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A bridge to a forgotten stretch of French countryside

Times Staff Writer

THE town of Millau in south-central France once was known for traffic jams because it was here that the A75 -- a largely toll-free route from Paris to the Cote d’Azur -- crossed the deep valley of the Tarn River. As a result, most travelers wanted nothing more than to get out of town fast.

But that changed in December 2004, with the opening of the viaduct, a soaring 1.6-mile-suspension bridge designed by British architect Norman Foster. Now, people come to Millau just to gaze at what is claimed to be the tallest vehicular bridge in the world. Its concrete piers crest at 1,125 feet, meaning they could look down on the Eiffel Tower.

The $522-million viaduct, built with advanced technology and materials, is a French success story. It was finished under budget and a month ahead of schedule, partly, people say, because it was built by a private company instead of the state.

As one of the last links in a superhighway from Paris to Barcelona, it joins several massive engineering projects, including the Chunnel across the English Channel and the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, partly intended to better connect the disparate parts of the European Union.

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I came to Millau in the summer just to see the new marvel, whose four-lane roadway and cables stretch like silver gossamer between seven piers high above the canyon. The viaduct’s grace stems partly from its slight north-to-south incline and gentle curve, giving drivers maximum visibility.

You have to give nature its due for providing the great Tarn River gorge, whose most deeply eroded section east of Millau is considered the Grand Canyon of France, and for the rolling plateaus connected by the viaduct. These four limestone plateaus are in one of the wildest, most isolated regions of France, where wolves prowl and griffon vultures fly. They are dotted with strange rock formations and caves in which blue-veined Roquefort cheese is aged, and by stony villages and fortresses established by the Templar and Hospitaler orders of crusading knights in the Middle Ages.

As stunning as the bridge is, its best gift is putting the largely forgotten Tarn region of the Midi-Pyrenees back on the map.

I began my 100-mile scenic drive across the region in Millau, a town of about 22,000, under the viaduct, on a bend of the Tarn. The old section of the amiable, red tile-roofed town clusters around the tree-lined Place Foch. On one side is the Millau museum, which has collections of Roman-era pottery that were found at the nearby Graufesenque archeological site, and handmade leather gloves, for which the town is famous. Opposite is Notre-Dame church, which dates from the 11th century but was rebuilt 500 years later, after its destruction during one of the area’s frequent religious wars.

It was in this region that the Catholic Church went on a crusade in the Middle Ages to stop a religious revival, which the church considered dangerous because of its heretical views and anti-clerical stance. Later, the Tarn Valley was especially hard-hit during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, when Catholics, supported by the monarchy, went on a rampage, killing 100,000 Protestants throughout France.

The region and its past have found their way into books and films. “The Virgin Blue,” a novel by Tracy Chevalier, who also wrote “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” tells the story of an anti-Catholic Calvinist group in the Tarn Valley and nearby Cevennes. For a scenic drive like this one, I’d also recommend Hannah Green’s “Little Saint,” about the medieval village of Conques, northwest of Millau, a stop on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and “The Return of Martin Guerre,” a 1982 film starring Gerard Depardieu, about a medieval case of mistaken identity.

From Millau, I followed small, meandering roads -- the D992, D999 and D600 -- west through a pastoral countryside, with the Tarn River and the limestone cliffs of the Causse du Larzac on my flanks. I stopped briefly in Albi, birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, to see the flamboyant Gothic, red brick Cathedral of St. Cecile, then turned northwest, headed for Cordes-sur-Ciel, where I intended to spend the night.

The old walled town sits atop a steep hill surrounded by farms, like a scene from a medieval tapestry. It got its name -- which means “Cordes in the Sky” -- because of a bizarre atmospheric effect that occurs when the sun shines on the hill town while mist coats the valley below it, making Cordes appear to be floating in heaven.

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Its golden age came in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, when rich textile merchants filled the thriving town with Gothic mansions whose cornices and portals are covered in gargoyles, especially dragons. Cars aren’t allowed in the historic center and it’s a stiff walk up the hill to see it. But once you get there, the rewards are great because nothing breaks the medieval spell cast by this dreamy village.

There are shops, small museums and artist workshops to visit, pocket squares with fountains and benches, and several hotels, including the charming L’Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes, where I spent the night. I had dinner in the terrace restaurant there as the sun set, accompanied by a bottle of Mas d’Aurel, a red wine from the nearby Gaillac viticultural region.

Before moving on the next morning, I toured the Jardin des Paradis, set on a hillside terrace. It has about a dozen themed gardens, including a Persian pavilion, and some of the lushest floral displays I’ve ever seen, swarming with butterflies and buzzing with bees.

I sat for an hour, under the hot sun of the Midi, counting my blessings for having seen both the extraordinary new viaduct and the lovely countryside.

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Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at latimes.com/susanspano.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In and around Millau

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To reach the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international calling code) and 33 (country code for France).

Chateau de Creissels, Route de St.-Affrique, 12100 Millau, 5-65-60-16-59, www.chateau-de-creissels.com, is a restaurant- hotel near Millau in a 12th century manor house above the Tarn River with views of the viaduct; doubles $70 to $100.

L’Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes, 81170 Cordes-sur-Ciel, 5-63-53-79-20, www.thuries.fr, has a lovely terrace restaurant and simple but comfortable doubles for $60 to $95.

Aurifat, 81170 Cordes-sur-Ciel, 5-63-56-07-03, www.aurifat.com, is a four-room B&B; in a 13th century watchtower near Cordes-sur-Ciel. It has a swimming pool, helpful English-speaking proprietors and access to footpaths traversing the surrounding countryside; rates $75 to $85, including breakfast.

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Millau tourism office, 1 Place du Beffroi, 5-65-60-02-42, www.ot-millau.fr, offers viaduct tours at 2 p.m. Saturdays (about $12, reservations required).

Cordes-sur-Ciel tourist office in the Maison Fonpeyruse, 5-63-56-00-52, www.cordes-sur-ciel.org, has information on artist workshops, nearby hiking paths and the hill town’s summertime music and medieval festivals.

-- Susan Spano


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