The Champs Elysees is French for Elysian Fields the place of the blessed dead in Greek Mythology. Perhaps it’s a misnomer since the Champs Elysees are very much alive. Stretching for almost 2km from Place de la Concorde, with its obelisk of Luxor, to Place Charles de Gaulle, the site of the Arc de Triomphe, this broad, tree-lined avenue is dotted with shops, specialty boutiques, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and hotels. It was hard to take it all in. My eyes kept flitting here, there, and everywhere. Although they did manage to stop and enjoy the lovely items in some shop windows.
We ambled along. Busy cities like Paris always leave me a bit awe-struck. I am not used to so many things going on at once and did my best to try and get a feel of the place. Slowly we made it to one of the most-recognised landmarks of the city - the Arc de Triomphe - a triumphant arch built by Napoleon and very much in the style of the triumphant arches of old that were built by the Romans all over their empire. It was even grander in person than I had imagined and definitely worth the hundreds of photos that everyone was taking. From the base of the Arc de Triomphe one can admire the broad vista of the Champs Elysees. The view from the top the arch is, of course, completely unobstructed but we decided to give it a miss. Perhaps next time …
With the din of unceasing traffic in our ears we left the Arc de Triomphe behind us and, walking back down the Champs Elysees, my mind travelled back in time, as it is so wont to do, to 14 June 1940 when swastikas and tanks rolled down the very avenue that we were walking on only to be followed, four years later, by the French 2nd Armoured Division and the US 28th Infantry Division.
As we got nearer to Place de la Concorde (formerly Place Louis XV) visions of a liberated France soon gave way to thoughts about the French Revolution. Because it was here, on this now busy square boasting an Egyptian obelisk and two huge fountains, that thousands of people lost their heads to Madame la Guillotine.
It is hard to imagine the carts trundling by with their terrified passengers moving closer to their doom. Hard to imagine the crowds, the boos, the sound of the blade as it sliced through the air, the dull thud of a lifeless head falling in the straw and the roar of approval from those that came to enjoy the ‘spectacle’. Yet it all happened here. The last place where Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Madame du Barry, Robespierre, Danton and countless others lost their heads. It’s hard to imagine that a reign of terror once held Paris in a vice-like grip. But it did and as I poised my camera to photograph the pristine square it seemed to me that the din of the traffic had changed to a chant and around me the words of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité rose to a full-blown clamour.
In the heart of Paris the ghosts of those who believed in the rights that nowadays we take so for granted were thick around me to remind me that freedom is always bought at a cost. Because we might forget it, or even try to deny it, but the seeds of modern day democracy were sown here, on Place Louis XV in the shadow of the guillotine.
I meant to show you Paris in just one post but, even though our visit was short (only 3 full days) it is impossible to do so. There is too much to see and to take in and, after all, this series is called Wednesday Wanderings not Wednesday Whirlwinds. I need to warn you that these posts will not be in chronological order. This week it was Paris. Next week it may be a totally different city. And if you are wondering how I remember all the details of trips I took over 2 years ago, well I always take my Travel Diary with me to jot down notes and random stuff. It’s a great way to jog my memory.
If you are interested in a short history of the Champs Elysees visit Places in France.