The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by the Emperor Napoléon I in 1806 to celebrate the triumph of his armies over the rest of Europe in the early nineteenth century, particularly his triumph over the Russian and Austrian Empires at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
In recent decades, however, the Arch has merely served to demonstrate the triumph of cars over people. Cars have unlimited rights to careen around the circle that surrounds the Arch, where twelve major streets come together. People, if they want to visit the Arch, can only reach it by going through an underground tunnel like rats or moles.
When you emerge from the tunnel, the first thing you see is (you guessed it) traffic, this time from inside the circle instead of outside.
To get to the top you have to walk up the usual winding staircase, but it’s easier than most because there are two staircases, one for going up and one for going down, so the ascenders and the descenders don’t keep blocking each other’s way. There is an elevator aka lift which was out of order when I was there. I’m told it is usually out of order except when they do special tours for disabled people, in which case it miraculously starts working again. (Perhaps someone who has had experience with this can say more?) In any case, the elevator only goes up to the next-to-highest level, where the souvenir shop is, not directly up to the top.
When you do get to the top you have views of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the arch in all directions. The best known of these is the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its disgusting ten lanes of cars. From the top of the Arch you fortunately can’t smell the exhaust fumes, but you can certainly hear the traffic noise, the same incessant humming that you hear if you happen to live near a motorway, punctuated with the individual roars of sports cars or motorcycles as they accelerate wildly when the lights change. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées leads off to the southeast, towards the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre.
Going around clockwise from the Champs-Elysées, the next avenue is the Avenue Marceau, which leads off in a more southerly direction, towards the Montparnasse Tower. Avenue d’Iéna, on the right in the same photo, goes off towards Place d’Iéna (named after a battle that took place near the German city of Jena in 1806) and the Eiffel Tower.
Avenue Kléber goes off to the south-southeast, with the Eiffel Tower still visible at the left side of the photo. This avenue was named after a general of the French army, Jean Baptiste Kléber (1753–1800). Avenue Victor Hugo leads off to the southeast. It was named of course after the great nineteenth century author who wrote Notre-Dame de Paris 1482 and Les Misérables, among many other works.
Avenue Foch, with its wide light brown gravelly sidewalks, goes off in an easterly direction towards the woods called Bois de Boulogne. This avenue was named after another general, Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929).
Next, the Avenue de la Grande Armée leads off roughly to the west-northwest towards La Defense. This avenue, which was named after Napoléon’s large army, is practically the continuation of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
Continuing around clockwise, we come to Avenue Carnot, a shorter avenue which goes off to the northwest. There have been several prominent people named Carnot, such as the physicist and military engineer Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) and his nephew Marie François Sadi Carnot (1837-1894), who was president of France from 1887 until his assassination in 1894.
Avenue Mac-Mahon goes off in a more northerly direction. It was named after Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta, a French general (of Irish ancestry) who served as Chief of State of France from 1873 to 1875 and as the first president of the Third Republic from 1875 to 1879.
Avenue de Wagram leads off more or less to the northeast. It was named after a battle that took place in Austria in 1809 and was of course a French victory, otherwise they wouldn’t have named the avenue after it. (You may have noticed that in Paris there is no street, avenue, square or boulevard named Waterloo. Not even an impasse.)
Avenue Hoche goes northeast to Parc Monceau, with Sacré-Coeur visible in the distance on a hill off to the right. This avenue was named after Louis Lazare Hoche (1768–1797), who was a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Avenue de Friedland goes off roughly to the west. Friedland was the site of a battle (what else?) in 1807, in which Napoléon’s army defeated a Russian army in East Prussia.
Having come full circle, we are now back at the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, where traffic has mercifully let up a bit in the meantime.
My photos in this post are from 2011 and 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: It used to be even worse!
(about the Avenue des Champs-Élysées)