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France: Through the Tarn Gorge & over The Millau Bridge - Roads & Paths, Overhanging Rocks & A French Icon - Amazing!
Hauterives, Tarn Gorge, France
The River Tarn flows from the Massif Central westwards until it joins the River Garonne, in Southern France. On its way it affords some spectacular scenery, especially through the Tarn Gorge in the Midi-Pyrénées region.
We are lucky enough to have a house bang in the middle of France, so we take the opportunity, once in a while, to explore the wide variety of terrain and architecture this country offers. One chilly Easter we decided to seek some sunshine and warmth further south. The talk at the time was of the new Millau Viaduct across the Tarn so that was number one on our itinerary. As it turned out, we decided to view this modern icon by not only travelling over it, but under it. This involved travelling along the Tarn itself, through the Gorge.
The oohs and aahs just kept on coming; such scenery, such heights, such depths! Our camper van hadn't negotiated such tight corners, teetered above such craggy drops nor been so threatened by rocky overhangs.
We had found the sunshine; it danced on the river, it cast shadows from towering rocks, it warmed us and cheered our souls.
One intriguing village caught our eye; it was on the far bank of the river but we could see no bridge, no ferry, no road the other side. Did anyone live there? Wouldn't they be cut off in the winter? What about moving house?
All our questions were answered by a plaque at the side of the road. The village was Hauterives (French for Highbanks - it would need to be as the Tarn floods are some of the highest in the world). It had been restored not long ago by the owner of most of the houses. Any provisions, furniture, building materials which might be needed had to be transported by cable, winched across from the pulley we could see nearby. Alternative access was by kayak, swimming (for the intrepid only, even in the summer!) or a very long walk around the rugged terrain on that side. No road, only tracks for walking - even cycling would be difficult.
How peaceful is that?! The ideal place to get away? For a while perhaps. To avoid visitors? Yes, unless specifically invited - not a bad thing. What great parties you could have! All that wonderful French food! A hamlet where everyone knew each other, most being of the same family. What about the winter though? You'd have to stock up well with food, wood for the fires and plenty of winter woollies! So maybe it's the ultimate in summer holiday homes. Would be fun don't you think? A different world from where you could watch the real one whizz past on the other side.
Road along the Tarn Gorge
Rock 'n' Roll
We continued our winding journey. The road is narrow with some tunnels through the rock which have to be negotiated with great care especially as it's not always possible to see oncoming traffic (and there's plenty). Great chunks of overhanging rock lean over to threaten you - will they fall in your path? In a car you can drive beneath them on your side of the road but a camper van requires more height than the rocks allow. The rocks shove you over - 'you're too big for here, swim for it!'
Round each corner a new panorama; the widened riverbed, a narrow ravine, towering walls above us. Eventually, we arrived beneath the Millau bridge.
Well! Have you ever stood beneath the Eiffel Tower and looked up? Stand at the base of the highest support here and your eyes will take you even closer to the sky. It is amazing!
In order to journey over the Millau bridge, now we needed to climb upwards. The road took us round and up, round and up, round and up, to dizzying heights above the river, to the top of the majestic rocks, to the Massif Central plateau which freezes in winter and collects metres of snow.
The Millau Bridge - Under & Over
Having experienced being below this amazing structure, we were looking forward to the contrast, swapping tight ravines for open skies.
The Millau Viaduct is the world's highest major road bridge (for the present!). It was built to span the Tarn Gorge in order to take the traffic of the A75 away from the town of Millau. The reason? The A75 takes holiday traffic south to Marseille and on to Spain (La route du soleil). Summer traffic constantly caused hours of bottle-necks right through the middle of the town, ruining trade and causing the inhabitants to demand action.
The British architect, Sir Norman Foster, was asked to design a boundary-breaking structure to rival all others. It had to span a huge gap, it had to withstand winds and cope with freezing conditions. He succeeded. It is unusual in that the strenthening cables are only in the middle, not parallel. Its biggest support exceeds the height of the Eiffel Tower. It means Millau is now a successful tourist town; boats take visitors down the Tarn to view the bridge. Its saviour has also become its money-maker!
Going across the bridge (at a price!) is like flying. Indeed, at times it is in the clouds. You can see the gorge in the distance to one side and on the other the landscape opens up to wider horizons. There is a parking and viewing area to one side of the bridge, including information regarding its construction.
What an experience! The viaduct's architectural beauty and seeming fragility exceeded our expectations. However, it was time to continue our journey, down to Marseilles, along the south coast, to Nice, Monte Carlo and then into Italy... but that's another story.
The Beautiful Millau Bridge
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© 2012 Ann Carr