Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Eiffel Tower Celebrates 120 Years!

120 years ago today, March 31, 1889, Gustav Eiffel inaugurated La Tour Eiffel. He climbed her 1,710 steps and planted the French flag at her peak, kicking off the 1889 World’s Fair.

This year, the city of Paris has numerous plans to celebrate the birthday of France’s most iconic symbol, a structure that was not supposed to have survived more than 20 years.

The 19th Repainting of the Tower
In his book, The 300-meter Tower, Eiffel wrote that the only way to insure the longevity of iron is to protect it from rust. The best way to do this is with paint. Thus, every seven years since her creation, the Iron Lady has received a new dress comprised of 60 tons worth of paint.

Once upon a time, she was red. Then she became orange. Today, she is bronze, the hues of which are lightened little-by-little from bottom to top to create, for the viewer, a uniform perception of color.

Exhibition: Gustave Eiffel, le magician du fer (the Magician of Iron)
To be held at the Paris City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) from 7 May to 29 August, 2009, this exhibition will commemorate the life of one of the world’s most celebrated engineers and enterprising visionaries. It will be organized in four parts: Eiffel in his time, Eiffel the engineer, Eiffel the builder, and Eiffel the researcher and scientist.

Exhibition: Epopée tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower Legend)
This exhibition will provide on-site itineraries focused around eight themes, each one its own independent mini-exhibition. They will be located on the first level of the Tower and in the Tower stairways from 15 May through 31 December, 2009.

Concours d’Architecture Eiffel, 2008-09 (Architecture Contest)
Perhaps you heard that for her 120th birthday, the Eiffel Tower would be sporting a marvelous new hat? Well, though that may have been the hope of the Serero Architecture Agency, it is not a reality, at least not as of this writing.

What actually happened was that La Societe d’exploitation de La Tour Eiffel sponsored a competition for young architects to design a complement to the Tower structure. Simultaneously, the Serero Architecture Agency proposed a plan to enlarge the third level platform from 280 to 580 square meters by attaching a carbon Kevlar platform to the existing Tower framework. On the occasion of the Iron Lady’s 120th birthday, the contest’s five winning designs will be announced and 91 of the proposed projects will be presented. The five winners will share a prize of 45,000 Euros.

I quite like the Serero hat! How about you?

Le Journal du Dimanche, 29 mars 2009.

Painting of Eiffel Tower under construction, 1888, by Paul-Louis Delance, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of Eiffel Tower, by Georges Seurat, 1889, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Gustave Eiffel, by Felix Nadar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Drawing of the Eiffel Tower concept by one of the main architects, Maurice Koechlin, courtesy of the Koechlin family and Wikimedia Commons.
Concept designs for the Iron's Lady's birthday hat, by Serero Architects, http://www.serero.com/index_en.htm

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What's in a Name? French Patisserie

Did you know that the name of your favorite mouth-watering French pastry may have a special meaning?

Let’s start with an easy one. Take a look at this picture...

Of course, you recognize the flaky, buttery French croissant, so named for its crescent shape. But did you know that crescent-shaped breads and cakes have been made in France since pre-Christian days? Once upon a time, they were made to honor the moon.

Now, let's make it a little harder. How about this one…
What do you see?

If you see a fat little nun, shuffling about the Abbey in her religious habit, you’d be exactly right. Because that is exactly what the religieuse, a puff pastry stuffed with chocolate or coffee cream, is meant to evoke.

What do you see in this image?

Do you see a thousand layers of puff pastry alternated with luscious sweet fillings, such as cream, chocolate, jam, almond paste, or a delectable combination of all the above? This is the mille-feuille, meaning ‘one-thousand leaves’.

And check out this yummy treat, from two perspectives…

What do you see? A wheel? A bicycle wheel?

That’s right! For this is the Paris-Brest, a pastry as delightful to eat as it is to look at. It was created by a pastry chef in Brest, France, in celebration of the annual bicycle race that starts in Paris and terminates in his home town. It is a ring-shaped pastry – fashioned after a bicycle tire – split and filled with praline buttercream.

My personal favorite! What’s yours?

