Millau is a town with over 22,000 inhabitants, located in the Department Aveyron (12) in the “Parc Naturel des Grands Causses” about 300 km southwest of Privas. The 42 m belfry dominates the town and offers a panoramic view of the town and the viaduct. Millau has a typical range of streets and shops, but also, a rather good museum displaying local history from pre-historic times right through to the Middle Ages.
But today, the focal point is the Viaduc de Millau. It is like a bridge owning the town. The viaduct is an architectural jewel. Although designed by Baron Foster of Thames Bank, (aka Norman Foster) it was engineered by a French team led by Michel Virlogeux. This bridge has a span of 2460 m and a height of 343 m (which is higher than the Eiffel Tower) and traverses the Gorges du Tarn. It was until recently, the highest bridge in the world until an even higher one was constructed in China. The Viaduc de Millau, elegantly rests on 7 slender pylons which extend to 7 masts, to look like a sailing boat. It is slightly curved to protect the drivers from being distracted.
This bridge is the spectacular link on the A75 motorway from Clermont-Ferrand via Béziers to Narbonne, from where you can continue to Barcelona. The bridge was constructed with the goal to considerably reduce the driving time and ease the congestion in Millau. Construction started in October 2001 and the bridge was built in just over 3 years at a cost of about €400 million.
You should make a point of stopping at Peyre, a picturesque village 9km south of Millau. Situated in the Causse Rouge, it is the site in which a mammoth skeleton was discovered in a cave along with Palaeolithic furniture and a hook of the Bronze Age. Oh, and yes, there is also a grandiose view of the bridge from the village.
The Gorges du Tarn (53 km long, and between 400 – 600 m deep) is a paradise for nature lovers as well as being the home of remarkable building heritage. There are traces of troglodytic villages and perched medieval fortresses often located on the sunny slopes. For example, the castle of Peyrelade, the village Mostuéjouls are well worth visiting as is hiking along the French national trail PR41 from Liaucous to Saint Marcelin.
For cheese lovers, an absolute must is Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. This tiny village of fewer than 700 inhabitants is a “big cheese” in the world of cheeses, being the home of the blue cheese made from ewe’s milk and which is matured in the Grottes du Cambalou in the Causse du Larzac. It’s a stone’s throw from Millau, about 25 km, and you do not cross the bridge! Visiting the caves and participating in tastings are always recommended.
Last, but certainly not least, if you are a history buff, then you must drive to Conques. It is about 100 km northwest of Millau. The Centre of attraction is the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Particular attention should be paid to the last judgement tympanum located above the western entrance. The town also hosts the Nocturne Festival from May to October.
The beast is the bridge, but if you allow yourself to be distracted by the beauty of the surrounding area, this is a beautiful place to relax and contemplate human development, from prehistoric caves right through to 21st-century architecture and engineering. Perhaps the bridge symbolizes this and reminds us of what we are positively capable of.