High in the South of France
Sunday, September 2, 2007
We arrived outside Millau, France, at night, and the scene looked as if it had been designed for a Peter Jackson movie.
I drove with my wife and 12-year-old son down the steep, zigzagging roads of the Tarn Valley. Under the moonlight I could make out the rough outlines of cliffs and the profiles of small medieval villages. Then, what came into view in the distance made us catch our breath: A series of pointed towers -- looking like totems from another world and lighted a brilliant white -- seemed to be floating in the night sky.
"Whooooooooa," was our collective reaction.
The bridge is like that.
We had come to this part of the French Aveyron (considered a crossroads of southwest France, Languedoc and the Massif Central) not for the countryside of high sheep-farming plateaus and vibrant green valleys, not for the dramatic mountain gorges, not for the medieval chateaux, not even for one of the world's most famous cheeses.
We had come for the bridge.
The bridge is the Millau Viaduct, inaugurated in December 2004 as part of the Paris-Barcelona highway connecting central France with the southwest and Spain. It is part of a new generation of streamlined, cable-stayed bridges. It also happens to be -- at about 1,125 feet at its highest point -- the tallest bridge in the world, taller than the Eiffel Tower. Although it is not as visited a landmark as the tower, the bridge has developed an enthusiastic following. Its metalwork was done by Eiffel Construction, descended from Gustave Eiffel's own 19th-century engineering company. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to gawk at what's been called one of the world's modern wonders.
We awoke Saturday morning to a view of the bridge from the window of our hotel, a 12th-century chateau in nearby Creissels. The upper towers -- narrow inverted V shapes that support the strands of cabling, angled downward like taut piano strings -- seemed to be resting on a bed of fog.
After breakfast, we drove toward the essential stop on the Millau Viaduct admiration tour, the bridge's high-tech information center. As we approached the bridge, it became clear why the experience sends people away in awe.
The bridge spans a still, green farming valley and a ribbon of the Tarn River, stretching more than 1 1/2 miles over one of France's most graceful and open landscapes. Norman Foster, the bridge's British architect, said he designed the bridge to resemble a butterfly crossing the valley. The structure is supported from below by seven soaring, narrow piers shaped like tuning forks. This may be the lightest, sleekest bridge design anywhere. Framed by the surroundings, it is pure environmental sculpture.
After parking under the bridge, we entered the steel-and-glass information center, with exhibits and panels in French and English. At 10 a.m., the place was packed with scores of aqueduct enthusiasts digesting the facts, figures, photos and documentary films. We spent half an hour doing the same -- then about $50 in the gift shop, where the viaduct is memorialized in books, posters, postcards, backpacks, T-shirts and even thimbles.
And then we drove off, with the idea of crossing the bridge from the north (everyone told us that was the best direction) as the sun set that evening.