Aveyron: The Larzac Wilderness
All roads lead to other roads and the road of Paris led me, paradoxically, to la plus profonde de toutes les Frances profondes, read, the Aveyron. I first wrote about the Aveyron for Bonjour Paris back in spring 2002. At the time I was wondering whether it was a good idea to push the experiment further and turn my superficial interest into a book, which is what the Aveyronnais wished me to do. Those who know my other work are aware that I don't like slapdash jobs, so if I did decide to get involved in such an overwhelming project, it would have to be a full commitment. All my shilly-shallying, and how the project came into being, is recorded in the introduction to this new book, now in the making, so I'll spare you a potential repetition. What I shall say is that my one-time focus on Paris has now expanded, and over and above my routine shuttling on the Eurostar between Paris and London, I find myself these days also shuttling to the Aveyron at an average of once a month.
Last time round was just a couple of weeks ago, when I took a break from Christmas shopping and window-shopping in the sparkling City of Light, and found myself catapulted in the midst of the Biblical wilderness of the Larzac (or was is the South West of the United States....?). To French people of the 1968 generation and plus, the Larzac is emblematic of a fight against the take over by the military. Today it may ring a bell of José Bové's fight against the WTO and his theatrical imprisonment last June, following his destruction of GMC. The same José Bové had also made the headlines in 1999, when he wrecked a new McDonald's outlet in the nearby Aveyronnais town of Millau.
Millau was actually the main object of my recent visit on that 9th of December, although this time round I was not at all headed for la France profonde, quite the contrary. It was a visit to the future, an invitation to a rendez-vous with history in the making, the inauguration of the piers of Millau's new Viaduct, soon to become the world's highest bridge to date. Stunningly designed by the British Lord Norman Foster, its tallest pier, just to give you an idea, will outstrip the Eiffel Tower by 20 metres once surmounted by its pylon. Spanning the jade-coloured River Tarn, outside the town of Millau, its seven piers vary in height dramatically, according to their position in the rugged valley, which makes the structure blend into the landscape rather than become an eyesore. It takes the genius and know-how of Norman Foster to integrate environmental issues into his work with so much creative imagination. And although the piers are made of reinforced concrete and steel cables, the touch of their surface is as smooth as marble and seen from afar they look airy and slender, despite their stupendous size (When we visited the inside of one of them, we were mindboggled by its stupendous dimensions-provided it has good acoustics, it could have been used for a concert hall!). The effect of slenderness is further enhanced by the piers' forked design. Once completed, the deck of the bridge will hang from seven sets of suspension cables that will create a feeling of lightness and transparency. Just imagine yourself zooming along its stretch of 2.5 km, at a motorway speed, suspended in mid-air, 200 metres above the river bed! Which is exactly what motorists will be doing after 10 January 2005, the scheduled date of its inauguration, on which date it will provide the Clermont-Ferrand-Béziers A75 motorway with its hitherto one missing link. This is really what it's all about.
Sure, the bridge is quite some revolution and quite a historical feat in terms of civil engineering, not unlike the Eiffel Tower in its time, but the real repercussions of the Viaduct lie elsewhere and will be felt in the future. So far I have only been to Millau once, on the above-mentioned chilly and sunny day in early December. What I saw was a pleasant, sleepy, provincial town, with red roofs, wooden shutters and rows of plane trees that diffused an unmissible air of southern France. I'll be exploring it properly in late January and will be back in different seasons, but I have already done my homework and have found out that in summer it becomes a 13-km bumper-to-bumper bottleneck, a notorious point noir on the road map of France. The Viaduct will divert this traffic from the town, which is not to everyone's liking: many fear it will also deprive Millau of much of its business. And Millau needs business very badly, having once thrived on its lambskin glove industry,
supplied by the flocks of the Larzac (as they supply milk for Roquefort cheese). Millau's gloves were exported worldwide and were the purveyors of illustrious haute couture houses of Paris. Today's fashions are different and the industry has gone through bad setbacks. The Mayor of Millau is confident that the new bridge will be a magnet to new ventures. What is likely to happen, as it always does, is some will win and others will lose, but overall it's really not about Millau but about Europe.
