Pillars of the community

In south-west France, a new bypass is a tourist draw in its own right. Frank Partridge drives over and under the Viaduc de Millau, the bridge that is boosting the town's passing trade

On a moonless evening in early January, heading north-eastwards on the D992 in a tiny Korean hire car, I had my first encounter with the Viaduc de Millau. Even in the darkness, the unseen giant was impressive, announcing itself from several kilometres away as a series of winking red lights so far above the horizon they appeared to be mingling with the stars. Too evenly spaced to be celestial, they set the imagination racing: a hovering spacecraft preparing to attack? A mid-air landing strip for extra-terrestrials eager to explore the Massif Central?

On a moonless evening in early January, heading north-eastwards on the D992 in a tiny Korean hire car, I had my first encounter with the Viaduc de Millau. Even in the darkness, the unseen giant was impressive, announcing itself from several kilometres away as a series of winking red lights so far above the horizon they appeared to be mingling with the stars. Too evenly spaced to be celestial, they set the imagination racing: a hovering spacecraft preparing to attack? A mid-air landing strip for extra-terrestrials eager to explore the Massif Central?

My second encounter, soon after first light next morning, was every bit as other-worldly as the first. This time, viewed from a neighbouring hill with the bustling market town of Millau in the foreground, the upper sections of the viaduct appeared to have died and gone to heaven.

Of all the facts and figures put out by the publicity people when the viaduct opened amid great fanfare last month, the most striking, for me, was that the tallest of its seven great pillars stands 19 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower itself. One soaring symbol of French engineering outdoing another? You might say that, but 343m was the height that English architect Sir Norman Foster calculated was necessary for the main pillar to rise from the floor of the Tarn valley and to support the A75 motorway on its 2.5km sweep across the gorge.

The consequence of building to such a height is that the upper sections of the structure often exist in their own micro-climate. That morning, as the people of Millau awoke to overcast skies, the roadway and distinctive "sails" of the bridge stood proudly clear of the clouds, providing motorists with a perfect view of the rolling hills and lonely sheep farms on their climate-controlled journeys between mountain and sea. They must have felt like the pioneering aviators Lord Foster had in mind when he conceived a river crossing of such gargantuan proportions.

At the same time, long-distance viewers such as myself were treated to the magical sight of the seven sets of cable stays, resembling model sailing ships bobbing on a sea of cotton wool, while effortlessly supporting the weight of the road and traffic - each steel-cabled "sail" as delicately beautiful as a cobweb in sunlight. Foster's genius is to have made the load-bearing element of the bridge its most attractive facet, its signature: hard-headed engineering expressed as art.

But the viaduct is not art for its own sake. It fulfils the highly practical task of completing the long-awaited final link in an ambitious road project that had turned into a national embarrassment.

Conceived in the Seventies, and championed by former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the A75 motorway was a great idea on paper, tracing the shortest distance between central France and the Mediterranean by skirting the high plateaux and mountains of the Massif Central. But Millau, lying at the confluence of two deep gorges, was an obstacle too far for a four-lane motorway. As a consequence, the town's main claim to fame was staging some of the worst traffic jams in French history. This August, thanks to the €320m (£220m) by-pass-in-the-sky, normality should return to the winding roads.

But new by-passes can be double-edged for the town they pass by. While clearing the traffic, they can also remove its passing trade, a concern raised by traders when the viaduct was first mooted. "The opposite will happen," maintains the town's tourist chief, Sylvian Truchetet. "The bridge is a masterpiece. Nearly half a million people came from all over the world to see it being built, doubling our tourist figures in just two years. I expect this trend to continue."

The model, Truchetet believes, is another eye-catching river crossing, the Pont du Normandie at the mouth of the River Seine, which opened 10 years ago and still attracts sightseers. The boundary-breaking Oresund Bridge, linking Denmark with Sweden, has also become a tourist attraction in its own right. The early returns in Millau seem to justify Truchetet's confidence. "Normally, towns which are by-passed lose 30 per cent of their visitors. In the first three weeks of operation, Millau has gained 50 per cent," she says.

The bars and restaurants around the main square are anticipating a summer bonanza. Joella, who runs a small pizzeria in one of the narrow side streets leading to the impressive covered market, church and belfry, presents foreign visitors with attractive stamps of the bridge to stick on their postcards home. "I've even had a young couple who came all the way from Japan to see it," she says.

Those who follow in the footsteps of those Japanese will be amply rewarded if they stay awhile. Millau the town and Aveyron the region have suffered from being on the way from somewhere to somewhere else: not quite in the mountains, nor very near the coast; picturesque in some parts - a flat, treeless wilderness in others. This is too taxing for the mass market; it's a place of wide-open spaces for adventurous people with crash helmets, kayaks, caving equipment, hang-gliders and lightweight bikes with a minimum of 21 gears.

There are many layers of history, too. Half a dozen walled Knights Templar towns have survived from the 12th century. Half an hour's drive away is the fragrant source of one of the world's great blue cheeses, Roquefort, where fermented ewe's milk is mixed with penicillin and left to mould in chilly caves for upwards of three months. There are high cliffs where only vultures and paragliders dare to roam.

Far below, a network of gorges has been cut deep into the limestone by fast-flowing rivers, the rocks worn and weathered by water and wind into fantastical shapes: I saw uncannily life-like prehistoric animals and a variety of human forms; my partner spotted "a rather snooty rat". Every few miles we passed through shuttered villages of ancient stone and winding steps, perched on precarious ledges of rock, or built into the mountain itself.

One of the great troglodyte treasures is at Peyre, overlooking the Tarn four miles west of Millau, and officially classified as being among " les plus beaux villages de France". Part of the ancient church disappears into the sheer cliff-face; run-off water is gathered in a public drinking trough that still functions; a communal mediaeval oven has been perfectly preserved. But the view out of every window in the village could not be more contemporary: the new bridge totally dominates the skyline, and even the surrounding hills.

And so to my last and closest encounter. The road back to Millau passes within a few metres of the point where one of the giant pillars enters the earth. From the perspective of an ant, the Viaduc assumes an entirely different character. Having seemed from a distance to consist of gossamer and sail-cloth, it's now exposed as a hulking leviathan - all power, weight and lifeless concrete, already slightly discoloured by the harsh extremes of weather. As so often in life, I conclude, it's better not to scrutinise magical things too closely.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Frank Partridge flew from Gatwick to Toulouse on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) flies on the same route, while FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) operates from Birmingham, Bristol and Southampton. The 180km winding drive to Millau from Toulouse takes about two-and-a-half hours.

The closest airport to Millau is Rodez (70km), served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Montpellier (115km) is another option, served by Ryanair from Stansted and BA from Gatwick.

MORE INFORMATION The bridge's own website is www.viaducdemillaueiffage.com. The low-season toll for a car is €4.90 (£3.40).

Millau tourist office: 1, place du Beffroi, Millau (05 65 60 02 42; www.ot-millau.fr).

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