The French do certain things exceedingly well: spectacular engineering feats, municipal jollification, tripe, and traffic jams, to name a random sample. A project which encapsulates all of these has got to be heroic, and the Millau Viaduct is. The greatest French ouvrage d'art of the past two decades - albeit one designed by an Englishman, Lord Foster - the viaduct is being inaugurated on 14 December with all the pomp of an Eiffel Tower de nos jours.
The viaduct, both gigantic and sylph-like, soars over the valley of the Tarn in southern France, connecting two stretches of the A75. No longer will motorists need to make the long crawl down into the town of Millau and back out again, which made it a byword for holiday traffic misery. Despite disagreements over cost within the Conseil Municipal, the festivities are in the final preparation - presidential visit, fireworks, historical pageant, vintage motorbike rally, hip-hop concert.
It's next Sunday's Balade des 3 Viaducs that sounds really inspired, however: a chance for 20,000 people to explore the 2.46km, traffic-free viaduct on foot, bicycle or rollers preceded, optionally, by a meal of mutton tripe and steamed potatoes, cheese, flaune (a local pâtisserie), wine and coffee at the new service station of Brocuéjouls. The impressive part is that the meal is breakfast. This is the département of the Aveyron where local folk wisdom includes precepts such as, "A hare cooked before All Saints' Day is a failed hare" and, "Wash your feet if you must, but the frying pan, never!"
For much of the 20th century, the Aveyronnais, like their northern neighbours the Auvergnats, exercised their culinary birthright by working in cafés and brasseries in the capital. Some made it big from humble origins, the shining modern examples being the Costes brothers, from the little town of St Amans, whose Paris empire includes plush celebrity haunts such as the Hotel Costes.
Over the century, the population of the département halved and travel was usually one way: out. A hundred years ago this meant trains. The département contains other notable bridges, built for the railway: among them Gustave Eiffel's beautiful iron structure at Garabit and the Viaur Viaduct, which was greeted in 1902 with as much excitement as Millau's today.
Now the trains are disappearing. The once promised TGV link seems a chimera and the motorway - swooping through the heart of the Auvergne and connecting Clermont-Ferrand, and thus Paris, with the Mediterranean - is the sole beacon of transport hope to a département still tarred with its isolated, backwoods reputation. Almost the sole hope, that is, because Ryanair now flies to the little airport of Rodez, the département capital, an innovation which causes wonderment in some. "Is it true," an old lady asked me, "that a whole plane full of English is landing at Rodez every day?"
Except in their western strongholds around Villefranche and Najac, Brits are in fact thin on the ground in the Aveyron. On the A75, traffic is generally thin. The Spanish trucks are lost in the wide open spaces as you cruise down from the north through the pine forests of the Margeride and across the high-flowered meadows of the Aubrac, with the chestnut cattle, before you cross the upper reaches of the river Lot. Then you're at the great oval of cliffs which surrounds the wide valley where the Tarn and Dourbie rivers meet. From the cliffs, hanggliders ride the thermals. Ahead of you, the traffic coagulates into a sluggish trickle as the motorway gives out (until 14 December at any rate) and the N9 leads you through the old town of Millau.
What unjust prejudice Millau must have stirred in the minds of sweating drivers and fractious children desperate to get on south. In fact, the town is attractive, with a reputation for lively southern atmosphere, a contrast to austere, granite, Auvergne-facing Rodez. This is confirmed by the animated, plane-tree-lined avenues, the café terraces around the Place des Mandarous, the narrow alleys, sometimes likened to Naples, and the old workers' quarters. Millau made its fortune as the capital of glove production, and the rump of this industry hangs on with firms such as Fabre making exquisitely lined objects of glove-fetishist lust for the Paris couture houses. Glove fortunes were responsible for the elegant 19th-century avenues, the tree-planted squares and parks and the prosperous air of the sous-préfecture.
The counter-culture of the 1960s was responsible for another striking aspect of Millau - the neo-hippies in the streets, the occasional presence in the old Café La Perle of the local anti-globalisation superstar Jose Bové, the wrecker of the Millau "McDo" (McDonald's).
The pilgrimage place of the alternative political tendency lies to the south. Climbing out of Millau's basin, you rejoin the motorway at the excellent little Larzac services (don't order quadruple McFlurry and super-size Pepsi; do order petit salé aux lentilles (and a pichet of rosé).
Stretching away to the east is the great wilderness of the Larzac moors, home to ancient fortified farms and villages of the Knights Templar - La Couvertoirade, Sainte Eulalie de Cernon - and the great military training ground of the Larzac (occasionally a tank or truck crawls across the horizon). It was here, 30 years ago, that the first French rock festival, the Aveyron's Woodstock, marked the birth of the protest movement which defeated the army's plan to extend the Larzac base. A year ago, a similar festival reunited 100,000 followers of Bové to the sounds of a raft of like-minded entertainers, from Manu Chao to the Asian Dub Foundation.
Apart from Templar strongholds and rock festivals, the Larzac contains mainly sheep. Special sheep - the svelte, ultra-lactating Lacaune ewes, whose milk makes the gastronomic pride of the Aveyron, that salty blue cheese matured by mouldering in the acres of caves under the village of Roquefort, where Jose Bové plies his daytime trade of sheep farmer.
In summer, the caves of Roquefort are besieged by tourists, as are the Aveyron's other attractions: the Tarn Gorges, the abbey town of Conques and the plus beaux villages de France such as Brousse-le-Château or Sainte Eulalie d'Olt. And, latterly, the viaduct of Millau itself.
Guided tours to the site have attracted half a million visitors in the past couple of years. Millau tourist authorities hope that the irony of the traffic jams, which obliged significant numbers of unwilling tourists to stop off in the town will be transformed into a new irony - a bypass so spectacular that it attracts people to stay in the very place it's meant to pass by. Projects for new city infrastructure abound, including, it's rumoured, a hotel venture by the Costes brothers.
Up to now, the commercial exploitation of the viaduct image hasn't even hinted at the profile of a new Eiffel Tower - a few logo'd T-shirts and ball-point pens at the viaduct visitor centre. Either the image copyright holders, canny old Lord Foster and the construction company Eiffage, are keeping things super-aesthetic or they're waiting to unleash a maelstrom of viaduct mouse pads and oven gloves at the right moment.
Whatever, the Journal de Millau diarist, doubtless fortified by a good tripe breakfast, struck a shrewdly cautious note last week. "We may have seen the last of the great classic bouchons (traffic jams) but is this just the start of endless mini-bouchons in the streets of Millau, as they clog with visitors to the viaduct?" Only time will tell.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Rodez, the closest airport to the Millau Viaduct, from London Stansted with return fares starting from around £45.
For information about next Sunday's Balade des 3 Viaducs, when the bridge is open to pedestrians and cyclists, visit www.labaladedes3viaducs.fr.
Maison de la France (09068 244123; calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).Reuse content