A Present Less Perilous – The Danube Defeated: Walking Over Water On The Chain Bridge (Travels In Eastern Europe #28)

An astonishing example of how much the development of European civilization was setback by the fall of the Roman Empire occurred to me while researching the bridging of the Danube River in Budapest. The Romans built wooden bridges to cross the Danube. These would have been located at or near the city of Aquincum which was located where the district of Obuda is today, but from the time when barbarian tribes took Aquincum up until the mid-19th century, the Danube in this area was without a permanent bridge, a span of some 1,400 years.  Then in the 1840’s construction of the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Lanchid) took place. The importance of its construction can hardly be overstated. The bridge connected Buda and Pest bringing these two small cities that much closer to what was soon to become one of Europe’s great metropolises. It also signaled the onset of the industrial age in Hungary. In the half century after the bridge was completed in 1849, the city’s population exploded. Today the bridge is a symbol of both the city and of the Hungarian nation. As I discovered on my first trip to Budapest a walk across the bridge is deceptively easy, so much so that it made me overlook just what an accomplishment it was to finally bridge the Danube at Budapest.

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest (Credit: Milan Nykodym)

Troublesome Passage – Faint Of Heart
The Chain Bridge stretches for exactly 369 meters (1,211 feet). It took me less than five minutes to walk across it. That includes time for stopping to take pictures. The Danube flowed smooth and quiet below the wrought iron and stone structure on that early spring day. That walk across the bridge was nothing more than a leisurely stroll, unlike the way it was before its completion in 1849. Back then getting across the Danube was much more difficult and dangerous. The man that the bridge is named for, Istvan Szechenyi, knew this better than anyone. In 1820, Szechenyi was trying to cross the Danube by ferry while traveling to his father’s funeral. The weather was terrible, causing the river to be so rough that it could not be crossed. For over a week Szechenyi waited, finally on the eighth day he was able to cross. The memory of this troublesome passage stayed with Szechenyi. He would be the major force that would eventually push for the bridge to be constructed.

Prior to the construction of the Chain Bridge, crossing the Danube was a perilous experience. There were three main options depending on the time of year, ferries, a boat/plank bridge or walking across the frozen river in winter. I have tried to imagine what it would have been like if I had to cross from Pest to Buda in the early 19th century. Ferries sound like the most promising option, but I could not imagine placing myself at the mercy of an unlicensed ferry operator to get me across the 500 meter (1,640 feet) wide roiling waters of the untamed Danube. Add in the fact that I likely would not have been able to swim. Even if I could swim, would I really stand the chance of swimming to safety in the event of an accident? Just the thought of this made me shutter with fear. The boat/plank bridge would have been another option. This was a sort of archaic pontoon bridge that consisted of small boats tied together with planks laid over the top of them. This might have been an appealing alternative, but in rough weather it would have been a nightmare both to cross and keep functional. Incredibly, horse drawn carriages were known to have used this to cross. I tried to imagine myself inside a carriage trying to stay upright as it ambled over the bridge, not for the faint of heart.

Connectivity - aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo

Connectivity – aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo (Credit: Civertan)

On Thin Ice – The Weight Of History
In the winter there was always the option of walking across the ice covered river. This could only take place in the coldest months, meaning December, January and February. I would not have wanted to try this any other time of year, for that matter I found the idea of this option pretty dubious no matter how cold the weather. The slightest thaw would have meant the possibility of crashing through the ice to an almost certain death. I imagined mustering the courage to cross only after watching others do so first. Then again the ice might have become much less stable from the constant foot traffic. In truth, prior to the Chain Bridge there were hardly any good options for getting across the Danube. The river which is now seen as so enchantingly beautiful was for many centuries a menacing obstacle to commerce and connectivity. This is lost on almost everyone who walks across the bridge today. It certainly was lost on me until I stopped to really think about it.

The problem with stopping on the Chain Bridge is that there are so many people walking across it at any one time. It is the main funnel for tourists walking back and forth between the two sides of Budapest. The bridge’s carrying capacity cannot be measured by tonnage, because it also carries the weight of history. Budapest would not have become the city it is today without the vision of Istvan Szechenyi. He was a tireless reformer, who was the main figure in the taming of the Danube to develop river commerce. This was one of many economic development projects that he led. Much of his vision had been informed by visits to Great Britain where he witnessed the benefits of the industrial revolution. He brought back ideas that would help bring Hungary and Budapest into the age of industry.  Along those same lines he commissioned an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, to design the Chain Bridge while Scotsman Adam Clark would oversee the project. It took nearly a decade from inception to completion for the bridge to be built. The bridge narrowly avoided destruction at the hands of the Austrians during the Hungarian revolution in 1849.

Bridging the divide - The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda

Bridging the divide – The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda (Credit: János Ecsedy)

A Beautiful Marriage – Buda & Pest
When the Chain Bridge was finished Buda and Pest was physically and symbolically connected. The opening of the bridge can be marked as the true beginning of their convergence. It was the beginning of a beautiful marriage that continues up to this day. Beautiful and elegant like the bridge that brought the two sides together. So elegant in fact, that when I first walked across the bridge I barely noticed the river flowing beneath it and forgot just how dangerous the Danube used to be.

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