A Captured Memory from my Travels
With their rich authority, the tolling of the bells disturbs the birds in their morning constitutionals. They scatter, but not as far as you might imagine given the divine, tonal sound that echoes grandly off the surrounding buildings. In fact, they return to their business in the blink of an eye, their ebony coats glistening in the morning sun in contrast to the congealed worm they devour for breakfast. They are used to this majestic sound, which reverberates and refracts around the locale. Perhaps more surprising is that they are accustomed to the throng of human traffic on their island home, the flux of tourists and the multitude of tongues milling around like bees at a honey pot, attracted by the saccharine scent.
And the bustle is a constant at the foot of this gothic and glorious site. Like ants around an ice-lolly, all walks of life gaze furiously up at the intricate detail that adorns the sublime structure, desperate to consume every last inch of its height, its mysteries. And like ants, they form lines, neat and tidy, as they know they must, in order to achieve their undertaking. Some wait with foot tapping eagerness that borders on impatience, others, just content to be there, lose themselves in the guidebook or in watching Style and Romance walk hand-in-hand down the road in the hazy form of a Parisian couple. They gaze around the milieu, absorbing the hum of traffic; the murmurings of excitement that magically sound the same in all languages. They allow the smell of freshly baked croissant to entertain their nostrils as it flitters through the air on a mid-March breeze.
Then, the shuffle forward with craned necks towards the entrance, eager to begin their assent up the cool, uneven staircase, one unique and revealing step at a time. They’ve come here for this: to climb, to marvel down on Paris from the caved platform, to look down on the world from a vertiginous height. A whip of cold air, a gasp of delight, as my moment arrives: Is there anything more delightful than a breath taking view?
A reflection born in this moment:
But Quasimodo’s gargoyle-d home is only one amongst many in the tally of lofty elevations we take ourselves to when we are bitten by a bout of wanderlust. This thought, in a breezier and briefer construction, presented itself to me as we climbed down to rejoin the birds. Feet, condemned to swelling, sweating and ultimately that glorious pulsating sensation that can only be earned by pounding the pavements, do not just cover the free city map’s horizontal miles. No, fatigue is won also by the steps we overcome, the spirals we spin, the stalwart of any city trip: gaining a view from on high.
Notre-Dame is, of course, not Paris’s ultimate height. There is the world famous peak with its contestable beauty and undisputed status as landmark. And this is certainly not just a Parisian phenomena. You only need look as far as the Hexagone’s neighbours to find more ants around a biscuit packet, all ready, long-zoom lenses on standby, to take to the giddy summit of some skyline-dominating structure or other. London has its architecture – the Shard, the Gurkin, the BT tower, all of which offer any visitor a Gulliver’s view of the world. Berlin is not to be outdone, and Alexanderplatz’s TV transmitter definitely wins in terms of monikers. (Pick which you prefer: The Pope’s Revenge or Ulbricht’s last erection.)
I’ve hit upon my three favourite capitals, but the place is not really what matters here; it is the occasions they witness and allow. There is an obsession with height, with queuing, sometimes for hours, to ascend dark and narrow stairways that leave you breathless and with thighs pulled taught as elastics in a child’s ponytail; an obsession that has the capacity for a peculiar irony.
City dweller or country lover, visitor or local, so often we scale world famous landmarks in order to situate ourselves in the sole place where a particularly marvellous site cannot be admired. Think of the lines that form at the foot of altitudinous places. Consider, where is one place in Paris where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower?
Do we scale and climb because we are searching for something, because we see a challenge or a potential for achievement?
Power can be found up high, we are master of the city, and can hold our heads back and, with cackling supremacy, laugh at the little man going about his daily life. Never has the possibility to look down our noses at someone been so easily realised. The aching in our lungs is testimony to our ability to achieve. We conquer and rule, ticket stub still in hand, five Euros for five minutes of sovereignty.
And so the opposite holds true. Perspective is found at the top of the tower or exit of the lift. Our problems shrink in proportion with the size of the scene below, our significance is diminished, as we know we must return to the world where we belong. Reflection is the order of the day, our sense of scale re-qualified, our ability to overcome re-instated by the breathtaking snapshot of humankind.
Whether we bathe in our power or welcome our vulnerability, we also secure another discovery. Potential. The world is infinite, not every nook and cranny can be unearthed and revealed to us. Yet, consider how many boulangeries you can look down on from the top of The Tower. Allow your senses to combine the smell of a hundred bakeries each with their unique and whimsical charm. Become reflective, speed to the top of the Fernsehturm and meditate on the moments in history you are witnessing: the battle of Berlin is an apparent stone’s throw away. The wall, which will forever dent that city, encircles you. See where books were burnt, where armies marched, died, celebrated victory – and that’s only allowing your eyes to explore the last one hundred years.
Urban tapestries capture your imagination and height allows man a moment of clarity. The air is cooler, our senses heightened. The sound of life appears muffled and distant, taking its time to reach you, in your almost untouchable stance. The edge challenges you to step closer, to face reality and look across to the boundary of your sight. You can look down on your much loved home, a well-visited metropolis or an urban creation, just waiting to be discovered. You can wonder before your wander. You can connect the dots and see where you’ve been, or where you are going.
Getting high in the city – where will you climb?