France 69 - the bridge that Norman built

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May 7th 2014
Published: May 7th 2014
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Talk about being lost in France – the experience of being on the Peripheric on a Monday morning will linger long in the imagination. Another one of those things that you laugh at when you realise what you have done. Part of that rich tapestry of life on the road in a motorhome. Most of the time things go well but then you have a moment . It’s those moments that you remember long after the holiday is over.

We wake early. For us not the long lingering mornings in bed, not getting up until lunchtime or beyond. Perhaps it’s being older. You feel like you need less sleep. As soon as a bit of daybreak shows and the birds start to sing we wake.

Today was only going to be a short hop to Pezenas with a stop on the way to admire the Millau bridge. We have travelled this route south to north a few times and driven over the bridge but never have we approached her from the northern end . Bridges have to be female when they are as beautiful and stylish as the Millau is. We hoped the weather would remain clear and bright and that the cloud that sometimes obscures the view would have dissipated by the time we got there which would be about mid morning.

The view from Suzy’s windows changed as we drove from what looked like quintessentially English landscape to rich nutty brown fields complimented by rich nutty brown cows. Small mellow stoned farmhouses dotted the fields and villages sprung up in hollows. All built of same mellow ham coloured stone. In the distance the bulk of the Massif Central could be seen. We were heading for volcanic country. The home of Volvic water and the puys. The remnants of volcanic activity long forgotten.

We found the lovely Aire de Chalet nestling into the hillside with far reaching views across the pretty countryside. We couldn’t believe our luck. To be able to sit in the sun in the middle of nowhere with just a village on the horizon, a hill marked with a cross and a stone church in the distance. And of course a lovely cup of hot coffee and a cake. The air felt cooler up here. We were beginning to climb and marker posts showed the height increasing in regular stages. For every few metres we drove Suzy forward the gradient of the hill went up by a few more. The air felt chillier as it does in the mountains and there was snow still resting on the far distant peaks.

We flew by the villages of St Flour, Chaude Aigues – the name lilting and pretty. In translation Hot marshy stagnant water. Another example of not trying to translate a town name to our own language as it loses its beauty.

After another half an hour of driving Suzy had the bridge in her sights. She looked stunning from this direction as she traversed the Tarn gorge. Pillars of white marching across the void. And the bonus this time was that we could see her miles out and continued to see her until we parked on the convenient aire and viewing platform just to the side of her.

We paid our toll and thought well worth the price for the priviledge of eating dinner in the shadow of the bridge which should be if it is not already a national treasure. The aire was quite full of travellers in cars, camper vans and buses all eager to spend a few minutes looking at this wonder of the modern age. A clean toilet block and a boutique selling regional produce were bonuses.

The bridge is an example of a cable stayed bridge which spans the valley of the River Tarn and by passes the town of Millau. It was designed by the British architect Norman Foster and the structural engineer Michel Virlogeux. It is the tallest bridge in the world with one masts summit being at 1, 125 above the base of the structure. It has been open to traffic since 2004.

As we sat and looked at it the words from a film came to mind "If we build it they will come" and come they have done in their millions to marvel at how the dream of bridging the valley has been brought to life so beautifully. Some were sceptical it could be built . Others felt it would despoil the valley. Both were wrong . It has now stood there for almost 10 years and it enhances rather than detracts from the area. Recently I have watched an Ian Hislop programme - he was one of the founders of Private Eye and is a satirical commentator of great wit. His programme looked at "the olden days" and the way we nostalgically cling to the past. He looked at the Victorian obsession with the countryside and commentated that despite being an industrial country with the wherewithal to build and maintain one of the first railway systems in the world many hated the trains and the progress they brought with them. The landed gentry in particular felt threatened byt the railways and many hated the scars they brought to the pretty English countryside. The gorging out of earth to make embankments, the blasting out of the rock to build tunnels. The endless lines of black track snaking into the distance and the viaducts straddling the once pretty valleys. Now that the railways have in part gone thanks to Dr Beeching the embankments, tunnels and viaducts remain but they are considered part of the landscape and enhance the beauty of it rather than detract from it. How times and thoughts change!

Millau is the same . It forms part of the countryside now, The valley has not been spoilt by it. Instead vistors come in their droves to marvel over it and like us they walk from the aire up the winding hillside path to sit and stand at the top level with road . Able to view the valley below, the majestic structure itself from close hand and watch the traffic passing over it.nner was eaten in the shadow of this wonderful thing. After which we set off for our stop for the night Pezenas and Camping Castelsec.


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