Saturday, January 21, 2006

Tour 2: The Historic Axis

All city planners know the Champs-Elysées as one of the world’s great streets, but the street itself is only one part of a much larger urban axis that has taken form over centuries. Beginning in the central courtyard of the Louvre palace, the axis stretches over eight kilometers to the modern skyscraper suburb of La Défense to the northwest.

The Historic Axis stretches westward from the Louvre (center right) and Tuileries Garden along the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe and beyond to the modern skyscapers of La Défense (upper left). This view is taken from the bell towers of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité. The Saint Chapelle rises up in the center of the photo.

Start your walk at the Louvre/Rivoli métro station (corner of the rue de Rivoli and rue du Louvre in the 1er Arrondissement). Walk toward the river along the rue de L’Amiral Coligny. At the mid-point turn toward the massive eastern façade of the Louvre, cross the dry moat and pass into the Cour Carré (Square Courtyard). This is the starting point of the historic axis, which passes through numerous fountains, three triumphal arches, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, and one glass pyramid on its way west. The photo above shows part of the historic Colonnade on the eastern façade of the Louvre, the roof of the Pavillon de l'Horloge with the Obélisque, the Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe in the background.

A view of the part of the Louvre that surrounds the Cour Carrée, or square courtyard, from across the Pont Neuf. This is the site of the original 13th Century medieval fortress.

The Louvre is one of the world’s largest art museums and is a world (and tour) unto itself. Take the time during your stay to visit at least part of the museum. Planners may delight in the exhibit that chronicles the history of the building itself and culminates in a subterranean walk around the foundations of the original Louvre castle built on the site in the 13th Century. Those foundations are beneath the southwest corner of the Cour Carré where you are standing at this point in the tour.

The Cour Napoléon and the Pyramid, which serve's as the museum's entrance.

Continue westward and enter the Cour Napoléon, where you cannot miss I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid, opened in 1989. Walk around the courtyard and take in the contrasting views of the sleek glass and intricate stonework of the buildings. While the pyramid has been controversial, it successfully fulfills it charge to draw visitors into the courtyard and focus attention on the museum’s entrance (which was formerly a hard-to-find, inelegant door in the southeast corner of this courtyard, which also served as a parking lot for employees of the French Finance Ministry, once housed in the building). There is a fine café on the courtyard side of the Richelieu pavilion (pictured here).

From the pyramid, make your way west to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, completed in 1808 to celebrate Napoleon’s military victories of 1805. The gardens, walkways, and the street that passes in front of the arch were renovated in the late 1980s as part of the Louvre modernization and expansion project. As you look again toward the west, the two extremities of the Louvre (the Pavillon de Marsan on the north and the Pavillon de Flore on the south) frame the view of the Tuileries gardens.

Another view of the Pyramid looking toward the Arc du Carrousel. The Tuileries gardens are behind.

The space between these pavilions was once filled by the Tuileries palace, a free-standing palace begun under Catherine de Medici in the 16th Century. Over the next two hundred years the palace was incorporated into the expanding Louvre complex until it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Tuileries means “the place where tiles are made” and refers to supposed activities on this site prior to construction of the royal palaces. The photo in this paragraph is the dome of the French Academy (home of the Académie Française), on the left bank across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre.

Further to the west, walk into the Tuileries garden, a great example of a formal French palace garden. Its current form was designed by the French architect Le Nôtre in the 17th Century and includes classic parterres, tree-lined allées, fountains, terraces, and statuary. The garden, and others like it around the city, was once the royal court’s private playground. Now, of course, these magnificent green spaces are open to everyone and provide a relaxing escape from the frenetic street scene. On warm weekends, however, the gardens can feel more crowded and frenetic than the busiest parts of the city.

The view from inside the Louvre's entrance, under the glass pyramid.

An optional and interesting side trip from the Tuileries garden is up the rue de Castiglione to the Place Vendôme.

At the far west end of the Tuileries garden are two grand terraces, each with a long rectangular pavilion on it. The pavilion on the north side is the Jeu de Paume (the royal tennis court) which for many years housed the Louvre’s impressionist collection until its move to the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank. The building now houses contemporary art exhibits. On the south side is the Orangerie (where tropical plants spent cold winters), converted as well to an art museum.

The Place de la Concorde at night. In the background, the Eiffel Tower rises up on the Left Bank to provide a counterpoint to the ancient Egyptian obelisk.

As you continue westward out of the garden, you will pass through, or more likely around, the Place de la Concorde. This grand 20 acre place began as a tribute to Louis XV, financed by local magistrates who commissioned an equestrian statue of the king for the site. During the revolution the statue was removed in favor of the guillotine and the square was renamed Place de la Révolution. In 1795 the name of the place changed to Concorde and today it handles a significant flow of automobile traffic.

It is worth making your way (carefully) to the center of the place where you will have an excellent view westward, up the Champs Elysées, toward the Arc de Triomphe and beyond to the Grande Arche de la Défense. To the right you can see the classical colonnade of the Madeleine church, and to the left, across the river, the façade of the French National Assembly (both worthy of visits).

