Tue, Jan 27, 2009 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE : The Eiffel Tower that tourists never get to see


Electricians Henri Pellier, center, and Eric Auzelles, bottom left, work atop the Eiffel tower in Paris on Oct. 29 last year. To change a bulb on one of the 360 spotlights that illuminate the tower at night, specially trained technicians work in pairs, using mountain-climbing gear.


A model of refined simplicity on the outside, the iron lady that symbolizes Paris is a complicated piece of work inside her elegant A-line figure.

Custom-fitted pumps, heaters and long-life bulbs keep the 119-year-old Eiffel Tower working and sparkling, while industrial-sized cogs, gears and cables spin, bump, grind and purr deep inside the structure’s innards, in places no tourists see.

Caring for the monument’s hidden core is a daunting, sometimes dangerous task that goes on out of sight but keeps the tower looking its picture-postcard best. More than 500 people — from welders and plumbers to security guards and cooks — work within the structure.

“It’s a village here, full of life and very specific life forms,” said Yves Camaret, technical director of the company that runs the tower, as he led reporters on a tour of its many no-go areas.

Cavernous basements tucked beneath the tower’s legs house massive, hydraulic motors that power the two visitors’ elevators.

Descending the spiral staircase into the fosse, or pit, is like stealing onto the set of Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 vision of industrial society. Oversized cogs spin slowly, gears painted vibrant primary colors chug, and metal cables with the circumference of a dessert plate uncoil and recoil like anacondas.

A 4,000-liter tank full of water, which was once pumped in from the nearby Seine, provides the counterbalance needed to hoist the roughly 18,000 visitors per day up to the 115m high second-level landing.

The motor’s myriad clanking parts need frequent oiling, and workers inspect them daily. Even a short, half-hour breakdown of one elevator can double the lines of visitors.

The City of Paris owns the tower, which made more than 1.4 million euros (US$1.8 million) in 2007. The money goes back to its shareholders, which include the City of Paris.

It draws around 7 million visitors annually, making it one of the world’s top tourist attractions and a potential target for terrorists, though so far only in fantasy, as in the 1980 movie Superman II.

“It’s a symbol, therefore it’s a target,” Camaret said.

The tower’s security detail is “extensive,” he said, declining to give details.

Guards also have to watch for suicides — one jumper a year on average, Camaret said. The last was a man who leaped to his death early last year, he said.

Designed by the tower’s architect and namesake, Gustave Eiffel, the visitors’ elevators were installed in 1899 — 10 years after the tower opened. Together with the more modern elevators that go up to the 276m high summit observation deck, they travel more than 99,775km up and down each year.

The wear and tear takes its toll. A restoration is under way to replace all the pieces of one of the aging hydraulic motors.

Exact copies of each and every original gear, wheel and screw are being cast in foundries in France and Germany, for 20 million euros, said Eric Trahand from the elevator maintenance team.

Aside from visitors, everything else goes up and down on a modern electric elevator.

From knickknacks on sale in the gift shop to baguettes and bubbly served in the restaurants — celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse’s chic Jules Verne and the casual Altitude 95 — everything goes through X-ray machines. They are then packed into sealed containers, like padlocked refrigerators on wheels, for the trip into the sky.

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