(Stayed turned here for more French patisseries and the meaning of their names…)

Croissant, religieuse, and Paris-Brest, courtesy of Sarah B. Towle.
Mille-Feuille, courtesy of Miya.m and Wikimedia commons.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Human Flight in Paris, Past and Present

When I look out the windows of my Paris apartment, I see a jumble of rooftops, our neighborhood church and park, the spire of the Eiffel Tower, and an antique clock atop the Hopital Saint Perrine. Also in my direct line of sight is a 6,000 cubic meter (211,860 ft3) balloon. White by day, fluorescent-green by night, the 32-meter-tall (105 ft) balloon floats up and down all day long, tethered by a cable that lets it out, like a kite, to a height of 150 meters (482 ft). Amid the classic beauty of my corner of Paris, it’s a kitschy reminder that hot-air balloons figure prominently in French history and culture:

From the height of a hot-air balloon, the earliest French photographers gave us aerial documentation of the 1889 and 1900 World’s Fairs. A few decades earlier, from July 1870 to May 1871, Parisians used hot-air balloons to break the siege of their city during the Franco-Prussian War. And almost a century before that, in 1783, the first recorded episode of human flight took place in Paris, in a hot-air balloon developed by the French Montgolfier brothers.

It all started one cold evening in 1782. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the impractical dreamer of a family of 16 children, sat mesmerized by a fire burning in a fireplace. He wondered what “force” could be causing sparks and smoke to rise up from the flames. With the help of his brother, Jacques-Etienne, he fashioned a small, oval bag out of silk, turned it upside down, and lit a fire under the opening. The bag rose into the air, hitting the ceiling above the two brothers. They hypothesized that fire created gas, which they dubbed “Montgolfier gas”.

What actually happened was that the heated air inside the small “balloon” became lighter than the surrounding air, causing it to become buoyant and rise upward.

The brothers set to work, building bigger and bigger balloons and experimenting with different materials until on June 4, 1783, they held their first public demonstration of un-manned flight. Near their home in Annonay, in the Rhône-Alpes region of southern France, they sent a balloon of 790 cubic meters (27,894 ft3) to an estimated altitude of 1,600-2,000 meters (5,200-6,600 ft). The balloon weighed 225 kilograms (500 lbs) and was constructed of four large pieces of cloth held together by 1,800 buttons and reinforced by interior netting. The voyage lasted 10 minutes and covered 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

Their next launch was to take place on August 27 in Paris over the Champs de Mars. This time the balloon, made of sky-blue taffeta decorated with gold suns and zodiac signs, was half again as big. Unfortunately a downpour stopped the show. But a subsequent test, on September 11, compelled King Louis XVI to suggest that the brothers select two criminals to test the effects of atmospheric travel on living creatures.

Joseph and Etienne thought it best to send animals aloft first! On September 19, they sent a duck, a rooster, and a sheep called Montauciel (Climb-to-the-sky) into the skies of Versailles before a huge crowd, including the King and Queen Marie-Antoinette. The flight lasted roughly eight minutes and covered 3.3 kilometers (2 miles), obtaining an altitude of 462 meters (1500 ft). The animals survived the trip unharmed; indeed, Montauciel was found nibbling unperturbed on the straw used to fuel the fire that lifted the balloon.

The next step was to release humans into the clouds. For this, Joseph and Etienne doubled the size of the balloon again. It was 23 meters tall (75 ft) and able to hold 1,698 cubic meters (60,000 ft3) of air. On November 21, 1783, a physician, Pilâtre de Rozier, and an army officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, set off from the Bois de Boulogne. They stayed aloft for 25 minutes at a height of 100 meters (328 ft), traveling 9 kms (5.59 mls) over the rooftops of Paris until they touched down amongst the windmills of the Butte-au-Cailles (now in the 13th arrondissement).

The balloon we see from our apartment windows is a feature of the Parc André Citroën, a 14 hectare (35 acre) public space located on the banks of the river Seine in the southern 15th arrondissement. The park occupies the site of the former Citroën car factory, which operated from 1915 until the 1970s. A 1980s urban renewal project leveled the former factory to create housing as well as a public recreation area now famed for its modern landscape design.

The balloon ride over the Parc André Citroën offers views of the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, Sacré Cœur Basilica, and Cathedral of Notre Dame. For years now the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) has been begging me for a ride. But after our hair-raising voyage up La Tour Eiffel, I’ve resisted. Though Loo, being lucky, is the one-and-only person I would ever consider taking a balloon trip with, for the moment - pour l’instant - I prefer to watch it rise and fall from my apartment windows.

Self-portrait of Félix Nadar, French Photographer, 1820-1910, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic reproductions of engravings of Montgolfier balloons, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

(Some) Favorite Paris Really Must-Do’s

The Musée d’Orsay, again and again,
A good book in the gardens of the Musée Rodin.

Celebrity hunting at the Père Lachaise,
The Buttes-Chaumont to cure malaise.

Hunting Arago medallions in the Parc Montsouris,
Berthillon ice-cream on the Pont St. Louis.

