No one can question the fact that the Champs-Élysées is one of the most famous avenues in the entire world. This incredibly historic strip is bookended by Napoleon’s glorious Arc de Triomphe to the west and the lovely Place de la Concorde to the east. One of the things I was so eager to do during our visit to Paris was to walk the Champs-Élysées. During the planning of our trip my mind was fixated on the history of this amazing one mile plus stretch. I thought about the people who once walked this swanky, upscale street during the 18th century. And how could I not think of the German’s march down the Champs-Élysées after occupying Paris only to be outdone by the celebration of liberation via the Allies march down the same street. So much history and I was going to get the chance to experience it. Obviously I had built up a perception of the Champs-Élysées that was perhaps a bit unfair and unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile experience.
I stood at the top of the Arc de Triomphe and gazed down at this famous street. It was buzzing with energy and vibrancy that I could feel even as I stood at a distance. We made our way under the chaotic but always entertaining Place de l’Étoile and resurfaced on the corner of the Champs-Élysées. I had read that the avenue had become the spot for high-end shopping. We quickly found that to be true as my wife noticed Cartier. I had never heard of this luxury jeweler but she certainly had. We never went in but the fact that it was beyond our price range was evident by our photo taking of the sparkling diamonds in the window display. That was all of Cartier we would be taking home.
From there I began to realize that the only history to admire would have to be in my head. The Champs-Élysées has become a shopping hot spot for tourists. Several other upscale brands have stores there including Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss. But it’s also the home of Adidas, Gap, Abercrombie Fitch, Disney, and Nike. Even car companies such as Mercedes, Renault, and Toyota have elaborate almost futuristic showrooms for their ultra-cool concept cars. There was even a McDonald’s plopped right in the middle of the other attractive but overpriced cafes. I have to admit, even though I had read that the Champs-Élysées had become a location frequented predominantly by tourists, it was far more commercial than I anticipated.
But it’s not as if we didn’t enjoy our stroll. In fact, much to my surprise, we had a splendid time. There were still touches that made the Champs-Élysées distinctly Parisian. The biggest example was the Ladurée Champs Elysées. As my wife and I weaved through the shoulder-to-shoulder sidewalk traffic, Ladurée caught our attention. It set on the opposite side of the street and I instantly felt a slight tingle in my sweet tooth. We crossed the avenue like the confident psuedo-Parisians we had become and were greeted by a deflating sight. Ladurée Champs Elysées was undergoing an extensive renovation project and the main shop was closed to the public. We could have cried. But on the sidewalk was a makeshift Ladurée selling many of their sweet self-indulgent pleasures. We went through the line and got our fix of macaroons – coffee for my wife, straight chocolate for me. Mine were snuggly packaged in Ladurée’s classy cylindrical containers. Those small containers now sit on my bar at home – simple treasures.
We walked past more stores and cafes before eventually hitting the calmer end of the avenue lined with benches and chestnut trees. It’s there, just before reaching Place de la Concorde, that we sat watching the traffic and resting our sore feet. We talked about what we had seen and what we were to do next. We had just walked together down the most famous avenue on the planet. It still feels a bit surreal even as I sit here now, over 4,600 miles away from the City of Light. We didn’t sit there long and looking back now I regret it. Those were some of the best moments of our trip and I can’t express how much I would love to be sitting on the bench with my wife under the chestnut trees on the Champs Elysées.
The Champs Elysées wasn’t how I had envisioned it. It wasn’t the historical experience that I had anticipated. But perhaps my expectations were misguided. The Champs Elysées has evolved. Whether for better or for worse would be a fun discussion, but the truth is it has changed. Yet despite this, we had a marvelous and memorable time. What’s more, the true treat has been in the reflection. I realize that what we experienced may not have been what I had expected but it was uniquely Parisian nonetheless. And as I flip through my photos of Paris, I find my smile just as wide when looking at our photos from the Champs Elysées. The scrumptuous Ladurée, the dazzling automobiles, the perfectly manicured sidewalks, our McDonald’s experience – It all reminded me of what the Champs Elysées has become. It also reminded me of just how much fun we had there and of how anxious I am to go back.