Move over Eiffel Tower. The Millau viaduct, in the southern French department of Aveyron, is taller, newer and more spectacular. Bridget Martin takes a trip across it.
It looks like a piece of embroidery – a strip of ribbon, pierced by seven slim needles threaded with multiple strands of gossamer. Stretched across a valley in southern France, however, this is no embroidery – or even a piece of sculpture – but a 290,000 tonne bridge.
At 245m, the Millau viaduct is the highest bridge in the world. The tallest of the supporting piers, at 343m, is about 22m taller than the Eiffel Tower (including the antenna). At 2.5km, it is also the longest of its type.
A connection in the motorway link between Paris and Barcelona, the bridge spans the River Tarn gorge which cuts a deep gash between two plateaus.
Traversing the Tarn valley, before the viaduct was opened in December 2004, involved a lengthy and time-consuming trek down a winding road into the valley, through the town of Millau and up the other side. Now the trip can be done in a matter of minutes. It is said to cut 100km and up to four hours off the trip.
And it is a marvellous spectacle. A nature-lover, I’m not prone to enthusiasm over steel and concrete, but the Millau viaduct has me pretty breathless. We first glimpse the 90m supporting cables, like the rigged masts of seven yachts looming across a field. Then we are, literally, upon it.
The bridge has a slight curve in it, designed to prevent drivers from experiencing a floating feeling. As a passenger, I am mesmerised by the repeating patterns of the central supporting cables as they fold and unfold like ribs of a fan.
Later we drive to the official view point below the bridge and, along with busloads of other sightseers, stand next to the third pylon. No longer ethereal, it is a massive post of concrete.
A strange and distant rumbling draws our attention to the traffic far above our heads. Far below we can see the bridge which the viaduct replaces, now dwarfed by the new edifice.
The viaduct is situated in the department of Aveyron in south central France, an area renowned for its medieval architecture. Ten of the most beautiful villages in France are here but I can only wonder how the judges picked the ten. Every town and village is a picture postcard scene of ancient stone buildings, with traditional sloping roofs of scalloped, fish scale slates.
Two of these villages, Conques and Estaing, are on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.
Walkers, from all over Europe and beyond pass through, symbolic scallop shells dangling from their backpacks. They spend the night in modest pilgrim hostels near to the cathedrals as, day by day, they draw closer to their spiritual goal.
We visit another pilgrimage site of sorts, in Aubrac, in the north-west of the department. It is mid-May and, the snow having melted and the ski season ended, it is time for the local cattle to make the journey to the upland meadows. For a few months they will graze there, providing milk for the wonderful local cheeses.
But first they have to undergo a ritual, the transhumance festival of Aubrac. With flowers and flags entwined around their horns, herd by herd, they are walked into the town square to be paraded in front of judges.
Their milk and cheese is considered, their decorations, coats and behaviour assessed and then they are walked off into the mountains, followed by a crowd of well-wishers (at least as far as the cattle trucks, these days). I haven’t run with the bulls in Pamplona, but I can now say I have walked with the cows in Aubrac.
Averyon is also justifiably famous for its cuisine. Just a few kilometres from the modern marvel of the Millau bridge, is Roquefort, home of the blue cheese. On a guided tour, we descend into deep caves, the only place in the world where conditions are suitable for the transformation of ewe’s milk into the famous cheese.
One challenge of the day is deciding where to eat. The local restaurants are superb, and not particularly expensive.
Most offer a package deal – four or five courses, chosen from an extensive menu – and often serve an extra ‘amuse bouche’, or ‘mouth amuser’ as a taster while you wait for the entrée. The goats’ cheese ice cream and the beetroot sorbet stand out in my memory as among the most outstanding tastes we encountered.
As with so much in the Aveyron, tradition and modernity are flawlessly combined.
Getting There: Air France flies daily from Paris to Rodez, in the centre of Aveyron: www.airfrance.com
Ryan Air operates cheap daily flights to Rodez from Stanstead airport in London: www.ryanair.com Alternatively, take the train from Paris to Clermont Ferrand. Avis car hire is at the station Ph: 13 6333; www.avis.com.au
The Millau viaduct is a 1hr drive from Rodez. Tours to the viaduct leave from Millau – contact the tourism office.
Contact: The Millau tourism office, Ph: 33 (0)5 6560 0242; www.ot-millau.fr The Rodez tourism office, Ph: 33 (0) 5 6575 7677; www.ot-rodez.fr
(c) S.B. Martin