The Saint Chapelle on a sunny day,
The Notre-Dame garden, while the kids play.

Sailing boats in the pond of the
The Eiffel Tower, any time you may please.

Monday, March 16, 2009

First Night in Paris - City of Light

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a friend-of-a-friend asking for advice in creating an itinerary of ‘best hits’ for a five-day whirlwind visit to Paris. My contact had won two tickets to the City of Light from a Valentine’s Day dial-in contest offered by her local radio station. She was the 14th - and winning - caller! So she and her husband, both of whom grew up, got married, and settled down to work and start a family in the same small US town, were on their way to Paris. Between them, they had only a modicum of international travel experience, but a big desire to make every minute here count.

I was delighted to combine their always wanted to’s with a few of my favorite really must-do’s and put together a dynamite program. For starters, I gave them the following directive:

On the night of your arrival, buy a bottle of chilled champagne, borrow a couple of champagne glasses, and get yourselves to the Champs de Mars sometime after dark at 15 minutes before the hour. Find yourselves a comfortable spot on the grass in the middle of the park, facing the Eiffel Tower, and be ready to pop the cork. You’ll know when.

“Why?” they wanted to know.

“It’s a surprise,” I answered.

“Is it safe?” they hedged.

“Very safe,” I countered.

“Why?” they tried again. “Why the Champs de Mars? Why our first night?”

“Just do it,” I responded. “You won’t regret it.”

And they didn’t, because since the stroke of midnight, January 1, 2000, to launch the new millennium, the Eiffel Tower has been lighting up the Paris sky for five dazzling minutes at the top of every hour. And what better place to witness this spectacular show than front-and-center, in the middle of the Champs de Mars, with your favorite person and, en plus, a bottle of chilled champagne?

These days, one hundred different models of electric lamps containing 10,000 bulbs illuminate the Eiffel Tower every evening, 20,000 bulbs when the Tower flashes. From the Tower’s peak, the continuous sweep of an enormous searchlight blasts a beam so bright some say it can be spotted in Le Havre, 200 kms away.

This is not the first time in her nearly 120 years that Eiffel’s Tower has been dressed up in light. The first display was in 1887 upon completion of the second level. A year later, the Tower lit up again, on the evening of her inauguration: 10,000 gas street lamps accented the steeple and platforms while two blue, white, and red beacons, considered the most powerful in the world, beamed down from the top to light up the French exhibits below. In 1900, with the advent of electricity, 3,200 lamps spotlighted the Tower’s framework and decorative arches for that year’s World’s Fair. Then, from 1925-36, Andre Citroen adorned her sides with 250,000 colored lamps that could be seen from 30 kilometers. For the Art and Technique Exhibition of 1937, the Eiffel Tower became an enormous chandelier: 10 kilometers of fluorescent tubes of blue, red, and gold decorated the first floor while 30 naval spotlights wrapped the spire in a bright, white light. From 1958, 1,290 spotlights lit the Iron Lady from the ground until 1985 when a new lighting system, the precursor of today’s illumination, outlined her shapely curves in gold with the aid of 350 high pressure sodium bulbs.

Of course, Eiffel’s Lady isn’t always gold; she changes color from time to time in accordance with events and celebrations. Since we’ve lived in Paris, she’s been red in honor of Chinese New Year; she’s taken on the colors of the Rugby World Cup on the occasion of its being hosted by France; and most recently, she remained a luminous blue for six months, from June 30 – December 31, 2008, when France held the presidency of the European Economic Union.

But when the Eiffel Tower flashes at the top of each hour, she does so for each of us. She sparkles for those who happen to pause for a moment and look up. And on that first night of their first visit to the famous City of Light, the Tower lit up for these friends-of-a-friend. For five whole minutes their world stood still as they held hands, sitting in the grass of the Champs de Mars and sipping a bottle of chilled champagne, while the flickering light of 20,000 bulbs reflected in their awed gaze.

Tour Eiffel Magazine, numero 1, 2009.

The lights of the Eiffel Tower in a) 2000, b) 1900, and c) 1925-36, all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Not Something Seen in Paris Everyday!

According to unsubstantiated YouTube chat, this un-authorized flight under the Eiffel Tower took place on March 1, 1984. The chatter also suggests that the pilot and aircraft made it safely back to the US without ever being caught...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

2 1/2 Trips around Planet Earth!

I’ll never forget the first and (for the moment) last time I attempted to climb the Eiffel Tower. I was in Paris with my Lucky-one-and-only (Loo)in the spring before our move. We had been going non-stop all week, touring schools, viewing apartments, setting up accounts, taking care of all the “boring” things that were needed to make Paris “home”. Loo had been such a trooper through it all that I suggested we spend the last day as tourists.

