To give you an example of how much more magical my life suddenly became when I decided to write a guidebook to Paris for families, I’ll tell you a little bit about our before and after the guidebook-project visits to a place some of you may have already visited: The Eiffel Tower. Before, I visited like a tourist. After, I learned the tricks and visited like a professional Parisian.
Before I begin, I must confess to you that I have visited the Eiffel Tower a scandalous number of times.
Even before I decided to really make the most of every moment of life and “go with the flow”, I had already visited the Eiffel Tower an unreasonable number of times. A few of those visits stand out in my memory. They were the quintessence of tourism at the height of banality and depths of its worst.
Of course I remember the first time. The first time you visit Paris, seeing the Eiffel Tower feels like a “must do” and the anticipation of seeing the iconic structure with your own eyes and ascending it yourself… well the anticipation is huge and the expectations are high. For my “first time”, I went on my own as a poor college student. The lines to buy tickets and to ascend the tower were longer than long. So, I opted to take the stairs to the second floor because it was a far less popular and cheaper option. On the first floor, I delighted at the bird’s eye view over the long snaking lines of ticket buyers below. On the second floor I was swept away by the panoramic rooftop views and regretted I didn’t know what most of the buildings were. I probably felt mildly disappointed that I didn’t get to the very tippy top of the structure.
My first visit to the top came many years later and it is also particularly memorable. I went to the top with my mother and her husband when they were visiting for my wedding. The lines were even longer than I remembered and the anticipation even greater… we waited for over an hour in line to mount the world’s most famous structure. We’d see all of Paris! It would be glorious! We’d be on top of the world! And when we finally rode the elevator to the second floor and waited in yet another long line for yet another long time… I was ready to burst. So when I finally found myself there, in the flesh, at the top of the Eiffel Tower, me… well, the experience met absolutely none of my expectations. We shuffled around the cramped enclosed space darting to small unoccupied spaces whenever they became briefly available to strain to see the city through the thick windows scratched and hazy from the touch of thousands of sightseers. The buildings below appeared small and the distance obscured their delightful architectural flourishes. In short, it was a bust.
On another more eventful occasion, I took my grandmother who was afraid of heights to the Tower. She was pleased to simply gaze up from the ground. We combined the visit with a sightseeing boat on which I had my wallet stolen. If you are ever want to put your mettle to the test, try convincing a Parisian taxi driver to take you across the city to a hotel with no money! Trust me, you’ve never experienced elation until you’ve managed that feat!
Once I was married, my husband and I started combining our myriad guests’ excursions to the Tower with a homemade picnic on the lawn below Eiffel’s fabled structure. The funny and unfortunate thing about visiting the Tower is that, once you are on it, you can’t see it. And surprisingly, there are virtually no restaurants or cafes in the vicinity with good views of the tower. So, a picnic is the perfect solution.
And it got even better the time when I scaled the Tower on foot while heavily pregnant with my second son with some friends from the States. Forget about making a picnic, I was having enough trouble taking care of my first child while waddling around like a duck. On the Tower the restaurants were too expensive, so we had lunch at an even more expensive tourist trap in the surrounding neighborhood. There was a stunning view of the lush trees that curtain the sky just perfectly to hide the Tower and yet the prices still reflected the viewless choice location. The server charitably charged our friends a dollar for a side order of ketchup and mustard and then refused to correct the receipt when we pointed out their “mistake”. (Let’s just say one of us took a souvenir beer glass from the restaurant to reciprocate their honesty.)
Some of these stories probably sound familiar for those of you who have been there yourselves. I suspect it is almost a traveler’s right of passage.
In a word, my “before” visits to the Tower sucked.
When visitors announced with glee that they wanted to visit the Eiffel Tower, my response had become the bored resignation of a worker drearily doing her duty. But no more…
“After” my changed outlook on life; the trips to the Eiffel Tower took on an entirely new dimension. I’d been going to Paris long enough to know some of the city’s secrets and I’d taken on a more Parisian approach to things. Visiting the Tower like a Parisian is an entirely more mellow and more magical experience. Armed with low expectations and a disdain for lines, I’ve learned to make the most of the day and really savor the finest aspects of the visit.
