Who would have thought, speechless twice in one trip! We have found the man-made equivalent of Dune de Pilat. A sight so unexpected and awesome it has quite taken my breath away.
The Millau viaduct was always on the route, right from when this trip was just pins in a map on our living room wall. But having come down to earth with a bump on the price of petrol here, we almost, almost, decided that the 220km round trip detour from our south coast route from Bezier to Montpellier was not worth it. Fortunately for us, my brother Tom has been and told us that he thought it was worth the petrol and even better, his girlfriend Katy, gave us a list of places they had enjoyed on their visit which we could take in en route.
I have seen many pictures of the Viaduct at Millau but you always have that slight feeling in the back of your mind that there must be clever camera angles or lenses or retouching going on and nothing prepares you for the colossal reality of the thing, when it appears in front of you.
We didn't really know where we were going so stayed on the A75 until the very last exit before the toll and ended up going though St Rome de Cornon and back towards Millau on a route which seemed destined to take us under the bridge.
Worth noting here that we were just 7 km from the village of Roquefort at this point but sadly I was not allowed to visit as I still have cheese to eat in the van :( it is a large lump of not especially nice cheese bought in a Mercadona in spain and I am not particularly enjoying it but I am not allowed more until it is finished or gone mouldy... So hard being me :( the only consolation is that Will has two unopened packets of pate which he is similarly ambivalent about and at least my cheese will go off first!
Other people making this trip might like a cheese diversion at this point...
Anyway, we still hadn't seen the bridge - and were just wondering how you hide a bridge that big!?! - and contemplating the gently sloping valley and wondering whether it really warranted a bridge on the scale we were anticipating, when we rounded a corner and there it was, stretching up and away as far as the eye could see in both directions - simply staggering.
We found the south side visitors centre on the road we were on,
before continuing on down the valley to the foot of the bridge and the 4m wide river Tarn which its 2,460m span(!!) crosses 270m up above.
Heading on through Millau town and out the other side we found the Aire du Viaduct, another exhibition centre, and spectacular views down onto the bridge.
It is the world's highest multi-stayed viaduct and the numbers involved are incomprehensibly immense. The bridge is 2,460m long, the road 270m above the river below, there are seven pillars spaced 342m apart, the tallest of which is 343m and has a ground footprint the area of a tennis court. The steel deck is 65,000m2 and weighs 36,000 metric tons, with a further 10,000 tons of bitumen road surface, and the pillars and supports equate to 205,000 metric tons of concrete. It took three years to the day to complete and cost €400M, €80M of which was the tollbooths - they must be some fancy tollbooths!
Special jacks were constructed to to this which raised the deck 2cm then pushed it forwards 60cm each go and the whole thing progressed at an astonishing rate of 9m/h.
The bridge was load tested by driving 28 fully laden trucks (a combined weight of 968 metric tons) on to each span in turn and measuring the deflection - all within expected tolerance of course!
We learnt all this from the video in the southside visitors centre - magnificent construction footage (including lots of of happy engineers drinking celebratory champagne at any and all significant events - well this is France!) as well as stunning bridge shots in all weather conditions, including the valley filled with cloud up to the level of the road with just the pillars peeking out the top - and in the northside exhibition we found more info about the road plans, models of all five original proposals and one of the pushing jacks, which you can actually see in operation.
The video is also available on the northside exhibition centre, which does have more information than the one on the southside if you only have time for one, and which is also accessible from the A75 so you can see it all en route without leaving the motorway (€6.10 to cross the bridge) but the detour to the valley bottom is definitely worth it - and means you can freeload the whole experience if you wish ;)
The visitors centre also has eat free maps and booklets of the whole A75 from Clermont Ferrand to Montpellier which shows places of interest and little circular routes at each junction so you can take picturesque detours on you journey if you wish - all very nicely done and showing all the places Tom and Katy have recommended and interesting roads by which to get to them - brilliant.
A simply perfect day.