Of all the names we associate with Paris that of the Champs-Elysees is, next to Notre-Dame, the name which reminds us of the splendor of Paris more than any other. Part of this is, of course, due to its splendid beginning at the Place de la Concorde, and the other part is, no doubt, due to its even more splendid end at Napoleon’s Arch of Triumph. But it is a splendid avenue throughout its entire length also, running at first through a park and then through an elegant tree-lined business and commercial section, and while we might regret the latter, it is something which cannot very well be helped. It was, no doubt, the park-end of this avenue which, years ago, gave it the name Champs-Elyees, which means the Road of the Elysian Fields, from the so-called Elysium of the Ancient Greeks, the dwelling place of the blessed.
Unfortunately, I have never come across a guide book which told me how wide this avenue really is. But by using the height of the base on which the Horses of Marly are placed as a yardstick, I once calculated its width as about one hundred fifteen feet, not counting the unusually wide sidewalks. Of course, I could have paced it, but with the traffic on this avenue, that would have beer, nothing short of suicide. There was, of course, a much simpler way to estimate this width, and that was by the width of the Arch of Triumph. Since that is one-hundred forty-eight feet wide and extends clear across the street, this time including the sidewalks, it stands to reason that the avenue is one hundred forty-eight feet wide also. Take off fifteen feet for each of the two sidewalks and you have one hundred eighteen feet for the street. So now, in one paragraph, I have not only given you a fair idea of the width of this avenue, but also given you an idea of the size of Napoleon’s Arch of Triumph toward which we will be walking in a few minutes. For this arch is not just the ordinary garden-variety arch of triumph, but the largest triumphal arch in the world. About its height, I will tell you when we get there.
As in the case of so many other splendid features of Paris, the Champs-Elysees was not built in just a few years. It took just about three hundred, and the surpris ing part of this is that after all these centuries, it should have turned out the way it is. However as, we shall see as we go along, the early city planners of Paris never seem to have hesitated to spend a great deal of money when it came to planning their avenues, though we will also have to admit that the citizens of their day had very little, if anything, to say about the city’s budget.
The first avenue to be built through the wastelands which formerly occupied the area west of the Tuileries Gardens was the triple-laned Cours-la-Reine, built by Marie de Medici in 1616. This was the first avenue in Paris to be lined with trees and ran along the Seine all the way to what is now the Place d’Alma, as it still does today, except that the last half of it is now called the Cours Albert I, after the King of the Belgians. At first this avenue was strictly reserved for the use of the court, and both ends of it were barred by ornamental iron gates. However, it was ultimately opened to the public and so became a meeting place for the elegant world.
The next avenue to be extended westwards was the avenue we are walking up now, in other words, the Avenue de Champs-Elysees. This avenue was built in 1667 by Le Notre, Louis XIV’s famous landscape architect, as a continuation of the Grand-Allee, down which we will be walking tomorrow when we visit the Gardens of the Tuileries. At that time the Champs-Elysees was known as the Grand-Cours. It was not named Champs-Elysées until 1709, probably because the trees which Le Notre had planted for some distance on each side of it had become fully grown and the area began to look like the legendary Elysium. However, this avenue extended only as far as the Rond-Point, or what you might call the “Circle,” which was, and still is, about one third the distance to the Etoile. When one got: to this circle, there being as yet nothing but open country beyond, one just turned around and came back again, probably through the woods this time. About fifteen years later, or in 1724, the avenue was extended to the top of the knoll, then known as the Col line du Roule, where the Arch of Triumph now stands.
As the ascent to this knoll was quite steep, the hill was lowered in 1774 by Soufflot, the architect who built the Pantheon, with the happy thought of lessening its grade. Had this not been done then, it probably never could have been done later and the whole magnificent effect would have een lost to us forever. But as there were only a few scattered private residences on this hill at that time, the real estate problem at least presented no difficulties. As we shall see later, the top of this hill was reduced by another thirty-three feet when the Arch was built, but this time solely for effect. These successive gradings ultimately resulted in an avenue of which the first part is almost level and then starts to rise steadily in a uniform grade. And that is the Champs-Elysées as you have it today.
As in the case of the Grand Boulevards, it wasn’t long before the Champs-Elysees became the most popular avenue in Paris, except that whereas the Grand Boule vards had become the favorite promenade for ordinary folks, the Champs-Elysees became the show place of the sophisticated. It was to this avenue that the wealthy came to show off their wealth, the Grand Courtisans their charm and the parvenus their latest acquisitions. Unlike today, when this avenue is a busy, modern thoroughfare, the crowds on the Champs-Elysées of those days consisted of a gay, fast-pacing and highly fashionable world. It is still a highly fashionable world, though, I am afraid, people no longer bow to each other from their cabriolets, their landaus, their phaetons and their broughams. All these conveyances have now given way to the even fastermoving, though I am afraid, somewhat less romantic automobile. So much, then, for the early evolution of the Champs-Elysées.
