The Avenue des Champs Elysées
By Anne Rohan
T he "Avenue des Champs Elysées" is the largest avenue in Paris. It is one of the main touristic places of the capital city and some people say it is the most beautiful avenue in the world. It is truly majestic; seventy metres wide and almost two kilometres long, from the "place de la Concorde" to the "place Charles de Gaulle".
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the actual "Champs Elysées" were only vast marshy fields. In 1616, Marie de Médicis decided to change these fields onto a long tree-lined path called "Cours de la Reine". In 1667, Le Nôtre, gardener of the "Château de Versailles", transformed the "Cours de la Reine" into a stroll called the "Grand Cours ", extending the perspective of the "Jardin des Tuileries" up to the "Château Saint-Germain" where King Louis XIV used to reside.
In 1709, the "Grand Cours" took the name of "Champs Elysées" in reference to the place where the Greek heroes used to stay in the mythology. The definitive avenue was finished in 1724 and extended by the duke d’Antin, director of the royal gardens, to the "Butte de Chaillot" (place de l’Etoile). But there were only six properties and the great avenue was rather quiet up to 1779, when the wealthy Parisians began to come for a stroll or for entertainment.
During the nineteenth century, the "avenue des Champs Elysées" became the new display of progress, with many theatres (like the "Lido"), cafés and restaurants (like "le Fouquet’s", classified as an historic monument). The gardens of the Champs Elysées attracted many strollers and Napoleon 1st gave there a reception at his wedding in 1804.
In 1828, the avenue was sold to the "Ville de Paris" which had the task to make it look more attractive. So the architect Jacques Hitorff realised urban works in 1836; the first pavements as well as fountains and street lamps, were built.
During the Second Empire (1852-1870), the rich society enjoyed the numerous restaurants, cafés and theatres of the Champs Elysées. The wealthiest families of the century such as the Pereire, the Rothschild and Napoleon III’s relatives, lived in private mansions, which have now all disappeared except the "hotel de la Païva" (nr 25). In 1858, the prefect Haussmann committed Jean-Charles Alphand to the fitting-out of the "Champs Elysées" gardens.
In 1902, the metropolitan, leading to an important commercial expansion, was built under the avenue. Commercial headquarters, luxurious shops, car agencies and hotels opened. The avenue became then an unavoidable symbol of Paris’ modernism. In 1917, it even influenced the creation of the "Benjamin Franklin Parkway" in Philadelphia.
After World War I, in order to attract a larger public, shopping centres and cinemas were built. In 1919, a victory parade took place on the "Champs Elysées", making it become a patriotic symbol of national glory. Since then, each year on the 14th of July, the military parade takes place there. The ashes of the Unknown Soldier were laid under the "Arc de Triomphe" in 1921.
In 1944, thousands of Parisians gathered on the avenue to acclaim the allies and celebrate the liberation of Paris. In 1994, Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris at the time, allotted the town planner Bernard Huet and the designers Jean Wilmotte and Norman Foster to a massive fitting-out of the avenue which had, over the years, lost some of its prestige. New urban furniture was created, plane trees were put up and, in order to make the different shops of the avenue look harmonious, new constraints were fixed.
It is always pleasant to stroll on the avenue because there are so many things to see and to do; there are beautiful gardens and most shops are opened until midnight and some often on Sundays. Famous boutiques like the perfume shop called "Guerlain" and the well-known "Louis Vuitton" boutique are legendary. The cinemas like the "George-V" and the "Triomphe" often show premieres and films in their original version. Right at the end of the avenue, you can admire the "Arc de Triomphe". It was built in 1806 under Napoleon 1st on the "place Charles de Gaulle".
At the approach of Christmas, the avenue adorns with magnificent decorations and fairy lights. On the 1st of January, many Parisians meet up on the avenue to celebrate and lift their glass to the New Year.
The "avenue des Champs Elysées" has always kept its prestige and luxury but has remained popular and festive at the same time. That what makes it much appreciated by Parisians and tourists.