadly for him, it was not completed until after his death. Twelve major Parisian thoroughfares radiate from the Arc which rests on what was once called the Place de Etoile, the place of the star. It is now called the Place Charles de Gaulle. The Arc de Triumph provides the resting place for the Unknown Soldier from French conflicts in the two World Wars. Official marches through and under the Arc du Triumph have always been prohibited as an appropriate mark of respect to the memorial. The invading German army on the 14th June 1940 even respected this French imposition. They strutted around the walls of the Arc rather than through it on the occasion of Adolf Hitler’s only visit to the City.
There is a great statue of Napoleon astride his horse in place close to the threshold of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. This was constructed in 1852.
The Champs-Elysees is a prominent component of the Historic Axis or Triumphal Way in central Paris. The Avenue occupies almost a kilometre of the total length of the axis which is about ten times as long.
Visitors taking the walk along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees will feel a particular sense of greatness and Gallic history as they observe the street life around them. They will feel a distinct quality of our human society and a perception of all that is so fine about modern day European achievement. To fully enjoy the Champs-Elysees requires a particular affluence and taste. We are all human beings though and can claim we are all really a part of it. The Avenue is a celebration of humanity in itself.
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