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.