PARIS – There was no rush. The goal was fairly simple. In a single day – a Saturday in May – to climb the stairs as high as one could go in four of the classic monuments of Paris.
Depending on how you count the climb up the hilltop of Montmartre before mounting the 300 stairs to the summit of that wonderfully exotic white dome atop the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, plus the 284 stairs to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, the 669 to the second level of the Eiffel Tower (as far as you can go on foot), and 206 to the colonnade on top of the Pantheon, that would be climbing between 1700 and 1800 stairs in a day.
One reason to do this would be for the exercise, but, for any individual monument, that sounds more strenuous than it is. Groans echo through the seemingly endless spiral staircases of Sacré-Coeur and the Arc de Triomphe, but in my experience everyone makes it to the top. The Eiffel Tower stairs are full of little kids, for whom the massive lace-work of iron is a kind of magnificent jungle gym, but there are also plenty of grandparents. They might go one step at a time, huffing and puffing a bit and and sometimes laughing at themselves for taking on the challenge, but rarely if ever do they give up.
Another reason to climb the monuments of Paris is for the little sybaritic rewards and surprises after the goal is attained. On that same Saturday in May, at the foot of Sacré-Coeur was a food fair devoted to the terroir of the Périgord, with tastings of delicious foie gras de canard, honey-nut mixes, and very respectable Bergerac and Pécharmant wines.
On the first level of the Eiffel Tower there’s a pretty good eatery, the 58 Restaurant, with regular bistro prices (as opposed to the ultra-haute-cuisine and very expensive Jules Verne). And on the second level of the tower is an outpost of La Durée, selling its world-renowned macarons. Below the Arc de Triomphe are the famous cafés of the Champs Élysées, and the Pantheon is in the heart of the Latin Quarter, with all its bars and bistros.
Of course most people climb for the views. Sacré-Coeur and the Arc de Triomphe, on the Right Bank, look down on the city from the north and the west; the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon on the Left Bank see it from more southerly and central perspectives. Climb all four and you bracket the heart of La Ville Lumière, the city of lights.
But, having lived in Paris for decades and climbed all four of the monuments many times on different days, and sought out every other high-angle perspective on the city that I could find, from the fanciful hills of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont to the top of Notre Dame, to the ghastly monolith of the Montparnasse Tower and the tethered Generali Balloon in the Parc André Citroën, I was bothered by the sense that most of the time, in most of those lofty perches, I was missing something.
In a word: exaltation. Often when I looked out over the city I remembered an ironic line from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “What do we do now, now that we are happy?”
I thought, a little vaguely, that by climbing those 1800 stairs in four corners of Paris, and maybe eating a few macarons or drinking a little Pécharmant, everything would come together. I would in my mind take possession of the city. Or, at least, I would figure out if I had been doing something wrong. Was there a blind spot in my sensibility? Or had I, perhaps, for all these years, somehow misconceived the magic of Paris?
Getting on top of this city is an age old ambition. Its Gothic spires were arrows showing the way to heaven. And the early history of human flight was all centered on – or rather above – the French capital.
Here and there around the city are little reminders. The first hot air balloon, carrying a duck, a chicken, and a sheep named Montauciel, or “Climb-to-the-sky”, floated aloft at the nearby palace of Versailles in September 1783 with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette among the spectators. By November men were going up in tethered balloons in the villages on the outskirts of the city, and then, in December 1783, right in the middle of the Tuileries Gardens, the French inventor Jacques Charles and his copilot Nicolas-Louis Robert ascended to about 1,800 feet in a hydrogen-filled balloon. Today a marble plaque marks the spot.
The French Revolution came in 1789 and along with it the fatal whisper of the blade dropping from the towers of guillotines. Heads rolled in what is now the Place de la Concorde. But amid the tumult the Parisian passion for altitude continued.
Today, joggers in the little Parc Monceau rarely take notice of a bronze plaque announcing that this was where, in October 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin made “the first parachute descent in history.” That’s not quite true. It was the first high-altitude descent from a balloon with a soft fabric parachute, but close enough.
