Ask Bonjour Paris: Champs Elysées

Ask Bonjour Paris: Champs Elysées

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Dear Joy,



Well, a champ is a field, so my first guess would be the avenue of the Elysées fields, but I thought I’d ask our resident history expert, Jean England Freeland, if she could dig up a little bit more information and here’s what she discovered.


 What does “Champs-Elysées” mean?


The idea for what became the Champs-Elysées may have originated with Colbert, the famous French minister, and with Le Nôtre, the equally famous garden designer, whose best-known work today is probably the lovely gardens of Versailles.


When he was Finance Minister, one of Colbert’s pet projects was to stimulate trade within France, so of course he greeted with enthusiasm any ideas for new roads that would facilitate commerce in and out of Paris.  Under his sponsorship, a plan was drawn up in 1667 for a series of avenues, augmented by formal garden areas and open spaces, which would provide an additional ingress for Paris and also serve as a sort of enhancement for the Tuileries Palace.


The Tuileries Gardens, which had been an Italian park in the 1560s, were entrusted to Le Nôtre, who seems to have made some major improvements in the landscaping.  After that, other important figures became involved in the Elysées project, among them the Duc d’Antin and the Marquis de Marigny, who decided on most of the actual plantings along what became the Champs-Elysées itself. By the mid-eighteenth century, the area had assumed much of the shape it would retain until the start of the French Revolution.


The whole project fell onto hard times during that revolution, however, becoming something of a haven for the unsavory, but it made a comeback during the Napoleonic period, when the rich and prominent enjoyed promenading and showing off their status to everyone else in the area.  When Napoléon began construction of the Arc de Triumph after the Battle of Austerlitz, the stage was set for improving the entire area to provide a spectacle worthy of Napoleonic grandeur.  Then came the Battle of Waterloo.  The project stagnated.


There was a revival of considerable proportions during the July Monarchy, which continued during the period of Napoléon III’s ascendancy.  The great Egyptian obelisk appeared in the Place de la Concorde, drawing large crowds.  With the development of the Place de l’Etoile, the entire Champs-Elysées area got another boost, as even more restaurants and shops moved in to line the route. And today, of course, no visit to Paris is complete without a stroll down the Champs-Elysées.

But what about that name? Originally known as the Grande Allée du Roule (roughly, a road in town lined by trees) and later as Avenue de la Grille Royale, by the 1690s the route had been dubbed the Champs-Elysées.  As fans of Greek and Roman mythology will know, the Elysian Fields were the abode of the “deserving” dead and seem to have been about as close as you could get in those days to heaven.  Thus the name was chosen as a reference to this happy place, the delights of which were especially awarded to Greeks and Romans who served their country well.  So, as you walk down the Champs-Elysées today, you follow not only in the historic footsteps of French patriots but also in the linguistic footsteps of the Classical Age. 

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Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.

1 COMMENT

  1. Very interesting history lesson. I especially enjoyed the current status of Ms Freeland and the fact that she can now go into town without Parisians run screaming from her. Brilliant!

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