The Champs Élysées

Text read by Mary Peters

From an ugly duckling to a prestigious avenue

After cycling around many beautiful parts of France, Geneviève arrives at her destination. But what is the story of this avenue?

Four hundred years ago, it was uninhabited land. A combination of wasteland, swamps, and some crops. Marie de Médici, who acted as regent to her son, Louis XIII, wanted to have a long avenue lined with elms and lime trees. The avenue should extend beyond the Tuileries Palace and run along the Seine River. She had heard of the Cours la Reine, a promenade in Florence, that had opened in 1615.

Champs-Élysées means Elysian Fields in English. The name originates from Greek mythology where these fields were separated from the underworld. They represent an area in which only mortals who were connected to Gods and other heroes would be admitted.

In 1670 Louis XIV asked his gardener, to develop this still largely uninhabited area. André le Nôtre, who had designed the gardens of Versailles, was certainly up to the task. Louis XIV wanted to link the Tuileries Palace with his other residences to access them more quickly. The king’s gardener laid out a wide tree-lined avenue. It had lawns in the extension of the Tuileries. It ran from the future Place de la Concorde to the present-day Champs-Elysées roundabout.

Despite all these improvements, the avenue remained unloved by Parisians. During the day, people did not frequent the area and it was much too dark at night.  More critically, another reason was that the avenue followed the course of the former Grand-Égout de Paris. The problem? It stank because égout means sewer in English.

Things changed when in 1777, it was decided to cover the Grand-Égout and post some Swiss Guards along the avenue. People felt more comfortable walking on it. It was not long before the first beautiful private mansions in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré were built. This in turn attracted boules games, restaurants and lemon stalls.

Louis XV authorised the construction of buildings on both sides of the Champs. A few years later, the Marquis de Marigny had the alleys that would become the Avenue de Marigny and the Matignon drawn. Slowly, the district was beginning to take shape.

However, despite all these investments, the avenue remained unloved. Its population consisted of bandits and prostitutes who were attracted by the low-end guinguettes. This was still a far cry from the vision Marie de Medici had 150 years previously.  

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées did not really gain any importance until the French Revolution. Under the “Directoire”, the avenue was widened, and the guinguettes were closed. They were replaced by luxurious restaurants and cafés like Dupe’s. It was the first restaurant there to attract all the celebrities of the time.

In 1814, the allied European forces entered Paris. Thousands of Cossacks camped on the Champs-Élysées. They stayed there all spring. Cossacks had the reputation of being child-eating savages. Instead, what the French population saw were men who cooked over roaring fires and who stripped naked to wash their horses in the Seine. Instead of savages, they were disciplined, courteous and even visited the museums in Paris. The French loved them.

It was not until 1828 that the Avenue des Champs-Élysées began to change to something more beautiful.  Asphalt sidewalks were laid, and 1,200 gas lampposts were erected. That brought, cafés, restaurants, concert halls and theatres.

It was also during the 20th century that major, prestigious brands set up shop on the Champs-Élysées. Mercedes in 1902, Peugeot and Renault in 1908.  By 1909, more than 22 companies had their shops on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Even today, the major car dealerships are still present on the Champs-Élysées.

 On August 26, 1944, General de Gaulle walked down the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the liberation of Paris in front of more than two million people.

For the National Day, the avenue is absolutely essential because it is decorated with the colours of France and welcomes the famous parade of July 14.

Victories of the French national football team are celebrated here. France said goodbye to its much-loved singer Johnny Hallyday when his coffin was transported along the Avenue. And, of course, the final stage of the Tour de France rolls along the Champs Elysées.

Today, it is considered one of the most beautiful streets in the world.  The Champs-Élysées is a must-see when visiting the capital. It is located in the heart of the 8th arrondissement. Numerous luxury boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, Montblanc and Guerlain, and famous restaurants, such as Fouquet’s, have taken up residence. The avenue is 1,910-metres long and 70-metres wide and stretches from the majestic Place de la Concorde to the imposing Arc de Triomphe. During the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the avenue is adorned with thousands of lights.

From its uncertain beginnings, the Champs-Élysées is now one of the most visited sites in Paris, welcoming nearly 300,000 visitors every day! Twice a year, the sun sets under the Arc de Triomphe. Like so much else on this avenue, it is an unforgettable spectacle.