The lively town of Millau in the Aveyron département has been and will forevermore be intimately linked with that marvel of innovative modern design and engineering, the nearby Viaduct of Millau, since its inauguration in December 2004. Millau’s previous claims to fame are not inconsiderable, however, and it nestles in the heart of some of France’s, and Europe’s, most remarkable scenery. A gateway to the Massif Central, Millau happily continues to cultivate a relaxing southern character, while preserving the reminders of its periods of vibrant prosperity.
The first of these would have been as the predominant purveyor of pottery throughout the Roman Empire, beginning during the reign of Augustus in the 1st century B.C. At the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie rivers, just east of Millau, the Gallo-Roman settlement of Condatomagus had been a principal market town for decades. It was soon found to be an ideal location for the production of pottery: rich clay soil, limitless water from the two rivers, and abundant wood for the kilns from the forests of the nearby limestone plateaus, the Causses. Before long, the typical sigillated pottery from here – decorated with geometric or floral motifs with a high-quality glossy finish, and often with a distinctly Greek influence – was being exported far and wide, across Europe and throughout the entire known world as far as the Middle East and India; examples of this pottery have been found as well in the ruins of Pompeii. Excavations of La Graufesenque, as the site of Condatomagus is known, began in the 1950s, and revealed an entire city devoted to the production of pottery, with temples, ceramics ateliers, slaves’ houses, and of course the enormous kilns capable of firing tens of thousands of pieces at a time. The excavations make for an interesting excursion from Millau; the Roman system of central heating (hypocaust) is a marvellous conception even today. The Museum of Millau, housed in the 18th century Hôtel de Pégayrolles, has a wonderful display of pottery and other artefacts from the site.
Having survived the usual Dark Ages scenarios, including Barbarian invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries, and having changed its name meanwhile to Amiliavum, the town next put itself on the commercial map as a world-renowned centre for fine-leather glove-making. Already in the 12th century, the mégisseries of Millau were in full swing – tanneries specializing in working the delicate hides of the flocks of sheep, ewes, and goats supported by the broad grazing expanses of the Causses. Fine lambskin gloves would have been worn by the nobility and clergy for centuries, and as late as the beginning of the 20th century Millau remained the glove capital of France, producing at least 600,000 pairs annually, each one passing through up to seventy different workers’ hands in the process. Inevitably, however, the industry declined in the face of competition from developing countries using largely inferior but cheaper materials and workforce, and as gloves also fell from popularity as a fashion accessory, the industry turned to the production of other leather goods. Millau’s finest gloves however can still be found in deluxe fashion outlets everywhere, and there are tours of tanneries, glove factories, and a Museum of Leather for lovers of this type of excellent craftsmanship.
The town centre of Millau offers some interesting and entertaining snapshots into its history. The covered Place Marshall Foch, dating in part from the 12th century, still has its ancient pillory and further along, the faint remains of the salutary inscription, “gara qué faras”, or “watch what you’re doing”. From the top of the 42-metre square 12th century Belfry you could also watch what everyone else in town was doing, with fine panoramic views over the centre as well as the imposing landscape surrounding Millau: the gorges where the rivers have carved their way through the bluffs of the Causses, and of course the Viaduct. The Church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Espinasse, as the name suggests, was claimed to have housed part of the original Crown of Thorns, and was an important pilgrimage site in the Middle-Ages. Completely destroyed in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 17th, it features some fine frescoes, as does the Church of Saint-Martin just across the Place Emma Calvé. The local tourist office runs guided tours through the historic old town centre. The Botanical Gardens of the Causse feature 3,500 trees and shrubs including 80 different species from the nearby plateaus. An international concours de petanque is an annual highlight, along with the Millau Jazz Festival, and a well-known fossil and mineral exposition/market.
Millau offers the perfect starting point for excursions into the often stunning landscapes that surround it. The town is dominated by the 841-metre Puncho d’Agast and lies in the centre of the highlands of the Parc Naturel Régional des Grandes Causses, created in 1995, which encompasses over 327,000 hectares of rugged limestone plateaus and dramatic gorges carved through them by the Tarn and the Dourbie rivers. The great Causse de Larzac offered a mighty stronghold to the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitallers, whose fortifications date back to the 12th century. More recently, it was the scene of a decade-long stand-off between local farmers and the French military, who in the 1970s attempted to appropriate 14,000 hectares for extended manoeuvers. The farmers hit back with demonstrations, occupations, burning of army papers, and generally making themselves so vociferously unpleasant that the military finally gave up its plans. The conflict was an early engagement in the career of adamant anti-globalisation activist José Bové, who was later to demolish a McDonald’s restaurant that was being built in Millau. Bové was later pardoned, but the burger joint was built anyway. Shame.
Not far from Millau to the southwest is the ancestral home of another world-famous speciality of France, an early variation of which was supposedly known to Pliny in first-century Rome and later was to find favour with Charlemagne, Voltaire, Diderot, Casanova. Legend has it that Roquefort cheese was the result of a fortuitous meeting of the green mould Penicillium roqueforti and a sheep’s-milk-curd sandwich in the ancient caves that tunnel under the mountain at Combalou, at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. A royal edict of 1411 granted a monopoly on the production of this cheese to the village; it was granted AOC status in 1925, and a tribunal of 1961 ruled that only cheese from Combalou could use the name Roquefort. Nowadays the Societe des Caves de Roquefort is responsible for 60% of all production, and has an interesting museum featuring an animated model landscape showing the origins of the caves, films describing the cheesemaking process, tours of the processing and storage facilities, and of course a tasting room and shop.
The spectacular highlight of the region’s scenery must be the Gorges du Tarn, which extend from just below Florac, not far from the river’s source on Mont Lozère, along more than 50km of dramatic vistas, with pretty villages half-embedded in the limestone cliffs, ruined 12th century churches and châteaux, and all manner of flora and fauna to accompany you on your ramblings. Wedged in between the Causse Sauveterre and the Causse Méjean, the Gorges can be explored by car (although it’s much less enjoyable if you’re the driver), by kayak or canoe (but not for the inexperienced), or along the numerous walking trails which take in some of the most dramatic scenery. For the more active set, the region offers outdoor activities to suit everyone: hanggliding and paragliding centres, mountain bikes, climbing courses, eight regional equestrian centres, as well as instruction in the more tranquil art of flyfishing, especially along the Dourbie.
© OT Millau
© OT Millau
Gorges du Tarn photo
© Gilles Tordjman
Gloves at the Millau Museum
© Musée de Millau
© Musée de Millau
© OT Millau