This Paris Life

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Paris and the Champs Elysées

Bonjour! We could not resist a leisurely walk through the most beautiful sections of the “City of Light” to promenade down the world’s most elegant avenue: the Champs-Elysées. 

The Historic Road

At its origin, it was simply a very ambitious king’s will to modernize an urban landscape. King Louis the Fourteenth believed that France, the first nation of the Occident, required in its capital city a “Grand Course” so to speak, so he ordered a straight line drawn between the Louvre and the Castle of St-Germain. Until the reign of Louis Sixteenth, the limits of this road would stop at the Chaillot Hill (known today as Place de l’Etoile). In our day, this unique passage known as the “Historic Road”, is 12 kilometers in length, leaving the Louvre, passing through the Tuileries Gardens, up the Champs-Elysées to the Place de l’Etoile (where the Arc of Triumph stands), then encompassing the Grande Armée Avenue and Neuilly Avenue, finally culminating at the magnificent “Grande Arche de la Défense”. This grand road has served in the past, and still serves as the background for many of the main events in the city of Paris.

Place de la Concorde

With a total surface of about 880,000 square feet, the Place de la Concorde is the largest and probably the most famous square in Paris. The construction of this octogonal square, on which would be placed an equestrian statue of King Louis the Fifteenth, began in 1748. At that time, the goal was to embellish what was nothing but a large empty terrain, which divided the Tuileries Gardens from the Champs-Elysées. Finished in 1763, the famous square was the setting of many tragedies. In 1770, when it was still called “La Place Louis Fifteenth” a fireworks display in honor of the marriage of Marie-Antoinette to Dauphin (future King Louis Sixteenth), erupted into an uncontrolled blaze that cost the lives of more than one hundred spectators. A few years later, when the square was referred to as “La Place de la Révolution”, it was used as an execution site. A guillotine replaced its royal statue and more than one thousand people were killed. Executed there were Louis Sixteenth and Marie-Antoinette, both in 1793, and also Danton and Robespierre, noted revolutionaries and victims of their own fanaticism. Re-baptized “Place de la Concorde” under the Directory of Louis-Philippe, the Luxor obelisk was erected in 1836. Louis Philippe had received the 3300-year-old, 23-meter tall, 230-ton monument from the Pasha of Egypt Mehemet-Ali. It took no less than 4 years for the transport of this column from Egypt to Paris!

Gabriel’s Colonnades
To respect the perspective and not alter the Seine frontage, it was decided that only the North part of the square, which is now referred to as “La Place de la Concorde”, would be closed off by any architecture. The Architect Gabriel was commissioned to design and erect twin palaces, with a fine colonnade adjoining them. Today the twin palaces hold the Hôtel de Crillon and the Hôtel de la Marine. It was in the Hôtel de Crillon that the Treaty of Friendship and Trade between the King of France and the 13 Independent States of America was signed in 1778. Benjamin Franklin was among the signatories.

The Champs-Elysées
Until the eighteenth century, the Champs-Elysées was in the countryside, in a swampy and brambly region. The adjacent streets were but obscure alleyways where garden sheds and dance halls neighbored each other. Developing a promenade and planting elms in the midst of fields and swamps was the simple mission given to the famous landscaper Andre le Nôtre, in 1667, by Louis the Fourteenth. Le Nôtre, who was also the mastermind of the vast and varied Versailles gardens, created a road aligned with the Tuileries Gardens, which he had also designed, in order to extend its perspective and embellish it, all the way to what is now known as the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysées. In 1710, the Duke D’Antin had a bridge built to allow the prolongation of the avenue to the Chaillot Hill (now known as the Place de l’Etoile). This hill being quite steep, the Marquis of Marigny began work to landscape the area in 1774, which reduced it by five meters. He also had the avenue widened all the way to the Porte Maillot and the Neuilly Bridge. The Champs-Elysées only began to take on its current grand form in 1828, when sidewalks and side roads were built, and more than one thousand gas candelabras were installed. Then followed public establishments such as cafés, restaurants, concert halls and theatres.

