Szeged was as much an illusion as it was a reality. The beautifully elegant Belvaros (downtown) was perfectly configured, filled with historicist, eclectic and art nouveau buildings lining its pristine streets. Every one of the squares had been swept clean, the sidewalks were immaculate, the cafes and restaurants pictures of upscale propriety. There was no hint that anything had ever been amiss here. The swarthy, seething river city that existed prior to the Great Flood of 1879 with its noxious humidity, mud slicked streets, and the scent of decay had vanished beneath structures laden with stone, plaster and an eye popping array of pastel colors. The Austro-Hungarian architectural makeover was a complete success. Szeged had been transformed into the super model of Hungarian provincial cities, right sized with voluptuous charm. The city felt both romantic and ecstatic, a fantasy born out from a belle epoque that continued right up through today.
My only problem with Szeged was that it reminded me of what might have been. Other Hungarian cities that had suffered destruction from catastrophic disasters could not compete with Szeged’s beauty. I suddenly imagined the treasure trove of architecture that had been stolen away from Hungary by the harsh hand of war. What might have been in other Hungarian cities was a depressingly glorious thought. Paradoxically, Szeged was an outlier among Hungarian cities. Its “historic” architecture was intact or at least that was what I wanted to believe. In 1879 Szeged experienced catastrophe, during Hungary’s nightmarish 20th century it managed to largely avoid it. The harsh hand of war did touch the city, destroying one of its most impressive and important structures.
Spanning The Tisza – An Economic Lifeline
Every Hungarian and many a tourist knows that the Chain Bridge was the first bridge built over the Danube. Except for local historians and a handful of history buffs, few are probably aware that the first bridge spanning the Tisza, Hungary’s second largest river, opened nine years after the Chain Bridge’s completion. This one was a railway bridge at Szeged completed in 1858. Unlike its more famous predecessor, the bridge no longer exists because it was washed away with the rest of Szeged during the Flood of 1879. It would not be long before the planning of a replacement bridge was in the works. A total of twenty-nine separate proposals were submitted. The winning one bore that most famous of 19th century European architectural names, the Eiffel Company.
The man who created the winning design for Gustave Eiffel’s firm was Janos Feketehazy, a Hungarian engineer. Feketehazy had learned his craft on the design of such works as the Bosphorus Canal in the Ottoman Empire and the Vienna Stadiu Bridge over the Danube. In 1873 he gained a position with the Hungarian State Railways which led to his involvement in the design of all railway bridges in Hungary up through 1912. Feketehazy was also involved in the design and construction of such famous spans as the Franz Josef Bridge in Budapest and the Maria Valeria Bridge between Esztergom and Parkany (present day Sturovo, Slovakia).
Feketehazy’s bridge in Szeged was no less important than his more famous works. It almost came to naught during its first year of construction when swamped by one of the Tisza’s perennial floods in 1880. The final and most difficult stretch to construct was over the riverbed. This part of the bridge was not completed until 1883. The bridge which would be known as the Belavrosi-hid (Downtown bridge) finally opened to traffic that autumn. The sturdy structure was capable of bearing loads that would later make it fit for future innovations such as tram traffic. Most importantly, it reopened an avenue of transport that was much more reliable than crossing by dangerous watercraft. The bridge was more than a connection from riverbank to riverbank, it was an economic lifeline that helped facilitate interaction between different parts of the growing city.
Seismic Shockwaves – On The Verge of Collapse
The Belvarosi-hid managed to stand longer than anyone might have expected. By the 1920’s, problems with movement of the pillars due to the swift current of the Tisza meant the bridge was living on borrowed time. Stabilization and renovation work extended the bridge’s lifespan right up into the Second World War. A year before the war arrived on the shoreline of Szeged more work was done to stabilize the riverbed pier. The bridge was suffering from wear and tear, but it might just as well have been jolted by the seismic shock waves from the mass of men, armaments and military equipment moving with rapid speed across the Great Hungarian Plain toward Szeged.
By the autumn of 1944 eastern Hungary had become a battleground between the German and Soviet Armies. The skies above the steppe resounded with the roar of Allied aircraft that targeted strategic points across the region. At the beginning of September, the Belvarosi-hid was damaged by an Allied airstrike. Then with the Red Army closing in on Szeged, retreating German forces sounded the bridge’s death knell when they detonated explosive charges on October 8th. The bridge became another casualty of a total war. The demolition did little to slow the Red Army. Three days after the bridge was blown up, Soviet forces occupied Szeged. As for a new bridge, it would be four years before a replacement could be designed and built.
An Enduring Presence – Function Over Style
The bridge that spans the Tisza today is basically the same steel structured edifice that was completed in 1948 with a few revisions. It is not as elegant or striking as Feketehazy’s previous work. Nor does it have the revered Eiffel name for cachet. What it does have is a design that values function over style. This is the main reason that it has lasted longer than any bridge over the Tisza in Szeged. The bridge is not especially photogenic or noticeable, but it helps transport thousands to and from Szeged’s beautiful Belvaros every day. Most of the commuters who use the bridge probably do not give it a second thought. In the grand scheme of bridge construction and destruction in Szeged that is probably a good thing.