New bridge raises French pride higher than Eiffel

The world's tallest road bridge opened Tuesday in southern France.

A walk through the Tarn River valley in southern France is a reminder of ages gone by. Descend the verdant hills of Midi-Pyrénées and you'll pass centuries-old villages, and shepherds dotting the hillsides.

But further down the valley, near the banks of the Tarn River, the pastoral scene abruptly ends.

Towering above the gray rocks and primeval trees that line this lazy river stretches a state-of-the-art symbol of modern architecture, its seven staggering pillars piercing the valley mist. The Millau Bridge - the world's tallest - has arrived.

Looking up from the valley floor, you might struggle to see the bridge's underside: often, only the pillars are visible, as fog tends to engulf the roadway that spans the empyrean.

Standing on one of the surrounding mountains the picture is reversed: a futuristic expressway apparently floating on top of the clouds.

Even the bridge's builders are awed.

"Our company has done a lot of construction over the years, but this project surpasses everything we have done so far,'' says Jean-Pierre Martin of Eiffage, the French group behind the bridge.

In the visitor center, huge drawings illustrate the project's uniqueness. One poster shows London's Big Ben reaching less than halfway up Millau's pillars.

American visitors may be disappointed to learn that San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge doesn't equal this towering piece of art.

Already, as many as 500,000 visitors have come to stare at this wonder of the world from panoramic sites in the mountains, created by order of the city council.

Stores in town are filled with magazines and books devoted to British architect Norman Foster's design. One cafe even has a new name: "Au pied du viaduc" [At the Foot of the Bridge].

French president Jacques Chirac inaugurated the bridge Tuesday as fighter jets roared overhead. Starting Thursday, cars can drive the 2.5-kilometer (1.6 mile) route that completes France's newest highway, connecting Paris to the Mediterranean.

The French have long had a reputation for cutting-edge architecture and construction.

Each president in the modern era has left a physical heritage, with Francois Mitterrand's glass pyramid at the entrance of the Louvre Museum in Paris being one of the most iconic examples.

The Millau Bridge, however, was a private project. Eiffage financed the bridge for 300-400 million euros ($399-532 million). Revenue will be generated by tolls.

Gazing at the majestic concrete and steel structure, you might feel like a Tom Thumb.

Mr. Martin, who was in charge of the building process, notes that "the pillars can swing a bit from left to right, and the road surface may wobble and wiggle a bit, but all within limits.''

But extensive testing has been done: A huge convoy of 28 trucks drove up and down just before its opening. They made it, and the bridge is still standing tall.

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