The more I read about Gustav Eiffel, the more amazed I am at the variety and number of projects he and his company executed. Among his early projects, I knew that the beautiful red arc of the Viaduct at Garabit was one of the most important things he did long before he built that famous tower in Paris.
But I was surprised to find that Eiffel was active in the deep heart of France long before even that. As I drove the country roads along the great gorges of the Sioule river in the Auvergne, I caught a glimpse of a graceful dark line appearing from the trees on one side of the river and shooting across to a point high on the valley wall on the other side.
This, as it turns out, is the Viaduct de Rouzat. Eiffel et Compagnie built this – the first of its type that he had undertaken – to carry a railroad line high above the gorge. It’s 130 meters long, and he did it in 1869 – a full 15 years before the structure at Garabit, and 20 years before the Eiffel Tower!
In fact, he had only been in business for himself for two years when his firm got the commission to help complete a major rail line – la ligne de Commentry à Gannat. This was an ambitious project, intended to make the long-distance connection from east to west, from Lyon to Bordeaux, so the segment entrusted to Eiffel was particularly important.
The bigger project didn’t go well. There were too many areas of rough terrain, too many corporate competitors involved, too much focus on getting one segment done at the expense of another. In the end, it took almost 20 years before a train could make a complete journey along the line.
Eiffel’s work went as planned, though, and the Viaduct de Rouzat is instantly recognizable as one of his projects. Like his other structures, this one is functional above everything else – yet there is grace in the ironwork and in the massive masonry pillars, a lacing together of pieces that make it as artistic as it is functional.
And it’s not the only work Eiffel did on this line – a little further up the road along the Sioule you’ll find the Viaduct de Neuvial, also completed in 1869. Its ironwork is painted white, barely visible through the trees in the summertime, but unmistakably also in the style of Eiffel.
The thing that struck me most as I visited both these sites is how remote they are. People riding on the trains across these bridges can’t see the structures beneath them – and even if they could, they’d more likely be looking in awe at the deep green valley and the riverbed below. And these are not really tourist attractions at all; they must be searched out, reached on gravel roads that are only wide enough in places for one car to pass, and when you do find them they are only fleetingly visible among the trees.
Tourists do see them, though. The Gorges of the Sioule are two-star attractions in the Michelin guide, and for good reason. This is one of the best examples of an environement sauvage in the deep heart of France, officially classified as a “Natural Zone of Interest” for ecology, flora and fauna. In practical terms, that means this is one of the most attractive regions in France for fishing, bicycling, hiking and especially canoeing. (See a very nice article on a family outing in this area here.)
Nothing was happening on that scale, though, when Gustav Eiffel’s team came here in the 1860s. For me, these two viaducts are perfect examples of Eiffel’s lifelong obsession with proving that practical considerations do not have to mean compromise on the aesthetic quality of a structure.
That obsession culminated, of course, in the work he did for the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower – but it’s pleasing to stop along the road deep in these gorges and contemplate what it means in this out-of-the-way little paradise!
Do you have a favorite spot that is off the beaten path for tourists in France? Would you please share what you know in the comments section below?