I know ascending the Tower itself is not “the event” of the day though people tend to think it will be… so I no longer make trips there just to go up the Tower. The real pleasure is in every moment spent in anticipation of the ascent through the build up and concluding with the moments spent lingering after the descent. There really is something about just being around the thing you’ve seen in pictures your whole life.
I now know which means of transportation will afford my guests glimpses of the tower as we approach… which heightens the thrill of anticipation.
And yet, I prefer to arrive at one of two metro stations a couple blocks away from the Eiffel Tower. Because, I can make the experience even more magical when we surface in one of two special places where we can buy things for our picnic: either on a permanent market street where we can pick up some of the most delightful freshly made and grilled sausages from an old fashioned butcher shop; or, if it is the right day, on a street with a weekly outdoor market where we can choose from all sorts of sumptuous freshly made foods and fruits. If it happens to be a day with no market and when the butcher is closed, I have a third option up my sleeve… I like to go to a belle-epoque café to get sandwiches and pastries amid the elegant light fixtures and cloudy mirrors of yesterday’s Paris.
If I’m with children, I like to plan the trip for a day when there is a children’s workshop in the neighboring art museum so we adults can either enjoy the museum, the neighborhood or the market a bit on our own while the children have an enriching cultural experience.
And all that is before the Tower!
When it comes to the “main event” of ascending the Tower, I recommend we focus on the second platform with its fabulous views.
(If my guests want to see a cloud-level view of the city I like to shock them with the outrageous and unexpected suggestion that we mount the hideous Montparnasse skyscraper. It is one of Paris’ better kept secrets: The Montparnasse skyscraper (otherwise known as a blight to the Parisian skyline) has a really large viewing platform that is open to the sky, shorter lines…and you can even see the Eiffel Tower from the top!).
I know I still haven’t told you how I got my tour company off the ground, but these days, I have several tours that include the Eiffel Tower most notably the one I call “The Quintessential Paris Sojourn“. I indulge some of my tour company’s guests with a lavish meal at the luxury restaurant at the top of the tower which enables us to take a private elevator to the top where there are no lines and a much more relaxing and comfortable extended stay at the top. Other guests of my boutique tour company get a fabulous private tour of the “behind the scenes” side of the Tower that enables them to skip the lines and stand on the rooftop of the second floor restaurant! The launch of the company was a long process… I promise I’m getting to it in some soon to come blog posts!
Regardless who I’m with, on private trips I like to skip the lines too: depending on the preference of my guests we buy our tickets in advance online for a set time in the elevator or we take the stairs to the second platform because the lines are always shorter.
To get even more out of the experience, I let my guests know in advance that they can send post cards and letters from a post office at the Tower that will bear a special stamp.
Once we’ve enjoyed the views from the Tower, we can really savor the experience of being there with the satisfaction of the ascent complete. I don’t leave the area. A visit to the tower for me, now, means a full day in the area spent in the spirit of the World Fair meanderers that it was originally designed to awe.
If I’m with children, I may suggest taking the kids to one of several elaborate children’s playgrounds hidden just under the Tower (That’s right! It turns out that the Parisians have hidden lots of marvelous playgrounds for children across the city, and I’m on to their secret! I know all the right hedges and stone walls where the children’s treasures are discretely concealed from the wanton eyes of tourists. The city turns out to be a treasure trove of places to climb and slide, run and romp and play. When you know where to look). With antique-lovers and history-buffs, I like to go to the nearby antique dealers. With others I suggest strolling along the river to the museum full of world treasures probably collected during France’s recent colonial era. Or, perhaps we’ll just go for espresso at the only café with a spectacular view of the tower which is in such an obvious yet unexpected location that most tourists never see it because it is right in front of their noses. (That is my favorite thing to do. I love just sitting and looking at the Tower from the terrace.)
In other words, my “after” trips to the Eiffel Tower became full day excursions during which I savor every moment of the trip and have the flexibility to adapt the trip to the particular needs of the specific group I’m with. “Before” visits to the tower had become a monotonous drudgery, “after” visits are always a bit different and I enjoy every moment… ah Paris, it can be a real slice of heaven (when you avoid the lines, the cheating waiters and the pickpockets! 😉 )