From Rennes we began our descent southwards on the glorious French autoroutes towards our next destination – the fabulously quaint medieval town of St Guilhem-le-Desert where we’d be staying the night. We didn’t tell the girls, as we know from past visits that they love this little gem of a place almost carved out of the steep rock, high in the mountains once frequented by Cathars and Albigens, fleeing Roman Catholic persecution centuries before the Reformation. We knew the girls were hoping we’d visit the town during our stay; it’s a labyrinth of narrow winding streets, sometimes hardly wide enough for two people to pass (cars must park outside the town).The streets are lined with small shops and businesses selling a selection of the usual tourist tack but also some excellent local ‘artisanale’ produce like art-work, jewelry, wines, eaux-de-vie, and ice-cream!
Instead we pretended we would be staying the night in a roadside lodge like Formule 1 or Camponile! (Our gite would be available the afternoon of the following day.) Our gullible girls totally bought into the hoax and didn’t guess what was happening until late afternoon when we pulled into St Guilhem!
We chose to use the A75 autoroute via Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, and regretted we did not have a recording of Kiri Te Kenawa singing Canteloube’s beautiful ‘Chants’ from this region on any of our iPods to accompany us. [Listen here to Karita Mattila singing ‘Bailero’ – I think it was used for a Dubonnet ad in the 70s!] One of the other reasons for going this way was that ‘Mademoiselle’ on the Tom-Tom had directed us to do so.
We’ve had a Tom-Tom since the beginning of this year (it was one of those functional joint Christmas presents between Judith and me) and we have used it several times in the UK and once – at Easter – in France. My wife dutifully keeps it up-to-date, syncing it with her lap top and downloading upgrades and new stuff. It was also a general family consensus to choose the female voice (hence Miss Tom-Tom) as opposed to the rather sergeant-majorly male Mr Tom-Tom vocals. No bother from my direction, as little Miss Tom-Tom has a benign, yet determined tone, which frankly I find rather sexy. In any case she informs me well in advance of a turning to the left or right, reminding me as we approach in a strong but stressless tone of the need again; this I say, in comparison to a certain ‘Madame’ (our previous auto guide) who often used to give indications in a rather flustered, uncertain tone, and often rather too late to turn safely, followed by a telling off and a moan something like “I told you it was back there at the crossing, stupid… Oh how can I be expected to read this silly map!”
No. I was not one to complain if the new little Miss Tom-Tom occasionally over-egged the directional pudding with a “In. 800 yards. Keep left. Then. Keep left.” followed shortly by “Keep left” all articulated in her most dulcet tones. There were only a couple of occasions on this particular holiday when she strangely chose to direct us calmly, and with uncanny assurance, into a field of vines or a road which narrowed successively into an impassable mountain track. Fortunately we were blessed with 4 wheel drive. The Volvo that is. But it was only then – once we had stopped believing her – and managed to turn back and follow landmarks and signposts (remember them?) did Miss Tom-Tom’s interminable, yet still strangely beguiling “Turn around. When possible.” begin to grate and we unanimously exclaimed “Shut up!” and unceremoniously switched her off.
Still, she did us proud on the way down. Not least because the route she chose included crossing the famous Viaduc de Millau (see below) – a huge high cable-bridge bypassing the town of Millau – which opened only a few years ago. It is a wonder of engineering, designed by British architect Norman Foster and structural engineer Michel Virlogeux, it is nearly 2500m long and has the highest pylons and masts in the world. At its tallest point the mast is taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 38m shorter than the Empire State Building. We teased the girls again travelling down (consensually this time) every time we crossed any old bridge, exclaiming “This is it. Look! Isn’t it amazing!”
I’m not sure if this increased the wow-factor when we did eventually cross the Millau viaduct, but it was breath-taking. The bridge is so long and so high that sometimes misty clouds form under it, veiling the river valley below, and making it look like you are driving to heaven!
Clearly it has helped cut congestion in the town below and shortened travel time to and from the south. The motorway is being extended to Beziers, an ancient industrial town on the Canal du Midi. Currently it terminates around Pezenas – a town of which we discovered the delights only last year, but paid several trips this year.