Daily Dose of Europe: Champs-Elysées: The Parisian Promenade

I have a ritual when in Paris. I ask my cabbie to take me around the Arc de Triomphe two times, then drop me off to stroll down the city’s grand boulevard, the Champs-Elysées.

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

We plunge into the grand traffic circle where a dozen venerable boulevards converge on the mightiest of triumphal arches. Like referees at gladiator camp, traffic cops are stationed at each entrance to this traffic circus, letting in bursts of eager cars.

In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann set out to make Paris the grandest city in Europe. The 12 arterials that radiate from the Arc de Triomphe were part of his master plan: the creation of a series of major boulevards, intersecting at diagonals, with monuments (such as the Arc de Triomphe) as centerpieces. As we careen around the chaotic circle, I wonder what Haussmann would think of the scene today.

Each visit here reminds me of the greatness of France. As the marble relief of Lady Liberty scrambles up the arch Napoleon ordered built, heroically thrusting her sword and shrieking at the traffic, all of Paris seems drawn into this whirlpool. Being immersed in this scene with my cabbie so in control always makes me laugh out loud.

The commotion of cars fights to get to the arch at the center as if to pay homage to the national spirit of France. Cars entering the circle have the right-of-way; those already in the circle must yield. Parisian drivers navigate the circle like roller derby queens. Tippy little Citroën 2CVs, their rooftops cranked open like sardine lids, bring lumbering buses to a sudden, cussing halt. It’s a game of fender-bender chicken.

On this visit, after barely avoiding an accident, my cabbie calms me, saying, “In Paris, a good driver gets only scratches, not dents.” Groping for the lost end of my seatbelt, I say, “There must be an accident here every few minutes.” He explains, “In the case of an accident here, each driver is considered equally at fault. This is the only place in Paris where the accidents are not judged. No matter what the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs 50-50.” While we’re momentarily stalled on the inside lane, I pay and hop out.

I’m ready for my stroll on the Champs-Elysées. I like to say it out loud: shahn-zay-lee-zay. This grandest of boulevards is Paris at its most Parisian: sprawling sidewalks, stylish octogenarians caked in makeup, concept cars glimmering in showroom windows, and pastel macarons in grand cafés.

Paris’ characteristic love of strolling (a stately paced triathlon of walking, window-shopping, and high-profile sipping) dates from the booming 19th century, with its abundance of upper-class leisure time and cash. Donning an aristocratic air, I amble gently downhill to the immense and historic square called the Place de la Concorde.

Even small-town French kids who haven’t traveled beyond a TV screen know that this boulevard is their country’s ultimate parade ground, where major events unfold: the Tour de France finale, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s festivities.

In 1667, Louis XIV opened the first stretch of the Champs-Elysées: a short extension of the Tuileries Gardens leading to the palace at Versailles. Many consider this moment to be the birth of Paris as a grand city. The Champs-Elysées soon became the place to cruise in your carriage. It still is today — traffic can be jammed up even at midnight.

A century after Louis XIV, the café scene arrived. Cafés were ideal for both Parisian pleasure-seekers and thinkers, conspiring to share ideas and plot revolutions. That coffee-sipping ambience survives today, amid pop-clothing outlets and music megastores. Two cafés, Le Fouquet’s and Ladurée, are among the most venerable in Paris.

Le Fouquet’s started as a coachman’s bistro. Then it gained fame as the hangout of French biplane pilots during World War I, when Paris was just a few nervous miles from the Western Front. Today, it’s pretty stuffy — unless you’re a film star. The golden plaques at the entrance honor winners of France’s version of our Oscars, the Césars. While I find the interior intimidating, the people-watching from the sidewalk tables makes the most expensive espresso I’ve found in Paris a good value.

You’re more likely to see me hanging out at Ladurée, working delicately through an Oreo-sized macaron with fine silverware. This classic 19th-century tea salon and pastry shop has an interior right out of the 1860s. The bakery makes traditional macarons with a pastel palette of flavors, ranging from lavender and raspberry to rose. Get a frilly little gift box to go, or pay the ransom and sit down and enjoy the Champs-Elysées show in sweet style.

Until the 1960s, the boulevard was pure Parisian elegance, lined with top-end hotels, cafés, and residences. Locals actually dressed up to stroll here. Then, in 1963, the government, wanting to pump up the neighborhood’s commercial metabolism, brought in the Métro to connect the Champs-Elysées with the suburbs. Suddenly, the working class had easy access. And bam — there goes the neighborhood.

The arrival of McDonald’s was another shock. At first it was allowed only white arches painted on the window. Today, the hamburger joint spills out onto the sidewalk with café-quality chairs and stylish flower boxes.

As fast food and pop culture invaded and grand old buildings began to fall, Paris realized what it was losing. In 1985, a law prohibited the demolition of the classy facades that once gave this boulevard a uniform grace. Consequently, many of today’s modern businesses hide behind 19th-century facades.

The nouvelle Champs-Elysées, revitalized in 1994, has new street benches, lamps, and an army of green-suited workers armed with high-tech pooper scoopers. Two lanes of traffic were traded away to make broader sidewalks. And plane trees (a kind of sycamore that thrives despite big-city pollution) provide a leafy ambience.

As I stroll, I notice the French appetite for a good time. The foyer of the famous Lido, Paris’ largest cabaret, comes with leggy photos and a perky R-rated promo video.

The nearby Club Med building is a reminder of the French commitment to vacation. Since 1936, France’s employees, by law, have enjoyed one month of paid vacation. The French, who now have five weeks of paid vacation, make sure they have plenty of time for leisure.

On the Champs-Elysées, the shopping ends and the park begins at a big traffic circle called Rond-Point. From here, it’s a straight shot down the last stretch of the boulevard to the sprawling square called the Place de la Concorde. Its centerpiece was once the bloody guillotine but is now the 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Luxor. It was shipped here from Egypt in the 1830s, a gift to the French king.

I stand in the shadow of that obelisk with my back to the Louvre, once Europe’s grandest palace, and now its grandest museum. Looking up this ultimate boulevard to the Arc de Triomphe, I can’t help but think of the sweep of French history…and the taste of those delightful macarons.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order.)