Why do we have steps and stairs?
Stairs are a blight on the human condition…well, on those that do not have a strong body at least.
When travelling or simply wandering aimlessly across the landscape here or abroad I seem to confront stairs everywhere. I never noticed them once.
Now, I have discovered that you cannot move without being required to climb, descend, walk along, teeter, slip, slide or wobble your way over, stairs. They are everywhere. Some stairs make you dizzy, others elicit a wheeze; some stifle conversations and most require a heads down and pain filled silence as you surmount this obstacle hoping to see something worthwhile on the other side. I have found stairs in the most darkened of alleys, the most illustrious of promenades and within temples, towers, churches, steeples, castles, museums, hotels and sundry vantage points. The B&B industry of the UK specialises in stairs narrower than one’s suitcase or backpack. Once, in Paris, a hotel, on the Left Bank, offered the option of stairs or an elevator to your room. The elevator was the size of a telephone booth. It could take you or your luggage but not both. The strategy was to fill the elevator with luggage and hightail it up the three flights of stairs to retrieve the luggage. Not good.
Stairs, by and large, are no longer useful.
I once took a group of students to China and the itinerary offered a visit to a memorial built on the side of a mountain. It was at the top of just 800 stairs. In Malaysia there is a religious shrine within a cave – the Batu Cave. Someone forgot to tell us that the cave was up on the side of a hill and required a saunter of 600 steps or more, crowded by zealots and hawkers attempting to sell trinkets with religious enthusiasm. Even the Great Wall of China cannot be walked along without first zigsagging (oops zagging) up flights of stairs to gain access to the top of the wall. The most impressive feature of all of these iconic places was that I reached them in the first place. Stairs do not facilitate, they frighten.
Sometimes the presence of stairs reflects a wicked sense of humour. Once, as a special treat students and I were taken to a temple in Loyang. It was winter and we wore four or five layers of clothing complete with a padded blue Mao jacket and fur trimmed military style hat. The guide offered his ‘foreign friends’ the opportunity to climb the tower –a round tower not unlike a chimneystack but covered with dragons and complex stone patterns. We were promised a great view of the ice-covered landscape. Problem. The group had to climb single file, inside the wall, so narrow were the stairs. Moreover, it soon became apparent that we were in a dark spiral of stairs that wound their way round the edge of this tower, so that at any one time the lead student was some 10-15 metres above, out of sight on the other side of the column and out of earshot. The stairs became narrower and narrower the further we advanced. With five layers of clothing the lead student soon became stuck. She could not advance nor could she retreat because of the folk following her who simply came to a halt waiting patiently for the chance to move forward again. Eventually the entire group came to a halt threaded round the staircase, in the dark, and most incapable of turning round because of the combination of clothing and the confined space. The students could not move forward or back as the latter required negotiation with a series of students behind and out of view. I brought up the rear and was next to useless – a condition I specialize in. Instructions, advice, comment was transmitted by word of mouth from one stuck student to the next until it reached the lead student who in turn relayed a response – most of these responses were unladylike. We only saved ourselves (the guides were smoking in the bus) by walking back down the stairs in reverse – holding hands with stuck student at the front compelled to slowly take off her outer jacket and extricate herself that way. From Loyang to Wuhan that day the bus was very silent. I think the discarded jacket is still in situ. Stairs!!
On another visit to Beijing our guide took us to the old city with its shops, temples and godowns. We were encouraged off the bus and into a shop given over to that most wonderful craft of tailoring. There were bolts of cloth in serried ranks for us to admire. The host went behind the counter and drew back a green curtain to reveal a very sophisticated electrical switchboard. He pulled a lever and the counter slowly slid across the floor with a merry whine of motors to reveal a three metre wide set of marble steps that went steeply down through the basement and underground. We were to descend these steps only to confront a very thick metal door that hissed open with the fresh damp underground air escaping to bathe our faces. These stairs were giving us entry to the underground city of Beijing. The ‘dig tunnels, store grain’ mantra of Mao was translated here as a sophisticated nuclear shelter that could house many thousands of Beijing citizens if ever that city was attacked by their then enemy – Russia. It was a network of steps and stairs. If the Russians did not get you then the winding steep step and stair filled passages would. What a day that was! My students and I were stunned by the complexity of this facility and its many kilometres of passages and stairs. My legs ached, as did my heart at the futility of it all. Stairs can reveal.
