Circling in on Paris’ Arc d’Triomphe

On the eastern end of the Champs-Elysees, the iconic memorial arch is a traffic nightmare but a tourist’s lesson in French history

Paris grandest arch
Traffic whips around Paris' grandest arch while tourists savor the view from the top. Barb Geisler / Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

I have a ritual when in Paris. I ask my taxi-driver to take me around the Arc de Triomphe two times. My cabbie plunges into the grand traffic circle where a dozen boulevards converge on this mightiest of triumphal arches. Like referees at gladiator camp, traffic cops are stationed at each entrance to this traffic circus, letting in bursts of eager cars. Each time, being immersed in the crazy traffic with my cabbie so in control makes me laugh out loud.

In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann set out to make Paris the grandest city in Europe. The 12 arterials that radiate from the Arc de Triomphe were part of his master plan: the creation of a series of major boulevards, intersecting at diagonals with monuments as centerpieces (such as the Arc de Triomphe). As we zip around the circle, it’s obvious that Haussmann’s plan did not anticipate the automobile.

My cabbie explains to me, “If there is an accident here, each driver is considered equally at fault. This is the only place in Paris where the accidents are not judged. No matter what the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs fifty-fifty. In Paris, a good driver gets only scratches, not dents.”

The commotion of cars fights to get to the arch at the center as if to pay homage to the national spirit of France. Cars entering the circle have the right-of-way; those in the circle must yield. Parisian drivers navigate the circle like a comet circling the sun—making a parabola. It’s a game of fender-bender chicken. Tippy little Citroën 2CVs, their rooftops cranked open like sardine lids, bring lumbering buses to a sudden, cussing halt.

While we’re momentarily stalled on the inside lane, I pay and hop out. The cabbie drives away, leaving me feeling small under Europe’s ultimate arch and at the top of the Champs-Elysées, its ultimate boulevard.

Each visit here reminds me of the greatness of France. As marble Lady Liberties scramble up the arch Napoleon ordered built, heroically thrusting their swords and shrieking at the traffic, all of Paris seems drawn into this whirlpool.

The Arc de Triomphe affords a great Paris view, but only to those who earn it by climbing its 284 steps. Begun in 1806, the arch was intended to honor Napoleon’s soldiers, who, in spite of being vastly outnumbered by the Austrians, scored a remarkable victory at the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon died long before the arch was completed. But it was finished in time for his posthumous homecoming in 1840. Nineteen years after he died in exile on St. Helena, his remains were carried in a grand parade underneath his grand arch.

The Arc de Triomphe is dedicated to the glory of all French armies. Like its Roman ancestors, this arch has served as a parade gateway for triumphal armies (French or foe) and the stage for important ceremonies. From 1940 to 1944, a large swastika flew from here as Nazis goose-stepped daily down the Champs-Elysées. Allied troops marched triumphantly under this arch in August 1944.

Standing under the arch, you’re surrounded by names of French victories since the Revolution, the names of great French generals (underlined if they died in battle), and by France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Its flame—flickering silently in the eye of this urban storm—seems to invite to savor this grandiose monument to French nationalism. On my last visit, a French WWII vet, still wearing his ribbons, explained that every day at 6:30 p.m. since just after World War I, the flame is rekindled and new flowers set in place.

Climbing to the top of the arch is like summiting Paris. From this historic perch you look down along the huge axis that shoots like an arrow all the way from the Louvre, up the Champs-Elysées, through the arch, then straight down the avenue de la Grande-Armée to a forest of distant skyscrapers around an even bigger modern arch in suburban La Défense.

The skyscrapers in the suburbs contrast sharply with the uniformly low-slung buildings downtown. The beauty of Paris—basically a flat basin with a river running through it—is man-made. The key to this beauty is the harmonious relationship between the width of its grand boulevards and the height and design of the buildings. This elegant skyline is broken only by venerable historic domes, the Eiffel Tower—and the rude and lonely Montparnasse Tower, which stands like the box the Eiffel Tower came in. The appearance of this black, blocky tower served as a wake-up call in the early 1970s to preserve the historic skyline of downtown Paris.

Looking down from the arch, you get a bird’s-eye view of the crazy traffic you survived to get here. Drivers maneuver their way around the circle—incurring no dents...only scratches—to reach their desired exit and wing off to whatever awaits them in Paris. For more details, please see Rick Steves’ Paris.

For more details, please see Rick Steves’ Paris.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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