I suppose in recent years Millau has become synonymous with the magnificent viaduct which carries the A75 autoroute across the Tarn valley about three kilometers west of the town. There is a certain irony to this because the very thing that has put Millau on the map ensures most people now zoom straight past it. We didn't. Since we used the town's lovely, yet inexpensive Deux Rivieres campsite, both on the way south and coming home, we never actually crossed the famous bridge, thus saving ourselves about €18 in tolls. It's this kind of serendipitous moment that provokes Gill to remark "All good!" Which she just has, as I brought news of our windfall to her attention.
Which brings us obliquely to the question of harem pants. It was precisely because we did not opt to cross the viaduct that we found ourselves ensnared in Millau town centre's experiment in 'shared space' traffic management.
In the event, I was proven correct. Even the local hairdresser promised all products were vegan compliant and 'bio'. Although it's an unlikely scenario, if I was going to have a perm or my hair dyed aquamarine, personally, I would want the product to have been thoroughly tested on Dolly the sheep beforehand.
Once I come across something that intrigues me, I have to investigate further. I am not given at all to Gallic 'c'est la vie' shoulder shrugging. So I ended up googling 'harem pants'. It turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. There are two styles: high crutch and low crutch. The former are simple garments resembling light weight voluminous jogging pants, the latter a more complex affair with a baggy crutch that hangs below the knee, resembling a DIY attempt to make a maxi-skirt that went horribly wrong. Both types are offered in vaguely sixties styled Paisley or ethnic patterns, apart from a black sheer varient, pitched primarily at devotees of belly dancing.
The obvious question, if like me you are cursed with an insatiable curiosity, is where did the style come from? Not a harem, certainly. Vintage photographs of Ottoman and Berber harems in the nineteenth century show women in long black skirts.
These influences, mediated through Hollywood (the pantomime costumes of Aladdin Disneyfied), vague longings for the simplicities of the hippy trail, or a sense of 'wellness' derived from scented candles, alternative medicine and small statuettes of Buddha - all this mumbo-jumbo I think is mixed up in the desire to don floaty patterned pants of voluminous proportions.
It's not just the atmosphere of the place which has changed. Millau looks different too. The first time we ventured into the Languedoc was in the summer of 1994. The towns and villages of the Corbieres and Causse had a uniformly sludge-like palour, as almost every older building was faced in dull cement, much of it crumbling, though occasionally cheered-up by faded painted gable advertising Dubonnet or Gitanes. It's easy to get nostalgic about the France of yore, complete with clapped out Deux- Chevaux, elderly peasants in blue overalls wobbling homewards with a few groceries packed in a wooden fruit box tied precariously onto the back of a mobelette.
This is not some Stella Artois advert fantasy; rural France really looked like this when we became regular visitors four decades ago. In parts it occasionally still does, but for the most part the country has embraced retail sprawl like the rest of us. As France developed economically, ordinary people became much better off and that is a good thing. The extent of this progress only becomes apparent when you revisit somewhere like Millau after a break of more than a decade.
Another change were new buildings in the town centre. The French are much less ambivalent than we are about 'la Moderne'. They construct boldly designed contemporary style buildings in the midst of old streets and celebrate the startling juxtaposition rather than worry about them 'fitting in' or grumbling about 'concrete carbuncles'. I particularly liked the way old and new had been melded together in the area around Millau's refurbished market hall. We promised ourselves breakfast here, but failed to get up quickly enough. Next time perhaps.
One of the more intriguing aspects of France is how it has embraced globalisation yet simultaneously supported local producers and to some extent traditional, rural based industry. I am old enough to remember a junior school Phillips Atlas with a map of British cities and their specialist industries - Stockport (hats), Wellingborough (shoes), Consett (steel), Sunderland (glass), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (shipbuilding), Stoke-on-Trent (ceramics). All gone, or foreign owned. A similar atlas of France would have shown next to Millau - leatherwork and glove-making. It's still going strong, not the odd craft shop here and there but two substantial 'ganterie' selling high end products with window displays reminiscent of the boutiques of the 1st arrondissement - and that lifts the spirits.