Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Pilgrimage of 300 Steps

It's appropriate that I'm using this photo of the Tour Saint-Jacques that I took a year ago, rather than the ones I took on that hazy morning in Paris less than two weeks ago, because the tower itself is built on the past, as almost everything is here. In the 11th century there was a church in that square, one that became the church of Saint-Jacques of the Butcher Shops (de la Boucherie), because there were so many in the area. The Butcher's Guild paid for the first bell to be installed in the old church in the 13th century. The current tower was rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century and it and the church continued to serve as the starting point for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela, and as one of the waystops for those who had started out from further north and/or east. It's still an important point for people on that journey. Where I am right now is also on one of the main routes running from Paris across the Spanish border; I've already had two people ask me, upon seeing my (small) backpack, if I was on a pilgrimage, and when I was coming back from Oloron-Sainte-Marie the other evening, there were two separate groups with (large) backpacks in the train station, one headed north and the other south.

I had the incredible luck to be in Paris during the few days that the tower was open to visitors this summer, for the first time in centuries, and perhaps (due to financial and liability concerns) the last. The church isn't there any more, as it was torn down and sold for stone after the Revolution, but the tower was preserved because it was a good lookout point for fire officials and weather watchers. The City of Paris bought the tower in 1836 and restoration of the tower started a decade or so later, when the officials decided to turn it into the centerpiece of one of the first public parks in Paris. However, it's never really been open to the public until this year. Major restoration work has been going on since 2006, and a local historical society worked with the City this year to open up the tower to a limited number of visitors this year, since the tower is fairly stable at this point, inside and out. However, due to safety considerations, the narrowness of the stairs and the tower roofspace, and the need to not stress the fragile 500-year-old structure, it was decided that only 17 people could be in the tower at once, and only one tour would be given each hour, for only three days a week, for only three months.

Our guides, David (with the drawing) from the historical society and another guy specializing in architecture whose name I don't remember but who had a Spanish accent led us up the narrow steep stairs, the escalier en colimaçon that spirals up 300 steps and 16 stories; colimaçon is the old French word for "snail." The staircase was barely wide enough for one person, worn down in the middle a bit, and someone had put rope railings along one side. "Accès déconseillé aux personnes claustrophobes," the official website says, "ou sujettes au vertige," adding that anyone wanting to make the climb had better be in "une bonne condition physique."

But it wasn't that difficult a climb. We stopped twice along the way, once about two flights up to look at some of the old stonework and statues that had been removed to be replaced with newer material, and for a discussion of how the limestone used to build them originally was very easy to carve, but also very susceptible to modern pollution. We stopped again about six flights up to peer around the former workspace of scientists (rumor has it that Blaise Pascal was one of them, but apparently that was just rumor) and meteorologists, and looked up at where the bells used to hang (they were melted down for metal, when the church was sold piece by piece). And then we kept going up.

And then we were at the top, and Paris spread out around us in the morning that was becoming more clear as the sun rose higher (I had arrived at the square at 7am and so got in the last space available for the first tour at 10am). I sat down for a minute on the raised edge of the tower roof to dispel the dizziness from going around and around and around, and to get used to being up that high, out in the open without much of a ledge or many handholds.

I had thought of going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower because that's something I've never done, but when I was talking to another woman and admitting my sense of vertigo at being up there, even on a solid rooftop, she said I probably wouldn't like being up on the top of the Tour Eiffel at all, because the floor is steel mesh. I think she's right.

The statue of Saint Jacques stands watch at the top, looking towards the north (not the southwest and Santiago de Compostela, interestingly), and the representatives of the Gospels surround him on each corner: Matthew the angel, Mark the lion, Luke the bull, and John the eagle. Lead-lined gargoyles roar waterfalls down onto the streets below, and if it had been raining we wouldn't have been able to go up there.

The 17 of us could have stayed up there for much longer, looking out over Paris old and new, especially since it was getting clearer and the picture-taking possibilities were improving, but our 50 minutes was up, and we had to go spiraling back down to earth.

Only about 2,000 people got to see Paris from this perspective this year, and I was one of them. They may never open up the tower again. Perhaps I'll make the trip to Santiago de Compostela some day and complete my pilgrimage, or maybe I'll be heading in a different directly entirely in a few weeks. Whatever comes, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to make that small journey up the stairs of the Tour Saint-Jacques, and to share it with you all.

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