“Go Home Beneath Triumphal Arch” – A Promise by Napoleon to his Men:
Though less artistic than its older cousin of Porte Saint-Denis, the Arc de Triomphe is the more famous and far larger.
Set on Place de Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, atop the hill of Chaillot, it forms the centre from which radiates a dozen busy Parisian avenues. The twelve avenues which form a star (étoile) pattern was the creation of Baron Haussmann who was charged with the urban modernization of Paris by Napoleon III.
There are in fact several “Arc de Triomphe’s” in Paris. A large arch with two thick towers surmounted by a large horizontal section has been a popular architectural feature since the time of Louis XIV (the ’14th’) in the late 17th century.
But the one located at the intersection of the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée (along with 10 other streets) is the one sought out by most visitors.
Its elaborate carvings and friezes make the work an artistic delight, but the monument’s sheer size – difficult to conceive merely from photographs – turns it into an architectural marvel. The Arch is 50 m high, 45 m long and 22 m wide. The vaulted passageway is 30 m tall.
As you stand underneath the structure (though given the traffic in Paris, never in the centre, unfortunately) you’re overwhelmed by the massive stone. Here it’s easy to imagine Napoleon’s armies marching triumphantly down the boulevard and through the opening.
Commissioned in 1806 and completed in 1836, it was constructed for the purpose of celebrating Napoleon’s victories, most notably the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Ironically, Napoleon never had the chance to do so. Wellington defeated his army at Waterloo in 1815 bringing an end to Napoleon’s self-glorifying monument construction projects.
The monument can be seen from several different sections of Paris far away, in part thanks to the Parisian zoning restrictions forbidding the construction of tall buildings.
But the structure can be seen not only from far away or under the arch, but underneath and inside as well. There’s a tunnel under the street from one side to the other and a spiral staircase in the interior.
At the base are four large relief sculptures set on the bases of four pillars. Engraved around the top are names of major victories of the period. Along the sides are the names of 558 generals – those underlined died in action.
Since the end of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was placed beneath the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate those killed between 1914 and 1918. The Tomb’s eternal Flame of Remembrance is lit every evening and forms a touching part of the impressive monument.
The Museum inside the Arc was modernized in 2008 with interactive displays pertaining to the Arc’s architecture and construction history. (Admission covers the museum and access to the terrace.)
From the terrace on top of the Arc de Triomphe the views, as they are anywhere above Paris, are awe-inspiring. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘City of Lights’. From there the visitor can see the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde and other well-known sights.
The Arc de Triomphe is most easily reached via the Paris Metro. Exit at the Charles de Gaulle – Etoile station. Or simply stroll down the Champs-Elysées, you can’t miss it.