For decades of tourists heading south through France to the Med, the name Millau signified a traffic bottleneck that could add a tiresome and frustrating couple of hours to an already long journey.
All that ended with the opening in 2004 of Sir Norman Foster’s spectacular viaduct, spanning the River Tarn at a world record height of 343 metres – a few metres higher than the Eiffel Tower – and thus bypassing the town.
As with passage under the Channel Tunnel, crossing the span is anti-climatic because the high sides that protect traffic from often near gale force winds also mean that once on the viaduct you, can’t see anything but the road ahead.
The best way to view the structure is either from the base, looking dizzyingly upwards, or from a nearby hillside, from which vantage point it often appears to be floating on the thick blanket of clouds that often gather around its base.
There’s an interesting visitor centre and museum on the north side of the viaduct while in town there’s a view that takes in both the 12 Century Pont Kerouge bridge and the viaduct’s seven huge concrete pylons. An alternative is to take a tourist boat with Les Bateliers du Viaduc (www.bateliersduviaduc), passing underneath the structure at its tallest point and sailing on to Peyre – officially designated ‘One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France’. There’s also a Voyages Landès (www.voyages-landes.fr) open-top mini bus tour to the foot of P2 – the tallest pylon on the site and a world record holder.
There was a Gallo-Roman village at the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie rivers as long ago as 200BC, It grew into a thriving town in the Middle Ages and was important enough to be surrounded with ramparts by the 9 Century.
Millau was the stage for religious persecution and fighting and was later a hotbed of revolutionary ideas.
Gloves and cheese
In the early 20th Century, some 6,000 of Millau’s then 18,000 population was employed in the glove-making industry, using skins from the vast flocks of sheep whose milk sustains the Roquefort cheese making industry in the nearby Cévennes uplands.
The tannery and glove-making workforce was still sustained at that level in 1963 when all-time record 4.7-million pairs of leather gloves were sold.
After massive decline, there’s now something of a revival, with gloves being produced fro such prestigious designer labels as Hermès, Dior, Lacroix and Vuitton.
Maison Causse (www.causse-gantier.fr) in Millau opens its award-winning modern workshop; museum and sales room to visitors all year round.
From the top of the 42 metre high Beffroi you can enjoy the finest overview of the town. Tree-lined and in many cases pedestrianised streets make it a /pleasant place for walking.
Concerts and festivals
The restoration and re-opening of the Maison du Peuple (www.maisondupeuplemillau.fr), in 2006, has brought culture flooding back into the town, with a packed programme of concerts, festivals and other events. At the heart of it all is the Place Foch, with its covered arcades, some of whose supporting columns are wittily decorated. One bears two crowned heads that seem to be smiling and others who are poking their tongues out.
The starting point for my interest packed five-day driving tour of Aveyron was not Millau but Rodez, with its low-cost flight connections to Stansted.
My first night was spent just outside the idyllic little village of Conques, where I dined and slept at the delightful riverside Domaine du Cambelong (www.moulindecambelong.fr), a sympathetically converted watermill.
This area is blessed with a disproportionate number of settlements that have received an official ‘Among the Most Beautiful Villages in France’ accolade from the government, and it was my plan to take in as many of them as possible, along with some historic small towns. So next morning I headed for Conques, renowned for its Saint-Foy abbey church, set on the ancient Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route. Here to make your eyes bulge and your mind boggle are 124 massive and ornate capitals support the building’s ornate interior. There’s also a tympanium of the Last Judgement that carries 124 carved figures and is one of the masterpieces of 12 Century French architecture – and don’t miss the superb stained glass windows installed in 1994 by contemporary painter Pierre Soulages.
Collection of reliquaries
Another highlight of this delightful little place is the Trésor de Conques – a remarkable collection of reliquaries and other religious items, some dating back 800 years.
An hour’s drive on quiet, winding roads, took me to Villefranche de Rouerque, a bastide (fortified) town that was founded in 1252 by Alphonse de Poitiers, Count of Toulouse and brother of King Louis the Saint.
This place is a perfect example of a French new town of its era, featuring a tidy grid layout of streets, with a square in the middle, around which the town’s religious and social life was centred. The once huge battlements that surrounded the town were demolished in the 18 Century and gave way to the broad boulevards you can see today.
Just 30-minutes away but strikingly different in the way it evolved, the strategically sited fortress village of Najac stretches along a single, very wide street that straddles a long natural rock ridge. The street is lined with beautiful period houses and has at its centre a preserved 14 Century fountain that is remarkably still in situ.
The imposing, heavily fortified, castle is set at the easy to defend furthest end, high above the meandering River Aveyron. The fortifications here feature the longest arrow slits in any of the world’s castles, at a staggering 20 ft in length.
Massive rock face
Dating from the 11 Century and comprising a square keep and four corner towers, the château at the lovely village of Belcastel is one of Aveyron’s most beautiful. It is, though, eclipsed by the remarkable Peyre, a village which clings to a massive rock that dominates the Tarn valley, seven kilometres downstream from Millau. Some of the houses here are troglodyte, as is the church – literally carved into the cliff face. The hillside is riddled with caves.
Rodez is the administrative capital of the Aveyron department and is well worth a visit. Its breathtaking Cathedral de Notre Dame is a Gothic masterpiece, inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France.
It’s glorious choir and vast nave were built between the 13 and 16Centuries. From the top of the massive bell tower, with its exquisite stone filigree, there’s a sweeping view over the city and the surrounding hills. At ground level, there’s a way-marked walk through the heart of the old town.
40-miutes drive away, the village of Estaing which is noted for its red and white wines, also has a wealth of outstanding 16, 17 and 18 Century facades but its jewel is the château, which was built in he 13 Century around a pentagonal keep. Atop the keep are five turrets and a lantern-shaped roof, as well as a terrace that offers wonderful views over the River Lot.
