I’m not sure if you can even call it a bridge. The first time I came here, I was driven by my friend Iñaki who said ‘’you’ve never crossed a river in this way before.” He drove us to Portugalete, a small town in the suburbs of Bilbao, where the river Nervión separates neighbouring towns from one another. It was here where I first saw the thing, a tall industrial structure and UNESCO world heritage site, made from Iron. Along the top is a footbridge and at the bottom is some sort of cradle hanging from strings, holding cars and passengers, and transporting them across the river whilst they hang in the air.
We drove onto the cradle and parked the car on its surface. The strings began to carry us through the air, over the water and across the river. I was tempted to get out and catch the views but there was little space for that as other parked cars sandwiched us. It seems the people who had come on foot got the best views from along the sides.
Vizcaya Bridge is the oldest transporter bridge in the world. Designed by Basque Architect Alberto Palacio, with help from his brother Silvestre and French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, construction of the bridge finished in 1893. Alberto Palacio was a student of Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower, and the influence is in plain sight. The objective was to build a bridge to transport people across the river without obstructing the path of ships. It’s fair to say they did a perfect job as the bridge is still in use today, fulfilling its originally intended purpose. Guided tours of the bridge, and its vertigo-inspiring footpath on top, are available for tourists and those fascinated by this unique and historical structure.
Since the Vizcaya Bridge was built, others have followed suit and it is no longer the only transporter bridge in the world. There is something about this one however, which is particularly special and reminds me of the Angel of the North monument that stands on the outskirts of Newcastle, UK. That’s because the Vizcaya Bridge, or Puente Colgante as locals call it, harkens back to the industrial past of this region; a place of shipbuilding, mining and steelworks, a skilled and proud working class community.
When visiting, it is worth going for a walk around the colourful streets of Portugalete and its charming old town. The name of the town derives from its original Basque name Portu-Ugaldeta. Alberto Palacio lived here during the Spanish Civil War when dynamite was detonated on top of the bridge, damaging it and putting it out of service for four years. He died in 1939 and never lived to see it repaired and working again.
People say that the Basque Country feels like a different country from Spain. For me, that feeling of Basque difference is encapsulated along the banks of the Nervión in sight of Vizcaya Bridge. Typical images of Spain are nowhere to be found here; there is no sight of Flamenco culture or the calm Mediterranean Sea; instead there are choppy Atlantic waters, an ancient Basque culture and an industrial heritage that feels almost mythical.
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