D & I have wanted to see the Millau viaduct since it was built in 2004 so were very excited to finally be there, face to face with the real thing and not just watching (yet another) documentary about it.
Millau sits in a valley surrounded by huge rocky cliffs – for years traffic had to drop off the plateau into the town and then climb back out again, causing a bottleneck on a major route from Paris to the south. The government spent several years researching options for an alternative before deciding on the most direct and certainly most dramatic – a viaduct spanning the 2.5km wide valley.
A French engineer, Michel Virlogeux, did the technical bit and Norman Foster did the pretty bit – so got all the credit. In fact, the whole operation was a European collaboration with many different companies involved, including one whose history goes back to the building of the Eiffel Tower.
The end result is incredible (if you like that sort of thing, which we do). Supported by 7 pylons it is impressively big but also very elegant. Actually, the English translations in the visitor’s centres call the pylons ‘piles’ and the second (P2) is the biggest pile in the world. Yikes.
Yes, I did say visitor’s centres, plural. There are two – one under the viaduct for those who don’t want to pay to drive across it and another on the toll road. Having decided that we couldn’t come all this way and not actually drive over it, we visited both. The French are rightly very proud of this particular engineering achievement and the centres are full of models, diagrams and statistics. There was also a short film about the construction – we didn’t need to be able to understand the French narration to realise how brilliant it was, not least because the whole thing was constructed in 3 years. When I think of how long it took to fill a pothole in Woking or Adelaide, it makes me want to cry.
A couple of the statistics stuck in my mind. The piles were constructed simultaneously, each with its own crane and crew. The crane operators for the biggest pile operated at 265 metres above ground. That was the first statistic. The second was that the cranes were built to withstand and continue operating in winds of 180km/h. Combine those two statistics and you have my worst nightmare.
On a drive up the valley one evening, we came across Peyre, apparently one of the most beautiful villages in France. It is indeed lovely, built into the rocks on a bend in the river. But the best bit? Some of the houses have a great view of the viaduct!
So, finally, we gritted our teeth and hit the toll road. Driving across was great with far-reaching views to the side and elegant piles (if you can imagine such a thing) above. It was worth every cent of the €30 we expected to pay – so you can imagine our delight when the lovely toll booth operator only charged us €10! Happy days!