diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 14, 2019

À PARIS: l'axe historique

London's not big on long straight lines, other than a few Roman roads transformed into traffic jams. But Paris boasts a full six-miler - the axe historique - a true ceremonial alignment of arches, obelisks and major thoroughfares. This is what happens happens when you stick kings, emperors and presidents in charge of town planning.

It grew in stages. Originally it was merely the central axis of the garden in front of the royal palace, the Palais des Tuileries, because the French do like a bit of formal symmetry. In the 1660s it was extended to provide a charming vista along an elm avenue, later renamed the Champs Élysées. This reached Place d'Étoile in 1710, where a century later Napoleon ordered the Arc de Triomphe to be built, eventually completed in 1836. The line continues along increasingly arterial roads and crosses the Seine to reach La Défense, a postwar business district sufficiently distant for Parisians to tolerate high-rise building. At the very far end is La Grande Arche, a whopping office block courtesy of François Mitterrand, which completes the line of perspective... for now.

The Louvre

The Palais des Tuileries is no more, having been burned to the ground by a rampaging mob in 1871. This opened up one side of the ginormous quadrangle that forms the Louvre, so today the eastern end of the axe historique is marked by the most famous art gallery in the world. I had been considering going inside, because Thursday mornings are one of the best times to avoid the queues, but decided against because a) the weather was too good to be trapped inside, b) I'd seen the Mona Lisa 39 years ago, before the invention of the smartphone, c) one huge art gallery a day is quite enough. Instead I wandered around the outside of the glass pyramid a bit, which was looking a bit less splendid than usual because the surrounding water features had been drained revealing triangular concrete slabs. All the usual tourists sat around enjoying a rest, or stood around in large groups, the Louvre being one of the sights you have to tick off even if you're not planning to spend hours exploring inside. Maybe next time.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

This is the smaller of the two arches Napoleon had built to celebrate a string of victories, but the only one of the two to be completed before his string of defeats. It lines up precisely with the axe historique, having doubled up as the entrance to the Palais des Tuileries before that was demolished. Intriguingly it doesn't line up properly with the Louvre, whose central axis is slightly out of sync due to the slight curvature of the River Seine. Instead the axe historique now terminates at the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV in the Louvre's courtyard, seemingly naggingly off-centre but in fact perfectly aligned.

Jardin des Tuileries

The palace may have gone but its garden survives, remodelled as the ultimate in French formality. Pristine lawns and topiary clusters are carefully balanced to either side of a scrunchy central promenade, along with colourful flowerbeds and classical statuary. In spring admire the dazzling pinks of the cherry blossom. In high summer dive for the shade of the avenue of clipped trees. Two ornamental ponds complete the facilities, each medially aligned, one smaller and round, the other larger and octagonal. I could have grabbed a perimeter seat in one of the official green non-deckchairs, admired the fountain and watched the small boats, but I had an axis to follow.

Place de la Concorde

Largest square in Paris, threaded through with streaming traffic, centred on a 75 foot obelisk from Luxor and the ideal place to guillotine deposed royalty.

Champs Élysées

No longer bucolic fields the Champs Élysées is Paris's chief thoroughfare, almost two kilometres in length, and is also used for military parades and concluding the Tour de France. One end's green and palatial, the other's mostly shops. I headed to the latter to see what all the fuss was about and discovered a succession of brand temples on either side of a teeming highway. The traffic's far far worse than Oxford Street, but this doesn't matter because the street and pavements are much wider so the cars can do their thing while you windowshop. There's even space to fit tented brasseries between the roadway and the shops, so spacious is the Elysian experience. I checked for riot damage following the recent gilet jaunes protests, and spotted only a handful of shops with telltale boarding (although I doubt Lacoste previously covered their windows with sparkling metal grilles).

Arc de Triomphe

Built long before the motor car, the intention was never to become a roundabout, but that's essentially what this victory arch has become. It sits at the heart of an astonishing twelve-armed road junction, an effect which can only be achieved at scale, which means attempting to walk round it takes absolutely bloody ages. Cars and buses and scooters swirl round, like a circular Hyde Park Corner, while tourists step up to the roadside for a triumphant selfie. The proper thing to do is pay 12€ for the privilege of climbing 284 steps to the roof terrace, via a small museum in the attic, and gawp across Paris in a dozen directions. Thursday would have been a cracking day for it too. But I burrowed down to the Metro station that's sort-of underneath instead, and followed the rest of the axe historique by rail.

Line 1

This is the oldest, and the busiest, of the Métro lines under Paris, and follows the historic alignment from roughly Place de la Concorde to the Grand Arche. It's also fully automated, and has been since 2012, which means there's no driver to get in the way if you sit right at the front. From here you can see both tracks within a single squat tunnel, in this case almost perfectly straight, the most entrancing array of lights being those on the descent to Porte Maillot. For the 1992 extension to La Défense the tracks rise up to cross the Seine mid-dual carriageway, revealing a forest of skyscrapers ahead, before ducking back down into the gloom. It'd be even more fun than the DLR if only the seats faced forwards.

La Défense

Wow. This hi-tech commercial district stretches for a full kilometre uphill, its broad central strip bounded by office towers from the deepest recesses of architectural imagination. Be they colourful, slanted or merely very tall cylinders, each seems fearful of not being noticed so makes an extra special quirky effort. The overall effect is closer to London Docklands than the City, but with a far greater feeling of space despite the commercial clustering. I arrived at lunchtime to find office workers pouring out to collect lunch from a handful of streetfood vans, or more likely from outlets elsewhere, before diving back inside their separate vertical domains. I negotiated a succession of stepped terraces on my ascent, the expansive medial strip concealing an arterial road underneath where no foundations can be placed. I nipped inside Les Quatre Temps, which in 1981 was Europe's largest shopping centre, where armed soldiers mingled cautiously on the escalators. And I made my way inexorably towards the monster building at the far western end.

Grande Arche de la Défense

Officially it's a hollowed-out cube, 110m in length/width/height, clad in marble, but everyone calls it an arch. It was opened in 1989 to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and now houses a couple of thousand civil servants within its twin pillars. Intriguingly the arch is twisted six degrees off-centre, partly to echo the skewness of the Louvre at the other end of the alignment, but chiefly because the railway lines and motorway buried underneath didn't allow the foundations to go in straight. For 15€ it's possible to ride a scenic elevator through the central void to an upper observation deck, which I tried in 2005, got the willies and vowed never again. An "elevator incident" in 2010 did indeed close the attraction down for the next seven years, which I feel somewhat justifies my irrational fears. Instead I settled on the steps, whipped out a thermos of tea and spent several minutes staring back down the canyon of offices towards the Arc de Triomphe, an Egyptian needle and ultimately the Louvre. It's incredible that the central axis of a old royal garden has become all this.

l'axe historique gallery
There are 25 photos altogether [slideshow]

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