PARIS -- It's a view of Paris that only a handful of people have seen in 500 years.
The Tour Saint-Jacques, a Gothic bell tower in central Paris, opened to the public last month for the first time since it was built in the early 16th century.
Only a limited number of lucky Parisians and tourists will get the chance to admire the vast panorama of the French capital's skyline from the 177-foot (54-meter) tower's roof: It's open for guided tours only three days a week until Sept. 15.
The City of Paris completed a 8.3-million-euro ($11 million), three-year renovation of the dilapidated limestone tower in 2009. It has remained closed until now as city architects debated how best to make the cramped, dizzying space safe for visitors.
The tower once was part of a 13th-century church, Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, which was torn down during the French Revolution. The tower was kept not only because of its architectural significance as one of the city's best examples of the flamboyant Gothic style, but also because its great height made it the perfect spot to station observers who kept an eye out for fires, explained Laurence Fouqueray, a top architect in Paris' cultural and historic buildings office.
Today picnickers lounge in the small square that surrounds the tower, on the rue de Rivoli, just steps from the Hotel de Ville and across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral.
Guided tours are held Friday through Sunday, every hour between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Visits are limited to 17 people at a time, and children under 10 are not allowed. Visitors must arrive by 9 a.m. on the day they want to see the tower and reserve a place for one of the eight daily tours, which cost 6 euros a person. They've been selling out since the tower opened on July 5, Fouqueray says.
The Tour Saint Jacques In Photos. Story continues after the gallery.
Turning the tower into a year-round tourist attraction would require additional renovations, such as building higher safety railings at the top, which would detract from the tower's unique atmosphere. "It wouldn't have the same feeling,'' Fouqueray says. Opening the tower to only small groups for a few months of the year gets around this problem, but it has yet to be decided whether the experience will be renewed in future years.
The climb to the tower's roof is a strenuous hike up 300 steps in a dark, narrow spiralling staircase that can leave a visitor sweaty and dizzy.
But the view from up top is worth the effort.
Virtually every Paris monument can be spied in a stunning 360-degree panorama that takes in the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower and the Opera de Paris. The grey roofs of Paris stretch to the horizon, and boats slowly navigating the Seine look like toys.
"It's a sparrow's-eye view from up here,'' Fouqueray says, pointing out the other 16th-century monuments nearby like the Saint Merri, Saint Eustache and Saint Germain l'Auxerrois churches.
The project was led by Jean-Francois Lagneau, a top architect of historic monuments in Paris. Around 30 people worked on the restoration, including stone cutters, sculptors, carpenters and glass makers.
On the tower's roof are numerous gargoyles and five large statues: Saint Jacques, the tallest, looks out over Paris to the northwest, while at the other corners are a lion, a bull and an eagle, symbols of the gospels.
After the French Revolution, the tower's bells were melted down for their metal. They haven't been replaced. The tower has been the site of a number of unusual occupations over the centuries: Renaissance mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal used the tower for scientific experiments in the 17th century, an ammunition manufacturer set up inside in the early 19th century, and a national weather station occupied the tower's heights from the late 19th century until early this century -- making it off-limits to the public.
Fouqueray says one of the biggest difficulties restorers faced was evicting the hundreds of pigeons, and their waste, that had taken up residence in the tower's lofty heights.
"I needed a mask the first time I came in here,'' she says.
Fouqueray has been a city architect for over 25 years. She also worked on the recently finished renovations of the Saint Paul church in the Marais. But she calls the Saint-Jacques tower "the greatest restoration in my memory.''
"Each stone is a decision in a renovation like this,'' Fouqueray says, before starting the dizzying climb back down to the Paris street.