Two-kilometre-long avenue laid out in the 17th century that is now home to luxury shops, restaurants and offices, and site of national parades and celebrations
‘Aux Champs-Élysées, Aux Champs-Élysées’, sung the heart throb Joe Dassin in 1969, for (in translation) ‘come sun or rain, in day or night, there’s all you want on the Champs-Elysées’. Nearly two kilometres long and 70 metres wide, the avenue ranges from gardens, theatres and museums along its east end, by the Place de la Concorde, to luxury shops and restaurants at its west end, by the Arc de Triomphe. One of the most famous shopping streets in the world–Louis Vuitton opened a shop herein 1914–the Champs-Elysées has become a compulsory location for the globe’s leading brands. But the commercialised section, festooned with cinemas and fast-food outlets, disguises the old grandeur of Paris’s Elysium Fields, named after the ancient Greek conception of paradise after death. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées alternates between the political and ceremonial and the sensuous and consumerist; it is at once both a glamorous high street and a national stage.
Next to the Louvre, as we see it today, stood a royal palace. Only the Tuileries garden remains now after the complex was burned down in 1871 during the socialist Paris Commune, but in the 17th century King Louis XIV ordered his gardener, André Le Nôtre, to project the Tuileries as a long avenue out across the westward marshland. Once drained, the Grand-Cours was laid out in the French formal style, with symmetrical rows of flower beds and elm trees. In the 18th century, the brother of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s chief mistress, extended the gardens up to the Pont de Neuilly. This straight, grand vista now aligns three arches: the Arc de Triomphe du Carroursel, which was once an imposing gateway to the Tuileries Palace; its bigger brother the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, commissioned by the usurping French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th century; and La Grande Arche de la Défense, a late 20th-century showpiece for the new business district, La Défense.
The majestic avenue, also known as both the Historical Axis and the Triumphal Way, has consequently played the role of eternal backdrop to Paris’s political upheavals. In 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Concorde. After the Franco-Prussian War ended and Napoleon III and his Second Empire were defeated, 30,000 German soldiers paraded down the Champs-Élysées in 1871. German troops returned in 1940 during Nazi occupation in the Second World War. The French Army held their own victory parades here after the end of both the First and Second World Wars, and every year on the 14th July, Bastille Day, the President of France leads Europe’s largest military parade. It’s also where French people congregated in their thousands after France won the FIFA World Cup in 1998 and 2018. Since 1975, this iconic avenue has played host to the grand finale of the Tour de France–the world’s most famous cycling race.
As the centre of prestige, this tree-lined boulevard has prompted more forms of ostentation than just political triumph. In the 18th century French design dominated European taste: the playwright Marivaux wrote that ‘Paris is the world–the rest of the earth is nothing but its suburbs’. The avenue’s buildings were still awaiting their transformation into uniform stone façades and the area included lavish, individual hôtels particuliers (or urban mansions). One surviving hôtel particulier stands at No. 25 on the Champs-Élysées. Known once as the Hôtel de la Païva, since 1904 it has been occupied by the Travellers Club, a private members’ association. Built in the mid-19th century, it was designed as an opulent house of hedonism for the famed socialite Esther Lachmann, known as La Païva. A Polish-Jewish weaver’s daughter, she spent her career climbing the various linked ladders of European high society, through the rich men of Berlin, Vienna, Istanbul, London and eventually Paris, where she met and married Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, one of the richest men in the world. She hosted decadent parties and salons for writers and artists, such as Gustave Flaubert and Eugène Delacroix, in her neo-Renaissance home bedazzled with yellow onyx. Born to a weaver, she died a countess. In her era the Champs-Élysées suited those in vogue more than those in uniform; its true role was as a catwalk for those dedicated followers of fashion.