Jacques of all trades

In my various digital meanderings, I recently stumbled upon the word ‘multipotentialite’, a newly coined term to describe someone with a variety of interests in life, an explorer of multiple fields, a person with not merely one single identity. Gone are expectations of a career for life, with change and progression being the modern religion. But whether multitasking is the future or a plague upon all our houses, there’s one building in town that is as ‘multipotentialite’ as they come, putting the rest of us ‘do-it-all’ disciples quite to shame.

When it comes to towers, Paris can hardly claim a world-renowned collection of cloud-touching skyscrapers, though the Eiffel Tower wins a top ranking on the global list, despite the fact that many Parisians aren’t its biggest fans. Its tallest offering, the Tour Montparnasse, is great for checking out the views of the city with the Eiffel Tower actually in it, though it missed the boat entirely in the style stakes (a product of the 70s, so hardly avoidable), some cruelly dubbing it when it first appeared ‘the box that the Eiffel Tower came in’. Ouch.

But cast your eyes centre-ward dear readers, and you’ll find an elaborate tower-like specimen that puts the other two to shame with its colourful history and the ability to multitask like a champ. And guess what? It wasn’t ever intended to be an independent tower at all, and only allowed visitors to start scaling her heights in recent years, a mere five centuries after her creation. Who said it takes forever to get anything done in this town?

Located on the corner of the huge central traffic artery that is the rue de Rivoli, and rue Nicolas Flamel, the 62m tall Tour Saint-Jacques was originally part of the larger church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, completed in 1523. Standing proud as a meeting point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the church also served as an important meat-ing point (once a punner, always a punner) given its location next to the market quarter of Les Halles, the stomping ground of its wealthy butcher patrons, their deep pockets responsible for its ornate mouldings and decoration.

The French revolution soon put the brakes on nearly 300 years of devoted worship, and the church was torn down in the late 18th century to make use of its stone, though the tower was spared perhaps for its flamboyant Gothic beauty or usefulness as a vantage point. By 1824 it had lost its bells and was being used as an ammunition factory making lead shot (and you can’t get a more dramatic transition than from peace to war) and after being reclaimed by the city of Paris soon after, was declared a historic monument in 1862.

Further beautification occurred in the decades that immediately followed, largely instigated by architect Théodore Ballu, who quite literally placed the tower on a pedestal, to retain its height. Various gargoyles and embellishments were added, plus a statue of Saint Jacques (Saint James the apostle, its patron) placed on top, and a second statue of Blaise Pascal was added to the base to commemorate the period in the 16th century in which the renowned mathematician and physicist used the tower, still then part of the church, as a laboratory to perform experiments on atmospheric pressure. Bringing together the spheres of religion and science? Multitasking gold.

Hosting a meteorological station up until the 1990s, the tower saw in the millennium with little sense of purpose (though with a new title at least, being named as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998), until in 2000 restoration began in earnest, seeing the tower cloaked in sheeting as it underwent a monumental scrub down. Her new modern beauty was unveiled in 2009, and in 2012, she opened her doors to the public, meaning that (in the summer months at least, and by appointment) you can scale the 300 steps to her summit and make yourself dizzy with her 360° views, and fascinatingly chequered past. And you’re probably best off the ground too given the surrounding park’s (well, more a park-lette) reputation as a hangout spot for inner city rats. You have been warned…

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The Bike-ly Lads

Kim Tour 4Summer – the season of floaty dresses, floral prints, tailored shorts, and as seems to be the trend in France, er Lycra. And not just any old Lycra; Lycra so tight it’ll show every contour and so bright it’s a good thing it’s also the sunglasses season. You haven’t seen such fashion specimens amongst the July crowds? That’s ‘cos you’re looking in the wrong place. Take your eyes off the human traffic on the pavements and cast your gaze into the road. That slender chap peddling like his life depends on it can only mean one thing – Tour de France fever is here.

For approximately one month of the year, here the bike is king. It’s dusted off and rescued from the garage and the official Lycra kit (with go-faster stripes if you must) is dug out from the depths of the wardrobe, and hard saddle and padded shorts are reunited once again – all in honour of the biggest sporting event in the world (with more viewers worldwide than even the Olympics) the three-week cycling roadshow that is the Tour de France. Or being terribly French about it, simply ‘Le Tour’.

My own understated Tour effort

My own understated Tour effort

And what an impossibly challenging beast it is, both understanding the rules and putting yourself through it. Allow me to help with the former. 3 weeks, 198 riders, 22 teams, 21 stages in 3 countries (this year anyhow, usually it’s only 2), with 4 colours of snazzy shirts for the winners to wear – yellow for the overall winner, green for best sprinter, white for best youngest rider, and white with red polka dots for the best climber. Some of the riders aren’t even there to win, but are merely domestiques or maids, simply there to make sure the lead rider in the team is aptly fed and watered. They’ll even swap bikes with him if he knackers his. How gentlemanly.

The route winds around France with a stage every day (covering 3,360km in total), taking in flat terrain, treacherous cobble-stoned villages, luscious countryside and evil mountains, plus a couple of time trials for extra variation. Anyone worth their sel de guerande as a Frenchman or cycle enthusiast piles onto the side of the road to wave them on, even if this involves waiting for a good few hours to see the peleton (main pack of riders) whizz past in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it two seconds at breakneck speeds.

248398_10150232286151685_3611686_n (2)The capital has traditionally played host to the last stage since 1985 and the weary riders roll into town on the 26th July for the final parade lap where they ride a circuit up and down the Champs-Élysées, by the Louvre, along the Rue de Rivoli and across the Place de la Concorde (don’t worry, they do it nine times, so it’s more than worth it). Seeing an aerial view of the beautiful city on TV or soaking up the atmosphere amongst the crowds is the day my heart bursts most with pride at being able to call Paris home. Usually the race is already decided by the time they arrive as the last week is packed with gruelling mountain stages that really sort the men out from the boys, but occasionally if there’s only seconds between the top two (astounding to think after three weeks’ racing), the race is on.

Kim Tour 2This year there’s almost no chance at all of a French victor (the last was Bernard ‘The Badger’ Hinault in 1985), but chances are good for the UK (Froome), USA (Van Garderen), Spain (Contador), or Columbia (Quintana). Time to dig out that flag. If it’s not grabbing you so far then at least appreciate the utter insanity of the challenge. These dudes are amongst the fittest – and craziest – in the world. Last year hot favourite Contador fell then rode 15km up a mountain with a broken leg before pulling out. Forget Magic Mike, this is a chance to wonder at physical magnificence atop magic bikes.

If you’re keen to check it out, just remember to take something to stand on – gazing at the backs of strangers does not a sporting event make. Recreating the action on a Vélib strictly discouraged…. For more info and standings check out http://www.letour.fr (English version available).