Paris, high security and the Eiffel Tower

Paris - Eiffel TowerOne of the reasons for choosing our campsite on the outskirts of Paris was to be able to visit Versailles and also to have a day in the city itself. The weather has been incredibly hot and has sapped our energy, so with that in mind, we decided to only attempt to do two things on our trip into Paris – one was to visit the Eiffel Tower and the other was to take an open top bus tour around the city to get an overview and see the major sites.

We knew when we set out that we weren’t going to be able to go all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower. You can book tickets for this online but there were no slots available for several weeks, either to the top or the second floor, so we knew our only option was to climb up. When we arrived, we found that the area below the tower is now all sealed off and our first challenge was to get past all of the security and get inside. There was a big queue on the side near the river but then we noticed that there were more security gates on the opposite side, by the Parc du Champ de Mars and the queue there looked much shorter.

Paris - Eiffel Tower_3

High security

The reason for the long queues was that security were doing a thorough search of everyone’s bags before they would let anyone in. And I mean a thorough search. At Versailles, it was a customary glance into your opened bag, followed by an X-Ray scan. Here at the Eiffel Tower, you had to open every zip and pocket of your bag and pull things out so that they could look at what was underneath. When they were satisfied with that, they ran one of those ‘wands’ across your body to check for metal items and made you remove your hat to check under that as well. The girls were spared the wand search, but had their heads patted just to make sure there was nothing under their hats. As you can imagine, given that most people were carrying a rucksack or other bag, this process took a long time. Fortunately though, the queue on the other side of the tower was a lot shorter and it only took us about 20 minutes to get inside.

That wasn’t the end of the security checks though. Once we’d actually got our tickets and wanted to enter the structure itself to climb the stairs, there was a further X-Ray security check. Right next to the X-Ray machine there was a clear Perspex box into which people had put banned items that had presumably been missed at the gate but had shown up on the X-Ray. It was full of Swiss Army knives, scissors and other sharp objects and had a sign on it saying that items deposited here were NOT returnable. They gave people a clear choice – give up the item or you’ll be refused entry to the tower. The security checks were a bit unsettling for Emma, as was seeing armed soldiers on the streets, because she is aware of the events that happened in Paris earlier in the year.  But Andy pointed out to her that we were probably now in one of the safest places in the city because there was no way anyone could get any weapons past such stringent security.

So, anyway, the Eiffel Tower. It really is the symbol of Paris. But did you know that it was built for the 1889 World’s Fair and was not meant to be permanent! It formed the entrance arch to the fair and Gustave Eiffel only had a permit for it to be there for 20 years, after which time it was to be dismantled.

Paris - climbing the Eiffel Tower

It is interesting climbing up the tower rather than taking the lift. For one thing, you get up really close to the structure itself and can really appreciate its construction. Secondly, you truly appreciate its size, because your legs are telling you how far they have climbed! Apparently there are over 300 steps to get up to the first floor at 57m above ground level. The view when you come into the light on the first floor is definitely worth it though. Looking out, I was struck by two things. Firstly, the fact that Paris is surrounded by hills on all sides and secondly that virtually all of the buildings in the city are of a similar height. Apparently all building were not allowed to be higher than 8 floors high.

Paris - view from Eiffel Tower
View from the Eiffel Tower with the River Seine and the Palais de Chaillot
Paris - Eiffel Tower detail
The detailing in the ironwork is really beautiful

Andy and Megan didn’t want to climb any further, so Emma and I left our bags with them and ventured up the next set of steps (another 300 or so) to the second floor at 115m high. Up here it was much busier! The platform up at the second floor is obviously smaller, since the tower tapers towards the top. People were pouring out of the lift and it was a bit chaotic as they tried to form a queue for the lifts to the top. Emma and I picked out some of the major monuments in the city but then decided that the view wasn’t actually that much better than from the first floor and so rather than stay, jostling with the crowds, we made our way back down. By the time we reached the first floor, our legs were like jelly and we were all hungry. Andy and Megan had secured a seat in the shade, so we decided to stop there and eat our picnic lunch. It was a perfect spot! There was a lovely breeze and a great view and we were out of the heat of Paris below.

Paris - Eiffel Tower 2nd floor
Emma and I on the second floor platform
Paris - picnic at Eiffel Tower
Our first class picnic spot on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower!

