Head to Millau and Nimes in the south of France to visit two world-class bridges that are two hours and a couple of thousand years apart - and sample some very fine food along the way. Here's how...
If you ever fly into Montpellier in the south of France, look down as the plane starts its descent. You may well see the pillars of the new viaduct at Millau, like a giant striding out over a barren landscape on vast white legs. This should be inspiration enough to turn away from the Mediterranean coast when you arrive, and investigate further. After all, if even Jeremy Clarkson can make a pilgrimage to it, so should you.
Millau (pronounced meeyow) is less than a 90-minute drive north of Montpellier on the A75 motorway. Nestled deep in the Tarn valley, below precipitous limestone cliffs, and surrounded by the green hills of Aveyron, it was once choked with traffic as the motorway lanes converged onto its tiny road bridge. Now it is a pleasant place to linger. Wherever you are amongst the leafy streets and pavement cafes, the bridge will make its presence felt. Head in on the old winding road, and stop at the dedicated lay-by. In the early morning, the bridge before you will sail above the mist-covered town like a ghostly schooner.
“You can’t build a monstrous bridge across our wonderful valley,“ locals and pressure groups once grumbled. Now they are justly proud of its great beauty, and I am sure you will agree with them.
Like Rodin’s 'The Kiss', this prodigious feat of engineering and design should be viewed from many angles. Take the minor road that leads under the four-lane highway, stopping beside one of the seven concrete pylons. Look upwards if you dare. At 343 metres to the top of a mast, it is higher than the Eiffel Tower. Then proceed north to the viewing area and exhibition , before driving slowly across the bridge as it curves gracefully south. If you are peckish, try the restaurant or Espace Gourmande first. Organised by one of France's top chefs Michel Bras( more of him later), this is a lot more than your average motorway caf. Indeed this "aire" is much more than your average motorway stop altogether. Based around beautifully restored Aveyron farm buildings, it houses an exhibition dedicated to the bridge's construction . From here you can also walk to a special viewing point for a peerless view. There is a bridge toll of €5/7. The motorway, of course, is free.
If you wish to linger, why not take inspiration from the eagles that throng this valley to play in the thermals? Millau is known as the capital of hang-gliding and a number of companies offer a baptême (initiation) into this sport. For further information see www.tourisme-aveyron.com. I leave you to this pleasure, however. For me, the view from the bridge is dizzying enough. I shall be happier heading up the Gorges du Tarn for some further spectacular sightseeing.
If you are looking for accommodation, you can opt for some of the best that France has to offer by heading for Laguiole, about an hour’s drive away. Here, you will find no fewer than three Michelin-starred establishments, including the Grand Hôtel Auguy, with its one-starred restaurant, and Hôtel Michel Bras, which consistently wins three stars for its cuisine. I must admit that I have not yet visited this establishment, but I have seen it on TV and it is definitely on my wish list.
Le Pont du Gard
An awful lot of concrete went into making the Viaduc de Millau. Now head east and make a pilgrimage to another great bridge, made without any mortar whatsoever. This is the Pont du Gard, near Nimes. Each bridge took about three years to construct, two millennia apart. I challenge you to decide which was the greater achievement.
Take the scenic route towards Nimes, passing by Mont Aigoual, the highest peak in the Cevennes mountains. With an observatory and a panoramic viewpoint, this mountain offers opportunities for walking amongst waterfalls and forests. You may even spot a mouflon, or wild goat, on your path. There is also a ski station here. The road then proceeds through the town of Ganges. If you have time, stop off to view the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations at the Grotte des Demoiselles nearby (www.demoiselles.fr).
Whatever you do en route, leave plenty of time for your visit to the Pont du Gard. With its three tiers of arches spanning the River Gardon below, this Roman aqueduct is a moving sight. A young niece once complained that they had driven all that way just to see a bridge. But this is not just any bridge, as its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site testifies. The new visitor centre will provide you with useful information. It also offers guided crossings through the lead-lined conduit at the top. Of course, I shan’t be taking up that vertiginous offer. On my first visit here, people were free to climb up, all 49 metres, and walk along the precipitous unguarded edge. It is fortunate that I remained blithely unaware of my husband’s predicament when he did just that. As I was cooling my feet in the river below, he was scrabbling about above me searching for the lost lens from his spectacles. Fellow traveller, he survived!
No need to search for a decent restaurant: have a picnic by the river. Sample some local Aubrac and Roquefort cheeses, perhaps, accompanied by a glass of Costières de Nimes wine. What restaurant could offer a finer view, or grassy bank afford a softer seat?
At the end of your visit, the A9 motorway will deliver you swiftly back to Montpellier. Continue the theme of your tour by staying in the idyllic little 17th-century Hôtel des Arceaux, under the arches of another aqueduct, Les Arceaux. From here, where locals play boules in the shade of the arches, it is only a short stroll into the elegant old quarter of Montpellier. I love this hotel’s personal welcome, and its old French charm.
Montpellier is an entrancing, cultured city. Visit the Musée Fabre, with its permanent art exhibition, then lunch at its fine bistro-style restaurant, Insensé (39 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle; +33 4 67 58 97 78). This was founded by the Pourcel brothers, chef-proprietors of a very special Michelin-starred restaurant you may also like to visit: Le Jardin des Sens (11 avenue Saint-Lazare; +33 4 99 58 38 38). Another, less expensive, place to eat is the traditional Brasserie le Théâtre (+33 4 67 58 88 80), next to the elegant opera house on Place de la Comédie.
The "espace gourmand" on the north side of the Millau viaduct reopened on March 20th. It's worth saving your appetite for this amazing motorway stop. It may be "fast food", but believe me it is as far removed from a Macdonalds as the Cote d'Azur is from Blackpool. Invented by top chef Michel Bras, a capucin is a cone freshly made with sarrasin(buck wheat ) flour, and stuffed with a choice of filling, such as Roquefort and pear(5€), smoked trout and spices(6.3€), and lamb and bulgur wheat(6€). All the ingredients are produced locally in the Aveyron. We tried aligot with truffles ( €9.7) , and beef retortilla(6€). There are home-made ice creams too and much more. Best save your walk to the viewing point untilafter your meal to work off those calories. Our capucins were so scrumptious, I am looking for an excuse to drive that way again.