Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eiffel Tower: A Tall Order

After our Louvre adventure and visits to Notre Dame cathedral and Luxembourg gardens, we settled down at a corner cafe, where my dinner consisted of a roast duck garnished with Brussels sprouts and bathed in a delicious sauce. According to my boss, who lived in France during two different eras of his life, sauces are where French chefs shine. I could now taste why.

The day was nearing its end, and after just over 12 hours in country, I'd checked many of Paris' main historical sites off my list. We had arrived at 6 a.m. and walking became our chosen method of staying awake and shrugging off jet lag.

I learned a few things during those thousands of steps. Paris is a beautifully gray capital city. The architecture is heavy and a bit cold, and the monuments are plentiful. It was only April and the place was already crawling with tour groups - students from Barcelona, Asians with money to spend, a few intrepid backpackers. Long barges carried guests up and down the Seine. Buds were just appearing on the trees. Girls in painted-on jeans and high boots hit the shops, smoldering cigarettes firmly in hand. Spring was right around the corner. My boss, the France veteran, said we arrived just a bit too early to see the city in its full bloom.

But the cultural scene wasn't dormant. Music was everywhere. On a late night metro train, a guy across from me restrung his classical guitar and serenaded me half the ride home, his fingers nonchalantly flying up and down the fretboard at impossible speeds. When I transferred trains, a troupe of accordions took me the rest of the way. At the Eiffel Tower, breakdancers held an impromptu meet, and a guitarist and drummer earned their keep by crooning for the crowd. The French capital, I learned, melds old-world charm with modern flavor, two ingredients that often mix in just the right proportions in popular cities worldwide.

The Eiffel Tower, I found is somewhere between the old and new. I admittedly knew little about the structure before I learned that I'd be going to France, but the 300-meter tower's story is interesting. In a city with very few highrises, the iron structure is audacious in size and substance. We could see its tip from our hotel, but it was a long walk, and we visited it up close on our second day in country, after a full day of meetings and interviews.

If there's one thing the French have a flair for, it's spectacle, my boss said. When he lived in Paris in the late 1980s, a festival was held where they planted wheat along the Champs Elysees. Years before that, France had set up a table that spanned the entire country, and everyone had shared a meal, he said.

But it seems, from my brief experience, that achievement in France comes without a fair share of grumbling by certain factions.

The Eiffel Tower, it seems, was no different. Like the Beijing Olympics of 2008, it faced a tall order in satisfying the home team while showing off Paris' charms to the world. It was built in the late 1889 for the Universal Exposition in Paris after Barcelona rejected Gustave Eiffel's plans to construct it there on the grounds that it didn't fit the city's style. French artists also protested the construction, thinking it would be an eyesore that would detract from the city's aesthetics. Originally, it was built to last only 20 years, and instead of inciting romance and stirring French nationalism, its initial purpose was to be an airborne science lab where Eiffel could observe wind movements and take physics measurements.

Now, utility has given way to culture, and what began as a controversial project is the unanimous symbol of France throughout the world.

Paris seems to have a propensity toward controversial landmarks. The Montparnasse Tower, a bland highrise that can be seen from all over town. is still considered a bad move, as was the glass pyramid structure that now all but defines the Louvre. They're all still standing, undaunted by the initial protests and vindicated by time and popularity.

I first saw the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero district looking southeast. I rounded a corner and was rewarded with the low murmur of happy voices and a breathtaking full view. From there, we descended the hill and walked through the tower's underbelly and out on the Champ des Mars, where we branched out to find our next dinner.

The next day, we'd leave the capital and travel to Lyon.

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