Updated 26 May 2010
The Champs Elysées ('Elysian Fields') is the thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of Paris and links one end of the city to the other. It consists of the major roads that run from the south-east to the north-west of Paris. The Avenue des Champs Elysées (running from the end of Concorde to Etoile) is the focal point for French celebrations and in recent times it has played host to the festivities of the millennium party and the impromptu chaos that surrounded France's winning of the 1998 World Cup. It is also where the French air their gripes and frustrations, and recently it was the place where the French of all strata of society and religions gathered to protest against the rise of the far-right in the 2002 Presidential elections.
To drive its full four miles (7km) can take from between 15 minutes and three hours, depending on the time of day. But Paris is the city of lights and lovers and it is a city where you walk. If you're walking you can expect to pass five hours to traverse its entirety. What better way to impress your beloved than giving them useful nuggets of history of the sites you'll pass as you stroll down the Champs, arm-in-arm? Nothing... so, below you'll find five sections outlining a little history of five sites along the Champs.
The Louvre - Built by King Philip II in about 1200 and remodelled by Charles V in the 1300s, the Louvre is a true pièce de resistance. In 1546, Francis I transformed it into a palace in the Renaissance style, and since then rooms, wings and yards have been added. The Louvre acted as the centre of royal court life until 1670, when the court relocated to Versailles. After the Revolution in 1793, the Government opened the palace up as a museum of captured royal booty. The Louvre continues this tradition started by Napoleon and the galleries stretch for over 13km and are lined with some of the most important sculptures and paintings of the past 500 years, including the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa (called La Joconde in French), which was once stolen but returned in 1911. Interestingly enough, the Louvre also houses the French Finance Ministry.
Jardin des Tuilleries - The Tuilleries lead on from the Louvre and the current layout is almost identical to that executed by André le Notre - the French landscape artist who also set out the beautifully manicured gardens at Versailles. The Tuilleries is also the scene of the 1792 massacre of the Swiss Guard who were sent to protect the French Aristocracy during the Revolution. The greatest monument to those who died in the massacre can be found in Lucerne in the shape of the Dying Lion statue that Mark Twain once described as 'the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world'.
Despite the lack of monuments to the dead, there is one monument to ego that stands in the garden - the triumphal arch. This is a copy of an arch that Napoleon saw in Italy and decided that he wanted his own monument to victory in Paris. He ordered his very own arch to be built in the Jardin des Tuilleries but when he saw the size of the structure (no taller than the walls of the Louvre), his vanity was affronted and he ordered the construction of a grander arch - L'arc de Triomphe that we know and love. Napoleon died, though, before it was finished... If you stand directly under the arch, you can see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance - the centres of the two arches are perfectly aligned. This is also a great photo snap opportunity.
You can't walk down the gardens without noticing the glass pyramids. The pyramids, designed by IM Pei, stand in the Cour Napoleon and were unveiled in 1989. They have courted controversy ever since. In the words of an expert:
Of all the Grands Projets in Paris, none created such a stir as the Pei Pyramids in the courtyard of the famous Louvre Museum. Spectacular in concept and form, they provide a startling reminder of the audacious ability of modern architects to invigorate and re-circulate traditional architectural forms... The main Pyramid is basically a complex inter-linked steel structure sheathed in reflective glass. In fact it is an entrance doorway providing a long-overdue entrance portico to the main galleries of the Louvre. As one descends into the interior entrance foyer, the dramatic nature of the intervention becomes apparent. The main Pyramid, which certainly disturbs the balance of the old Louvre courtyard, is countered by two smaller pyramids, which provide further light and ventilation to the subterranean spaces.
- Dennis Sharp, Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History
In other words it's a post-modern trippy way of letting light and more tourists into the bowels of the museum while redefining France's approach to modern architecture. Its allusions to antiquity sit quite comfortably and also complement the obelisk in the...
Place de la Concorde - The largest square in Paris and the centre of the Champs, the Place de la Concorde was completed in 1763 and it originally formed an octagon - this shape has since been altered due to modern construction. The goriest aspect of the Concorde's history is also the most macabre of French history. It was here that the scaffold holding the guillotine that executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was raised. As well as executing nearly 3,000 others, this particular guillotine also killed Robespierre (lawyer and French Revolutionary) and Danton (who was instrumental in the overthrow of the monarchy).
The centre plinth in the Concorde was once occupied by a statue of Louis XV - however, it was dismantled after the revolution and was ultimately replaced by the Obelisk that is still there today. Given to Charles X by Muhammad Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, in 1829 when he needed the support of the French army, the obelisk is 75ft tall, covered in hieroglyphs, and weighs 220 tons.
La Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume - Built under Napoleon III, the Jeu de Paume used to be home of the French equivalent to Real Tennis, but, after a period of inactivity, it was converted into an art gallery at the beginning of the 20th Century.
It has a patchy and somewhat dark history. During the war, the museum was closed off to the public but served as a store house for looted Nazi treasure - the fate of the paintings is an issue that is being discussed in international forums to this very day. After the war, the museum used to house the national collection of Impressionist paintings until they were moved to the Musée d'Orsay in 1986. The gallery has found new life in recent years as a home to contemporary French art and artists, and is well worth a look. It's easily missable, so look at the corner of la Place de la Concorde and Rivoli.
L'Arc de Triomphe - At 164ft tall and 148ft wide, the Arc is the hub of 12 avenues - this part of the Champs is called Etoile, meaning 'Star'. Home of the Eternal Flame marking the tomb of the unknown soldier, many tourists climb the inside of the Arc to get some of the best views of Paris. On state occasions, a huge Tricolore is draped from the underside of the arc. The Arc de Triomphe is in perfect alignment with the smaller arch in the Cour Napoleon to the south east and the Grande Arche de la Defense to the North West.