It has been said that from the moment a French motorist enters the Étoile, until the moments he escapes, his motor insurance is invalid. No doubt such a story is apocryphal (or maybe it isn't), but get a taxi driver to take you through, and you'll understand why it might not be - he barges in with barely an acknowledgement of those who have – sans choix – given way, heading for the centre, and then dives for an exit with just a hint of 'Ça ne fait rien'. It's a brief whirlwind of insanity, excitement and teeth-gritting absurdity...and best seen from above. On the way, don't be surprised if you pass some encycled baguette-wielding daredevil who's been in there for days, trying to find the way out.
All images © Centre des monuments nationaux
Twelve avenues radiate from this roundabout of madness, like beams of light thrusting from beneath the triumphal arch erected by Napoleon in honour of his victorious Grande Armée. And yet, in spite of the names of 128 battles of the first French Republic and Napoleon's Empire being written on the walls beneath the vault, together with the identity of the generals who took part in them, and the fact that his cortege passed through the arch in 1840, the Arc de Triomphe is not so much a monument of glory to a great emperor, as a symbol of La France.
Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, interred on Armistice Day 1920, it has the first eternal flame lit in Western and Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins' fire was extinguished in the fourth century. Flickering in the breeze, it burns in memory of the dead of two World Wars who were never identified, and according to some accounts, has been extinguished only once – by a drunken Mexican football supporter on the night that France beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final.
Noble in its grandeur, the arch exudes an almost religious quality, eminently suitable for great occasions such as the lying in state of Victor Hugo in 1885, before his body, attended by over 800,000 mourners was borne away on a simple hearse; or in 1919, on the 14th July, when a Victory Procession, led by Haig, Pershing, Joffre and Foch, passed beneath its vaulted roof.
Four sculptural groups at the base of the Arc represent great episodes in the life of a people who went to war in spite of their dislike of it. They represent the Triumph of 1810, Resistance and Peace, and the finest of them all, Departure of the Volunteers of 1792, commonly called La Marseillaise, her wings widespread in allegorical representation of France calling forth her people. Since the fall of Napoleon (1815), the sculpture representing Peace is interpreted as commemorating the Peace of 1815.
Aye, it's a grand place, right enough!