The Champs-Elysées. The Arc de Triomphe is dressed in bleu-blanc-rouge to mask scaffolding that surrounded the monument so the stone could be cleaned.

Also here in the center you will get an up-close view of the Obélisque, a gift to France from Egypt in the early 19th Century. The monument is over 3,000 years old and was originally installed in the city of Luxor. It is flanked by two grand fountains.

Around the place are eight statues named for cities in France (Rouen, Brest, Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg, and Lille). If the center of the place represents Paris, then these statues mark the general direction from Paris of each of the eight cities. The United States embassy occupies the northwest corner of the place.

The recently restored glass roof of the Grand Palais glimmers in the sunshine. This view is from the Left Bank, across the Pont Alexandre III.

Once you’ve negotiated the place, continue your westward walk up the Champs Elysées through the leafy green park that flanks the avenue to the Rond Point des Champs Elysées. You will pass by the back side of the Elysée Palace on the right, the French presidential residence, and the Petit Palais and Grand Palais on the left. Built for the 1900 Universal Exposition, these two impressive buildings now house art and cultural exhibits and the Paris Beaux-Arts museum. The spectacular glass roof of the Grand Palais was recently restored to its sparkling glory. The Grand Palais’ rear wing is home to the Palais de la Découverte, a science and technology museum.

A few streets to the north and nearly parallel to the Avenue des Champs Elysées is the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré which is home to many designer boutiques and is a favorite shopping stop for many visitors. There you can also find the embassy of Great Britain.

From the Rond Point to the Place Charles de Gaulle, the Champs Elysées is lined with restaurants, stores, boutiques, offices and car dealerships. It can be a tourist mob scene; watch for pickpockets and high priced cafés. In winter, the avenue is magically decorated and lit for the holidays. In summer, it hosts the annual July 14th (Bastille Day) parade and serves as the end point of the famous Tour de France bicycle race. Recently this portion of the avenue was renovated to expand sidewalks, replace street trees and street furniture, and to generally make it more pedestrian friendly.

At the Place Charles de Gaulle, formerly the Place de l’Etoile, you can see one of the great elements of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s plan that transformed the city in the mid 19th Century. Haussmann served as the Prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III and directed all city planning activities. His team of architects and engineers cut wide boulevards through the medieval street pattern of the old city, updated the water supply and sewer systems, and created vast green spaces. He designed the étoile (star) of 12 avenues around the Arc de Triomphe and directed that the façades of the apartment buildings surrounding the place be uniform.

A closer view of the Arc de Triomphe, minus the scaffolding, and the Champs-Elysées. The faint horizontal bar seen in the center of the Arc is actually the roof of the 30-story Grand Arche de la Défense nearly 6 kilometers away to the west.

Today, the place is a swirling mix of street traffic and pedestrians. To get the Arc, use one of the underground passages; negotiating the place on foot is not advised! Three métro lines and one RER line intersect beneath the place, making it one of many primary transfer points in the city’s rail transit system.

The Arc itself is a monument to Napoleon’s war victories, memorialized in sculptures on each façade. Beneath the Arc is the flame marking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (WWI). Inside the Arc is a small museum with a great viewing platform at the top.

Beyond the Arc de Triomphe, at the end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée and across the bridge over the Seine, you can see the modern skyscrapers of La Défense and the current end-point of the historic axis: the Grande Arche de la Défense. The fastest way to get there is on the métro #1 or RER A lines from the Charles de Gaulle/Etoile station. At right, workers sandblast the roof of the C.N.I.T. at La Défense as part of the transformation from its original use as an exhibit hall to a modern office and retail complex.

Begun in the late 1960s, the over 300 acre development at la Défense is home to many French and international corporate offices, as well as hotels, residences, theaters, and shopping centers. The central axis, or esplanade, is for pedestrians (cars move around the development on a depressed ring road and trains run beneath) and features many fountains, small squares, and prolific public art. The neighborhood is named for a monument to the defense of Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870 (Franco-Prussian War); the monument was erected on the site in 1881 and can still be seen near the Agam Fountain on the esplanade.

The Grande Arche, completed in 1989, is essentially an office building and includes a gallery and outdoor viewing platform at the top. On a clear day, the views of the whole of Paris from here are unforgettable.

The Grande Arche, seen here under construction in the 1980s. The cathedral of Notre Dame could actually fit in the space under the arch.

Where ever you end up, be it the Grand Arche or the Arc de Triomphe, returning to the starting point is a simple métro ride on the #1 line, or hop the RER A line for a quick trip back to the center of the city.

Another public art piece at La Défense, César's Thumb (le Pouce), created in 1965 by the artist César Basdannini.


  1. I'm enjoying your walking tour, Walt. I've never been to la Défense, so I'll try and make it there in May- I want to see Cesar's pouce for sure.
    Can I ride the RER back into town on a normal metro ticket?

  2. The RER station at La Défense (Grande Arche)is beyond Zone 1, so you'll need a special ticket for that, but there is the #1 Metro line at that station that doesn't require extra fare. It takes longer, of course, which is why the RER is more expensive. Time is money!!

  3. Very nice! And informative. Merci!

  4. Thumbs up! (Hardyharhar!)


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