The image of the triumphal arch at the top of the Champs Elysee in Paris is one that is familiar to most people who have grown up in the 20th/21st century. Even if you only watch the nightly TV news of the Tour de France, you realise it is the destination of this grueling bike race around the countryside of France. If anything is happening in Paris, the television cameras descend on the Arc de Triomphe to ensure it is in the background of the filming to give the viewers clear indications of which city they are watching. The Arch is so iconic for the French, that even invaders from the east use it to ensure the humiliation of the French is complete. The images of German soldiers marching under/around the arch in 1870 and 1940 will always remind the French of the darkest days of their military history.
Of course, if there is a problem with triumphal arches, it is built into their intrinsic purpose which is to celebrate military victories. The inspiration for Napoleon in 1806 when he ordered this arch to be built after his success in the Battle of Austerlitz, was probably the Arch of Titus in Rome. This famous arch celebrating the destruction of the Jewish rebellion and the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE would no doubt have figured in dispatches to Napoleon when his armies entered Rome in 1796. Perhaps Napoleon had been impressed by ancient triumphal arches left behind by the all-conquering Romans themselves in Southern France in places such as Arles and Montpelier. Perhaps he needed to boast in 1810 to his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Napoleon had a wooden replica of the Arch built to welcome the bridal couple into Paris after their wedding (Left below).
Perhaps it is this dilemma of the Arc de Triomphe that inspired Francos Mitterrand to build a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals, the Grande Arche de la Defense (on right above), completed in 1989. It can be seen framing the sky in the distance over the River Seine, down the Avenue Charles de Gaulle from the Arc de Triomphe.
Whatever Napoleon’s original intentions in building the Arc de Triomphe, it stands today as a masterpiece of city planning and as a memorial to all France’s citizens who have died in war over more than two centuries. Its official name is Arc de Triomphe de L’Etoile as the original name of the plaza where it stands was Place de L’Etoile; it was renamed after WWII as Place Charles de Gaulle. Clearly the name refers to the star shape of the plaza where 12 radiating avenues spread out into the city of Paris.
Napoleon not only wanted a grand arch for Paris, he wanted to use it to celebrate the grand history of his time in the French army during the revolutionary wars in Europe (1785-1802) as well as his victories during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1810). On the side of the Arc de Triomphe facing the Champs Elysee, there are two complex sculptures capturing these two periods. On the left below is ‘Le Depart de 1792 (La Marseillaise)’ with a winged personification of liberty chaperoning the volunteers of the Revolutionary army. On the right is the ‘The Triumph of 1810’, celebrating Napoleon’s victory and peace settlement over the Austrians.
Higher up on the arch are relief sculptures celebrating other Napoleonic victories. Below left is the ‘Battle of Aboukir’ of 1799 where Napoleon’s army defeated an Ottoman army in Egypt. The relief on the right is the funeral of one of Napoleon’s victorious generals, General Marceau who died at the age of 27in a battle on the Rhine.
We did our tour of the Arc de Triomphe later in the morning after our visit to the Bois de Boulogne. It was then time to do a stroll down the most famous street in Paris, Avenue des Champs Elysees, the street of shopping opulence and the final grand route of the Tour de France. It is the connecting road between the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde where the amazing Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor takes pride of place in between the beautiful fountains of a piazza, redolent with French history.
After walking down the Champs Elysee, the traveller has a number of equally interesting options. You have the choice of continuing on and inspecting the Place de la Concorde and continuing straight on through Le Jardin des Tulleries, a route that eventually leads to the Louvre. There is so much to see on this route that I would suggest leaving it for another day. Given that there are so many choices of places to go in this area, many visitors to France miss the opportunity to inspect the beautiful Grand Palais that sits on the corner of the Avenue de Winston Churchill and the Champs Elysee.
This beautiful building of stone, glass vaults and steel framing was built as an exhibition hall as part of the 1900 Universal Exhibition. It has been used as an exhibition centre ever since from Art Exhibitions to Riding Competitions. Its 20th century history has also seen its involvement in military activities. It was used as a hospital during WWI and during World War II it was used as a truck depot by the Nazis. France has won the right to host the 2024 Olympic Games and so the Grand Palais will be used to host events during that time.
Over the road from the Grand Palais is the Petit Palais which was also built at the time of the 1900 exposition.
From the Grand Palais, the visitor can walk to the Seine and cross the river via the Pont Alexandre III. It is an ornate ‘Beaux-Art’ style construction in line with its neighbouring palaces. From this bridge, the suggestion for the visitor is to check out the famous art gallery, Musee D’Orsay, down on the right hand side of the river from here, although this area is officially described as the Left Bank (Rive Gauche).
The building that houses the Musee d’Orsay was originally a railway station built between 1898 and 1900. It is in the ‘Beaux Arts’ style that can be seen in the design of the Grand and Petit Palaces and the Alexandre II Bridge back up the Seine.
This Art Gallery is famous for its collection of 19th century and early twentieth century paintings and sculptures; in fact it holds the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world. If art and its history is your thing, this is a gallery not to be missed with the great names of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh all prominently represented. There are also significant sculptures held here, particular works by the great Auguste Rodin.