The Chaillot Hill, Hill of the Etoile
In 1730 this hill was already called the “Etoile of Chaillot” because of the few primitive streets that crossed it in the shape of a star. In 1854, five roads were installed: the road from Paris to Neuilly (the actual Avenue des Champs-Elysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée), the Chemins de Ronde (now the Avenues Kléber and Wagram) and finally the Avenue de l’Impératrice (our current Avenue Foch). Three years later, seven more avenues were added resulting in a total of twelve avenues that converge in a rigorously geometric fashion towards the Arc of Triumph. In the spirit of symmetry and balance that was building in Paris, twelve private hotels, with perfectly proportioned architecture were built between these roads. The architect Hittorff thought the facades of these buildings should not be too imposing so as not to detract from the Arc of Triumph, so he made them bland and understated. This did not please the Baron Hausmann who thought these buildings so ugly he planted trees in front to hide them!
The Arc of Triumph
The search for a monument, which would highlight the Place de l’Etoile, began in Louis Fifteenth’s era. Wild ideas were expressed. One of these was even the construction of a giant elephant with a ballroom and theatre! It was Napoleon who, in 1806, decided to construct an Arc in honor of all his victories. The construction was long and controversial however. It required almost 2 years to build the foundations, which were 8 meters deep, because the soil would not support such a structure. The Arc of Triumph is 50 meters high, 45 meters wide and weighs 550 tons. It was finished in 1836 and inaugurated by Louis-Philippe. Most of the sculptures that adorn the monument represent the various Napoleonic victories. The most famous is probably the one that evokes “the leaving of the Volunteers” also called “the Marseillaise”. It represents the Nation leading its citizens to battle to defend their freedom. The names of hundreds of generals are also engraved on the interior walls. This list caused much anger because many generals were forgotten, one of which was Victor Hugo’s father. The Arc is also the site of the grave of the Unknown Soldier. In January 1921, an anonymous soldier was interred under the monument in as the symbol of the sacrifice of 1 400 000 soldiers during WW1. The Flame of Remembrance from the First World War is rekindled every day with a ceremony and has been burning days and night since 1923.
The Potato and the Avenue de la Grande Armée

It is on a piece of land situated at the lower end of the Avenue of the Grande Armée that a certain Mr. Parmentier, pharmacist in the Army, who had been a prisoner in Virginia while participating in the American Independence War, chose to experiment with the first potato planting in France; (potatoes were previously unknown to the French.) His first harvest was presented to Louis the Sixteenth and Marie-Antoinette in 1786. Impressed, the King placed a potato bud in his boutonniere and ordered that he be served potatoes every day. Very quickly his courtesans followed suit, but it was not until 1840 that the potato arrived on the plate of the average French citizen. Mr. Parmentier was a precursor during the Century of Enlightment as far as health was concerned. He advocated early his conviction that better health depended on better nutrition. Having been unable to find efficient ways to conserve meat and milk products, he is one of the first to have thought of refrigeration as a means of conservation. He is also the one who legally imposed the vaccination of smallpox in France, which officially ended in 1973.

A Stroll on the Champs-Elysées
The next time you are in Paris, or even glancing at a photograph of the magnificent avenues all glittering in holiday lights, try to imagine that the quintessential “grand avenue” of Paris – the Champs-Elysées so alive with lights, shops, nightclubs and traffic- could once have been considered the countryside in the 18th and first part of 19th century. It is said that Stendhal lived in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building that opened onto the Champs-Elysées because he was: “looking for the peace and the solitude of the countryside, in the only area in which it exists in France!” And, the Countess d’Armaille wrote in her memoirs: ” In the Champs-Elysées the countryside was near us; as soon as we crossed the barrier of the Etoile, the small roads of the Avenue of Saint-Cloud and Ternes announced the fields. At the Porte Maillot, you felt you were on a trip.”

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