The change in gravity told me that the elevator had started to descend. There was no other way to know – besides perhaps the shift in the mass of bodies that surrounded me – that we were on our way back down. I tried to shift a little so I could see out of the slender window and capture a glimpse of the Parisian skyline through the thirty or so people with whom I shared this descent from the top of the Eiffel Tower. After a little bit of micro-gymnastics, I was able to manoeuvre in such a way that I could see, over on lady’s head and through the gap over another man’s shoulder, the yellow glow of the floodlights on the metal beams. The lighting, I realized, is what really makes the experience of touring the Eiffel Tower.
The upper elevator ride only takes about two minutes, but the capsules steady movement down through the beams which surround the shaft in a myriad of directions make for engrossing viewing. The emergency escape stairs followed us down to the second level where the evening crowds still lingered. I noted that the existence of emergency exit stairs on a 300-metre-tall heap of twisted metal was probably more for my comfort than in hopes of actually saving any lives. The thought only came to me thanks to the recent attacks in France and I quashed that line of thinking almost immediately (the fear of terror is the purpose of the act). To keep myself otherwise occupied, I mused – as we approached the end of the descent – that the (literally) millions of images that have been captured of this iconic tourist magnet don’t usually capture this part of the visit. If the elevator journey to the top of the structure has been missed by the social construction of the tower (or at least the construction of its image in our collective consciousness and digital footprint), what other viewpoints had I yet to see?
Like most travellers, I’ve always associated the Eiffel tower with travel – not just with France. I’ve seen countless images from innumerable different vantage points and I admit that I approached the visit somewhat jaded. My excitement was anything but palpable when I considered standing in a queue to see something I’d seen thousands of times represented in almost every medium possible (from matchsticks to prose). Having visited – and indeed as I rode the elevator with three dozen close personal strangers – however, I realized that my construction of the Eiffel Tower was still different, and therefore an exciting experience.
I first glimpsed the Eiffel tower (firsthand) as we walked past the (closed as we were there on a Tuesday) Louvre. Seeing the tower for the first time poking above the Parisian skyline caused a minute jolt of emotion, as one might experience when seeing someone familiar abroad, but it held none of the awe that comes with seeing a grand monument that outstrips your expectations. We continued to wander the streets of Paris deciding how to fill the afternoon. We tried the nearby Musée d’Orsay, but the thousand or so others who had failed to check the Louvre’s opening times were queued ahead of us. Instead we decided to walk the three kilometres to the Champ de Mars and queue there instead.
As we walked, we passed the Grand Palais and the Musée de l’armée, but we walked on in the knowledge that our time was limited (a regrettable side effect of having only four days in Paris). After walking for about half an hour, we caught our second glimpse of the tower. This time it was just a few beams spied between buildings. Walking on, along Rue de l’Université and crossing the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, we caught our first close up view of the Eiffel Tower. This will probably remain my strongest memory of France as it really captured for me the atmosphere of the trip and the city itself. We emerged from the alleyway into the park, coming over a small rise which overlooked a pond and the Eiffel Tower loomed large (quite literally) behind. It was a disarming feeling, and not only because three armed soldiers (who were presumably guarding the tower from the ever present perception or imminent attacks) walked by at that exact moment, to see the tower appear from an otherwise ordinary Parisian street. This was the first time I felt the flood of excitement one feels when exploring a new place and it so took me by surprise that I didn’t even get a photo (although perhaps there are times where memories and emotions are better documentaries for an experience).
As I recovered from the first exhilarating view of the tower I was again overwhelmed by a startling vision. This time, the source of my astonishment was the sheer size of the assembled crowd. Queues stretched for up to 100 metres from the ticket booths at the foot of each of the columns and thousands of people were walking around the Champ de Mars. You just do not get these kind of crowds in Western Australia (except perhaps on Australia day). We eventually joined the queue for the €12 walk to the second level (that’s as far as you can walk) and began the two hour wait to make the ascent.
Eventually we reached the front of the queue and received our complimentary security frisking before climbing the 704 stairs to the second level. This climb felt much shorter and easier than one might think thanks to reasonably short flights and a clear idea of progress thanks to the looming bulk of the main structure which is clearly visible.
Once we reached the viewing platform on level two, it became apparent that the crowds had thinned (or at least the damage didn’t seem so bad from up here), and we were able to enjoy the impressive views of Paris spreading out in all directions. It was at this level that I captured one of my favourite shots from France, a rather abstract, colour-focussed photo of a spotlight illuminating a beam with the evening sky as a backdrop.
Having enjoyed the ice rink and cafes one level one and climbed to level two, we decided that it would be foolish to leave without taking the lift to the third level, despite the advertised 45-minute wait (which, thankfully, did not eventuate). At the top, it was illuminating to learn that the searchlight that shines out about the city is actually a complex network of lights that are timed to give the impression of one light – in fact, if you are quick enough, you can photograph the moment the beams switch. This brings us back to the crush in the elevator, but that’s still not the extent of my Eiffel experience. On the way home, we took the obligatory shots in front of the tower, we also got a few shots of the Christmas decorations that still littered the streets, however there were two more tower related outlooks that will stick in my memory.
Firstly, there was the evening skyline view we enjoyed before a mediocre coffee (served by a condescendingly arrogant barista – way to uphold cultural stereotypes Paris) at Sacré Coeur. Looking at across the city, framed by an urban residential skyline, the tower looked all the more impressive thanks to the geographical context.
The final, and one of the most meaningful images from my tour of the tower came not from looking at the tower itself, but from observing the hawkers selling souvenirs around the area. It was possible to buy toys, whistles, magnets and all manner of other dust collecting trinkets from one of the hundred or so, occasionally insistent peddlers. A popular item in most of the salesmen’s stock were miniature models of the tower in various sizes and shapes. I thought it fitting to finish with this Eiffel experience as many of these salesmen were clearly in Paris as a result of their disposition from the Syrian conflict with Islamic State. The large signs advising against trading with street vendors for ‘safety’ seemed superfluous, but remained a clear reminder of the unrest and uncertainty that now shares the same space as the Eiffel Tower.