Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return.” There are several ways to admire the Parisian panorama. For instance, the hills such as the Montmartre, Montparnesse and Belleville from where one can look down on the basin — the city. Back in the old days, young adventurers not just satisfied with such views, tried to get ‘over views’ by clapping on all manner of contraptions and jumping off steep precipices on a wing and a prayer to soar over the land.
The spectacular views of the river Seine and such that they were hoping to see from above didn’t happen. That is, until 1783. That’s when they got a chance in a huge hot air balloon that dizzily hovered into the Paris sky. “In all likelihood, that balloon was launched from this very site, the Champ-de-Mar”, said our guide, even as we trained our eyes to a clear blue sky that had tiny long-tailed birds and above them a speeding jet.
It was a bright September morning, and we were out exploring historic sites of Paris by foot. A few minutes earlier we had emerged from the Ecole-Militaire station. Ahead lay a gardener’s dream: a large stretch of symmetrical lawns, flowerbeds, arches and cascades, and walk-ways. This area was once a bustling centre abuzz with many activities like army drills, horse-racing, and mass ceremonies to celebrate Bastille Day, a national French holiday on July 14.
In the 18th century, rich, brave French men got air-borne from this ground. They were instantly rewarded with Adrenalin rush, and never-before seen views of their capital. Today the stretch has changed. The only hot air balloon to be seen in the vicinity is the replica at Le Jules Verne, the restaurant named after the legendary sci-fi writer. There, the décor is reminiscent of an airship moored above Paris. At the famed second level restaurant of the Eiffel Tower, large bay windows open up to a smiling Seine, the Trocadero and other aerial views of the city.
Now as we were walking down Avenue de Suffren with a gentle breeze on our face, somewhere between the swaying branches of trees, we could make out that ‘lacy wrought-iron confection’ — the Eiffel tower, touted as one of the most photographed structures in the world. It grabbed headlines worldwide, and why not? As at that time, it claimed to be world’s tallest man-made structure.
City of towering feats
The man behind the engineering feat, Gustav Eiffel, a self-made millionaire, overcame a series of hurdles to make the building a reality. The monument since then has found its way into record books and popular literature, art and paintings, documentaries and movies.
From our left we were getting distracted by sounds of cars and taxis whizzing
by. From their open windows came sounds
of the day — a pumped-up Rihana singing about umbrellas, soccer commentary
in French, and hot, frenetic Dixieland jazz.
The electric activity was quite the contrast to the serene peaceful green space — Champ-de-Mars to our right. Once the hallowed precincts of the 1751-founded Ecole Militaire, this prestigious officer training school churned out stalwarts such as Napoleon. The main parade grounds of Paris for centuries reverberated loud and long with the thunder of charging horses, rumble of horse-drawn carriages and cries of young cadets in mock battles. It was here that the first colourful hot-air balloon lifted into the sky.
Soon after watching one such show, an enthralled Jules Verne let his imagination soar, resulting in the book Five Books in a Balloon and later, the hugely popular Around the World in Eighty 80 Days. At that time, besides hot air balloons, the Champ-de-Mars became the venue for hosting grand celebrations of the centennial of the French Revolution. Ordinary citizens saw the re-enactment of the 1789 storming of the Bastille, imprisonment of the king and abolition of feudalism, the violent, social turmoil leading to the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen and founding of the Republic as well as the composition of La Marseillaise, the national anthem.
In 1889, the gardens saw a mind-blowing event — a stupendous world trade fair called Exposition Universelle, Paris. The exposition had as its theme ‘the triumph of modernity on the verge of the 20th century’. Millions of visitors, and more than 60,000 exhibitors enlivened the historic event.
In addition to the immense Galerie des Machines, there were exotic pavilions, restaurants and theatres, ‘Javanese dancers and Egyptian souk’, and a huge American contingent that added a brash and unusual flavour to the event. Buffalo Bill and his ‘colourful crew of cowboys and Sioux Indians, 200 horses and 20 buffalo’, and a petite Annie Oakley and her sharp shooting, brought a slice of the wild west to Paris.
Back at the Eiffel tower, we were at the tower’s entrance, when we saw some pretty young things, excitedly discussing a Hindi movie that featured the building and actors Salman Khan and Asin. After a bit of wait, we were ushered into the double-decker elevator. At each level visitors went gaga over the amazing views of the well-laid out city with cries of ‘O Mon dieu!
Yes, below and around us the Seine flowed serenely, the gardens and fountains sparkled, and elegant old buildings and modernistic buildings receded from view. There may be several ways to admire the city’s charming panorama. On a windy day, hurtling skyward in the Eiffel Tower is an unbeatable experience.