The Arc de Triomphe, the world's largest triumphal arch -- measuring 164 feet high by 148 feet wide -- rises at the west end of the famous Champs-Élysées in Paris. No less a figure than Napoléon commissioned the monument in 1806 to honor his own military victories. But work faltered when his armies began to suffer defeat, and the arch wasn't finished until 1836.
The Arc de Triomphe dominates Place Charles de Gaulle, which was formerly known as Place de l'Étoile because of its star shape. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann added seven new roads to the five that already met at the arc as part of a 19th-century revamping of Paris. Radiating from the arch, 12 avenues spread to all corners of Paris.
The Arc de Triomphe stands on traffic-packed Place Charles de Gaulle, at the hub
of 12 avenues that spread out across Paris. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
The avenues' names commemorate generals and Napoleonic victories, a theme carried out on the arch itself. The four facades of the arch are carved in high relief with military scenes, the most celebrated being Rude's The Departure of the Volunteers in 1792 (often called La Marseillaise). It shows a winged figure of the Motherland urging volunteers to battle for the nation. Other panels depict the capture of Alexandria, the Battle of Austerlitz, and similar moments of victory.
The arch itself has seen moments like these -- such as General Charles de Gaulle's triumphant 1944 return to Paris -- as well as defeats that still sting French pride, such as Germans marching under the arch in 1871 and Nazis goose-stepping through in 1940. Beneath the arch today lies France's Unknown Soldier, resting in a tomb where an eternal flame is symbolically rekindled each evening.
Unfortunately, visitors may go to their own tombs prematurely if they attempt to cross the manic Parisian traffic boiling around the arch. Cars eddy and spin around Place Charles de Gaulle as if whipped in a maelstrom. The arch's least interesting feature becomes most important now: a pedestrian passage beneath the street that leads to the base of the arch.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.