NOYON, France -- Clouds butted in, traffic jammed and people marred the moment trying to reach 90 million miles with their camera flashes. But when the solar system switched off the lights for showtime, eclipsies from Europe and other darkened lands broke into cheers.
"Exciting, really exciting," Mamiko Makata, 26, said as she walked away smiling after flying from Japan to stand in a muddy field to watch glimpses of moon masking sun obscured by billowing gray thunderheads over northern France.
Her friend, Kazama Yoshimitsu, bundled up $12,000 worth of telescopic cameras and talked about trying again in Madagascar in mid-2001.
"Sure we're disappointed," a Dutch truck driver named Carola Paulusma said, after riding all night to Noyon for a glimpse of a total eclipse, instead of staying home, where a paltry 95 percent of the sun disappeared. "Still," she added, "I wouldn't have missed this."
Visibility was even worse over Land's End, England, where not only the eclipse but also most of the expected million spectators failed to appear. In Germany, motorists raced down the autobahn -- mostly in vain -- to outrun bad weather.
But in Romania skies were blue and clear, and the total eclipse had its longest run there: 2 minutes and 23 seconds. Over Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the highly predictable yet overwhelming celestial event was unblemished.
Everywhere in its swath, the eclipse turned day to night, plunging temperatures within seconds. The Eiffel Tower, its sensor cells fooled, blazed with its own lights.
Millions from the tip of Cornwall to the far reaches of the Indian subcontinent lived separate personal experiences.
While English crowds cracked open beers, priests in remote Indian villages rang temple bells and beat on steel plates to ward off evil.
Across the Islamic crescent, Muslims took shelter in mosques to ask Allah's mercy with special eclipse prayers dating back 15 centuries. Many families stayed inside, even covering their windows with blankets.
"We fear that the sun may never come back," said Samir Qalaji, a 47-year-old Jordanian merchant, on the deserted streets of Amman.
Parisian designer Paco Rabanne also took cover, having insisted for months that on Wednesday the Russian MIR space station would fall on France. Instead, a crowd opened champagne at his Left Bank headquarters for a "survivors' party."
Some eclipsies went to extreme lengths.
The 200 passengers on a special Concorde flight from London's Heathrow airport had the longest look, about 15 minutes, racing the moon's shadow as it moved along at 1,522 miles an hour.
But the food was better in France aboard the Orient Express, at $1,500 a seat, on special run from Paris to Reims, the heart of Champagne.
Noyon, about 60 miles northeast of Paris, was the official headquarters for thousands of professional and amateur astronomers, with special facilities set up by the European Space Agency. Reims, however, went for art and emotion.
Thousands blocked the roads into the city, converging on the imposing cathedral where 35 French kings were crowned, including Charles VII, who was brought to town by Joan of Arc.
While dodging thick clouds, the moon blotted out the sun, and Reims fell silent. Thousands gazed upward, grasping Mylar glasses to their eyes. As the sun beamed again, the voice of American opera diva Jessye Norman carried over the crowd.
From Mousehole in England all the way eastward, the heavenly spectacle brought both loud applause and respectful silence.
The 60-mile-wide "path of totality" crossed some cities, such as Stuttgart in Germany, but mostly it brought waves of tourists to normally forgotten backwaters.
Harput, Turkey, a nearly abandoned outpost that flourished on the Silk Road 4,000 years ago, was suddenly alive with people again. For a few days, its normal population of 150 swelled nearly tenfold.
Suddenly the world discovered Ramnicu Valcea, a Romanian city of 100,000 inhabitants who live mostly in prefabricated gray housing blocks.
Hotels of every sort were booked solid, so people slept in cars. In the forest outside of Noyon, 13 young Frenchmen spent the night 60 feet up, in the branches of a gray poplar, from where they watched the eclipse.
The overall mood was typical in the roped off field at Noyon, an invitation-only gathering of thousands.
Everyone clutched a pair of glasses. Some people nearly came to blows over their special eye protectors as authorities' stocks ran short.
Amateur astronomers fiddled with knobs and high-tech tripods while glancing repeatedly, and nervously, at the sky. When the sun appeared an hour before showtime, a raucous cheer arose. Then the clouds came back.
"We're glad we are here, no matter what," said Javier Preciado, 51, an office administrator who came from Mexico City with five friends and a trunkload of telescopes.
"It is impossible to describe the passion you feel when day turns to night, and nature stands on its head," he said. "Do I feel it most in my head, in my heart? I can't say. I feel it everywhere."
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