If the name of this town rings a bell it’s surely because of the Millau Viaduct, a record-breaking bridge that crosses the Tarn River valley.
The Viaduct practically has its own tourist industry: You could take to the skies on a paragliding flight or drive along to the village of Peyre to see it bestriding the valley like something from the world of sci-fi.
But in Millau itself there’s lots to arouse your interest, from the ancient kilns that supplied the Roman world with pottery to the fossil of a prehistoric underwater beast and a tower built for the 12th-century King of Aragon.
Lets explore the best things to do in Millau:
1. Millau Viaduct
The name “Millau” is now a byword for the wonder of engineering that crosses the Tarn a few kilometres to the west.
The Millau Viaduct opened in 2004 and is the tallest bridge in the world, leaving most people speechless when it hoves into view.
It was the work of engineer Michel Virlogeux and architect Norman Foster, and the truth is that if you’re in Millau and don’t drive across it or come to the visitor centre you’ll be missing out.
The Viaduc Escape Info presents all of the overwhelming statistics and lets you enter the P2 pillar, also the tallest structure of its kind in the world.
2. La Graufesenque
Make sure you see this Gallo-Roman archaeological site on the other side of the Tarn.
This was a village of potters, but it was no cottage industry; the kilns here could produce up to 40,000 pots at a time, outstripping anything in the rest of the Roman empire.
Pottery made here has been unearthed all over the Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, even being found as far away as India.
Go with a guide who will have many more incredible facts to tell you about these firing ovens, and the workshops, homes and sanctuary around them.
3. Musée de Millau
The town’s museum has many of these ancient red-varnished ceramics on show, in an exhibit described as the most important collection of pottery from the Roman Empire.
But it also maps out the natural history, human prehistory, medieval trades and traditional ways of life in both Millau and the Grands Causses.
You’re right in the middle of old Millau here, in an 18th-century townhouse with 30 rooms to examine.
Among the many cool things to see are the skeleton of an elasmosaurus, a marine dinosaur, and the leatherworking and glove-making workshops, revealing crafts that were the lifeblood of Millau for hundreds of years.
4. Beffroi de Millau
The town’s belfry is all that survives of a 12th-century palace that once symbolised the power of the King of Aragon.
It’s as sophisticated as anything from that era, and the fact that it is still intact around 900 years later shows it was built with expertise.
In the 1600s the tower was bought by the town to house the bell, and later during times of strife like the Revolution prisoners were held inside.
Now it’s a sight that is open all summer for you to climb the 210 steps to survey the town and the plateaux of the Grands Causses.
5. Lavoir de l’Ayrolle
This building has a grandiose air, especially when you realise what it was made for.
The Lavoir de l’Ayrolle is a public washhouse where locals would bring their laundry.
This one took shape in the 1740s on the orders of Louis XV, and looks like a Roman triumphal arch, surrounded by Neoclassical arcades topped by a pediment and balustrade.
There had been a roof, but this collapsed in the 1770s.
It was just outside the walls, on the west side of the city, before the ramparts were replaced by the leafy boulevards there today.
6. Chaos de Montpellier-le-Vieux
A totally bewitching site in the Grands Causses is this blockfield just down from the Dourbie Gorge.
There are 120 hectares of massive dolomite rocks, distorted into all kinds of bizarre shapes like the Porte de Mycene natural arch.
You can catch a mini train to get you to the centre of the site as conveniently as possible, and the setting is laced with walking trails beckoning you past the strangest rock-forms and up to scenic lookouts.
These trails vary in difficulty, but if you’re up to the task the red trail rewards you with photos you’ll be dying to share with friends.
7. Paragliding Trip
This might seem like an extreme or niche activity, but it has literally taken off around Millau and everyone who has tried it will tell you it’s the ultimate way to see the viaduct.
There are at least six companies in the town providing parasailing, paragliding or microlight trips, and the activity is more accessible than you might think as it’s open to almost ages and weights, up to 120kg.
Really, you’re just a passenger strapped in with an experienced pilot.
And the plateaux in Millau couldn’t make it easier, as with just a couple of steps your canopy will be caught by the thermals and you’ll be floating over the viaduct.
8. Pont Vieux et Moulin Vieux
An odd structure will catch your eye as you come into Millau on the Pont Lerouge over the Tarn.
Beside this bridge are two arches of a much older bridge, at the end of which is an old mill.
