Aveyron: the Larzac Wilderness

Aveyron: the Larzac Wilderness

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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 rendezvous 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.


Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Volume I, II,
III published by Iliad Books, UK, and Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK).

To find out more and order Thirza Vallois’s books, visit her website: www.thirzavallois.com

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