Get to the heart of Paris with a tour of five of its star sights, from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to the depths of the catacombs, and a day trip to the splendour of Versailles.
The world is filled with buildings and monuments named after monarchs, generals and businessmen, but it’s rare to find great landmarks that credit the architects or engineers who actually built them. The giant tower that greeted visitors to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 was planned to be merely a temporary construction. Perhaps that’s why it was excused from bearing the name of some national symbol or lofty ideal, and instead commemorates the genius of Gustave Eiffel.
To appreciate the impact of the Eiffel Tower on a Parisian of 1889, consider the timeline of the record-breaking structures that came before. The Great Pyramid at Giza set an early standard, at over 140 metres tall. Much later, a few medieval cathedrals managed to edge past it. By 1888, the tallest thing made by man was the 169-metre Washington Monument – a giant stone obelisk. Impressive, but still something that a time-travelling ancient Egyptian would have instinctively understood. So for 4,400 years the ceiling of architectural achievement had been raised only modestly when Gustave Eiffel opened an entirely new chapter, with a tower more than 300 metres high, and made not out of stone like all its predecessors, but wrought iron.
‘Gustave Eiffel knew how to master the most advanced technology of the time,’ says Stéphane Dieu, who looks after the tower’s heritage. ‘For a start, the foundations of the tower’s four pillars had to be built in damp soil close to the river. Above all, it was his faith and love of science that guided him – you can see that from the frieze around the first floor, which gives the names of 72 French scientists.’
The commercial success of a 300-metre observation tower was only possible of course thanks to the invention of the elevator. Four sets of diagonal lifts climb the tower’s splayed feet to the mid-levels, through a lattice of girders that join in crosses and starbursts. The second journey is a vertical one, up the centre of the structure. As the cabin glides ever higher, the four edges of the tower close in around it. Just before it seems like the iron is about to run out, the lift stops, and opens its doors.
Solving technical challenges was only part of Eiffel’s work. When construction had hardly begun, some 50 of the leading French artists and writers of the day signed a joint letter to the press, condemning this ‘black and gigantic factory chimney’, which would crush the great monuments of Paris under its ‘barbaric mass’. Eiffel wrote a lengthy rebuttal: ‘Why should something that is admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?’ he asked. Two years later, the tower received nearly two million visitors during the exhibition.
And yet Eiffel’s supreme achievement was meant to be dismantled by 1909. It was only saved on his insistence that it could serve as a testing ground for scientific experiments and later as a radio transmitter. Bridges and buildings by Eiffel survive from Hungary to Bolivia. He even designed the internal framework for the Statue of Liberty. But if it hadn’t been for Eiffel’s determination, the tower that bears his name might be remembered today only from a few yellowing postcards.
Every cathedral has a face it presents to the world, but somehow Notre-Dame’s feels particularly expressive. At the top, two square towers with dark, shuttered arches stare out over the rooftops of Paris. In the middle, a rose window and a filigree of stonework confirm the uncanny skill of medieval masons. And at the bottom, three sets of doors are surrounded by sculptures of saints and sinners forming a bible without words.
Like any human face, the cathedral façade has its slight flaws (you can still see the small square holes where the wooden scaffolding went in eight centuries ago), and looks more real for being slightly asymmetrical – just enough to avoid monotony, and perhaps also to make a god-fearing sign of respect before the only creator of perfection.