By the 1840s, wealthy Parisians could take balloon rides at a racecourse near the city, and one of its leading artistic figures, the photographer who called himself Nadar, had taken a passionate interest in aviation
After his first flight at the Hippodrome, this friend of Charles Baudelaire and Jules Verne wrote, “Here I am up in the air, every pore delighting in this infinite sensual pleasure, unique to flight.” He felt, he said, “superhuman serenity.” And that was what I thought I was looking for.
Eventually this restless intellect whose life is wonderfully depicted by Adam Begley in the recent biography, The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, built an enormous balloon he dubbed, simply, Le Géant, the giant. It stood nearly 200 feet high, about even with the towers of Notre Dame. It had a double decker cabin made of wicker with a dining area and, yes, a wine cellar.
The city that these early “aeronautes” beheld was not quite the one we see today, although the modern skyline still bears no resemblance to the glass and steel Alps of New York or Hong Kong. The transformation at the core of Paris began in the 1850s under the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III and continued even after his defeat by the Germans and flight into exile in 1870. These were the decades when many of the city’s great thoroughfares like the Avenue de l’Opéra were carved through old neighborhoods, creating grand perspectives to be seen from the wide sidewalks and their famous cafés.
Of the monuments I would set out to climb on a Saturday in May, only two existed in the time of Nadar. The Arc de Triomphe was started by Napoleon I (the one most people have heard of) to commemorate his victories up to 1806. But he was out of the picture after 1812, and the Arc wasn’t completed until 1836, following several changes of government. The Pantheon originally was a church built in the 18th century, and is now a secular mausoleum (with some religious trappings) for national heroes.
The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 for the Paris World’s Fair, which marked the centennial of the French Revolution but was really a celebration of the bourgeoisie. And Sacré-Coeur was begun in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, as a Catholic symbol of public penance for the supposed decadence and immorality that had led to such disasters. The site chosen had been the last hilltop redoubt of the communards. But Sacré-Coeur was not dedicated until 1919, after World War I, when the French were on the winning side, and the survivors were about to usher in the 1920s, with all the delicious decadence and hedonism, creativity and passion that we remember and admire to this day.
So, with some of this in mind, on a very sunny Saturday morning, I set out, and by about 9:30 I was climbing the steps up the hill to the basilica in Montmartre. By a little after 10:00, peering around the faux-medieval columns in the cupola at the top of the dome, I beheld the city spread out at my feet. The view framed by the columns, which have been weathered by the hands of countless tourists, is probably the most dramatic and complete of all the Parisian vistas. Every major landmark is visible if you know what you are looking for and where. The Arc, the Tower, and the Pantheon all could be seen in the misty distance.
Back down on the street, I stopped briefly at the Périgord food fair, then took the No. 2 Metro line straight to the Arc de Triomphe where, fortunately, there was almost no one waiting to buy a ticket. But security has been tightened dramatically since the terror attacks of 2015, with bag searches and metal detectors at the base of the Arc. The spiral staircase is narrow, and the potential is there for a vertical pedestrian traffic jam, but the staff manage to pace entrances to avoid that. Then after the spiral, there are a few more flights, and you come out on top.
Here, more than on any of the other monuments, one has a sense of the city’s symmetry. You are in the middle of the Étoile, the star, that radiates a dozen avenues in geometric harmony, and you are right in the middle of the urban axis that stretches all the way from the distant skyscrapers of La Défense, with its huge, square Grande Arche, through the Arc de Triomphe where you stand, down the Champs Élysées, past the gold-tipped obelisk in Place de la Concorde, through the enormous but not permanent Ferris wheel and the Tuileries Gardens to the Louvre, where an equestrian statue of Louis XIV marks the end point of the axis.
I was feeling good after my morning’s climbs and might have walked to the Eiffel Tower, but was afraid the lines would be growing long, so I took the No. 30 bus from the Arc to Trocadero where the esplanade among imposing neo-fascist facades gives a spectacular view of Monsieur Eiffel’s handiwork. But as I walked across the bridge it was obvious that my fears about lines had been justified.
Security had been growing tighter around the Eiffel Tower even before the terror attacks of 2015, but it became really draconian after Greenpeace managed to scale the tower and unfurl an enormous banner last year calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and to #Resist the presidential candidacy of far-right populist Marine Le Pen. If Greenpeace could evade security so dramatically, what might terrorists do?
