The Most Beautiful Avenue
In the World

photo: champs elysees

Warm enough, sunny enough, but not quite enough
to be 'beautiful.'

The Champs-Elysées - But Not Everyday

Paris:- Wednesday, 9. February 2000:- The Champs-Elysées - 'The Most Beautiful Avenue In the World' - is a phrase almost routinely used by local flacks under contract to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

You may live in a town or city regularly characterized as 'The Most Beautiful In the World,' so you know what I mean. Paris itself slightly too falsely modest to make this claim even though it could probably get away with it - it settles for the 'Most Beautiful Avenue' instead.

This point can definitely be argued. Like a lot of the rest of Paris, it is not what is, but is a fleeting off-and-on impression. Paris 'facts' are transcended by the dreams of the beholder. If you are momentarily drunk with Paris, then it is the 'most beautiful' everything.

It is not a fast-food snack, it is a banquet. It is not the sauce on the meat, it is the whole meal; including the wine, the cheese, the dessert, the café at the end and the bill.

The Champs-Elysées is like a whole feast. Some of its individual items are tip-top, and some of its major portions are not always the cook's best. Generally the whole meal of it isphoto: hamburger & opentour bus acceptable - but hardly meriting everlasting 'most beautiful' status - except on certain occasions.

For example, on New Years Eve, it could have been the 'Most Beautiful Avenue' if its shops, cafés and restaurants had been open - but all were closed as if we celebrants were undesirable occupiers.

Beautiful hamburgers mix with beautiful tour buses.

And today for example - an ordinary midweek day in winter - when I arrive at the top of it at Etoile, I am disappointed it is not raining. Weak February sun is diluted by thin clouds briskly moving east.

The weather is not arranged by the city's 'attractions' department, but it does have a great deal to do with the daily ambiance of the avenue.

The north side of the 1910 metre-long avenue is washed with more or less colorless winter light, and the parallel south side was in flat, low-contrast shadow. When it is really bright, the light bounces back across the street, giving snap to the shadowed side. Winter trees being bare, all the light there is slanted onto it, flatly.

I'm sure this sounds airy-fairy abstract. All of it is another way of saying the whole impression of the Champs-Elysées does not add up to 'most beautiful.' The Champs-Elysées is having a so-so day.

Mind you, this is merely my opinion. But I have seen and been on the Champs-Elysées a lot, in all seasons and all weathers, so I am kind of assuming the job of being its 'street critic.' While I'm at it, I may as well take over all of Paris' other 5200-odd streets too - but on some other day.

Why am I hoping for rain? In winter, Paris can have its greys. And these can be mixed with periods of sun, with or without thin cloud cover - and this weather produces a type of light which is easy on the eyes, but boringly flat - without zip.

On rare occasions in winter, Paris gets a solid high. This produces a cobalt sky and light that cuts like a knife; glittering like diamonds.

If you are on the Champs-Elysées when it is like this, the light can make your headphoto: galerie des champs tingle - it expands consciousness. It adds definition; you see better and sharper. Shadows can be like ink, contrasts like hard-edge painting.

Beautiful cavern-like shopping arcades are full of beautiful people.

The opposite extreme is achieved with rain, which turns mere flat grey into wavy or rippling reflections. Bare trees become dark with rain, reflecting their loose impressions on the pavements, adding an act of art to the landscape.

Neither of these extremes are operating today, so the all-over effect is insipid. No tingle; no dreamy impressions. Not the 'Most Beautiful Avenue In the World.'

Meanwhile, it is being winter and not raining; it is being not cold and being around lunchtime, so the Champs-Elysées has its usual 100,000 pedestrians and its usual six lanes of traffic; not too heavy, coming along in bursts.

If it has its life, it isn't quite up to lively; it is lacking the extra 'zip' touch that can lift it from the ordinary to the superlative - according to this 'street critic's' judgement of today's show.

