À Paris: la tour Eiffel
When in Paris, the EiffelTower is a must-climb. Or it should be, assuming that a) the weather's decent and b) the queues aren't too long. I had luck on my side with the weather. Saturday was a fine spring day in Paris, the sky mostly cloudless and the temperature well into double figures (the UK not so, I understand, which means I picked to spend my birthday in precisely the right place). But the queues took a bit more planning. Last time I was here in 2005 I thought I'd turn up at 6pm because it might be quieter then, but the tower stays open until 11pm so I met lengthy resistance. This time I went for the early approach, heading straight from the Eurostar to the Trocadero, then walking down through the gardens and across the Seine. The €14 queue to take the lift up the tower was already rather long, but the €5 queue to take the stairs was only half an hour. Result, game on.
What they don't tell you, at the foot of the Pilier Sud, is that climbing to the deuxième étage is the equivalent of climbing a 43 storey building. That slowly dawns because the steps are numbered, every tenth with digits stencilled to one side, and these climb inexorably upwards. The first flight is curved, then repeatedly back and forth in staggered ascent, a narrow metal staircase threading between the pillar's ironwork. I don't always have the best head for heights but this was OK, so long as I remembered the metalwork's not spontaneously collapsed now for 125 years. Eventually the climb darkens as you reach the underside of the premier étage, and then you're out... into a bit of a dump. The central platform is being revamped to create a better visitor space, even a "hospitality destination", with reconstruction due to be completed later this year. In the meantime visitors are restricted to unfenced-off parts of the exterior, or the posh restaurant, or of course the obligatory gift shop within. And that's fine because it's the view you're up here for, and it's marvellous.
When you're ready, there are lots more steps to the deuxième étage. This was a slightly more unnerving climb, though it shouldn't have been, and I tried not to show my trepidation to the liftfuls rushing past. Past 500 steps, past 600, until the final riser read 669 (and no, I wasn't out of breath). Balconies run around the entire perimeter, on two storeys thanks to the need for double-decker lifts. You're open to the weather, which can be grim but was delightfully springlike on Saturday. Even better the safety grille has a grating wide enough to be entirely camera-friendly, and from the upper deck there's nothing in the way at all. Indeed the Eiffel Tower easily beats the Orbit in East London on lack of obstruction (and on price, height and view). To the west, on a nearby bridge, tiny Metro trains rumble across the Seine. To the southeast, in a formal green stripe, lie the gardens of the Parc du Champ de Mars. To the northeast, set high above therooftops of the inner city, sit the gleaming domes of Sacré-Cœur. And to the northwest are the Chaillot gardens, marked by the tower's noonday shadow, with the financial towers of La Defense rising on the horizon.
I was expecting it to be packed up here, but not so. Wherever you wanted to stand there was room, often plenty, this despite the presence of a large group from an English primary school (wearing red baseball caps for easy identification). Another reason for the space was that a significant number of the people up here were queueing. The lifts to the troisième étage are only small, so it takes a while to get on board, and then a while to escape back down again when you're ready. I was tempted to head up to the very top - there's a cash desk here where you pay the €5.50 extra (which is my top tip if you ever pay a visit). But I looked at the queues, and thought how much of my brief trip to Paris this would consume, and decided against. I've done the upper deck once before, back in 1980 on a French Exchange, and that memory'll have to do for now. This just left me 669 steps down, the descent not scary at all, this time stuck behind a party of lively deaf teenagers waving their hands. The queues looked much worse at this point, even for those who'd pre-booked their tickets. But I'd beaten the multitudes this time, and enjoyed a stunning Parisian panorama as a result. A birthday highlight, long to be remembered.