Some readers may be surprised to see this grand icon as a post on this blog. After all, the Arc de Triomphe is a stone archway located on the world’s most famous traffic circle, not a traditional museum. But there are many reasons why a monument like the Arc de Triomphe deserves a place among Paris museum cultures. For Parisians, muséophiles and visitors alike, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile – the ornate archway that dominates the 8th arrondissement and gazes down the Champs-Elysées towards the Louvre– evokes all kinds of notions about Paris past and present.
Many will think of the archway as a mere tourist icon, an object to be photographed from the glitzy Champs-Elysées, from a distance at the Place de la Concorde, or from directly below its soaring stone carvings on the Place Charles de Gaulle, formerly known as the Place de l’Etoile. Others will think less of the arch and more of the étoile (“star”) itself; a monstrous roundabout where twelve major avenues converge at the junction of the 8th, 16th and 17th arrondissements. Here, traffic police are a permanent (and essential) fixture, accidents are hilariously frequent and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the lane-less labyrinth of honking cars and taxis that hurtle around the arch and zoom off down one boulevard or another. (For those who haven’t visited before and are feeling discouraged, never fear- there is a subterranean tunnel that leads pedestrians under this automobile hellscape and spares them the need to cross at street level.)
Still others may associate the Arc de Triomphe with the last word in its name, as the Tour de France competitors race up to the archway in pursuit of triumph at the end of each year’s cycling race. And of course, the Arc de Triomphe is a popular site for viewing Paris from above, and perhaps the perfect one: high enough above the ground to gain a gorgeous panorama of the city, but low enough that you still feel as though you’re in the midst of it all.
But like so many Paris sites, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile (not to be confused with its sister archways scattered around the city, in the Louvre courtyard and at Strasbourg-Saint Denis) is an object with a rich history of its own. The 50-metre archway was begun in 1806 to commemorate the soldiers of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, but remained an important – self-commissioned – emblem of the Emperor’s power throughout his reign. It is a popular place for demonstrations, and the site of the annual Bastille Day military parade- and the final lap of the Tour de France.
Though tourists looking for no more than a good view often wander right past the permanent exhibition on the first floor, this mini-museum will give you a great overview of the arch’s commission, design, construction and uses throughout the centuries. Plus the arch itself is not simply smooth stone, but is engraved with memorials and sculptures of key French battles and military symbols.
Many come for the view and many stay away for the traffic, but all should visit the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile and linger a little longer than they otherwise might, to discover the many layers of this gorgeous, hulking, imposing, elegant and storied piece of stone.