A Star for the Soldier

Standing as a powerful symbol of French military victories is the Arc de Triomphe at the Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as l’Etoile, the Star. It is the center of l’Etoile with 12 avenues that radiate from the Arc, a grand location recognized as a premier landmark of Paris and memorialized in countless paintings, postcards, photos and films.

"French flag flying at the Arc de Triomphe"

French Flag at the Arc de Triomphe

"Honor guards at the ceremony for the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe"

Honor guards at ceremony

I visited the Arc in time to witness the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that takes place every evening. It is a respectful and moving experience that brought to mind other places I’ve visited, such as the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The inscription at the tomb in Westminster Abbey includes the words “…they buried him among the kings”, which I’ve always thought so appropriate a burial place for these soldiers. To me, as to many, these sites are thought-provoking and their significance, enormous. I learned that it was the eternal flame at the Arc that so impressed Jacqueline Kennedy when she and President Kennedy visited in 1961 that she requested the eternal flame that marks the grave of the president at Arlington.

"Eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe for the unknown soldier"

Eternal Flame

Before this visit, I also didn’t know that you can actually reach the top of the Arc via a spiral staircase. After the ceremony, I took the 284 steps to the top. Besides being good exercise, the ascent rewards you with gorgeous views of Paris. Stepping outside, I was presented with vivid vistas of Paris.

"Spiral staircase at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris"

Spiral staircase at the Arc de Triomphe

"View from the Arc de Triomphe at night""View from the Arc de Triomphe at night"

On this crisp, clear night in December, I could see lights in all directions. In the distance was Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the summit of Montmartre, La Défense business district with its skyscrapers, La Grande Roue at the other end of the Champs-Elysées, and the Eiffel Tower.

As I believe all travel guides will tell you (and it deserves repeating), don’t be tempted to cross the very busy Place Charles de Gaulle roundabout to reach the Arc. There is an underground pedestrian walkway nearby to get you there safely. But do go and spend some time. Enjoy the views of the City of Lights, study the friezes and sculptures, read names of military officers inscribed on the walls, and pause for a moment at the tomb to think about this soldier and the “unknowns” of all wars.

38 thoughts on “A Star for the Soldier

  1. Michael Figueiredo

    This is a very nice and informative article, Cathy! I didn’t know about the nightly ceremony…I’ll have to check it out next time I go to Paris. (The first time I went there I admit that I dodged cars trying to get to the Arc de Triomphe, not knowing about the underpass!)

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Michael! I’m glad that you made it across the roundabout OK — don’t know how you did it. Promise me you’ll take the underpass next time!

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  3. Jade

    We loved visiting the Arc de Triomphe, too. We actually went during the day so it’s great fun seeing how the city changes from that point at night. Great pictures!

  4. John in France

    I loved your article Cathy – the words and the photos. Did you realise that cars that drive through this large roundabout have no insurance in case of accident?!! I took a group of school boys here once and they watched at the vehicle spectacle for an hour without tiring – tooting, screeching, yelling abuse, just on a calm day!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks for the kind words, John. I’ve driven in some crazy busy places before, but the roundabout is pretty intimidating! I can see how the boys were so enthralled by it though.

  5. Laurel

    So that’s where that staircase was from on your FB page! The nightly ceremony sounds very interesting and good for people to know this so they can try and see it. I really need to get my butt to Paris soon!

  6. Adam

    Great post, Cathy! Sounds like a really cool experience, and the pictures of the city from the top are great! I particularly like the picture looking down from the top of the spiral staircase.

    This is especially interesting for me because we just found out that we are most likely going to France in the fall, which I’m super, super, super excited about. I’ll definitely have to bookmark this and pick your brain when our plans get a little more finalized.

  7. Andrea

    I didn’t fen know that ceremony existed! Sorry we missed that. Isn’t Paris so gorgeous at night? I love it…even when the crazy Eiffel Tower lights go off. Tacky? Perhaps. But you get used to them, haha.

  8. Marlys

    Beautiful shots, particularly of the spiral staircase. I’ve lived in Paris the last 18 years and never have I tried to cross that busy roundabout. I’m not yet suicidal, considering how French drivers are ;-D. Great piece.

  9. The Dropout

    Thanks for the informative post. The nightly ritual sounds interesting. I saw a similar one in Athens and found the soldiers’ stockings and pom-pom boots undermined the seriousness of the ceremony.

    I can’t wait to see Paris by night. We’re heading to France next year. Whoo-hooo!

    1. Cathy Post author

      So glad you liked the post. When you go to Paris, I hope you’ll see the ceremony – you can compare it to the one you saw in Athens!

  10. Norbert

    I had the chance to visit Arlington. So nice to know that little detail about the origins of the eternal flame. France is way up on my list. I know I will love it’s beauty and architecture. The view from the top of the Arc is impressive. Definitely worth the shot!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Arlington is so impressive, isn’t it? I saw the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns there. It was incredibly moving. Glad France is high on your list. It was always high on mine, too!

  11. inka

    Not only a moving story, Cathy but aawesome pictures too. Thanks for telling us that one can reach the top via a staircase. I had no idea, but next time I’m in Paris I will climb.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I really appreciate your comment, especially since you are looking at it from the perspective of a former military Thanks very much.

  12. Corinne @ Gourmantic

    The view from the top of Arc is amazing when you can actually see why it’s called l’etoile. I climbed up late afternoon in winter and although the sun was at an oblique angle, it was beautiful. seeing it at night as you have would have been even more magical.

    Your photo of the ceremony made me a little nostalgic. I have a similar one of my late uncle there as he was a flag bearer. http://www.gourmantic.com/2010/11/11/in-remembrance-armistice-day-in-paris/

    1. Cathy Post author

      Corinne, thank you so much for your comment and link. I just read (and commented on) your post about the Armistice remembrance parade — it is so well-done! The photo of your uncle is an absolute treasure.

  13. Migrationology

    Great views and shots. It’s always more meaningful to know the history behind the building or site. I find that if I go to a site and don’t know anything, I quickly walk around and leave, but if I’ve read a little about it, and know some history, I am intrigued to observe!

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  15. patrica

    I had the chance to visit Arlington. So nice to know that little detail about the origins of the eternal flame. France is way up on my list. I know I will love it’s beauty and architecture. The view from the top of the Arc is impressive. Definitely worth the shot!

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