Friday, 16 December 2011

600 Dizzying Steps

Paris really cannot be ‘done’ in an hour. To assume so would be an ignorant ‘faux pas’; a snooty nose-up to hundreds of years of rich history, culture and stunning architecture. What can be done within an hour to touch the surface of this diverse city, besides fingering a glossy tourist brochure?

Apart from hurriedly gulping down escargot, to get a touch and go flavour of Paris there’s really only one iconic stereotypical pilgrimage to make. I spiral up the steps of the Eiffel Tower to take in as much as I can in a whirlwind visit.

An ever looming motif, from the first glimpse on the train to its presence whilst dodging insane Parisian traffic to cross the road, the Eiffel Tower constantly screams and reconfirms, ‘yes – you are in Paris!’. Solidified and imagined forever in film, magazines and media, it’s impossible to imagine the city without it.

With over 200,000,000 visitors to date, and earning itself the reputation of being the ‘establishing shot’ of France, such a global symbol is hard to ignore.

While strolling towards it, it’s obvious to distinguish the Parisians, going about their daily business, ladies clunking their high heels, hastily; almost boastfully – from the awestruck tourists, heads craned, occasionally stopping to take a picture. Although even to look down, the Eiffel Tower is reproduced endlessly in miniature, on pavement-side mats, where they are sold by street vendors.

Arriving at the base of the tower, I am confronted with something that is never anticipated, in a state of glossy brochure ignorance – a huge, one hour queue. The queue works its way toward one of the monstrous tower legs.

From directly underneath, looking up through the tower is almost as rewarding, perhaps better from an architecturally appreciative point of view, than the view from the top. This reveals the beautiful extravagance and lattice patterned perfection of the towers construction.

Despite being put off by the gigantic queue, the tower looks particularly enticing with the ensuing sunset. I overhear a travel-savvy American couple state that there is an option to walk, yes walk, to ascend the tower rather than the much used lift system. Tickets for the lifts must be purchased for each section, whereas purchasing a ticket to walk (read climb) entitles you to stomp your way up to the second floor, and for less than the cost of a café au lait.

This seems like the best idea, as I make it my mission to get to the second floor to steal a couple of pictures in the ever perfect winter sunset. Rather like an airport, a series of scanners and bag checkpoints must be passed, before being presented with the first wrought-iron step. I’m ready for take-off…

By step fifty-something, I’m starting to wonder if this was the best method of navigating the tower. However, having used the lift years before, climbing the stairs certainly seems more rewarding and evokes a more integral feeling of the tower, quite literally. Being surrounded by the huge bolts and beams that keep it standing beats the insula nature of peering at it as it zooms by in a retro-fitted air-conditioned lift.

Trivia is presented on display boards during the climb, one showing the relative heights of other towers and structures. The Eiffel Tower is actually one of the smallest on the chart; certainly doesn’t feel that way now!

The spiralling motion of trekking up seemingly endless staircases begins to take its toll, until the respite of the first floor is in sight. Here there is a restaurant, a small museum and information area, and some already remarkable views. View-wise I’ve always thought that there comes a certain point where a view becomes just a ‘generic’ city view, but no sign of that here.  Sweeping gardens point the eye to the Palais De Chaillot, and the École Militaire, their symmetry and perfectly angled line-up with the tower making it seem slightly ‘lego-like’ from here.

In the centre of the tower on the second floor is an overlooking, vertigo inducing balcony which I could only bring myself to look over briefly, but long enough to scoff at the growing queue of would-be lift users below. Ha!

Time to continue the dizzying ascent to the second floor. It really hits me this time with the repetitive motion of spiralling up, but also a sense of relief that there are no more staircases to climb.

I contemplate the history of the tower;  who else has climbed these stairs since it opened in 1889, and also the sheer scale of it, considering it was intended as just a gateway to the World’s Fair of the same year. We rarely see such vast, potentially ‘temporary’ structures built today – with a few exceptions like the Millennium Dome, but that’s another story.

Stumbling somewhat as I cling on to the hand rail, I tread the last step on to the second floor. As a keen runner I consider how the stairs have managed to face me with near breathless defeat.

I’m just in time to hobble around, catching my breath and weaving around well-appointed tour groups who clearly used the lift, to snap a few pictures of the last few minutes of sunset. Certainly a just reward – the Seine glistens and snakes into the distance.

Grabbing a much needed bottle of water, I head down to embark on the equally never ending descent. One could question whether we go the Eiffel Tower to view Paris, or to view the tower. I would say the motive should be a resounding combination of both. It’s certainly not a complete embodiment of Paris, and certainly not of France, not by any stretch. A thirty minute cruise down the Seine might be just as revealing, and your feet need never leave the ground to appreciate Paris. But such an enticing and ubiquitous architectural personification of Paris is quite a challenge to ignore.