I love bridges, especially ones on which supporting truss or cable stays structures add to their overall aesthetics.
One rather interesting looking bridge the sight of which I was particularly taken with, is the Puente Vizcaya (Bizkaia in Basque) or the Vizcaya Bridge. I managed a visit to it during a sojourn in the north of Spain in 2013. Straddling the Río Ibaizábal, close to where it spills into the Bay of Biscay, the bridge with its horizontal span elevated some 45 metres above the ground and supported by four lattice ironwork towers, is quite an amazing sight to behold.
The bridge, a so-called transporter bridge, is not what one might think of as bridge in the conventional sense. Rather than a roadway or walkway across which vehicular of pedestrian traffic is carried, a transporter bridge carries its load on a gondola that is suspended by wire-ropes from a moving trolley running across its horizontal span and is more akin to a ferry.
Developed as a solution to allow the crossing of navigable waterways in areas where space and geography restrict the deployment of the long ramps that would be necessary to carry vehicular traffic to the deck of bridges elevated high enough to clear shipping, the do have limitations in the volume and rate at which traffic can be moved across the gap and as a result have not seen widespread use. Less than thirty were built worldwide, mostly around the turn of the twentieth century.
The idea for the transporter bridge has been attributed to Charles Smith, an Englishman from Hartlepool. While his invention was made public in 1873, it wasn’t until two decades later in 1893 that the first such bridge, which was the Vizcaya, was completed. Designed by Basque architect Alberto de Palacio, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel tower fame), it sparked off a small wave of construction of several other transporter bridges.
Known also as “puente colgante” or “hanging bridge”, the Vizcaya Bridge as a structure, takes us back to the heyday of the industrial and maritime age in Bilbao and a time when the area’s deposits of iron-ore fed the hungry blast furnaces of Europe. This, as well as several other factors that include its dramatic presence and aesthetics, the technical creativity it expresses, and its role in influencing the development of similar structures, has seen its inscription on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Inscribed in 2006, the Vizcaya Bridge now holds the distinction of being the only World Heritage site in the Basque Country.
The bridge is well worth a visit if you do find yourself in and around Bilbao, a city best known in these parts for its football team and the rather iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Besides the unique experience that crossing on its gondola offers, the bridge also features a walkway across its horizontal span, which provides not just a view of its trolley and operating mechanism but also a fantastic view of the towns of Getxo and Portugalete as well as the landscape around the mouth of the Ibaizábal estuary. More information on the bridge, access to its walkway and its UNESCO World Heritage listing can be found at the following links:
- Puente Bizkaia website
- Puente Bizkaia website (tours)
- UNSECO World Heritage Centre
- The Radical Hanging Bridge That Time Forgot (Gizmodo Australia)