Classed as a Historic Monument in 1945, this imposing edifice was purchased in 2005 by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, bringing ownership back into the family. Highlights include an impressive collection of mediaeval armour while a walk across the multi-arched Gothic bridge will yield the best photo opportunities.
A thriving arts’ scene has evolved in Aveyron, especially around Sainte Eulalie d’Olt, home to a gallery and museum dedicated to renowned local artist Marcel Boudou. It’s located in a flower-bedecked house close by the river (and is only open in July and August).
Other artists who have settled locally have been attracted by a community project called ‘Sainte Eulalie d’Olt – Sainte Eulalie d’Art’ which has been creating a dynamic artists centre of excellence. The fruits of this endeavour so far include the Petite Ecole d’Art, which has been running since 1998 in the old school, and the Grange des Arts.
This picturesque little village nestles on a lush green site on the banks of the placid River Lot. It boasts an 11 Century church, a 15 Century castle and a watermill.
A short way downstream is the equally attractive St. Geniez d’Olt, a once important religious centre that has a 14 Century Augustinian cloister and chapel, a 17 Century chapel of the Pénitents Noirs, an 18 Century Baroque church, a Talabot monument and the Pierre Lenoir gallery.
Aveyron has many other outstanding villages that I didn’t have time to get to. There’s La Bastide de L’Eveque, Sauveterre de Rouergue, Peyrusse le Roc, Brousse le Château, La Couvertoirade and Villeneuve d’Aveyron for starters.
From the great, sweeping moorland plateaux known as the Causses to the stunningly beautiful valleys and gorges of the Lot, the Tarn and their tributaries, Aveyron is a very special place and now, thanks to that wonderful viaduct at Millau, it’s all much more accessible.
How to get there
The nearest TGV station (Montpellier) and international airports (Montpellier and Rodez) are around an hour’s drive from Millau.
How to get around
This is good cycling country, though there are lots of stiff hills. MTB and walking trails abound.
For mobility you’ll need to drive down (using N75, the autoroute from Paris and which crosses the Millau viaduct). It’s an approx. eight-hour journey.
Or pick up a hire car at the airport – which is best arranged in advance before leaving home. Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.com), the world’s biggest holiday car rental brokerage, offering up to 40 per cent savings, is a good source.
Where to stay
Millau: Domaine St. Estève (www. domaine-saint-esteve.fr). Set on a lush hillside just outside town this fully serviced chalet hotel development has a great view of the viaduct.
Aveyron’s largest town has a wealth of accommodation, with more than 600 two and three-star beds and such well-known brands as Logis de France Ibis, Campanile and Mercure represented alongside independent properties.
Congues: Domaine de Cambelong (www.moulindecambelong.com). Listen to the waters burble past this riverside gem – a former watermill incorporating the highly rated Hervé Busset gourmet restaurant where the master conjures up modern but highly inventive delights, using fresh local produce. There are 10 individually designed guest rooms and a welcoming outdoor pool.
Onet le Château: Château de Labro (www.chateaulobro.fr).
Family run and offering a truly relaxing ambience. This charming 16 Century property is next door to an 18-hole golf course and just seven miles from Rodez. With its friendly but sophisticated style it brings a whole new meaning to B&B – there are seven bedrooms, two of which are especially romantic. The outdoor pool is set in a peaceful orchard.
St. Geniez d’Olt: Hostelerie du Lion d’Or (www.liondorstgeniezdolt.com). Simple accommodations in the heart of a lovely little village. There are seven air-conditioned guestrooms and a spacious restaurant that specialises in traditional local cuisine.
What and where to eat
The Aveyron department has a number of tasty specialities. A relation of Scotland’s haggis, trénels are made from sheep’s paunch stuffed with locally cured ham and other ingredients; flambéed roast mutton with thyme or a Roquefort cheese sauce makes a magnificent main course; flaune, a delicious tart made with ewe’s milk cheese whey and orange blossom is a popular desert.
This is truffle country. At Comprégnac, just a few kilometres outside Millau, is an ancient stone building housing the Maison de la Truffe, combination of a modern museum and a retail outlet for the mystical ‘Diamonds of the Kitchen’. While in Comprégnac, check out the 14 Century Capalier dovecot, designed to shelter 435 birds.
It’s in the caves of the Cévennes that the world-renowned Roquefort blue cheese, made from sheep’s milk, is produced. Périal is another popular local cheese.
Aubrac beef, Aveyron lamb and Segala veal are renowned while charcuterie is another Aveyron speciality. You will find an extensive selection at La Charcuterie du Causse, just outside Montales (www.fontalbat\-mazars.com), or at their shop, Pavillon du Causse, in Villefranche. Master butcher Jean Mazars and his team also have a sales’ presence at local fairs and markets and on the web.
Aveyron has its own traditional artisanal bread, known as régalou, while Côtes du Millau is the local wine.
What to speak
French. Many young people understand at least basic English.
What to spend (and tip)
France is in the Eurozone. Restaurant bills show the words “service compris”, which means there’s no need to tip – though you might like to reward attention beyond the call of duty. Taxi drivers welcome 8-10 per cent.
Local handicrafts and pottery make good gifts but it’s gourmet produce that draws tourists to the markets, large and small that abound across the region.
Millau has a magnificent 19 Century covered market, known as the Halles and set on Place Foch, as well as several street markets. The town’s regular market days are Wednesday and Friday though additionally in summer there are popular Monday night markets. Summer evenings (from 4.30pm) also see special produce markets in Villefranche, usually on Tuesdays.