It gets the 'average' rating of two and-a-half stars, half a star off Michelin's green guide rating - which only goes up to three anyway. My rating system goes up to five stars, because I go places Michelin doesn't.

February must be Paris' only 'low' season for visitors. In the Paris Tourist Office near the top of the avenue, there are hardly enough people in it to say there are lines of them. February visitors must know Paris so well that they don't bother to pay it a visit.

The only thing I seek is Paris' national museums program for the first half of this year, which is not yet available. It is some rule they have; they always let me come and ask for it two weeks too soon.

Out on the pavements many people sitting on the benches have gotten their lunches from nearbyphoto: sidewalk cleaner sandwich shops. The Champs itself does have some fastfood outlets, but many of the local shop and office workers prefer the sandwiches which are found in side-street shops - which they eat on the sunny north side of the avenue.

The Champs' sidewals are large, so cleaning them is mechanized with neat rigs like this one.

At the moment, schools are on holiday so everybody can go skiing. Not everybody can go anywhere, so there are a fair number of local kids, killing time until the cinemas open around two. Some of these are also in the Fnac or the Virgin Megastore, looking over multimedia offerings or having free listens to the music.

Fouquet's is closed for renovations. This means as far as Paris' film and television players and actors are concerned, the whole street is shut down.

When Fouquet's reopens, it will be as a vastly expanded operation. The Planet Hollywood restaurant will get competition from the real Paris Hollywood café and restaurant hangout.

The Champs-Elysées started out in 1670 as a trail heading from the end of the Tuileries Gardens, sort of going nowhere to nothing out west. I suppose some dead people could object to this - so I'll say you could get to the Bois de Boulogne if you were well-off enough to come this way.

For a long time the avenue was outside Paris, which meant outside Paris' rules and regulations. Relatively cheap land and 'no rules' meant space for amusements, and the ones along the Champs catered to a more upscale cliental than similar areas scattered around elsewhere beyond the walls of Paris.

Along this out-of-town 'road in the country' - unpaved and muddy, ill-lit and a little dangerous, a police station manned by Swiss guards was established in 1777 - for the protection of rich people seeking fun.

After the Révolution, after Napoléon, after the occupation following Napoléon's defeat, the state ceded the Champs-Elysées to Paris in 1828. After 1840, townhouses were built along it and gas street-lighting was installed

Then came a whole development of 'panoramas,' ice skating rinks, circuses, theatres, concert halls,photo: two pizzerias cabarets, fancy hotels with ballrooms; and all the various exhibition halls - which are still concentrated on the eastern half of the avenue between Concorde and the Rond-Point.

The big pizza corner, right next to the big Areoflot travel agency.

Many of the latter still exist, but most of the former have gone - replaced by boutiques, new car showrooms, travel agencies, cinemas, banks, and some few restaurants and a couple of night clubs. Compared to the 'old days,' there is more commerce and less fun.

This leaves us today with not much more than the minor distraction of shopping and the major attraction of strolling along the avenue. Most people don't even know that its main drawing-card at one time was its amusements. They don't seem to care either.

This is kind of like being dressed for the party, but having no place to have it. 'Most Beautiful Avenue;' like the static mannequin in the window wearing the most beautiful dress.

The city would like to see the amusements to return, but the street is under the control of the kingdom of real estate. This has decreed that offices and a few shops are more profitable than taking advantage of the avenue's daily average of 100 to 200,000 strollers.

When the weather is right and when the light is right - at any time of year - the Champs-Elysées is still a magical place. To 'get it' you have to be tuned into impressionism, but if you've come to Paris you are probably ready for this anyway.

The problem for me, for this particular article and for you - is that today is not one of the Champs-Elysées' special days. It is just an ordinary day on the Champs-Elysées - no matter what anybody says at the other end of the Rue de Rivoli.

Today the Champs-Elysées isn't the 'Most Beautiful Avenue In the World.' Today this appellation may apply to another beautiful avenue in Mexico City or Buenos Aires or Melbourne, but I am content enough to be here.

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