The French will on Tuesday again reinforce their reputation for style. The tallest traffic bridge in the world will be unveiled and carry motorists at 270 meters (886 feet) above a picturesque valley in southern France.
The Millau bridge opens for cars Thursday
Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the bridge near the town of Millau stretches two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) through a mountain range, melding into the surrounding environment, according to the eminent designer. When it officially opens to motorists on Thursday, the mammoth construction will remove one of France's most notorious traffic bottlenecks.
The bridge is built of steel and concrete and cost €390 million ($519 million). It rests on seven pillars, one of which -- dubbed P2 -- climbs to 343 meters above ground level, making it 23 meters higher than the Eiffel Tower. Like a taut thread pierced by a line of needles, the silhouette dominates the countryside for miles around and has been praised as a classic marriage of aesthetics and science. More than 60,000 people have already paid for tours of the construction site.
The viaduct is not only the tallest in the world, it is also the longest cable-stayed bridge. President Jacques Chirac will officially inaugurate it during Tuesday's ceremony, three years after work began. Some 3,000 people employed by the French construction giant Eiffage, which holds the right to draw a toll for the next 75 years, worked on the construction.
Delicacy of a butterfly
The bridge was commissioned in order to open up a new north-south route across central France and relieve pressure from truck drivers and tourists bound for the Mediterranean and Spain in the saturated Rhone Valley corridor to the east.
Motorists will be charged a fee of €4.90 to use the bridge. Truck drivers will have to pay about four times as much. The operators are predicting an average of 10,000 vehicles per day,
with a peak of 25,000 during the summer season when tariffs will be increased. If the bridge proves unexpectedly profitable, the French state has the right to take possession from 2044.
Weighing some 36,000 tons, the bridge was assembled as much as possible off-site. Large sections were lifted by giant crane and slid onto the pillars, with the two ends meeting in May. It has been built to withstand wind-speeds of up to 250 kilometers per hour.
But star architect Foster did not just preside over an excellent feat of engineering. The bridge could not look as if it had been tacked onto the scenery, he said. It had to rise out of the landscape with the delicacy of a butterfly.