Writing Portfolio

16.4.14

Walking the line of history

Paris is a city for walking – much more so than, say, London. When we go to Paris, we do a lot of walking, sometimes because the distance between two places doesn’t look to be that much on the map (indeed, Paris is, generally speaking, a more compact city than London), sometimes because a lot of walking is required merely to change lines at your average Métro station. Either way, a visit to Paris tends to involve a lot of walking, and I have the statistics from my pedometer to bear this out.

There are many walks that you can do around Paris, and I don’t just mean the one in the morning to the nearest boulangerie. When we were in Paris last weekend, we purchased a book containing the routes for twenty walks in the city (one for each arrondissement) which I look forward to reading in advance of our next trip there!

The focus of this post, though, concerns a straight-line walk that takes in several prominent landmarks and a lot of French history. I refer to the Axe historique (‘historical axis’), the line of monuments, squares and thoroughfares that stretches out from the centre of Paris to the west.

It begins at the Louvre, the former royal palace (built in the seventeenth century to replace the old medieval fortress) that became a museum during the 1790s and is today the most visited museum in the world. Oddly, it’s one that I’ve never felt the inclination to visit, probably due to the vast crowds and the notion that the sheer size of the place means that I probably wouldn’t know where to start. It is said that it would take nine months to see every piece of art in the place, so surely a mere afternoon can’t do it justice? But I’ll go there one day; after all, we’ll always have Paris, won’t we?

The main entrance to this mega-museum is the Grande Pyramide, the glass structure in the courtyard that was built as part of President Mitterand’s expansion project for the Louvre in the 1980s, and is today surrounded by queues of tourists all wanting to get in so they can see the Mona Lisa. By the way, the Grande Pyramide (which does indeed have an inverted counterpart below ground) does not actually have 666 panes of glass – this was an urban myth perpetuated when it was built, and was later popularised by The Da Vinci Code.


Moving away from the Louvre, the axe heads west towards the Jardin des Tuileries, but just before you get there you have the first of three arches, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This was Napoleon Bonaparte’s original arc de triomphe, built to commemorate his victories up to 1805 when he triumphed over the Austrians and the Russians at Austerlitz (the British are not alone in naming a railway station after a famous military victory) and modelled on the Roman Arc of Septimus Severus, which can be seen today in the Forum in Rome. Subsequently, the diminutive Corsican decided that he wanted something bigger and embarked on the construction of a much larger triumphal arch, although that would not be completed until the 1830s.

From the smaller, original arch, the axe continues through the Tuileries, the formal garden originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1564 and which became a public park after the Revolution (although it had in fact been open to the public since 1667). The queen of Henri II and the mother of three more Kings of France, Catherine de Medici was a political intriguer (well, she was a Medici) and a great patron of the arts – most of what she collected is now in the Louvre. She is also credited with giving French cuisine a kick-start by bringing in her own cooks from her native Florence – a cultural import continued by her cousin, Marie de Medici (the wife of Henri IV). French chefs took on the recipes and sophisticated cookery styles of the Italian upstarts, and the rest is histoire.

The Tuileries used to be the gardens of another royal palace, which stood in what is now the space between the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the gardens. This, the palace to which Louis XVI was moved in 1789 so that the revolutionaries could keep a closer eye on him and which was the residence of the kings and emperors of the nineteenth century, was burned down by the Paris Commune in 1871. This in turn left an empty space between the northern and southern wings of the Louvre, thus opening up the courtyard to the Axe historique.


The gardens remain, however, to be enjoyed by tourists and promenading Parisians. Here can be found many sculptures amid the trees, while those looking for a museum on a smaller scale than the Louvre can take in the Musee de l’Orangerie (of which more in a future post). There are also various snack-stalls where you can get a croque-monsieur or a crêpe and have lunch amid the flower-beds and the statues before continuing through the park, looking ahead along the Axe historique while trying not to think about how dusty your shoes are getting.


Standing directly on the axe as one leaves the Tuileries is the Egyptian obelisk nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, although this one has nothing to do with Cleopatra, having been made over a thousand years before she was born. Nor is it really connected with the one in London (or, for that matter, the one in New York); this one dates from the 19th Dynasty (1292-1189 BC) and originally adorned the Temple of Rameses in Luxor before the rulers of Egypt presented it to France in 1826, and when it arrived in Paris in 1833 the king, Louis-Philippe, placed it close to the site of ... well, I’ll come to that in a moment, but while we’re on the subject of the Citizen King it’s worth noting that he was also responsible for the nearby Fontaines de la Concorde, which were heavily influenced by the fountains of Rome.

Both obselisk and fountains are located on the Place de la Concorde, the square laid out in the mid-eighteenth century. The eight female statues in the corners of the square represent what were at the time the eight largest cities in France (aside from Paris itself): Brest, Rouen, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Strasbourg. During the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, when Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by Germany, the latter was covered in black on state occasions.


Despite its peaceful name, the Place de la Concorde has a violent history, being one of the key locations of the guillotines during the French Revolution. It was in this square that Louis XVI met his end in 1793; subsequently, the likes of Marie Antionette and Charlotte Corday (the woman who killed the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat while he was having a bath) lost their heads here, and then it was the turn of the revolutionaries Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulines (among many others) as the Revolution became the Reign of Terror – which ended with another execution, that of the arch-revolutionary Maximilien de Robsepierre.

After braving the traffic, it’s onto the Champs-Élysées. Initially, this wide boulevard is bordered by trees and it has a peaceful air that almost (but not quite) belies the large amounts of traffic on the Place de la Concorde and the six lanes of the street itself. Before long, though, the trees give way to the (very) high-end shops and the vast crowds of people who’ve come to look at them.

Originally intended as a tree-lined extension of the Tuileries Gardens, it became a fashionable avenue by the late eighteenth century, with the current buildings owing much to Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris during the period of the Second Empire (1852-70). Much-described as “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, the Champs-Élysées is certainly one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. The street’s size and proximity to several major landmarks has long made it the venue of choice for military parades, including (notoriously) the German victory parade in 1940 and (famously) de Gaulle’s parade to mark the Liberation in 1944. It still hosts one every year on Bastille Day, while since the 1970s it has been the street on which the Tour de France ends.

If the Champs-Élysées is the most beautiful avenue in the world, then the roundabout at its north-western end must surely be the most insane roundabout in the world. A total of twelve roads meet at the Place Charles de Gaulle (after whom it was renamed in 1970; originally, it was the Place de l’Étoile, which explains the name of the nearby Métro station). This was planned long before the invention of the motor-car as part of Baron Hausmann’s redesigning of Paris, which did away with the old medieval streets and introduced the grand, straight boulevards that we know and walk along today.

At the centre of this place is the Arc de Triomphe – or, to give it its full name, L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étiole (there being, as previously stated, an earlier triumphal arch). Bonaparte commissioned this massive monument in 1806, and it took three decades to build. The reliefs depict key battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while the names of French victories of that period are engraved on the pillars. So big is this arch that, in 1919, an aeroplane was flown through it.


Appropriately given the military theme, directly beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the many soldiers of the First World War with no known grave. This is topped by an eternal flame, said to be the first such flame to have been lit in Europe since Roman times.

This was where our walk along the line of history ended, but from here the Axe historique stretches out beyond the city itself to the business district of La Défense, in particular its Grande Arche which was built to commemorate the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. The approximate shape of a cube, this is the third, largest and final arch of this particular line of history.


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