Drew P A Smith

Comforting country and soaring above it

We drove out of Albi, pointing towards gentle hills. This was comforting countryside, an unctuous and undulating Sunday-morning duvet in the form of a landscape. Rendered in lucid green and corduroy brown, it enveloped and elevated us as we traced along its ridge lines and valleys, edging closer and closer to the gorge. By the time we’d reach Le Rozier, that lucid green would middle out, the corduroy brown would turn to raw umber. Things would become dryer, crunchier, almost alpine.

We’d been avoiding the Péages, France’s eye-wateringly expensive toll roads, on account of the fact that they also tend to be mind-numbingly boring. I made an exception around Millau.

On one of the trips I did with my folks way back when, dad took us on a detour to see one of Gustaf Eiffel’s early works, the Viaduc de Garabit. Ever since, when I know I’m near to some major feat of engineering or architecture or design, I too will often make the detour. And so we joined the Péage that would take us across the Norman Foster-designed Viaduc de Millau.

Great design can lift the soul and connect us to something larger than ourselves. As we soared across the Gorge du Tarn on this expression of architectural and engineering elegance, I got that unmistakeable but almost inexplicable feeling in my guts that comes from being in the presence of something truly wondrous.

In Le Rozier, we picked a hike from an app, not paying too much attention to the details. Intermediate difficulty, and intermediate fitness required. Neither of these indications prepared us for an ascent to the holy cross via via ferrata, nor for an ankle-breaking descent over slicked limestone and gnarled oak roots. But in between we were treated to chest-thumping views, the moss-wet smells of the undergrowth lifted by the warmth of that French light, and a wild boar that thundered across our path.

Along the way, we passed tiny houses and old hermitages, mostly long-abandoned to the earth and the vultures. But some, near the start of the trail, were still in use, recently restored or in the process of becoming so. As we climbed towards the cross, we met a couple — he in harem pants and a singlet, she wearing sunglasses last fashionable in the 90s and now fashionable again and an intense shade of red on her lips. Neither were older than 45. From our vantage point alongside God, we could watch them check the doors of their little village of houses before they slipped out of view in to one of them. What brought them here? And what do they do here? It’s a question that preoccupies me every time I find myself in a hamlet far from a city but with signs of life. That I ask this only goes to show that I need to get out more.