Paris prêt à célébrer,” read a two-column headline in one of France’s popular newspapers on 31 March, describing how Paris was preparing to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, the venerable Iron Lady, set up as a temporary structure for a world fair and now one of the world’s most identifiable icons.
Ideal gift: The Eiffel Tower got a new coat of paint on its birthday. Photographs by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
The focus of the party, the paper said, was the new coat of paint the tower would wear. Twenty-five painters would hand-brush 60 tonnes of lead-free, organic “brun Tour Eiffel”, a distinctive grey-brown hue, on to the metal structure.
Eager to catch the celebrations, I rushed out. Hurrying through a largely deserted street, I imagined large crowds, loud music, speeches and fanfare. There was no way the French would let this opportunity go, I told myself. It was already close to 10am and I cursed myself for being so late.
Reaching the end of Avenue de la Bourdonnais, I observed a sizeable crowd, mostly queued up to ascend the tower. Tourists were gradually trickling into the main square but there was no sign of any celebration. There were no big banners, no announcements…hell, hardly any cops.
Aware that the French start their days late, I decided to wait. By 11am, I had spotted the painters a stratospheric 900ft above ground level. Gustave Eiffel, the architect, had painted the tower three different shades, with the lightest-brown hue at the top. This, he felt, gave it the illusion of extending forever. The model has been honoured to this day.
By noon, I was getting fidgety. Surely, I was missing the grand anniversary? Approaching the information counter, I was mildly shocked at the official’s blunt response: “There is nothing.” Through the morning, I had stopped tourists in the hope that someone would have made the trip specifically for the occasion. Most had no clue about this being the tower’s 120th birthday; others simply shrugged and walked off.
Later that evening, I would read about a competition for young architects, seeking designs for another tall monument on the Champs de Mars, so long dominated by the tower. I would also learn that there were plans to display Eiffel’s other works in the Town Hall in May.
But it was after I’d climbed the tower that the lack of celebrations explained itself. The second level offers a panoramic view of a thousand years of history. To the east, unmistakably, there’s the Notre Dame cathedral and the Musée du Louvre; the construction of both had begun in the 12th century. Look north, and there’s the Arc de Triomphe, commissioned after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1806; to the west flows the Seine, a powerful symbol of timelessness.
At the Palace de Versailles a few days earlier, we had taken in around 2,000 years of history, guided by immaculately maintained paintings from several centuries ago. At the Père Lachaise cemetery, we spotted gravestones dating back to 1120. In terms of European historicity, 120 years is almost like yesterday.
There, swaying in the winds that have buffeted the tower ever since it came up in defiance of conventional logic, I couldn’t help but think back to the raucous 350th anniversary of the Taj Mahal in 2004. Politicians lit lamps, government officials released balloons, tackily attired actors performed love scenes as Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal.
Three years later, a parliamentary committee admitted that suspended particulate matter in the polluted air was irrevocably yellowing the Taj.
The several hundred visitors to the tower at the end of March, I realized, may have had no clue about its 120th birthday. But the 25 painters were giving the structure a befitting present: A coat of paint that would protect it from the elements for several more years. With every silent brushstroke, France was celebrating.
3 THINGS TO DO | PARIS
Street eats: Dine alfresco at a Parisian café. AFP
Veronica Ryan, Yoga Instructor, Paris
• Rue Montorgueil: Shop for speciality cheeses and breads at either Rue Montorgueil on the 2nd Arrondissement or Rue Daguerre on the 11th Arrondissement. Both streets have a bohemian village feel and have been home to a number of famous artists. Monet even painted Rue Montorgueil, and it looks very much the same today.
• Musée Carnavalet: Learn about the history of Paris at the Musée Carnavalet on Rue de Sévigné and later go window-shopping for real Paris urban style around Le Marais at Et Vous, Zadig et Voltaire and Sandro.
• Jardin du Palais-Royal: End the day with a hot chocolate at a café in the Jardin du Palais-Royal, Paris’ very own secret garden. Even though it is in the middle of the city—just a skip away from the Louvre—when you are there it feels like your very own space because it’s so intimate.
As told to Tara Kilachand
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