Paris is a city designed to be seen. Everything, from the elegant architecture to the symmetrical lines of trees in the parks, provides a feast for the eyes that simply never ends. It is beautiful at sunrise and sunset, in the sunshine and in the rain when the streetlights reflect a golden glow across every cobble. There are many places to visit if you want to see a panorama of the city. Of course there is the summit of the Eiffel Tower, the steps of Montmartre and the dizzying height of the Montparnasse Tower. But one of my favourite views of the city is from the 50m tall monument at the top of the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe.
I hadn’t been up there for quite some time until last weekend when me and a friend stumped up the 9 euros admission fee and braced our legs for a climb up the 284 steps to the top. In my opinion this view is one best seen at night, preferably a clear night when the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur aren’t shrouded in cloud or fog.
The Arc sits at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, otherwise known as l’Etoile (the star). A spectacular achievement in city planning, the Place is a (somewhat infamous) roundabout from which 12 glorious avenues spread out through the 8th, 16th and 17th arrondissements. They make up some of the French capital’s most exclusive addresses. It took three decades to build the Arc, from the date it was commissioned in 1806 to its finishing touches in 1836.
The Arc itself was designed in a Roman style and features friezes of French military victories. It is also engraved with the names of almost 600 of Napoleon’s generals.The arch has been the focus point for victory marches throughout the last two centuries and either side of the Nazi occupation of Paris was marked by a military parade underneath the monument – the German occupiers led by Hitler in 1940 and the French free forces with Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill in 1944.
In 1945 the unknown solider was interred at the centre of the Place and ever since military marches have avoided passing directly under the arch.
Once you’ve bought your ticket in the subway beneath the roundabout, you head up into the body of the arch, entering through an ancient-looking door in one of its legs. Beyond the door lie the stairs, all 284 of them, winding upwards in a tight spiral. They made me feel dizzy.
Reaching the top, you come out in a small exhibition space featuring statues, memorials, models of the Arc and some video screens explaining its history. There is, of course, also a gift shop. If you’re like me, you probably won’t spend too much time in the gallery bit – that’s not why you’ve battled the stairs. A last few steps take you out onto the roof of the arc and the view really is amazing.
Last weekend it was raining slightly, the sky was dark without stars and the wind was hard and cold but none of that mattered. Me and my friend Caitlin were determined to get up there, regardless of the weather. The view really was magical. Looking east, the centre of the Arc is perfectly aligned with the Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel (a mini Arc de Triomphe outside the Louvre museum). To the west, the Avenue de la Grande Armée reaches out in an unwavering straight line through the suburb of Neuilly and up to the skyscrapers of the La Défense business district. This enormous stretch of aligned monuments is known as the Axe Historique (historic axe). At night time, the cars on the Champs Elysées blur into a slick of red and white electricity and the pedestrians are tiny dots, bumping alongside one another on the street and pavements.
In the distance to the north, the Sacré Coeur oversees the city. To the south, the Eiffel Tower’s rotating beam scans the sky as though it’s searching for something it can never find.
It’s an incredible sight: millions of people, millions of lights and all their life stories past and present spread out in front of you. The city in panorama.
If I were recommending one place from which to see the city, this is the one I’d suggest.
For visitor information, prices and opening hours, please visit the official website.