When I think about the Elysian Fields of Greek Mythology, I imagine a haven of indescribable bliss. Throughout the seasons of the year, I can envision a world of haunting beauty and uplifted souls. When I walk along the Champs-Élysées, I’m not sure that I feel I am in a time-honored Paradise. But as the seasons have changed and the world has moved forward, I find that my small steps along the magnificent Parisian boulevard create a stunning adventure of their own.
The Champs-Élysées began as a field of open pastures and merchant gardens. It was originally created as an extension of the Tuileries Gardens, designed by André Le Nôtre in 1776. It was what you might think of first when pondering the days of yore before technology swept in and conquered all. It was not until 1616 that Marie de Medici, wife of King Henry IV, dictated a command and had the area cleared to make way for a tree-lined thoroughfare. Even then, it was known as the “Grand Cours”, or the “Grand Promenade”. The Champs-Élysées didn’t achieve its ancient grecian name until 1709. King Louis Philippe commissioned the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff to redesign the Champs in 1834. At long last, it became the 1.9 kilometre stretch so crucial to the 8th arrondissement.
Now, the boulevard has morphed into a shrine of luxury industry and Haussmanian design: the perfect place to promenade and see a whirlwind of Parisian delights. I like to start at the Arc de Triomphe and pay homage to Napoleon Bonaparte, his victories, and all of the soldiers who have lived and died for their country. The great towering arch casts its grand shadow down the long avenue. If I look one way I can see all the way up to La Defense, a notably modern business district. If I peer down the other direction, I am privy to a straight shot through the Place de la Concorde, the egyptian Luxor Obelisk, and all the way through the Tuileries Gardens into the illustrious Louvre Museum. It is a panoramic snapshot of Parisian culture.
As winter commences and a new year dawns, I occasionally find my steps dipping into the glimmering glow of snowflakes falling from the sky. My laced-up boots protect me from the cold air building in the clouds. It’s a bit of an anomaly in Paris, but as I walk past the endless shops lining the famous stretch, the winter caps and coats popping in and out of the stores fill my imagination with a wintry mix. Beginning around the Franklin Roosevelt metro station, I enter the Marche de Noel: a paradise of holiday wonders. Christmas music is piped in through speakers overhead while I am mesmerized by the twinkling lights raining down in lieu of snowflakes. Perhaps I munch on some tartiflette or buy a small holiday memento for my sweetheart. I pick up a vin chaud and warm my hands with a sip of festive elixir as I see the jolly faces falling in love with “the most beautiful avenue in the world.”
Springtime never comes soon enough. My warm boots are switched out for ballet flats while I lounge for an afternoon on a traditional Parisian terrace. I nurse a café au lait while watching the swarming crowds trying to drink in the occasional sunlight that bursts through the clouds. The art of people-watching is a prerequisite for residence on the Champs-Élysées. I might even indulge in a decadent macaron at the famous La Durée café to remind myself of the ladies who were first allowed to drink in public by themselves. As April comes closer, I skip into view of the Paris marathoners beginning their course around the capital city of France. They’ll run past high-end brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel as they set off to conquer their dreams. The trees lining the avenue are glowing green as a new season of life and love begins.
It’s never very clear when spring bids adieu and summer declares its spritely bonjour. The sun shines more brightly on the pavement and tourists flood in from all around the globe. The June summer sales land me in a new pair of sandals with which to galavant up and down the sidewalk. I can’t help but be swept up by the fervor of the Tour de France, as that yellow jersey comes rolling along the Champs and I scream along with the rest of the adoring fans in hot pursuit. Only a week or two later marks Quatorze Juillet, or Bastille Day to the non-native: the celebration of French Independence from the monarchical yolk. A French military parade steadily paces around Charles de Gaulle Etoile and I am lost in a sea of a respectful observers. There have been many marches along this avenue, from June 14th, 1940, when German troops celebrated their victory over France during World War II, to four years later, when American soldiers liberated France from those same victors. That night, I will laugh and sing and tipple champagne as I watch the fireworks shoot out of the Eiffel Tower in the not so distant skyline.
As autumn approaches, the trees lining the avenue slowly transform from green canopies of lush vitality to patchwork quilts of comforting foliage. My sandals are replaced with little ankle boots softly treading the squares of cement. October brings Nuit Blanche and a chance to see art bloom in and around the Champs-Élysées, not just in the acclaimed Grand or Petit Palais. The Hôtel de Crillon still stands in regal glory for the Marie Antoinettes of the world. But the boulevard is not only for the rich and powerful, spreading their prestigious wings around the glorious architecture. It is a place for all walks of life to celebrate the triumphs of history, art and culture. I find myself buying a light pashmina to cover my shoulders as the chillness of winter begins blowing through the trees once again. As the sun sets earlier and earlier, the shop doors close and the Champs-Élysées is left in illumination. The steps of centuries continue to make their memories season after season, year after year: “La Plus Belle Avenue du Monde”