PARIS — The Eiffel Tower celebrated its 120th anniversary last week by turning itself into a giant birthday cake and then exploding. Believe me, it was worth seeing.
And it had nothing to do with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Frankly, if monuments have personality — and this one surely does — the Eiffel Tower wouldn’t be caught dead in a flick like that.
A friend and I were in Paris in time for the tower’s birthday party, which coincided with Bastille Day, July 14, France’s own big birthday bash. It commemorates the start of the French Revolution — the storming of the Bastille Prison by a mob of Paris citizens in 1789 — making it France’s equivalent of Lexington and Concord.
Like our Fourth of July, it’s celebrated all over the country — and in French enclaves all over the world, from New Orleans to Tahiti — but nowhere more than in the capital.
A French flag in the sky
Traditionally, the day starts with a massive military parade down the Champs-Elysees — including jets streaming red, white and blue contrails overhead, making a French flag in the sky — and it ends with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower. Both events draw huge crowds — crowds the size of other people’s whole cities — and that’s on a normal holiday.
The tower’s birthday celebration upped the ante, as did a free concert in front of it that featured Johnny Hallyday, the French equivalent of Elvis. Advance crowd estimates for the concert-fireworks combo ranged from 600,000 to 800,000, and I believe them: There were people spread along every street, lane, quai, bridge and bench with a view, on both banks of the Seine.
In a TV report the day before, the superintendent of the tower justified the birthday party’s cost — something like 500,000 euros (about $700,000). It was worth it, he said, even in this time of economic distress, because such celebrations cheer people up.
It cheered us up, and we weren’t even sad. Or French. But all over Paris we could see signs of that distress. Even on my favorite street, Avenue Mozart, you could tell.
Empty storefronts on Avenue Mozart
Mozart runs along the west edge of the city, from Auteuil north to Passy, through a neighborhood that has always reminded me of Minneapolis’ Kenwood: dignified, upper-class yet understated, refined. But there were empty storefronts on Mozart now, with for-rent signs in their windows, and even — gracious! — a secondhand clothing store. Granted, the clothing was designer-label, but still …
From Mozart, it’s an easy walk to the river, and from there you can see the Tower rising on the farther bank. You can’t not see it: It’s a thousand feet high, including its antenna. Nothing else in Paris comes close. Until 1930, when New York’s Chrysler Building went up, it was the tallest structure in the world.
The fireworks were scheduled for 10:45 p.m. Five hours ahead of time, armed with books, cameras and French pastry, we staked a claim on a riverside bench. And then we waited.
Crowds grew thick around us. A hot-air balloon advertising Air France bobbed up and down in the distance. Bateaux mouches — the Seine’s sightseeing barges — cruised back and forth in front of us and eventually tied up side by side, to give their passengers perfect views of the feu-d’artifice — artificial fire, the French term for fireworks.
As punctual as a French train, the show started exactly at 10:45, with what would have been a finale anywhere else, and went on for the next half hour.
Wild white sparks like a fright wig
Red, white and blue explosions on all sides of the tower. Red, white and blue fountains shooting off the Tower’s flanks. Wild white sparks like a fright wig off the Tower’s crown. And this year’s special novelty, the bougies — 120 electronically controlled gas jets intended to look like giant birthday candles — that flashed choreographed bursts of real flames around the tower’s base.
Then — too suddenly for anyone to make a giant wish — the Tower went dark, as if all the candles had been blown out, and the crowd, including us, began streaming away. Evaporating, actually, thanks to the city’s network of wide radiating boulevards and the famous Metro, its stunningly efficient subway. Within 15 minutes, we were back on Ave. Mozart, walking peacefully home.
By the time we to our hotel, the Tower was back in its normal eveningwear — all-over lighting that makes its brown framework glow like gold — and the blue searchlight in its crown was again spinning slowly over the city.
More to come, as heat finally breaks
The birthday show wasn’t over, though. All week, the weather had been sunny and hot — steamy hot, the way it can be at home this time of year, a way I never thought it could be in Paris.
Two nights after the birthday bash, the hot weather finally broke, and we got another sound-and-light performance. Thunderstorms roared over the city — good old fashioned gully washers, as if Paris was a Midwestern prairie. Lightning bolts lit up the sky, and rain lashed down in curtains, sometimes so heavy that the Tower was obscured and even its piercing searchlight was hard to see.
I was watching this from my hotel-room window when a bolt of lightning, crackling earthward, suddenly shot sideways and struck the Tower in its slender neck. I gasped, expecting fireworks, expecting white sparks to shoot from its head again, expecting it at least to shudder and spark.
But no. The Eiffel Tower looks like lace, but it’s iron lace. All it did was stand there, steady and solid. Its searchlight didn’t even blink.