What Is It About The Champs-Elysées?

A View in Winter and a Little Bit of History
About Main Street, Paris

Paris:- Tuesday, 5. March 1996:- I wouldn't have been on the Champs-Elysées today, or even out of bed, if I had not received a rare 'letter from a reader.' This reader, a lady in New Orleans, wrote to comment on a piece I did for The Paris Pages on Thursday, 23. March 1995 - about the first spring day on the Champs-Elysées last year - just 50 weeks ago.

It was one of the most enthusiastic letters I've gotten. For myself, I have never been all that 'high' on the Champs-Elysées - except for the time the whole thing was planted in wheat and then harvested.

For some reason or other I was on the 'Champs' last week. I noted that, in winter, it was possible to see the building fronts - otherwise obscured by the - now - double lines of trees on either side. If you haven't been on the Champs-Elysées lately, it has changed a lot in the last few years.

A few years ago somebody at the Hotel de Ville decided that it had fallen into a state of abject tackiness. Since then the interior parking roads have been removed, the sidewalks repaved, the double line of trees planted, and the street furniture has been harmonized. The dot on the 'i' was the installation of total illumination - last summer I think - that lights up the whole avenue, its sidewalks and the buildings at night.

Why the Champs-Elysées draws so many people to it is a mystery to me.

Is it because, if you are standing on the south side near the top, at Etoile, and you look towards Rond-Point, you can see 50,000 people - at once - on the sidewalk? With its 70-metre width, there is really a lot of room for a lot of people - and traffic. Is that it? The number of people expand to fill the space available? Your plane lands at Roissy and as soon as they open the aircraft's door, the Champs-Elysées whispers, 'Come on, there's still room here!'

The whole Champs-Elysées is, from Etoile to the Place de la Concorde, 1910 metres long. That's about four kilometres of sidewalk, total. But if it's just space, people could go out and stand on the runways at Roissy for a greater thrill - so it must be something else.

The Champs-Elysées was not planned; it just sort of happened; and not all that long ago either.

While tracing out the outlines on the Tuleries Gardens in 1670, André Le Nôtre got carried away and extended the central axis beyond the gardens to the present Rond-Point. While at it, he had planted a double file of flowering ash trees, and called it the 'Grand-Cours.' Parisians decided it should be 'Champs-Elysées' instead and that name stuck.

There was an open sewer about where the rue Marbeuf now is, and Le Duc d'Antin built a stone bridge over it in 1710; so the avenue could continue to the Etoile, or 'butte.' Sixty years later the butte was leveled, and all of the trees were renewed. In 1774 the whole avenue was widened and extended to the present Pont de Neuilly.

As it was sort of out of town; rude, dusty or muddy, and poorly lit at night, a Swiss guard post was placed near no. 73 in 1777, to keep the peace. Once law and order was in place, clever businessmen erected hotels and gardens and drinking establishments, which in turn attracted good-looking girls who liked the look of the Swiss guards, who in turn tried to keep strollers in line. One report, from 1788, mentioned an Abbé who had been cautioned for 'instructing' an African lady at eight one evening.

There was much to and fro during the revolution, and the - I presume - the Swiss guards posted a sign: 'Those who applaud the king will be beaten; those who insult, will be hanged.' After the terror, the scene returned to normal with cavaliers passing through to Longchamps, the return of the girls and other street activities - the Archbishop of Paris protested - the restaurant 'Ledoyen' opened, and it was the time of the 'Muscadins,' 'Incroyables,' and the 'Merveilleuses, ' with a certain Mme Hamelin strolling around wearing a 'simple' gauze tunic.

The new Empress, Maire-Louise, entered Paris via the Champs-Elysées on 2. April 1810 and left for good by the same route on 29. March 1814. From 7. July 1815 to the end of the year, the area was the camping ground of various Cossacks and English troops, who left a big mess behind - their horses ate the trees - but the whole thing was cleaned up again by 1817.

In 1828 the French state gave the avenue to the Ville de Paris. The city fixed everything up nice, in time for the return of Napoleon's ashes in 1840, when 100,000 turned out in freezing weather for the spectacle. After this time, big business arrived and the whole street got built up as it is today.

So that's the Champs-Elysées. Not quite like Main Street in Moose Jaw, but probably about as accidental - and here I apologize to Moose Jaw, just in case their main street was planned centuries in advance - but not quite like any other street in the world either. It's wide and it's long - but not as long as the Elbchaussee in Hamburg - so it must be in the top ten for wideness.

What is it? Maybe it's the sky over the Champs-Elysées - you can see a lot of it - like on the day the wheat was harvested there.

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