“Name it,” I said. “Whatever you want to do, we’ll do it.” She didn’t skip a beat: a trip to the heavens was what she wanted. We were bound for the top of the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived at the Tower from Trocadéro on the right bank, watching it loom ever larger as we approached. We joined the queue for our ticket over the city. As Paris is a tourist destination 365 days of the year, the line was formidable, but peopled with representatives from all over the world, each one looking up, smiling in awe at the sheer magnitude and antique beauty of Eiffel’s Iron Lady, snapping photographs sans cesse. Sound changes, somehow, under the Eiffel Tower; a soft, calming echo magnifies the song of birds flying among the arches. So, I didn’t mind the wait. In retrospect, I rather enjoyed those lazy moments when my feet were still planted firmly on the ground!

Duo-lifts, resembling cable cars, swoop through the elegant curves of the Iron Lady’s four legs to raise people to her heights. Two of the four mechanisms serve roughly 18,000 visitors a day; a third one is reserved for guests of the aptly named Jules Verne Restaurant; and the fourth functions exclusively for the 500+ personnel – the welders, plumbers, lift operators, cashiers, postal workers, waiters, security guards, etc. – who work ‘round the clock to keep the Tower structure humming. Cavernous basements tucked beneath each of the four pillars house massive hydraulic motors that power the Tower’s lifts. A 3,785-litre tank of water, at one time pumped in from the Seine, provides the counterbalance needed to hoist the cars to the 115-meter second-level landing. From there, visitors to the third, and final, tier join another queue for the vertical journey to the top.

But on that particular day, I’m afraid we didn’t make it to our intended destination…

We were approaching the first level when the car slowed. Then stopped. Then fell. It dropped out from under us! All at once, 40 people were screaming in perhaps as many languages. Loo buried her face in my torso, her arms wrapped so tightly around my waist that I thought I may never breathe again. But I was the mom. I had to remain strong. I could not let her see or feel my panic. I had to be a pillar of calm. So I did what any sensible, near-hysterical mother would do: I looked around for someone, anyone, who might be for me a model of control. And I found him.

The lift operator could not have been more bored. I locked my eyes on his and he nodded that all was okay. He’d clearly been through this before. For him it was not unusual to be bouncing like a rubber ball through space, upward, downward, then upward again, until gravity and inertia had a chance to work their magic and we slowed to a stop at the fulcrum of our fall.

“That was interesting,” I said to Loo, breaking the silence that now gripped the occupants of the elevator.

“We're getting off at the next stop,” she said. And we were thrilled to continue our voyage down the 347 steps through the pillar from the first level to the ground. That is, after we had our share of Paris views from 57 meters, which, quite honestly, was plenty high for me.

Eiffel Tower elevator accidents, I typed into "Google" as soon as I was able. And, you know, in nearly 120 years, it appears there haven't been any. Since Eiffel’s era, the Tower’s lifts have soared smoothly. In fact, each year the combined journey of all four lifts adds up to 103,000 km. That’s 2 ½ trips around planet Earth!

Tour Eiffel Magazine, numero 1, 2009.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Free On-line Photos.
Courtesy of Peter L. Svendsen, Wikimedia Commons and Share and ShareAlike.
Courtesy of
Matthias Jauernig and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Eiffel Tower Exploits

1912: The tailor, Monsieur Reichelt, nicknamed the “birdman”, kills himself jumping from the 2nd floor of the Tower in a home-made parachute.

1923: Journalist, Pierre Labric, following a bet, rides a bicycle down the 347 stairs from the Tower’s first floor to ground level without authorization. (He would later became mayor of Montmartre.)

1926: Aviator, Léon Collot, attempts to fly an airplane under the Eiffel Tower. Blinded by the sun, he hits an antenna cable strung under the tower and crashes to his death.

1948: Bouglione, of circus fame, takes one of his elephants - the oldest in the world - for a tour of the Eiffel Tower. The elephant refuses to go higher than the first level.

1983: Charles Coutard and Joel Descuns ride up and down the Tower steps on motocross bikes.

1984: Paratroopers, Amanda Tucker and Mike MacCarthy from England, parachute from the third floor of the Tower without permission.

1987: A.J. Hackett, from New Zealand, successfully bungy jumps from the Tower’s second floor.

1989: In celebration of the Tower’s centennial, tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, “walks” the tightrope 700 meters from the Eiffel Tower to the Palais de Chaillot on the other side of the River Seine.

