A New Eye on Eiffel

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posterWe all know that the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889 for the Universal Exposition; only meant to stay in place for a short while; and was reviled by many Parisians at the time. But that’s just the tip of the steel iceberg, as I learned last week on a fabulous 1.5-hour night tour of the monument. I decided it was time to delve deeper into Paris’s most famous—and sometimes, famously shrugged off—image. How little I knew!

expo univThe man behind it, Gustav Eiffel, is one of history’s more fascinating characters. A civil engineer keen on marketing, he had changed his last name (his Bönickhausen forebears had a bad reputation), and he rigged the competition to create an attraction for the Exposition by having its rules changed to stipulate that the object had to be made of metal. He even offered to pay 80% of its construction cost.

laura the guide - 1Our delightful tour guide explained that the Universal Exposition was the Internet of its day, a marketing behemoth that was the best way to spread news far and wide. And so the Tower was first and foremost meant to bring attention to the late 19th century modernization of Paris. The city’s tangle of narrow streets, literally seething with raw sewage, had been freshly replaced by sewers and Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal designs—controversial at the time but also, like the Tower, an unexpectedly enduring development, and now among the city’s most defining characteristics. (I think I learned more Paris history on this tour than in a full year at the Sorbonne.)

Normally I’m not much of a tour-taker; I’d just as soon do my own research and go it alone. But the nighttime tour of the Eiffel Tower by City Wonders turned out to be well worth its 45-euro price. It included not just admission into the monument but—even more importantly—the ability to skip the line. As a bonus, our guide filled us in on several other monuments visible from the Tower: Sacre Coeur, La Defense, Notre Dame, and the other tower on the city’s horizon—the one that’s even more controversial than the Eiffel Tower—the Tour Montparnasse.

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