Now, if you’ve been following this blog, you will know by now that I like to learn a bit about the places we are visiting, and that I like to share what I have learnt with all you lovely people! So, here are some of my favourite facts about the Eiffel Tower:

  • The tower is made of iron and, although it is officially 324m high, its height can vary by up to 15cm due to temperature changes.
  • It needs to be re-painted every 7 years, and 60 tonnes of paint is needed to do the job
  • The lifts in the tower travel a combined distance of 103,000 km a year – that’s two and a half times around the earth!
  • The tower has about 7 million visitors a year, making it the most visited paid-for monument in the world.
  • The Mayor of Blackpool, Sir John Bickerstaffe, was a visitor to the World’s Fair in 1889. He was so impressed with the Eiffel Tower that he commissioned a similar tower to be built in his town. Blackpool tower is 158m tall and was opened 5 years later, in 1894.
  • The tower has the names of 72 engineers, scientists and mathematicians engraved around its sides. Each of these individuals contributed to its construction in some way.
  • Today the tower has restaurants on the first and second floors as well as toilets and shops. During the exposition, the French newspaper Le Figaro had an office and a printing press on the second floor, where a special souvenir edition, Le Figaro de la Tour, was made. There was also a pâtisserie. At the top, there was a post office where visitors could send letters and postcards as a memento of their visit.
  • After dark, the tower was lit by hundreds of gas lamps, and a beacon sent out three beams of red, white and blue light. The daily opening and closing of the exposition were announced by a cannon at the top!
  • Each of the 18,038 parts had to be made and assembled with great precision. The position of rivet holes was specified to within 0.1mm. No drilling or shaping was done on site: if any part of it did not fit, it was sent back to the factory for alteration. 2.5 million rivets were needed to join the structure together.

And then I love this quote from a petition called “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” that was sent to the Minister of Works in 1887 by a group of about 300 artists and architects. They really didn’t like the idea of a big iron tower being built in their city!

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

What a hideous picture they paint! Thankfully, their protests never amounted to anything and we still have this magnificent monument as part of the Paris skyline.

Apparently some of the protesters changed their minds when the tower was built, but others remained unconvinced. One of them supposedly ate lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible!

Paris - Foxity tour_2

Paris - Foxity tour
Enjoying a seat and some shade on top of the Foxity bus tour

Open top bus tour

As we stepped out of the tower on our way down, the heat at street level hit us. We found some shade in the park at the foot of the tower and worked out where to go to get on the open top bus tour. Andy had done some research beforehand and worked out that by far the best value tour was run by Foxity tours. It had roughly the same route as the more expensive tours but was virtually half the price. We soon located the stop for their orange and white buses and started our tour, grabbing a seat in the shade on the top of the bus. It really is a great way to see a city and learn something about the different districts and neighbourhoods. The complete loop of Paris took about 2 hours, but you could hop on and off at various stops to see the sights up closer.

Paris - the Louvre
The Louvre with its famous glass pyramid
Paris - the  Opéra
The impressive Opéra building
Paris - Seine
View down the River Seine

We learnt about Les Invalides, the Grande and Petit Palaces, saw the Opéra, thé Louvre and countless other monuments and squares. The bus then turned up the Champs Elysées and here we decided to hop off to see the Arc de Triomphe. This is another of Paris’s most well-known monuments and the detailed carving in the ceiling and around the sides is exquisite. It was built by Napoleon in 1836 to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz in 1805 and it stands at the centre of the ‘Star’ roundabout in the Place Charles de Gaulle where a staggering 9 avenues converge. Thankfully there is an underpass to get out to it, since you would be taking your life in your hands to attempt to cross the roundabout itself. There are no lane markings and cars were shooting across it at high speed, narrowly missing one another as they dived across to their exit! It was quite a sight!

Paris - Arc de Triomphe
View up the Champs- Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe
Paris - Arc de Triomphe
Impressive detail in the carved stone inside the Arc de Triomphe
Paris - tomb of the unknown soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Before boarding the bus again, we stopped briefly in MacDonalds to get some ice creams (the only place in the vicinity for which you didn’t need a mortgage to buy an ice cream!) and were shocked to have our bags checked again. To get into MacDonalds! Then on the last portion of the tour, the bus had to make a detour as a bridge over which we were due to travel was suddenly closed and there were sirens and police cars swarming everywhere. You really do feel that this city is on high alert.

After the tour we got the train back to Maisons-Laffitte and the calm and tranquility of our campsite. It had been a hot day in the city and so we were very happy for the shade afforded to us by the trees on our pitch!

Paris - Maisons-Laffitte campsite
Enjoying the shade on our pitch at the Maisons-Laffitte campsite

Campsite: Camping International Maisons-Laffitte

What we liked:

  • We had a pitch right next to the River Seine and could watch all the traffic going up and down the river – barges, river cruisers, rowers, jet skis, swans, geese etc.
  • It was only 15-20 minutes by train into Paris (and a 10 minute walk to the station)
  • There was lots of shade (essential since temperatures were in the low 30s!)
  • 1hr free (slow) wifi for each of us every day

What we didn’t like:

  • Being so hot and next to the water, we picked up quite a few mosquito and midge bites! – it was worth it though for the fabulous view
  • No swimming pool, which would’ve been nice to cool off in the heat

Score: 7 out of 10

Paris - Maison-Laffitte campsite
A peaceful morning on the River Seine. This was the view from our pitch at the Maison-Laffitte campsite.
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