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Though less artistic than its older cousin of Porte Saint-Denis, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile is the more famous and far larger. Set atop the hill of Chaillot it forms the center from which radiates a dozen busy Parisian avenues.
There are in fact several “Arc de Triomphe’s” in Paris. A large arch with two thick towers surmounted by a large horizontal section has been a popular architectural feature since the time of Louis XIV (the ’14th’) in the late 17th century.
But the one located at the intersection of the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée (along with 10 other streets) is the one sought out by most visitors.
Its elaborate carvings and friezes make the work an artistic delight, but the monument’s sheer size – unimaginable merely from photographs – turns it into an architectural marvel. The Arc is 50m (164 ft) high, 45m (148ft) long, and 22m (72ft) wide. The vaulted passageway is 30m (98ft) tall.
As you stand underneath the structure (though given the traffic in Paris, never in the center, unfortunately) you’re overwhelmed by the massive stone. Here it’s easy to imagine Napoleon’s armies marching triumphantly down the boulevard and through the opening.
Commissioned in 1806 and completed in 1836, it was constructed for the purpose of celebrating Napoleon’s victories. Ironically, Napoleon never had the chance to do so. Wellington defeated his army at Waterloo in 1815 bringing an end to Napoleon’s self-glorifying monument construction projects.
The monument can be seen from several different sections of Paris far away, in part thanks to the Parisian zoning restrictions forbidding the construction of tall buildings.
But the structure can be seen not only from far away or under the arch, but underneath and inside as well. There’s a tunnel under the street from one side to the other and a spiral staircase in the interior.
At the base are four large relief sculptures set on the bases of four pillars. Engraved around the top are names of major victories of the period. Along the sides are the names of 558 generals – those underlined died in action.
Since the end of WWI the Arc has held the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, commemorating the dead killed between 1914 and 1918. The permanently burning Flame of Remembrance forms a touching part of the impressive monument.
Inside the arch (‘arc’ is French for ‘arch’) there’s a small museum with displays pertaining to its history. (Admission covers the museum and access to the top.)
From the top the views, as they are anywhere above Paris, are awe-inspiring. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘City of Lights’. From there the visitor can see the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde and other well-known sights.
The Arc de Triomphe is most easily reached via the Metro (subway). Exit at the Charles de Gaulle – Etoile station. Or simply stroll down the Champs-Elysées, you can’t miss it.