A twenty-minute metro ride on Line 1 or a RER ride on line A leads one to the city’s western outskirts of La Defense, a major commercial district dedicated to business, offices and administrative centres.
Consisting mostly of endless rows of towering skyscrapers and outstanding buildings of contrasting heights, this immense space of extraordinary urbanism stands out against the historical character of downtown Paris. While the inner city is mostly renowned for a diversity of stunning ecclesiastical architecture that stands as a breathtaking evidence of a long cherished era of Christianity, the western district of La Defense is a permanent exposition of modernism in all its forms.
Visitors to Paris, even if they are not attracted by high-rise glass-and-steel constructions will definitely find the district of La Defense interesting and visually stimulating. Cut across by a traffic-free esplanade that is a pleasure to walk through in summer, the district of La Defense is dotted here and there by miniature parks and recreational areas, some of which embrace modern art sculptures and monuments. The highlight of these monumental edifices is a not-so-modern sculpture that dates back to 1883 and stands in commemoration of the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871.
The greatest architectural wonder within La Defense, both for its sheer size and grandeur as well as for its structural originality and uniqueness is La Grande Arche, a 106-metres high rectangular archway in white Carrara marble that dominates the westernmost space of the district and overlooks the forested region of the Bois de Boulogne. Although I succeeded in getting a bird’s eye view of Paris after climbing via a state-of-the-art elevator to the viewing platform on the 35th floor in 2008, I didn’t have the chance to embark on the same endeavour in 2011 since the roof section was closed to the public when I visited. Would-be visitors should disregard the view from the top and concentrate on the Grande Arche at night. Impressively lit, it offers amateur snapshooters the opportunity to exercise their skills in creative night photography, combining the light available to illuminate the Arch with long exposure. The results can be very stunning photographic images that encapsulate diverse colour shadows and are a pleasure to view and share with friends.
La Grande Arche is just one of the gigantic structures that adorn the district of La Defense. Much higher than the Grande Arche but not as innovative with regards to structural design is the Total Coupole, a huge monolith built in 1985. Composed of five joined towering structures, it is directly accessible from the Grande Arche metro station. Most of the offices inside are occupied by the multinational petroleum company 'Total' but one can also find a large parking space, an auditorium, a sports complex and several fast-food outlets.
Below the tourist information centre on Place de La Defence, one can admire a small museum that traces the development of La Defense since its birth in 1950. Several drawings, photographs, architectural plans and scale models of existing buildings and structures that are still in the pipeline waiting for development are featured in a detailed step-by-step exposition that shows the growth and gradual expansion of the district.
La Defense counts more than 100 towering structures, most of which are used as administrative offices by government departments, private enterprises or multinational companies, employing thousands of workers. With so many people confined to a relatively small ground space on a daily basis, one expects to find an incessant flow of people roaming from one building to another either on business trips or else in search of a light bite or a drink. La Defense is in fact a fast-food territory where the usual fast-food outlets have opened at least one eatery. To these, one has to add the stylish restaurants and cosy cafes on Place de La Defense and Place du Dome. Here, those looking for a decent meal can sit at a table and feel like a Lilliput looking at gigantic edifices of enormous proportions.
An easy metro ride from the metro station ‘Esplanade de La Defense’ on the easternmost edge of the district to metro station ‘Concorde’ or ‘Louvre’ takes visitors back to the city centre. Those who have time however are encouraged to test their physical fitness and stamina through walking. At the eastern end of the esplanade on La Defense, Pont de Neuilly over the Seine leads to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, a huge thoroughfare where car enthusiasts can admire rich Parisian drivers testing their driving skill on red Ferraris or Lamborghinis. After all, roads are for cars. Avenue Charles de Gaulle, however, lined on both sides with wide pavements that are detached from traffic by a row of chestnut trees is also ideal for walking. Place de la Porte Maillot, the first roundabout on Avenue Charles de Gaulle where one also finds a metro station with the same name can be reached on foot in about an hour.
Eagerness to walk further on Avenue de la Grande Armee for another half hour brings one face to face with a second roundabout of huge proportions on Place Charles de Gaulle. The centre of the roundabout is adorned with the Arc de Triomphe, a monumental edifice and symbol of Paris, built in commemoration of Napoleon’s war victories. An endless number of tourist coaches fill in the parking spaces on the numerous avenues that radiate from here towards every part of the city. Take the underpass where tickets to climb to the top are sold, then join the crowd of visitors, all eager to climb 284 steps to the viewing platform. The view from the top over the Seine and inner Paris is both picturesque and rewarding and gives viewers the opportunity to get a good orientation of central Paris. You can’t miss the huge steel structure of the Tour Eiffel and the golden dome of Les Invalides.
Place Charles de Gaulle and the Arc de Triomphe mark the westernmost end of Avenue de Champs Elysees, a wide mall of elegant shops, first-class restaurants and cafes. More chic than London’s Oxford Street, Champs Elysees is where Parisian women of panache and style go to buy their wear. All famous fashion brands and cutting-edge designs are exhibited here. If you can’t afford to buy a leather handbag or a pair of heels for your demanding girlfriend whom you love dearly, try to avoid such shops as Louis Vuitton or Cartier. After all, chic and elegant as they are, such buys are very expensive; consider buying instead at a cheaper price from Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps, both on Boulevard Haussmann.
One shop on Champs Elysees that is affordable and catches the attention of those with a sweet tooth is a renowned chocolatier. With your back towards the Arc de Triomphe, it is located on the left-hand side of Champs Elysees, a five-minute walk from the Arc. Handmade chocolate cookies, some of which represent famous landmarks in Paris are made fresh by specialist chocolate makers. Chocolate candies filled in with almond paste are to die for. No free samples but one can see the specialists concocting their sticky melange.
Further eastwards on Champs Elysees, one finds a three-floor Citroen showroom where the most innovative Citroen models are exhibited. Besides street models, one can get enthusiastic about a couple of racing models or innovative designs that are still on the drawing board. Definitely head turning for car buffs.
Champs Elysees changes into a green boulevard lined with old chestnut trees on approaching Place de la Concorde. Devoid of commercial outlets that are here replaced by green groves and recreational parks, this is perhaps the best section of Champs Elysees that is ideal for walking. Get here a breath of fresh summer air, particularly as you get closer to the Seine. The wrought iron green-and-gold bridge you see on your right as you approach Place de la Concorde leads straight to the Esplanade des Invalides. But closer to Champs Elysees than the bridge, one can admire the outside architecture of two palaces that face each other on Avenue Winston Churchill: the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, both gems of architectural magnificence.
Some metres further east, Place de la Concorde boasts a central granite obelisk that was donated to France by the pasha of Egypt in 1831. Place de la Concorde joins the Jardin des Tuileries, a formal garden and fashionable site where one can find ideal spots for relaxation in the shade of old linden trees and weeping willows.