I ASSOCIATE it in my mind with President Mitterand, but maybe it goes back beyond him to the days of Giscard d'Estaing: it's the principle known as désenclavement, the opening up of remote country. It was expressed in human terms as the not
I ASSOCIATE it in my mind with President Mitterand, but maybe it goes back beyond him to the days of Giscard d'Estaing: it's the principle known as désenclavement, the opening up of remote country. It was expressed in human terms as the notion that no settlement in mainland France should be more than 15 minutes' drive from a major road.
For most of France the idea was at least feasible, but the nettle to be grasped was the massif central, the huge upland and often mountainous region in southern and central France, where life is about as easy as in the Scottish Highlands: the climate is what the French call rude, sheep probably outnumber human beings by at least 2 to 1, and some of the départements in the massif central - Cantal, Aveyron, Lozère - are among the least populated and least known in France. To open up the massif central meant driving a motorway south from Clermont Ferrand, taking it up to 1000 metres and more for much of its length and bringing it down again sharply to the Languedoc plains to finish up in the Mediterranean sun at Béziers.
French motorways are generally privately run, but this one, the A75 and subtitled La Méridionale, was financed by the government in a commendable display of an administration putting its money where its mouth was. The project was started about 15 years ago, and slowly the tarmac ribbon sculpted its graceful course up and down valleys, over rolling moorland and sheep-dotted hill pasture, round the shoulders of volcanic outcrops, across arid stretches of limestone causse, bending sinuously like a slow-motion wing three-quarter past forests and wind-swept, tiny-windowed farmhouses, making the road a semi-divine joy to drive, justifying to the last penny everything you'd forked out for a driveworthy car until you came to the town of Millau.
Millau (pronounced Mee-yoh) is a medium-sized town known for gloves and cursing motorists lying on the upper reaches of the river Tarn. Giant, impassable limestone cliffs between canyons dominate the town to the east and south, but to the west the river has carved itself a steeply-sided valley about a mile wide. How to take the new motorway across this valley, and relieve one of the worst bottlenecks in France?
The question was put to commercial tender, and a firm called Eiffage came up with the idea of a super-bridge, winning the contract with a breathtaking design by Sir Norman Foster. After two or three years in the building the bridge was finally opened in December by President Chirac, and, to cut this story as short as the route from Clermont Ferrand to Béziers has now become, we went to see the new bridge the other day in all its bandbox freshness.
Well, it's not in this column's habit to go over the top, in any sense, but I have to say it's fantastic. Approaching from the south, you come on it suddenly, like a tall ship, a gigantic seven-masted schooner hanging in the air. We'd seen pictures of it under construction, and our immediate thought was oh goodness, vertigo: we'll never make it across without
1. Being sick, or
2. Passing out, or
3. Being seized by an irresistible urge to drive over the side.
It wasn't anything like that at all, of course. As with any bridge, you're conscious of the distant view, and indeed there's a panoramic view of ochre-tiled Millau and the cliffs and bluffs beyond a kilometre or two upstream. But the designers have fitted incurving wind screens to the edges of the bridge, and if you hadn't been told that you were riding at a dizzy 270 metres (about 880 feet) above the surface of the river Tarn, making it the world's highest/longest road bridge, you wouldn't know anything about it.
It's soon over. Less than a minute to glide past the seven great white pylons and their serried stays, planing slightly downwards and to the right. Once you've reached the other side, the road sweeps gracefully back to the left, tracing what William Hogarth called the Line of Beauty. Is this deliberate? Who knows? In any case, our minds are going back to an epic summer journey several summers ago, recorded at the time in this column, to a wedding in southern Burgundy. The A75 was almost complete, on the map it looked easily the quickest route from the Languedoc. Four hours, it took us to cross the Tarn valley at Millau in those pre-bridge days. Two hundred and forty minutes of exasperation and savage temper. We could have walked it more quickly. And now here we were across the valley in less than a minute.
We drove on, stopping to pay our dues (€4.90, about £3.40 or $4.60) at the tollbooth a little further on (the bridge is the only part of the road that attracts a toll, the rest is free) and then breaking our journey at l'Aire de l'Aveyron, a bright, clean and well-equipped service station just outside Sévérac le Château, which sells just about everything you could possibly want except postcards of the famous bridge.
People were always asking for postcards, the girl behind the counter said. She was sorry, she didn't have any: the builders had the exclusive right to produce and sell postcards of their bridge. They were only available at the bridge visitor centre, at ground level between the bridge and Millau. H'm.
A FEW days later the national news featured the inauguration of the new Airbus 380, the outsize European airliner due to make its maiden commercial flight in a year or so. What used to be called the crowned heads of Europe, or at least of the nations sharing in the construction of this hyper-jumbo jet, President Chirac of France, Señor Zapatero of Spain, Herr Schröder of Germany and Mr Blair of the UK were there in Toulouse to witness the unveiling of this shapely aircraft. Not as slim as Concorde, no doubt, but in time I'm sure it will grace a postcard or two.
WITH THE Six Nations tournament just round the corner, our thoughts turn to rugby. I don't follow French rugby closely enough to know whether Olivier Magne, the huge and powerful forward who plays in the middle of the scrum, will be turning out again for les bleus. His nickname will live on, though: they call him le massif central. Ho ho.