Some of the most sacred places visited have so many steps that you soon invoke the good Lord’s name for help as you struggle to reach the apex of stairs that wind, zip, soar and cling to the sides of these edifices. A special treat is to climb up the inside of the dome of the Duomo in Florence. Well, actually you climb up the dome’s exterior surface wedged between the exterior arches and the surface of the dome itself. The higher you go the narrower and more tilted the stairs become – it is like climbing up the outside of a bowl … occasionally, there is a peephole which allows you to peer into the cathedral spread out below you. You are supposed to feel like you are close to heaven. I have news for the folk who wrote the brochure. It was Hell. Great view from the top though!
No visit to the Arc de Triomphe is complete without the vista of the Champs-Élysées only to be revealed by climbing serious steps to reach its top. Little wonder it is called the Arc de Triomphe. You feel triumphant just to get up there with Paris spread out across your wide-angle eyeballs. The French have a Gallic knack with stairs. Have you walked in the streets of Montmartre? Stairs. Here there are even stairs designed to allow cars to climb up and into impossible parking positions. There are stairs to survey Paris from the turrets of Notre Dame. More stairs at the Eiffel Tower. Our apartment in Paris was on the third floor. It was a building that was old in the 18th century when much of Paris was rebuilt. It had a stairway to rival those found at Versailles and they linked the former stables to the level where our apartment was located complete with its own internal set of stairs and steps so that a simple walk from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom required one to climb, teeter and descend on multi occasions each day. Night time movement in search of the toilet was adventurous to say the least.
A brief visit to the Greek islands culminated in climbing on and about Santorini. This scenic relic of a fabled Atlantis built on the edge of a caldera is known for its beauty, its cats, its dogs, fine food and superbly presented whitewashed dwellings punctuated by glorious dashes of blues, pinks and greens on doors, walls and window shutters. This majestic setting is linked by…..steps. There are millions of them running along but mostly up and down the edge of a dormant volcano. The steps end either at water’s edge or in the sky. Santorini is best viewed by helicopter as a day climbing the steps leaves you with blurred focus, sore knees, gross pain in every limb and related muscles. It makes a visit to one of the many local bars mandatory. Perhaps that is the plan.
We have experienced the underground train system in many cities –London, Paris, Montreal, Madrid, Barcelona and New York all noteworthy for the quality and number of ways one can climb stairs. Grand Central Station, NYC, I am sure is only ‘grand’ because of the stairways that guide, sort and funnel commuters into their respective carriages.
The most modern transport systems in the world rely on stairs. Have you ever been in a plane that has landed at some modern centre only to find there is no skybridge? Rather, you are offered a set of stairs built as a tower, made of metal and on wheels. Someone has trundled this monstrosity out to the 400 ton, $500 million dollar aircraft where the final metres of the journey require you to negotiate the hell on wheels that is the rickety set of stairs at the back of the plane. Pure inspired genius. You should get frequent flyer points just for the stairs alone.
Genius is evident too on the ramparts of many castle walls where the stairs are intended to prevent attackers from climbing up walls because they must negotiate the ‘murdering port’ or the stairs. These must have been deadly zones. The same stairs also prevented the defenders from leaving their posts and retreating as the stairs, without balustrades, and as slippery as one can create, represented a greater danger than does the enemy. Stand and fight or face the stairs, might have been the rallying cry.
Stairs, in short, are not good. They can be superb visual statements though. Some allow for the promenade of the beautiful and the powerful people and are positioned in such a way as to ensure that all the lesser mortals may gaze upon the favoured who must negotiate the stairs with aplomb and ceremonial seriousness. Think Vatican, think National Assembly in Habana, think Forbidden City in Beijing or its competing stairs of the Peoples Palace in Tiananmen Square, think Rialto Bridge in Venice or the towers of the Gaudi masterpiece Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Europe is filled with stairs that take you up, down, round, over and through. Each beckons with the promise of an image at the end of the torture.
However, stairs can be convenient places to sit. I sit often. I can recall very satisfying stairs to sit on along the banks of the Seine, the edge of the Thames, the curving pathway of Farm Cove and the last vantage point at Arles when waiting for the bullfight.
Very few stairs are really memorable. These are a necessity built in times past when there was no other option. Much of each day of our recent trip to Europe was spent stair climbing. In fact, you cannot see Europe without steps and stairs. Granada in Andalucía is ‘stair central’ and to visit the Alhambra demands steep, windy walks interspersed with stairs to torment and torture the tourist – particularly those laden with camera gear. Our next photo exploration will be somewhere flat. This is a rite of passage earned and to be celebrated.
There is a lot to recommend a visit to the centre of Australia where one can go for 500-700 kilometres in a day and the only stairs you face are those up, into and out of the truck. A flat land can have its advantages. Europe is for the young. The ancient lands of the Middle East and East Asia are not for the ancients but for the young.
Took me a while to work this out.