This structure looks precarious to say the least, as the mill on top is cantilevered by rows of wooden beams.
The bridge would have been completed sometime around the start of the 12th century, and had 17 arches across the tarn as well as being fortified by three towers.
The mill there now is from the 1700s and includes the foundations of one of these towers in its construction.
It all adds up to a very distinctive sight that is currently being restored after a flood in 2012.
A few kilometres downstream from the viaduct is this village, squeezed between the Tarn and an impassable wall of tufa rock.
Many of the village’s houses are actually troglodytic, in that they’re dug from this soft stone, and you can see where the cave is riddled with man-made caves from ancient homes.
You can mill around Peyre’s crevasse-like streets, which are mercifully cool in summer, but you’ll find it hard to tear your gaze from the viaduct, whose giant outline is always present in the distance above the river.
You also know the name of this town because of a cheese that is exported across the globe.
Here you can realise many a foodie’s dream and see the very cellar where this cheese is stored to mature.
These are natural caves, formed when the Combalou Mountain collapsed millions of years ago, and then sculpted into a labyrinth of chambers where many thousands of blocks of Roquefort sheep’s cheese are tended by master cheese-makers.
This isn’t something that can replicated anywhere else: AOC rules state even the fungus penicillium roqueforti has to come from these caves for the cheese to be called Roquefort!
11. Millau’s Townhouses
Recognised nationally as a Town of Art and History, Millau has a few private sights that are still listed as historic monuments.
These are the kinds of things you should add to your walking tour of the centre.
The 17th-century Hôtel de Sambucy on Boulevard d’Ayrolle, is certainly one to keep in mind.
This was commissioned by the local “Conseiller du Roi”, who held an elevated position in Louis XIV’s regime.
This property isn’t to be confused with Hôtel de Sambucy de Miers on Rue Saint-Antione, which has much older origins going back to medieval times, and was updated in the 1600s.
12. Grands Causses Regional Park
Millau is woven into this landscape of plateaux etched by the Dourbie, Jonte and Tarn rivers, creating majestic gorges.
You hardly need to go far to see some landscapes that you’ll remember long after you’ve gone home.
The Puncho d’Agast rears up to the north and is ringed with cliffs near its summit.
Ambitious walkers scramble up for unbeatable views of Millau, while it’s another good location for paragliding and you’ll see the colourful canopies swirling around this peak from the town.
Those sheer walls of rock are a climber’s dream, and if you’re not ready to scale the cliffs vertically the Via Ferrata du Boffi is a cliff-side suspended walkway that kits you out with a helmet and harness for an activity that is much safer than it looks!
13. Maison des Vautours
Vultures were once endemic to the Cévennes, but had died out before being reintroduced to great success in the 1970s.
And from Millau, if you follow the Tarn just beyond Le Rozier you’ll arrive at a visitor centre that lets you observe these raptors in their natural habitat.
There’s an observation deck equipped with rotating telescopes that let you track griffon, monk, bearded and Egyptian vultures in flight and see their nests in the cliffs.
There’s also a museum all about vultures, their habits, history and the reintroduction project.
14. Abbaye de Sylvanès
An easy road trip from Millau will take you to this Cistercian convent from the 1100s, established by a converted brigand no less.
In a story repeated across France, the abbey was almost destroyed in the Revolution.
But the church, chapterhouse, scriptorium and the east gallery of the cloister were all salvaged.
In the summer the International Sacred Music Festival is a season of around 30 performances and recitals that began in 1977 and are held in the abbey church or outside in the atmospheric cloister.
Initially the festival was all about Christian Early Music, but the focus has shifted to include all backgrounds and regions of the world.
15. Local Produce
In the Grands Causses you can also go to the sources of the region’s culinary heritage.
We’ve already mention Roquefort cheese, but that’s one of a cornucopia of products.
There’s a honey farm in Veyreau, chestnut groves in Ayssènes, cherry orchards in Paulhe and sheep farms in Saint Affrique, all open to inquisitive food-lovers.
But few delicacies share the mystique of the truffle, and at Comprégnac the Maison de la Truffe will tell you all you need to know on the culture and harvest of this coveted fungus.
Morning from Wednesday to Sunday the palatial iron and glass market on Place des Halles in Millau will sell many of these items, and there are special farmers’ markets on Place Foch on summer evenings.