Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paris, in the springtime

See the city of lights from the heights or explore its dark underbelly

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Starting in seventh grade, I was forced to study French.

First, it was memorizing phoney-sounding dialogues in junior high -- dialogues I never fully understood. Then, in high school, we got grammar, the subjunctive tense and lots of vocabulary.

I hated French back then (though I subsequently mastered it and love it now). But early on, I learned about this amazing steel structure, the Eiffel Tower, which rises more than 300 metres into the air in downtown Paris.

It intrigued me that the French had built something as tall as an 81-storey building using iron pieces bolted together much as I built structures with my 1950s-era Erector Set (for little engineers).

I knew that one day I would see it -- and climb it.

I've visited Paris several times over the past decades, and I'd seen the Eiffel Tower from afar many times. It's always there -- you can see it from just about anywhere in the city. But, until last fall, I'd never been up it.

Back in 1972 (when I was young and setting off to hitchhike around the world on $1,000), the price was not included in my budget of $5 a day. Later, I was travelling alone and never felt inspired. But going to the top was on my list of things to do before I kicked the bucket, and I decided this was the time to do it.

My travelling companion, Cindy, was as eager -- and fit -- as I, and ready to climb the 700 steps of the tower.

On a bright fall Sunday morning we arrived at the Eiffel Tower well before noon. But it was the wrong day, we decided, to climb it. On Sundays, the ticket lines go on forever, or so it seemed, so we went on to visit the nearby Musée du quai Branly instead -- an ethnographic museum such as we had never imagined. It features great art and sculpture from Papua New Guinea and Africa, among other places.

But I was not going to miss out on the Eiffel Tower. We returned another day, only to find the lines were still long. I've since read it is the most-visited paid monument in the world. But the lines to the booth that sells tickets to the intrepid -- those of us who would climb the stairs as high as they go -- were shorter than the lines for elevator tickets. We paid about $13 each for combination tickets -- we'd hike up to the second level (as high as they allow foot traffic) and go up the final part on the elevator.

About 20 minutes later, we were trudging up the steps -- all 324 of them -- to the first-level landing, where we gawked at boulevards and buildings we knew. We read each and every educational panel; they tell, for example, that 2.5 million rivets were used to put the building together and that it only took two years, five months and five days to erect the tower.

We continued on up. Each 12 stairs or so there is a landing as the stairs twist up the leg of the tower. These landings allowed us to pause, look out, take a few extra deep breaths -- and let the teenagers to race on by. We climbed another 364 steps to the second level.

After a walk around the second level we got in line for the elevator, a wait of 15 minutes or so. I was in vacation mode, so the wait seemed irrelevant. And there were no pushy tourists trying to cut in line or sneak ahead. Like sheep, we waited and edged forward.

At the top, the view was stunning. I could see from one side of the city to the other, as marked by huge green spaces -- the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes (bois means woods in French).

We could see the Arc de Triomphe, the River Seine and the Cathédral de Notre Dame. People looked like ants and the river boats like toys.

I had wanted to have a meal in the restaurant nearest the top (called Le Jules Verne), but was told reservations were mandatory -- and the wait was about three months. I also learned dinners could cost $200 each, which was well outside a self-employed writer's budget anyway.

Eventually we took the elevator back down to the second level and hiked back down to the first level -- a paltry 100 metres above Paris -- where we had lunch. Luck was with us as we got a window seat. If you go, I would recommend waiting for a window seat if none is available, as the view is unmatchable.

Lunch was simple: a fixed-price menu for less than $25 that comprised either a main dish and a salad or a main dish and a dessert. And, as everywhere in France, the tax and tip are included in the price. The food was excellent. For dessert we shared a profiterole, a treat we had come to love: vanilla ice cream inside a pastry puff, with chocolate sauce, slivered almonds and whipped cream. Seriously delicious.

The next day I went to the Eiffel Tower's polar opposite: the sewer system.

The sewers were made mysterious and intriguing in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables and later in the musical of the same name. A small portion of the sewer system is open to the public as a museum. For about $6 you can, like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, descend into the labyrinth below the streets of Paris.

The self-guided tour with numerous educational panels is not for the faint of heart. Lighting is dim. Odours are pungent.

And then there are the famous rats. They actually have a glass case with stuffed sewer rats! I think my cat Winnie would have been amused -- I know I was.

The most intriguing part for me was seeing giant hollow steel and wooden balls -- up to three metres in diameter -- that are used to flush out the pipes carrying waste. Pushed along by the flow of liquids, these balls clear out any sand or sediment that accumulates in the pipes that go under the Seine River. On arrival at the other shore, the balls are retrieved and trucked back to the Left Bank, where they are stored until the next time they are needed.

Underground, the sewer system carries storm water from the streets in open channels and clean water and waste in pipes through domed brick or concrete tunnels that are up to six metres wide and half as tall. And the tunnels do go everywhere: There are 2,100 kilometres of tunnels, most of which are accessible from manhole covers throughout the city.

If you're looking for a museum with minimal waiting lines in Paris, the sewer-system museum (Musée des Egouts) is there for you.

As for me? I'd love to ascend the Eiffel Tower again, next time at night. It closes at 11:45 each evening (1 a.m. in summer) and would be the perfect place for a romantic glass of champagne at the top (available for $14 in a small plastic flute).

But next time, maybe I'll take the elevator all the way.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 D4

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