1995: A race up the steps to the top of the Tower is broadcast by Arte channel. Triathlete, Yves Loussouarn, wins against 74 other athletes with the record-breaking time of 8 minutes, 51 seconds.

1998: Hughes Richard climbs the steps to the Tower’s second floor in record time…on a mountain bike!

2001: Spaniard, Aitor Sarasua Zumeta, breaks Richard’s record.

2004: Xavier Casas from Andora, receives a Guinness World Record for step climbing on a VTT, making it up 1,300 steps of the Eiffel Tower!

2005: Athlete, Jerome Sue, descends the 347 steps from the 1st floor to ground level…in a wheelchair!

2006: Yoggi, a French monocyclist, ascends to the 2nd floor of the Tower without setting foot down on the ground.


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Paris Monuments - The Eiffel Tower

My Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) attends school in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower. That means we get to see it almost every day. We never tire of looking at Eiffel's Iron Lady. From up close or from afar, her graceful majesty never ceases to impress; she always looks dramatic and new, depending on the time of day or weather. It's hard to believe that at the time of construction, many prominent Parisians rose up in protest against the famous Tour Eiffel.

As the 19th century drew to a close, France’s industrial revolution was in full swing. Many new inventions had revolutionized life: the telephone, the car, vaccines against major diseases. The era was variously called “the spring of technology” or La Belle Epoque. To mark the centennial of the 1789 French Revolution, France invited the world to Paris to take part in the 1889 Universal Exhibition, her second World’s Fair. The architect and structural engineer, Gustav Eiffel, unanimously won the contest to build a metal tower at the mouth of the Champs de Mars, the site of the future event. Eiffel’s Tower, "the A over the Champs", would symbolize France’s prominence in a world undergoing rapid industrial modernization and change.

Work on the Tower foundations began in January 1887. It took five months for workers using nothing more than spades to clear the rubble then carted away by horses. The pillars on the park side were easy to stabilize, but the pillars along the Seine required air-compressed foundations using corrugated steel caissons buried five meters under the water.

All 18,038 parts of the tower were built offsite by 300 steelworkers and brought to the Champs de Mars to be locked into place with 2,500,000 rivets. The Tower went up like a giant Erector Set over the course of two years and remarkably, thanks to precautions taken by Eiffel, only one person lost his life on the work-site. When completed, the structure weighed approximately 10,000 tons. Its exponential curves were determined by Eiffel’s understanding of wind resistance. The top can sway up to 12 cms in a high wind.

Eiffel inaugurated his Tower on March 31, 1889, climbing its 1,710 steps to plant the French flag at the peak. It measured 312 meters in height and was the tallest building in the world until 1929, when New York’s Chrysler Building surpassed it by 7 meters. (The current height of the Eiffel Tower is 325 meters, if you include the tallest antenna.)

Even at the time of the 1889 World’s Fair, Eiffel equipped his Tower with elevators to lift visitors up to its three levels. The first floor stands at 57 meters, the second at 115 meters, and the third at 276. Elevator construction was considered a great technical achievement at the time, further testament to Eiffel’s engineering genius.

Built initially to last only 20 years, the Eiffel Tower quickly became important for use in meteorology and radio technology, and later played a key role in the development of broadcast television. The first antenna, installed atop the Tower in 1909, launched wireless telegraphy that allowed France to communicate with the US during World War I. Due to these unexpected uses, the Tower escaped demolition. Today, it bears 120 antennae of all sizes and varieties. Fifty to sixty tons of paint applied every seven years protects the Tower from rust.

Nevertheless, even before its inauguration, detractors to La Tour Eiffel raised their voices in collective dissent. In a letter entitled "The Artists Protest", published in Le Temps on 14 February 1887, they baptized it the "Tower of Babel", the "dishonor of Paris", a "gigantic black factory chimney", a "barbaric mass" that dominated and humiliated Gothic Paris. They called the future monument "a hateful column of bolted iron". But Eiffel stood by his creation. He responded to his critics, saying “I believe the Tower will have its own beauty”. It would appear that history has proven him right. By the 1920s, the La Tour Eiffel had become a symbol of French modernism and the avant-garde. Today the Eiffel Tower is Paris’ most iconic monument, welcoming seven million visitors annually.

And 120 years after its inauguration, Loo and her classmates get to play among its shadows almost every day.


The Eiffel Tower over the Champs-de-Mars, courtesy of Rudiger Wolk and Wikimedia Commons.
The Eiffel Tower in July 1888, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Eiffel Tower and the 1889 Universal Exhibition, 1889, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.