These days, it’s hard for us to imagine the impact a single bridge can have on a city. We live in an age when geographical barriers are easily eliminated by infrastructural developments and modern forms of transportation.
Just a few hundred years ago, however, Budapest, Hungary was actually two cities – Buda on the west side and Pest on the east – divided by the formidable Danube River. While a pontoon boat transported passengers from bank to bank for part of the year, it was impossible to cross the river during the winter months. The nearest permanent river crossing was in Vienna, which today is a three hour drive from Budapest. It is said that one of Hungary’s preeminent leaders, Count István Széchenyi, found himself unable to make it across the river to his father’s funeral for several weeks one winter, whereupon he committed to constructing a permanent bridge for himself and the citizens of the city.
William Tierney Clark, a British engineer with extensive experience designing span-style bridges, was contracted to fulfill this commitment, and the Széchenyi Bridge, affectionately called “The Chain Bridge,” was finished and opened to the public in 1849.
The Chain Bridge gets its name from the iron chains that suspend it from two stone piers. The chains are burly and industrial-looking, and their length is punctuated by steel rivets.
The rivets allow the bridge to absorb small movements – much like the pins in a bike chain foster its flexibility – and therefore withstand the movements of the air, earth, and water that threaten the bridge’s integrity. The ends of each of the two chains are anchored into iron blocks which are buried in the banks on either side of the river, and the stone piers are decorated with huge protective lion carvings.
Once the bridge was completed, there were no longer two cities; a new metropolis, “Budapest,” was forged by the structure. Walking across the bridge I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live so close – and yet so far – from another settlement. The change must have been dramatic when a journey across the divide turned from a rare and time consuming boat ride to a simple afternoon stroll.
That stroll is made by thousands of people every day, and it is clear that the Chain Bridge is by far the most beloved of Budapest’s Danube crossings. Its charming nighttime illumination, which began in 1937, is no doubt a part of the structure’s appeal. Although everything but the piers was blown apart in a 1945 bombing, the city amassed the funds to have it rebuilt before the end of 1947 – an indication of the centrality of this bridge to the community.
While taking one of my laps across the Danube, I noticed that the “love lock” tradition is in full effect on here. Padlocks with the names of couples (and occasionally individuals expressing their own version of the custom) written on them are affixed to many of the light fixtures on the bridge. There can be no stronger testimony to a structure’s centrality in a city’s consciousness that then a decision to publicly profess love upon it – in permanent marker, on a lock whose key has been thrown to the winds. I saw people taking pictures of the bridge from every possible position – including halfway up the tower and suspended above the roadway, and I watched the filming of a movie scene from on one of the span’s sidewalks.
I like the fact that a structure whose function is to bring people and areas together is at the heart of this city. It seems particularly fitting for this city that has been at the crossroads of many empires.
It seems Katy Perry thinks so too. Here’s her “Fireworks” video, filmed right here…