Les Champs-Elysées—Quintessential Paris
(excerpted from Paris Insights – An Anthology)
On a rare sunny day one early spring, my colleague and I decided to take a ride on “La Roue de Paris,” the huge Ferris wheel that sits at the end of the Tuileries garden at Place de la Concorde. There were a few concession stands at the base of the wheel, and the lovely aroma of golden-brown gaufres (Belgian waffles) permeated the air.
The view of Paris from the wheel was breathtaking, particularly on this clear day. The wooded mound of Butte Chaumont and the chalk-white splendor of Sacré-Cœur were in the distance, and much closer, the dome at Invalides looked as though you could reach out and touch it. The precision of the Tuileries garden with its first spring blossoms lay at our feet, and it was marvelous to be able to see this landscape in its entirety. But for me, the most impressive view from the wheel was that of the Champs-Elysées, the world’s grandest avenue.
Between the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe lies the 330-year-old thoroughfare that is renowned everywhere. In the distance farther to the west lies the Grande Arche de la Défense. Built under François Mitterand, the monument completes the line of grandeur that begins with the Louvre and the Tuileries garden. Postcards simply cannot capture the power and the spirit that emanate from this magnificent example of city planning.
The Champs-Elysées was born in 1670 as the result of landscape architect André Le Nôtre’s design of a tree-lined garden stretching from the Louvre to the hill where the Arc de Triomphe now stands. Over the years, constant remodeling and upgrading turned it into a veritable playground. Circuses, concerts, and other types of performances for public amusement flourished. A number of the pavilions and theaters that housed these activities are still found in the gardens on either side of the first stretch of the avenue between Place de la Concorde and the Rond-Point.
Many fine residences were built along the Champs-Elysées. Thomas Jefferson occupied one of these homes from 1785–89, when he was the US ambassador to France.
Public celebrations and rallies have been a part of the history of the avenue for centuries, and that tradition still holds today. Every year, the Tour de France cycling race terminates on the “Champs” (the French are avid cycling fans), and thousands of people cram the sidewalks to cheer on their favorite team. And what would Paris be without its annual Bastille Day celebration, including a huge parade on the avenue with a fabulous aeronautical display overhead and fireworks once dusk falls?
Whether you go to get a glimpse of the romance of centuries past, to do some serious shopping in the luxury boutiques along the avenue, or to idle away the hours at a sidewalk café, the Champs-Elysées is a “must-do” for everyone!
Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is co-founder of Discover Paris! and a contributor to Paris Insights – An Anthology