PARIS IS studded with icons that register on everyone's world map. Yet only one street makes the grade: an avenue that seems almost as broad as it is long stretching barely a mile from the Place de la Concorde up to the Arc de Triomphe.
On the map, the Champs-Elysees appears to form a crucial artery. It feels like one of the busiest streets in Paris but it was originally merely a service road for the mansions that scattered along its length.
The Champs-Elysees owes its existence to Andre le Notre, the 17th-century genius who formalised the French garden. After he had refreshed the Tuileries, he prescribed the course of a street that was ultimately to become part of the Triumphal Way that now stretches from the Louvre to La Defense.
Initially, it ran for only half a mile between the Tuileries (Concorde not yet having been laid out) and the Rond-Point, the circle that these days temporarily subdues the traffic. The avenue, and more particularly the Elysian lawns that flank it, became a venue for socialising.
In 1724, it was extended up to Etoile, where a century later the Arc de Triomphe was imposed as magnificent punctuation.
The image of the street has been most vivid this century. The sight of German troops marching along it on 14 June 1940, signified the French capitulation to the invaders. The same summer, Jewish-owned shops on the Champs-Elysees were attacked by French thugs in collaboration with the Nazis. This was the first stage of a spiral of intimidation and violence that for many French Jews led to the death camps.
The liberation of France was symbolised in August 1944 by the recapture of the Champs-Elysees; Robert Cole notes the hysteria of relief among the citizenry in A Traveller's History of Paris. "It was a common sight," he writes, "to see soldiers fighting from street to street with lipstick smeared over their faces."
For all its celebrity, the Champs-Elysees kept a low profile during the revolutionary skirmishes of 1968, though Gaullists would say that it was their mass demonstration on the street that settled the matter in favour of the status quo.
In a sense, it is once again a service road. Few great buildings actually face on to the Champs-Elysees. The Grand Palais, which lends gravitas to the south-east corner, shows only a shoulder while the Elysee Palace, the President's official residence, is a quarter of a mile north. Instead, it is lined with the utilitarian (the Paris tourist office, and a Prisunic supermarket); the quotidian (Virgin Records and assorted airline offices); and just a scattering of the sort of clubs and restaurants where, if you have to ask le prix, the staff will treat you with the contempt you probably deserve.
Back outside, it is the busiest street in the French capital this month, but populated almost entirely by tourists. As the sun sinks contentedly behind the Arc de Triomphe and the lights begin to sparkle like a convention of crazed fireflies, you will be glad to be among them.
Simon Calder paid pounds 49 for a return ticket from London Waterloo to Paris on Eurostar (0990 186 186).Reuse content