When we checked in to the hotel we spotted a notice saying breakfast would be served from 6.30am and I’d suggested to Paul that we had a long day ahead so we should probably go down then and get on the road as early as possible. He looked at me funny and I had wondered if he was gonna get upset but he seemed to be consoled by me reminding him that that we were in a different time zone to ‘back home’ and it would really only be 7.30am. Of course, when I woke up and it was pitch black outside, I realised I’d done my sums wrong…
So, shortly after 5.30am, we’d eaten breakfast checked out and, after a short panic getting back into the room to collect the satnav which had been so carefully locked away in the safe for, erm, safe keeping, we hit the road.
We’d come up with a list of places to visit today but the first stop was the Circuit de Charade which was a couple of hours away to the south in the Auvergne Mountains above the town of Clermont-Ferrand. The drive down was interesting only for its tedium; miles and miles and miles - well 120 of them - of tree lined roads through flat boring nothingness. We must have passed no more than twenty villages and a similar number of cars.
Turns out that the Auvergne Mountains aren’t really mountains, rather a series of cinder cones and lava domes. Volcanoes to you and I. Now I don’t ever recall seeing a volcano before and suddenly, here we were, surrounded by a seemingly never-ending chain of them stretching for 30 miles. It was quite a sight and something I wasn’t expecting. We made our way to the circuit which, on any other day, I would have been very excited to see but today my mind was elsewhere. It wasn’t that the circuit wasn’t impressive - built around the sides of an extinct volcano it has been described as mini-Nurburgring - but as we drove up through the switchbacks to reach it I kept seeing signs directing me to the top of the largest of the volcanoes. When we were chased out of the venue by two security vehicles I wasn’t overly disappointed and we set off to check out the big volcano.
After a couple of wrong turns we eventually found our way to the foot of the snow-capped Puy-de-Dome. We were very disappointed to discover that, although you can indeed drive to the top via a steep concentric access road, they levy a hefty charge for doing so. We couldn’t justify the expense at the time but I’m kicking myself a little now. Hey ho - we did have a long way to go and we’d lost a lot of time in the area.
I handed the keys to Paul for the drive back to the A75 and south to the MIllau Bridge. It was another 120 miles or so and this allowed me to get a little bit of shut eye. Thankfully I didn’t sleep for too long and woke to see a fantastic sight. My stint may have seen us driving through a flat featureless landscape but we were now heading through a stunning mountainous region which seemed to go on and on. It was quite something.
Le Viaduc de Milau is, at 343 metres high, the tallest vehicular bridge in the world and is an imposing feat of engineering. So it was no surprise that we first caught sight of it more than ten miles before we reached it. It’s that kind of construction. Big. I saw a programme on its construction several years ago on the Discovery channel and had always wanted to visit so I was delighted to be passing by for work. We stopped at the gare de peage and paid our toll - something that we had grown quite used to travelling through France - and headed towards the overlook immediately prior to the bridge. Excitedly we made our way to the top and there she was in front of us, stretching out across the valley carved out deep below by the River Tarn. Somehow it was not as impressive as I had hoped but you can’t take it away from the people who designed and constructed the bridge - British, by the way, a fact we took great delight in reminding the very proud looking locals - they did an amazing job. I would have loved to have gone down into the old village of Millau far far below us to view the bridge from there but we simply had to press on as we were running out of time.
Back in the saddle I drove on through the area known as the Gorges du Tarn - a gorgeous area which somehow reminded me of Zion National Park in Utah - and, after stopping several times for photos, through a tunnel under another snow-capped mountain. When we emerged from the other side there was another transformation. We’d gone from flat nothingness, through a large area of extinct volcanoes, a huge range of mountains, some amazing gorges and canyons and now, as if by magic, we’d suddenly arrived in the Mediterranean. It was quite surreal to suddenly find ourselves driving through areas lined with endless vineyards, palm trees and white houses with terracotta roofs. I don’t know if there’s a word hiding away in the dictionary which describes something which is more surreal than surreal itself but, if there is, this would have been the perfect opportunity to use it.
We’d covered a hundred miles or so since we’d left the bridge at Millau and we still had another couple of hundred ahead of us so it really was time to put the pedal to the metal and get this drive nailed. We cut the trip to the Gorges de Verdon loose and gunned it. Three hours later we finally caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea as we neared Nice. After such a long drive down it was certainly a sight for sore eyes and just about as far removed from the ugly town of Calais where we had started our cross-continent drive yesterday morning.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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