As I already mentioned, the entrance to this avenue is beautifully framed by the two Horses of Marly, each held in check by a Numidian. Since these horses are much more than life-sized, and are, in addition, placed on pedestals which are at least twenty-four feet hight, they look as though they are rearing up into the tree tops. These horses were brought here from the King’s Palace at Marly in 1795, one at a time, on special carriages drawn by sixteen horses. If it were not for the fact that we have the huge mass of the Arch of Triumph constantly before us as we walk along, one could, therefore, easily mistake the beginning of the Champs-Elysées as the entrance to a park, especially since there are, in fact, two parks on each side of it. And these parks extend all the way to the Rond-Point.
As you will notice at once, the trees in these parks and, in fact, all along the avenue, are not the formally trimmed trees you will find in the Gardens of the Tuileries and other formal parks in Paris, but are here free-growing, so that the effect is one of complete informality. As in the Gardens of the Tuileries, you will also quickly discover that the two parks along this avenue are not just parks, but also a children’s paradise, except that, the setting being a great deal less formal here, more facilities are provided for their entertainment, such as carrousels, Punch and Judy shows, donkey rides and the ever-present sandpiles. This, of course, is nothing unusual in Paris, for even in the poorer quarters of the city you will find little fenced-in parks especially reserved for children and their nurses, where the casual stroller is not allowed. But neither are their needs forgotten on the Champs-Elysees. It must take tons and tons of sand to supply the kiddies of Paris with new sand piles every spring. But now I think it is high time that we start on our intended walking tour.
As I mentioned to you yesterday, we are going to start our walking tour up the Champs-Elysées from the Place Clemenceau. However, there would have been no reason for our not exploring the lower part of this avenue a little more in detail when we were on the Place de la Concorde. But now that we are on the Place Clemenceau, let us go on from there. When you are on this squareit is a very small square, and hardly looks like a square at all-you will be at the point where the Avenue Alexander III runs into the Champs-Elysees. On one side of this avenue you will find the Petit Palais and on the other the Grand Palais. These are the two palaces the roofs of which we could see above the tree tops when we looked across the Seine from the Palais- Bourbon. Both of these palaces are still within the park area of the avenue, and ‘both of them were built for the Exhibition of 1900. The Grand Palais is now used for automobile shows and similar exhibits and the Petit Palais is now a museum of antiques.
However, the principal reason for having stopped at this spot was that from it you will have another one of those breath-taking views for which Paris is famous. For if you will now look down the Avenue Alexander III, you will see the huge gilded dome of Les Invalides right in the center of it, even though it is still three quarters of a mile away, whereas at the end of the avenue, you will be able to make out the approaches to what is probably the most ornate bridge in Paris, the Pont Alexander III. Unlike other bridges in Paris this is a steel bridge of a single span, but the approaches to it are of masonry, ornamented with numerous sculptures and quite impressive. So, by merely turning your head a little, you can see, in absolutely straight lines both Napoleon’s Tomb and his Arch of Triumph. Under the trees of the little square you will also find a statue of France’s World War I Premier Clemenceau after whom the square is named. If you remember anything of the “Tiger of France” at all, which I don’t expect you to, you will find this statue very typical of him, for it shows him wearing a trench-coat, an old slouch hat, and carrying a heavy cane, an attire in which he appeared so often at the front.
As I already mentioned, the park area of the ChampsElysees comes to an end at the Rond-Point, a little farther up the avenue. When Le Notre extended the avenue to this point, this circle was still very much out in the country. An old print of it, probably dating from about 1700, still shows the country around it perfectly bare with only the dome of the Invalides showing in the distance. How little Marie de Medici could have guessed in her day that fifty years after she had laid out her Course-la-Reine,. Le Notre should build another, and even more magnificent avenue parallel to hers; that a hundred years after that this same avenue should have been extended to, the Etoile and leveled by an architect named Soufflot; and that sixty-two years after that Napoleon I should have crowned this whole vast view by the largest triumphal arch in the world.
If you are not already on the right-hand side of the avenue, we will now cross over to that side because from this point on it is the more interesting. After we have passed the Rond-Point, the Champs-Elysées becomes. strictly a high-gr ade business section, though it is still lined with trees all the way. High grade stores now alternate with expensive automobile showrooms and theatres. with cafes very much as they do on Fifth Avenue, except that Fifth Avenue has no cafes. Strange to say, the upper part of this expensive avenue is also the center of the French motion picture industry. And at number seventyfour, over an arcade that goes right through to the next block, is the luxury Hotel Claridge, with the famous Lido Night Club underneath it.
But now, I think you might be getting just a little tired on your feet. . . The total length of the ChampsElysees is just a little more than a mile. This means that from the Place Clemenceau we still had to walk the better part of three quarters of a mile and that might seem a lot, especially since all this time we have been walking up a gentle incline, but an incline just the same. But all this time the huge mass of the Arch which is one hundred sixty-four feet high, has been looming larger and larger ahead of us, and it was this feeling of gradually approaching it that I wanted you to experience. But about the Arch itself, I shall tell you something some other day. Right now, I think i t would be a good idea if we stopped at the American Drug Store for something to eat. You will find this a few doors down from the Etoile, on the left-hand side of the street. The waitresses, of course, are French, and so, no doubt, are the chefs, but the menus are printed in English and each item is numbered so that, even if you do not speak French, all you will have to do is to point to your selection.
Tomorrow, we shall take a walking tour through the Gardens of the Tuileries. I shall see you again on the Palace de l’Opera tomorrow.