I was 10 years old and did not want to go and see a bridge at all. What's more, a bridge that was not even built. What a strange idea: going to see a construction site! Adults are strange people: they can go to Disneyland if they feel like it, but no! They'd rather go and see the construction of a bridge...
I remember vaguely this first visit to the future Normandy Bridge. I can still see my grandfather fussing with his camera and asking us to smile in front of the large heaps of soil and the yellow diggers. I still have the picture, where I'm surrounded by my family, looking bored, with a green shell suit.
I was 14 years old and I still didn't want to go and see a bridge, albeit it was built. You have to be an adult coupled with fuddy-duddy to be in raptures and to find that a bridge linking two sides of a river is extraordinary. Pah, what a big deal! Good job I have my Walkman in my hand, two extra batteries and my Nirvana cassettes...
I remember better this second visit. It was indeed awe-inspiring: two huge pylons rising towards the sky, hundreds of taut cables, and the two sides of the bridge were stretching towards one another, like two hands looking for each another. There was only a few metres missing in between them, and those two slender hands would finally touch.
Another picture: I look like a typical teenager: bored, wearing my headphones and an Iron Maiden T-shirt.
I am 34 years old and I really want to show my daughter this civil engineering masterpiece, which, in its days (not that long ago after all: you can tell by the fact I was a kid...), broke all records. The Normandy Bridge was indeed the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, connecting Le Havre and Honfleur over the Seine estuary along more than 2 km (1.5 miles) long!
At the time, it was an incredible challenge. And today, it still stands as an example for all the cable-stayed bridges in the world.
I gave Julie facts and figures about our trip: the pylons that are higher than the Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower) and weigh 20,000 tons each, the deck divided into four lanes for traffic and two lanes for cyclists and two more for pedestrians... But she didn't really care about figures and world records. No, all she was interested in were the two pictures:
'Uh, is that you, here, with the ugly clothes?? Did Grandma made you wear those to punish you? You will not pick me up from school dressed like that, will you?'
'At that time, it was fashionable! That's enough!' I grumbled as my daughter laughed. Clara, as for her, was restraining herself from laughing.
Here it is, the Normandy Bridge within sight: still as enormous as ever, as bright as ever, almost white in the sun. The two pylons, shaped like upside-down Ys, are like two giants rooted in the ground, lookouts always keeping watch over the sea, strong and reliable. Still those cables, which look like fine strings in the distance, and the thin deck curved like the sail of a ship.
It has in fact been designed like a plane in order to resist winds of more than 300 km/h (186 mph)! In the most terrible storms, it bravely comes through unscathed and soars like a motionless albatross, covering the river Seine with its long wings.
Since its inauguration, it has only been closed once, just a few hours: it was during the unforgettable storm of December 1999!
Designed like a plane, it actually looks like a gigantic sailing ship, standing in both the river and the sea, with its main mast and its foremast, with its hundreds of cables for rigging, and its incredibly light deck, so thin it looks like it's windblown, ready to jump into the sea.
But the Normandy Bridge stays where it is to greet the old sailing ships that sail up the river Seine every four years for the Rouen Armada. What more beautiful triumphal arch for these ships than this over-200-metre-high (656 ft.) architectural masterpiece?
We parked close to the structure, on the car park on the right bank of the river, near Le Havre. The crossing is free for pedestrians: yes, we can walk across the Normandy Bridge!
'Are we going on the other side?' Julie asked.
'No, only to the middle, at the highest point of the bridge, to have a look at the view. Then we'll come back here.'
30 minutes walks to reach the top of the bridge, halfway between the pylons. About 2 km (1.5 miles) from the car park. The more we went up the more the view was mind-blowing. Unless it was the wind blowing harder and harder...
It was so windy at the top, 60 metres (196 ft.) above the river Seine, that we couldn't even hear our own voices. Julie really enjoyed it: we stood in line facing the wind and shouted! We barely heard our shouts, they were drawn away, caught and scattered in the distance...
The Seine estuary spread beneath us: thousands of hectares of marshes upstream, Le Havre's Port 2000 and the Channel with dozens of cargo ships downstream.
Oh Look! There, some sheep!'
Julie pointed her finger at some white spots in the distance, vaguely fluffy.
'They are not sheep', Clara corrected, 'but horses!'
'Horses? In the marshes?'
'Yes, I have read it somewhere: they are Camargue horses, they were introduced to maintain the reed beds! They live there, like in their natural habitat, and prevent the marshes from becoming grasslands.'
I knew the estuary served as breeding ground for all the fish in the bay, but I didn't know there was a something of Camargue in Normandy!
While we walked down, we had the chance to observe a wading bird, one of those specialists in picking shellfish (just like me, by the way...): with their long legs and slender bill they can search through the mud for frogs and molluscs. It has to be said that the Seine estuary is a major bird reserve: tens of thousands migratory birds find refuge there every year: it provides shelter from extreme cold and plentiful food supply, and, in this large estuary, they are protected from men.
Wading birds: birds that can accommodate to aquatic habitats as well as fly up in the air.
Here it is, soaring into the air, spreading its long wings. The wind blows its feathers immediately and pushes him high in the sky, its wingspan identical to the one of the Normandy Bridge...