Po della Donzella: the Santa Giulia pontoon bridge
The thrill of a river crossing on one of the last barge bridges
The Po della Donzella is one of the seven branches of the “delta” formed by the great Po river. After detaching from the main branch, it heads south-east and reaches the Adriatic Sea after 25 kilometres of sinuous advance through the outermost reclamation lands of Polesine. The only chance to cross it in its lower course is offered by the Santa Giulia pontoon bridge, a rare witness to the local way of life in the recent past, between the First and Second World Wars, before the introduction of reinforced concrete to build large bridges. Here, on the bridge over the Po della Donzella, the carriageway rests on 22 large boats tied together and firmly anchored to the river bed. A picture-perfect subject, not least because of the oak beams that serve as planting. In the middle, an unexpected accessory: a wooden shrine with a crucifix. Was it just in case of need, to promptly recommend the soul to God?
Why it is special
After the Second World War, pontoon bridges have been progressively replaced by more modern permanent structures. That was partly because they had been damaged during the war, but even more because they were unsuitable for the increasing road traffic. Today, the "surviving" bridges can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that of Santa Giulia is in one of the most picturesque locations. Today, the few pontoon bridges still in operation have become monuments in themselves and true tourist attractions. Visitors want to experience the thrill of the noisy passage over their wooden surface. At both ends of the pontoon bridge, signs stand out with size and speed restrictions, as if to certify the role the pontoon bridge can play in the development of slow tourism in the near future.
Not to be missed
If you are not in a hurry, it is worth having a word with the last representatives of an endangered human species, the pontoniers ("pontieri"), i.e. those who man the bridge to take care not only of its constant maintenance, but also of its safety during, for example, river floods, or in case of shoal waters. During a river flood the boats could be damaged by a floating log or even swept away by the current, as has happened. In this case, the pontoon bridges are designed to be opened in the middle, allowing the two trunks to pivot to reach the position of least resistance to the water. In case of shoal waters, the bridge could sag to the point of making it dangerous to get on the access ramps.
A bit of history
Until the early 20th century, crossing a large river was no easy thing. More often than not, there were barges shuttling between the two banks. It was, of course, a paid passage, all the more so if it involved not only people but also goods subject to duty, or if the river, as in the case of the Po, marked a state border. That's why, at the busiest transit points, it was advantageous to set up a pontoon bridge. This was a difficult operation, but still more convenient than building a masonry bridge. Following a centuries-old technique, a series of barges were placed side by side, they were tied to each other and then firmly anchored to the river bed, so that a wooden planking could be laid across the hulls as a passageway. Still at the beginning of the 20th century, along the Po, downstream of Pavia, there were about twenty pontoon bridges, others were often built at the mouth of tributaries.
Good to know
The “boats" used for pontoon bridges are of a very special kind. They have a slender shape, to better face the current, but they are quite different from a boat. The most surprising thing is that they are made of reinforced concrete! Nothing strange, because despite the high specific weight of the material, Archimedes' principle explains how they can float. Rather, it is hard to believe that you can build vessels with such thin sides with the same technique used to build dams and smokestacks! The method, based on using concrete reinforced by wire mesh, was actually developed during the Great War by the Italian Army Corps of Engineers. Fun fact: after the war, many of those barges, by now war relics, were "recycled" for the construction of those barges that can still be found along the river today as fishing huts.
Credit to: Francesco Soletti