Unification means a fully connected network of roads, in addition to air and rail transportation. At some point one will be able to drive on a motorway all the way from northern Europe to Spain and Portugal, and the Millau Viaduct will provide the pivot of this spectacular journey. (Needless to say that this also means opening up the Aveyron and eventually deleting la France profonde.... ) What a challenge to throw a steel chunk of a motorway 200 metres above the chasm of the Tarn! You would have had to be there with me to realise what I am talking about. For the time being, a little piece of the deck is already protruding out of the Viaduct's northern abuttment, like a diving board overhanging a swimming pool, but again, remember, at the above-mentioned headspinning height of 200 metres... And keep in mind, too, that the valley is notorious for its stupendous forceful gales. Just to give you an idea, when I suggested to my January host to go hiking on the Larzac plateau, he smiled at my naiveté indulgingly, intimating that we might be blown off by the winds. And he meant it! All those I interviewed agreed that the throwing of the deck was going to be the most daring and perilous phase of the project. So far there have been no casualties but everyone is silently apprehensive about this coming phase. All being well it will be completed in July, in which case I will be invited to its celebratory inauguration and will report back to you.
Meanwhile, on that 9th of December, after our private afternoon visit and a brief escapade at twilight to a Templars' stronghold in the Larzac wilderness, we came back at night for the inauguration. It was an in-house affair, attended by the 500-strong team involved in the project, their relatives, and friends and local public figures. Other than the media that was about it, which created an intimate family feel. The evening began with a flow of champagne, and the usual string of speeches, which I usually find boring, but not so on this occasion. It was clear that everyone present was very moved and proud to have been part of a special moment. This is one of the things I enjoy so much about the Aveyron. It is devoid of any of the scintillating, yet shallow, 'parisianisme' of the capital. It is not about seeing or being seen, or being a scintillating socialite. Here everything is straightforward and authentic, without any pretences, and everyone is valued according to their merits. There is a tremendous respect for hard, quality work over here, which belies our stereotyped notion of the idle, pleasure-seeking French. Beware of stereotypes! And it is because all jobs are highly respected that their completion is always marked with celebrations, which is why there are so many of them in the Aveyron, like an on-going affair. I have never once managed to be in the Aveyron and NOT attend some celebration.
But tonight was a special celebration. It was not about heart-warming, age-old rural traditions as is so often the case here. True, the full moon above our head looked like the ancient wise man who had seen it all, and who had certainly seen 150,000 years of human pastoral life on the Larzac. But the eerie one-line electronic sound that came out of the black, chilly night at the start of the show evoked the future rather, resembling the kind of soundtrack that accompanies science-fiction movies about space. An invisible voice joined in next, unfolding, step by step, the story of man's architectural and engineering feats through the ages, going back to the Pyramids. Hearing the story under the dark infinite sky truly connected me, the spectator from planet earth to the universe, a feeling I so often experience in this unique patch of France. The commentary alternated with music and eventually blended into a beautiful laser show and glorious bouquets of fireworks. Moving on in time it reached the Viaduct, including, naturally, its date of birth-10 October 2001-exactly one month after Sept 11.... I was dumbstruck by the coincidence. How emblematic of the never-ending cycle of construction and destruction, in the midst of which man, the undaunted hero, starts all over again, each time, Sisyphus-like, against all odds and no matter what.
Nowhere in France, have I felt as connected to our history and to our place in the universe as I have in the Aveyron; in other words, nowhere have I had a better sense of the infinity of time and space. It has been a spiritual journey way beyond foie gras, Roquefort and Laguiole cheese, and other charcuteries. Should your heart ever lead you in that direction, I hope you will come out of the journey as humbled and fortified as I have. And with plenty of food for thought at the outset of a New Year, which I wish you to be a happy one.
Credit for photo used in the top banner: Michel Séguret's, a photo called "Trio Ovin".