Travel: The city of height

Forget the Seine or sidewalk cafes, you get the best views of Paris from above.

The observatory at the top of the Samaritaine department store hasn't changed since I was last there 20 years ago - or for that matter, since it was built in 1926. I clattered up a spiral staircase just wide enough for one person, into a glass and iron bubble like Captain Nemo's conning tower - and climbed out into a heady view of Paris. But this is the city's heart, not head; its arteries and organs radiate out from here as boulevards and grey mansard roofs shading distantly into purple.

La Samaritaine is an archipelagian department store, interlinked by bridges. Alongside, the roof of another Samaritaine building resembles a barge, all riveted lead and battened-down hatches. Beside it pours the petrol- blue Seine, bustling with bateaux mouches.

I remembered a circular ceramic panorama running all the way around the viewing platform, and it is still there, unchanged, disdaining to acknowledge upstarts like the Centre Pompidou, which protrudes like a binful of discarded computer parts a few blocks away. The painted panorama gives names to the spires and tree stumps that surround you - Montmartre, Pere Lachaise, Bois de Boulogne - as well as useful information such as the exact direction and distance of Moscow.

The secrets of the Parisian skyline have a fin de siecle charm, preserved by strict regulations on roof height. Up here, Jules Verne meets Tintin; it is not hard to imagine fleeing villians with mackintosh-clad heros in hot pursuit, clambering across a landscape of skylights, iron ladders and chimney pots.

Mind you, I used to live under one of those pretty mansard roofs - six flights up a urinous staircase - in a chambre de bonne, or "maid's room", under the Eiffel Tower. In summer the flat was so hot under its lead skin that on sunny days you got out by 10am or risked baking alive. The roof inclined at 45 degrees across the room, so that you could only stand up near the door. You did the washing-up kneeling by the sink in an attitude of prayer, or standing with your head sticking out of the sloping window. And the Tower loomed in the sky, a metal mantis.

The Eiffel Tower provides the highest view in Paris. I had not been up there for 20 years, either, and I remembered climbing to the top. Now, you are only allowed to climb to the "first floor", and to do that you have to queue for half an hour at just one of the tower's four corners, and no signs tell you which one it is and, when after trying the shut and shuttered Information Point you ask in the shops for help, haughty Frenchwomen wrapped in tatty foxfurs scream at you like caricature concierges from a Forties film.

But when you start to climb into that iron vortex - ah! Elegantly flung iron beams cartwheel around you, a Futurist painting come to life. How satisfying it is to work for the reward of seeing Paris fall away from you, how superior you feel to those whose need for instant gratification impelled them into the lift. Then you reach the first floor, and have to join them for a 30-minute scrum to get into the lift to the top.

Parisians tend to despise the Tower, scorning the notion of participating in an Italo-Japanese mob just to look at their own city. Gastronomes with large credit limits have an alternative: the Jules Verne restaurant on the first floor has a private lift.

But the view from the top is magical. It is not so much a bird's-eye view as a pilot's view from the gondola of an airship. For this chamber of iron plate and plate glass is the apotheosis of an epoch. A sequence of posters shows the Tower's involvement in everything from wireless telegraphy to air races, and there is an exhibition of magnificent ancient aero engines. You are enveloped by an age when technology was unambiguously for the moral and material Progress of Mankind.

The latest Parisian high is at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Its top-floor deck provides a restaurant and open-air cafe with fine views across the Seine to the south-eastern elevation of Notre Dame. The building represents a contemporary Gallic aesthetic; its southern facade Islamically eschews figurative decoration, and opts for a geometric pattern made from thousands of electrical motors sandwiched between plate glass. The entire wall is a living optic, its irises forever expanding and contracting to regulate the ingress of light, and so the inside temperature. Alas - according to an architect friend of mine - the cost of servicing all those little motors is beyond the limited budget of the Institut, and the eyes are frozen in mid-squint, gathering oily fur.

From the Institut, I crossed the Seine to climb the towers of Notre Dame. The gargoyle-framed views are marvellously evocative and here, high among medieval timbers, the guide invites you to do a Charles Laughton and bong one of Quasimodo's babies. "Jacqueline, Gabrielle, Thibauld, Marie!" The bells, the bells!

The weekend's penultimate Parisian high was Montmartre's Basilica of the Sacred Heart. I vividly recalled my last visit here: the newly installed Pope John Paul, engaged in his phenomenal world rock tour, visited Paris to uplift the masses in Montmartre. And I - no Catholic, but seduced by his pop-star appeal - clawed my way to the front of the crowd. In our thousands we basked in his charisma, and exhortatory platitudes rang out across the night-time roofs of Paris.

Now, it was twinkling night-time again, and too late to climb up into that oddly elongated cupola.

The Parachou restaurant provided a fittingly climactic view across the city, so seductive that time flew and suddenly I was late for the Eurostar.

I ran down through empty, curving cobbled streets until I managed to hail a cab in seedy Pigalle ( I once lived here, too, in a street of satin- frocked transvestite prostitutes). Most taxi drivers love to be asked to drive like hell. As the car screeched around comers and drove the wrong way down one-way streets, I experienced the weekend's last, and most adrenal high.

The Dorling Kindersley Paris guide is good on views. `Park Mode d'Emploi/ Users Guide', free from the Office de Tourisme de Paris, is also informative

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect