If there is one monument that symbolizes "La Gloire," or the glory of France, it is this giant triumphal arch. Crowning the Champs-Elysées, this mighty archway both celebrates the military victories of the French army and memorializes the sacrifices of its soldiers. Over time, it has become an icon of the Republic and a setting for some of its most emotional moments: the laying in state of the coffin of Victor Hugo in 1885, the burial in 1921 of the ashes of an unknown soldier who fought in World War I, and General de Gaulle’s pregnant pause under the arch before striding down the Champs-Elysées to the cheering crowds after the Liberation in 1944.
It took a certain amount of chutzpah to come up with the idea to build such a shrine, and sure enough, it was Napoléon who instigated it. In 1806, still glowing after his stunning victory at Austerlitz, the Emperor decided to erect a monument to the Imperial Army along the lines of a Roman triumphal arch. The architect chosen was Jean-François Chalgrin, who drew inspiration from Rome’s Arch of Titus, though abandoned the columns and made Napoleon’s arch a whopping 50m (163 ft.) high and 45m (147 ft.) wide, the largest of its type on the planet. Unfortunately, the Empire came to an end before the arch was finished, and construction dragged on until 1836 when it was completed by Louis-Philippe.
The arch is covered with bas-reliefs and sculptures, the most famous of which is the enormous “Depart of the Volunteers” of 1792, better known as the Marseillaise, by François Rude. Just above is one of the many smaller panels detailing Napoleonic battles—in this case, Aboukir—wherein the Emperor trods victoriously over the Ottomans. At the base of the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, over which a flame is relit every evening. The inscription reads ici repose un soldat français mort pour la patrie, 1914–1918 (“Here lies a French soldier who died for his country”).
Don’t try crossing the vast traffic circle to get to the arch; take the underpass near the Métro entrances. The panorama from the rooftop terrace is quite impressive; you will see the 12 boulevards that radiate from the star-shaped intersection (hence the moniker “Etoile”), most of which are named after Napoleonic battles. Out front is the long sweep of the Champs-Elysées, ending at place de la Concorde, behind which lurks the pyramid of the Louvre. In the other direction you will get a good gander at the modern Grande Arche de la Défense, a huge, hollow cubelike building that could fit Notre-Dame under its arch.
- Margie Rynn