Shivering a bit, I look up. The top of the Eiffel Tower is hidden in the mist. Is there any point in going up there? Especially in winter, Paris often has days like this, when low, white cloud hangs over the city. It costs extra, so is it worth going all the to the very top of the tower in this weather? Lots of travellers only have one or two days here – and it is the number one attraction in Paris, so faute de mieux, they go.
Down here at the ticket offices there are plenty of sellers of “dysfunctional souvenirs” that official notices warn visitors against buying, but none of the trailing queues of tourists that grow ever longer on summer days. Changing lifts on the second floor, where the four pillars come together with a milimetre to spare, I catch another, half-empty, lift for Le Sommet, as the top is called as if it were Mont Blanc, 276m above ground level.
A dozen of us emerge onto a glass-enclosed platform that feels fairly warm on this bitter day. Flags of many nations above the windows remind us how far we are from home – London 343km, Tonga 16,918km, Bhutan 7,578km, LA 9,105km. So that’s something to look at and maybe take a clear snap of, because pictures of the view certainly won’t look like anything on a day like this. One couple have given up on their tourist duty altogether and are in a close clinch in the nearest this place gets to a corner.
At least I can see the buildings that line the river immediately below. I appreciate the symmetry of the Trocadero. That takes – oooh – about five seconds max. Turning east, I pick out the elliptical design of the Musée Quai Branly’s roof and gardens. South I can see down to Ecole Militaire, but the golden dome of Les Invalides, which on better days I’ve seen glittering all the way from Montmartre on the other side of the city, looks tarnished today. To the west, Maison de Radio France is a white loop of contemporary curves.
Maybe it’s the glass. I go upstairs to the topmost platform open to the public. But the outlook is much the same. There’s no point depositing a euro coin in the gleaming brass telescope. I study a plaque to the Sapeurs-Pompiers who defiantly hoisted the French tricolore at the top of the tower above a still-occupied Paris on 25 August 1944.
Though we’re so high up the mist makes a faded postcard of the view. The Seine is crocodile green, everthing else shades of greige. Paris is sulking and hiding her light. Despite this, a British dad is suffering from vertigo, “All that money just to feel sick,” he moans to his family.
Less tight-fisted types are taking advantage of the rather utilitarian champagne bar, at 10€ a (plastic) glass, or 15€ for rosé champagne, and trying to make the experience sparkle. Top chef Alain Ducasse’s name on the label adds some glamour. Thank goodness no one is paying the extra 5€ for a luminous glass – even in the mist it’s not dark enough for such naffness.
Another moaner is feeling bored: “They should have a glass-bottomed floor”. I’d like to see him solve the engineering problems involved in installing that. Behind me, quaint cardboard cut-out dioramas display some of Gustave Eiffel’s researches – on “falling bodies and the resistance of air to their movements”. There’s no chance of anyone falling here. The mesh goes right down to floor level so that even quite small children can stand right at the edge and look out safely.
From the first, the tower was a magnet for scientists and experimenters. Did you know that in August 1891 the Paris carrier pigeon society used this third level of the Eiffel Tower for experiments with communications by air with carrier pigeons? No, I didn’t really want to know that either – but what else is there to distract me? Here’s a lifesized representation of the 1889 visit by Thomas Edison to Eiffel and his daughter Claire in their apartment which was once on this floor. Her waxwork looks weary – even the phonograph that Edison has brought hasn’t cheered her up.
Looking up from here I can see antennas, aerials and other technical stuff – the Eiffel Tower has long been used for broadcasting. Another plaque tells me that wireless pioneer Eugène Ducretet sent the first radioelectric signal in November 1898 from this platform to the Panthéon, 4km away and not visible today. He probably wasn’t looking at the view either. Time to catch the lift back down to the ground, and maybe buy a (dysfunctional) souvenir.