Monday, September 25, 2017

A supersize viaduct with a side of gorges

Le Viaduc de Millau is the world’s tallest bridge.

As summer begins to ebb, we embark on a mini-vacation to Millau and Les Gorges du Tarn, about 3.5 hours southeast of the Dordogne. A few years ago I caught only a glimpse of the Viaduc de Millau when we stopped overnight in Millau enroute from the Côte d’Azure. This time, it’s our primary destination.

It’s amazing that the world’s largest bridge was built in just three years (following 14 years of preparation). Opening in Dec. 2004, the majestic span is a gateway to France’s Massif Central. Bridges and viaducts are structurally the same, but here’s the difference: A bridge links two sides, and a viaduct links two very high points. Here, those two points are the edges of the valley of the Tarn river. The six central spans of the viaduct are 342 meters tall — 18 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. Its two end spans measure 204 meters.

The Millau Viaduct is 2,460 meters long.

There are several good viewing points in and around the city of Millau, but the best place to check out the bridge is at the Aire du Viaduc de Millau. This rest area can be accessed both from the A75 motorway (either direction) and from Boulevard du Viaduc (a 10-minute drive from Millau town center). The rest area includes the Aveyron visitors’ center, a snack bar, souvenir shop and restrooms. From here it is a short walk to the viewpoint. Guided tours are also offered. For more information, visit the Viaduc du Millau website here.

The Viaduc de Millau visitors’ center is the starting point for
learning about the bridge and surrounding area.

A panel on the wall of the Viaduc de Millau visitors’ center depicts
Aveyron scenes.

Nestled in a valley surrounded by steep rocky cliffs, the city of Millau is worth a visit. This trip we stay at a small inn on a dairy farm (Chambres à la Ferme), but don’t rule out the unusual charms of a budget stay at Hôtel Bowling de Millau — an actual bowling alley that we stayed at several years ago.

A fountain dominates Millau’s Place du Mandarous.

Millau’s narrow streets contain a good assortment
of shops and restaurants.

Millau’s Lavoir de l’Ayrolle was built in the 1740s on the orders
of King Louis XV.

The skies threaten rain as we set out for the Gorges du Tarn. We won’t cover many miles today, but what we see on this brief trip leaves us eager to return and delve deeper into the Causses and Cévennes.

Château de Peyrelade was one of the most important
fortresses in Rouergue during the Middle Ages

.Our first stop is Château de Peyrelade, a medieval fortress overlooking the Tarn valley. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, the fortress was one of the most important in Rouergue — a former province bordered by Auvergne, Languedoc, Gévaudan and Quercy.

The wooden gallery at Château de Peyrelade offers spectacular views
of the Tarn Gorges and Grands Causses.

Remains of stone buildings can be seen from the ramparts of Château de Peyrelade.

Our visit starts with a short film before we set off to explore the castle remains on our own. The château is open from May to mid-September. For information, visit the Château de Peyrelade website here.

I’m eager for an up-close view of the gorges, so we stop at a quirky roadside attraction, Le Pas de Soucy. It costs just 50 centimes to climb a few flights of steps to an overlook above the Tarn.

For a half-euro, climb the steps at Le Pas de Soucy and take in a
beautiful view of the Tarn Gorges.

When we told friends we were going to visit les Gorges du Tarn, they inevitably asked if we’d be canoeing. It’s not in the cards for this trip, although we spend a bit of time watching canoes and kayaks maneuver the rapids at the village of Les Vignes.

Canoes and kayaks scoot over rapids in Les Vignes.
As with other trips we’ve made to the Massif Central, we see only a tiny piece of this beautiful region. How wonderful to know we can come back for more.

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