So, now, the entire base of the tower is sealed off by corrugated metal barriers pending the erection of a permanent wall. You have to wait in line to get through, and then in line again to get to the stairwell. I was there for more than an hour, waiting. And while I made the acquaintance of a very nice couple from Lancashire, I wished that I had made a reservation at the first-level restaurant, which has its own line through the fence. Besides, I was getting hungry. Six hundred and sixty-nine steps later, I bought a box of chocolate, vanilla, caramel, and raspberry macarons.
The views from any level of the Eiffel Tower are dramatic, but they are essentially the same, with slightly different angles. I often make this climb, and often spend more time contemplating the beautiful ironwork, or people watching, than I do looking out at the view. And on that Saturday in May it was there on the tower that I began to realize the problem of monument altitudes. The higher you get above the middle of Paris, the less wondrous it becomes, because you begin to lose the intimacy of its carefully wrought perspectives.
That feeling was confirmed when I proceeded to the Pantheon, walking part way and taking the 84 bus the rest. There, it’s only 206 steps to the top, and those taken in stages with a group and an escort, so the climb is easy, and, to my mind, the reward is great. One is just above the rooftops of the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter, looking out at Notre Dame, the gold dome of Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower … It’s all there, but the views are more human, more accessible, more Parisian. And if one were even a little lower still, comfortably situated in the right dormer window of a garret among the mansard roofs, that might be even better.
A few days later, I dropped by the apartment of my friend of many years, the photographer Peter Turnley. He made his reputation covering wars, but some of Peter’s best work, to my taste, is of life in this city, where he has lived even longer than I have.
“I’ve been walking the streets of Paris now for close to 50 years,” he said, considering just what it is that makes it, as he puts it, “the most beautiful city in the world,” and one basic reason, he concludes, is that very few buildings are taller than six storeys. “The top floor of Paris buildings, which is often called la mansarde, is a position and a place from which one can see the city in a fascinating way,” said Peter. At that level, there are wide open views, but there is still a gratifying intimacy with the surroundings.
When Peter first moved here, he lived for five years in a garret that looked out directly onto Notre Dame. He felt he could almost lean out of his little balcony and touch it. “I would wake up every morning to the bells of the church.” Such rooms with dormer windows beneath the square-off rooftops and chimneys originally were made for servants. In the days before elevators, the “lower classes” were forced to walk to the higher floors. In Peter’s garret there was no hot water, no phone, the toilet was down the hall and he took showers in the public bath on the Ile St. Louis. But the view “was magical,” he remembers.
Now he owns an apartment with a little balcony overlooking the Marais, and sells prints of his photographs for much more than he paid in a year for his old apartment next to Notre Dame. But his sense of the beauty of Paris remains much the same. He sees it, essentially in monochrome. “The city is this fabulous sort of mosaic of what a black and white photograph is – in other words, everything in between a pure black and a pure white, various tones of gray. And the cityscape of Paris absorbs light in a very beautiful way. Different times of the day there are different shadows, different reflections, different textures.” Then, at night, as the city lights up, it is “electric,” and one appreciates how much more vast it is than it seems in the daylight.
Although almost all of Peter’s work is on the street engaging his subjects, there is one image of the city, looking down on the Seine and its bridges from somewhere high above, that I have always loved. And having done so much climbing earlier in the week, I had to ask where he was when he took it. He wouldn’t tell me. “It’s one of my rare personal secrets,” he said.
I think I know, but I don’t think anyone without Peter’s persuasive charms could get up there, so I might as well leave the secret to him.
A few days after my climbs and that conversation on the balcony with Peter in the Marais, I was invited to a party on the roof terrace of the modern Publicis building at the Étoile looking out on the Arc de Triomphe. The event was for some of the big names from Silicon Valley attending the Vivatech conference, and fine wines were served. We were able to watch the sun set behind the Arc, and beyond the exiled skyscrapers of La Défense, looking at the world through rosé-Champagne-filled glasses, and I thought, yeah, this really is magical.
We were, of course, on the sixth floor.