MILLAU, France – Thundering fighter jets streamed the blue, white and red of the French tricolor as President Jacques Chirac (search) on Tuesday dedicated the world's tallest bridge, a skyway span dwarfing the Eiffel Tower by more than 50 feet.
Ahead of its public opening Thursday, the Millau bridge (search) in southern France has been celebrated as a work of art combining the strength of cement and steel with the "delicacy of a butterfly."
Images of the bridge, which dominates the Rhone Valley (search) countryside for miles, have appeared in national media for days.
Stretching 1.6 miles through France's Massif Central mountains, the bridge will enable motorists to take a drive 891 feet above the Tarn River valley.
Chirac underscored the national pride stirred by the bridge by lifting a French flag from its ceremonial plaque, followed by air force jets trailing the colors of France.
"This exceptional opening will go down in industrial and technological history," Chirac said, praising the designers and builders for creating "a prodigy of art and architecture — a new emblem of French civil engineering."
The bridge will serve as a symbol of "a modern and conquering France," he said.
Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the steel-and-concrete bridge with its streamlined diagonal suspension cables rests on seven pillars — the tallest measuring 1,122 feet, making it 53 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower.
Foster said in an interview with regional daily Midi Libre that the bridge's airy and fluid appearance was designed to have the "delicacy of a butterfly."
"A work of man must fuse with nature. The pillars had to look almost organic, like they had grown from the Earth," Foster, who also designed London's Millennium Bridge.
In an editorial Tuesday, Le Monde declared the bridge "a work of art."
Colorado's Royal Gorge Bridge, (search) towering 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River, is the world's tallest suspension bridge.
The Kochertal viaduct in Germany was the highest roadway, at 607 feet, officials said.
Millau, whose skyline is dominated by the bridge, had until now been best-known outside France as the site where anti-globalization crusader Jose Bove dismantled a McDonald's restaurant.
The $523 million bridge was commissioned to open a new north-south link between Paris and the Mediterranean and is expected to relieve bottlenecks caused by trucks and tourists headed to the Riviera.
Special roundtrip bus rides over the bridge were planned for Wednesday for residents a day before the span opens to vehicles.
Some 28,000 vehicles a day are expected to cross the bridge in the summer months, and about 10,000 a day the rest of the year, according to France's Eiffage construction company, which built it.
Tolls for motorists will vary from $6.50 in winter to $8.60 in summer. Trucks will have to pay $32.24 year round.