Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Millau Viaduct-One My Favourite Things

 I first travelled to La Belle France in 1993 and spent quite a while there.
That's where I really got my buzz for hunting down art and antiques in places in towns, that, at the time, had never had an Englishman in. I loved it I was like a grown up kid on a treasure hunt.
I realised this is what i wanted to do.

What a chore it was, heading down to the South of France towards Montpellier it was like driving on the old Snake Pass.

This would be 1993 and plans were underway to connect the Languedoc region up with the North, the A9 was under construction, which made it worse because the roadwork’s created extra delays while huge wagons curled around mountainous terrain where no vehicles should go.
Driving for a day sometimes you would not see a soul it was like the land that time forgot.

Millau (pronounced like a cats Meow) was a nightmare.

It is one of the most beautiful places in France.

The town has a holiday feel, surrounded by mountains the hang gliders would drift down from the craggy ledges like little coloured spots on a sky blue canvass, slowly drifting gently into sight on the breeze.

Campers would pitch tents next to the river that meandered through the valley.

I used to watch the petrol gauge in my transit visibly empty and I would cringe at the juice it would take just to get back up through the mountainous pass that was the only way to get through this region for me, and everyone else.
In the summer with the stifling heat and without air conditioning it was a particularly challenging routine.
Traffic jams don’t suit the French.
You only need one Frenchman to honk his horn and they all start, and you cant even ball at them to shut up because that starts world war three.
I have spent hours cooking in my tin can behind a lorry full of cement or livestock crawling on the limit of about 20 miles an hour.

I used to try and do it between twelve and two p.m as only mad frogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
Passing a lorry on a narrow mountainous road is a hazardous affair. Especially when you are in the wrong place, or the wrong side of the car.
First you sneak your head over to the left of the car, to check if the coast is clear to overtake.
Only to have it almost lopped off by a crazy French person doing the free roll down the other side, as if been set free, after his crawl up behind Le Camion.

That’s where I learnt half of my French with my cassette ablaze in the car “Repeat after me ......Ou est. La Cathedral…sil vous plait” and Quell Heure est I’ll” and other stupid sentences that I never ever needed.
It’s also where I learnt to swear.
 Expletives are soon picked up on a French road when you are sat on a red hot seat stewing in 98 degrees, when all you want to do is get to a hotel and freshen up, or better still get to the sea.
On one trip I rolled down the mountainous path and right into an Opel garage at the foot of the pass to have them all laugh at the diesel filter on the Vauxhall Astra  I had just bought from Penny Lane Motors, who are not recommended by me.
 Yes it looked like it should have been an air filter in a fish tank. I give them a right telling off when I got back.
I had been through Millau 50 times and then one day I noticed on the horizon the strangest thing.
There were poles being erected. Not just any old poles, they were like stilts that were springing up they were like skyscrapers, massive things, growing out of the earth.
Even in the distance you could see the scale of them.
The next time there was another few, and then the penny dropped when as if by magic a concrete carpet was being laid across them one at a time.
 This was not possible I would say it defied gravity. It couldn't be possible to build a structure so light and simple that high.
Surely it couldn’t work, and yes, it was a bridge under construction.
Sometimes it would be half covered in mist other times it would be a silhouette as bold as brass against the hue.
 I would look every time as I travelled past on that horrid road to see the progress.
 It must be one of the wonders of the world if they can pull this off I would say.
And they did pull it off and it was opened.
Designed by Foster and Partners but erected by Frenchmen it is a remarkable feat of engineering that shows us British up.
Click on the above link for a full history of the feat.
The British designed it but we would not have the nerve to build it. It’s the sort of feat that built the Seven Wonders of the World.
Yes we will put the A75 between two mountains some one probably quipped in jest, but they did it.
Not only did they have the nerve to build it, they made it so beautiful and with as little concrete that is physically possible.
They made it float as lightly on what looks like mid-air. The thin air that the hang gliders gently fall from atop a ridge on the other side of town.
Its suspension defies gravity.
If you build it light it will hang light.
The first time I drove across it was worth every centime of the ten euro or so they charge.
I just had to stop at the viewing platform, with a café, and eat a packet of biscuits.
It seems to have become a shrine for people to wonder at the feat of engineering that all French people should be proud of. A pic-nic area with distinction.

I find it hard to put into words what is so good about it, other than its simplicity.
All brilliant design should make you wonder why it is good not state the obvious as journalists are paid to do. You do not need to write pages about it. Just look at it.

It has alleviated the traffic queues.

But now the views down to the valley of the River Tarn directly below the viaduct and the green forests that border it, are over, all too soon and you hanker for more.

In no time at all, unless you stop, you are on your merry way dreaming of the cool blue of the Med, as you should have done in the first place.
I don’t know how many awards it has won but it gets my award for sheer audacity and undertaking and beauty.
If you drive down to the south of France try and go over the Millau Viaduct.
It would be daft not to jump at the opportunity to traverse two mountains suspended hundreds of feet in the air on a slither of tarmac held up by slender sections of wire above a beautiful valley.
Its not Bijou and its not as if you can put it in your pocket, but still, it is one of my favourite things.

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