Postcard from Bordeaux, France: A pair of bridges spanning the Garonne

Above, Pont de Pierre, built between 1819-1822

Successful warfare requires moving troops quickly, and, in full conquering mode, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) envisioned a bridge to provide easy access for dispatching soldiers toward Spain. While the design of the Pont de Pierre, or masonry bridge, was completed before his first fall in 1814, the construction was undertaken during the Bourbon Restoration period of the French monarchy.

Swift currents and high tidal swings complicated the building process. The French borrowed a British diving bell to assist with the installation of the massive stone footings in the river bed to support the 17 brick arches. It would be another 140 years before engineers attempted adding a second bridge linking the two banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux.

Today, the only people the Pont de Pierre transports are afoot, on bicycles or aboard quiet, sleek electric trams, making it a pleasant spot to cross and enjoy views of the city.

The 2013 addition of a $195-million bridge linking the Bacalan and La Bastide areas of Bordeaux helps provide the traffic relief incurred by removing automobiles from Pont de Pierre. Named for a man who served as mayor of Bordeaux for close to half a century, Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas is Europe’s highest verticle lift bridge.

View of Place de la Bourse from Pont de Pierre
View of Esplanade des Quinconces from Pont de Pierre
View of Place de la Bourse from Pont de Pierre
Electric tram in Bordeaux

Termed a project demonstrating “engineering genius” by Construction Week, the city’s newest bridge was designed by Egis-JMI, Lavigne & Chevron architects and Hardesty & Hanover, with Vinci Construction serving as the main contractor. The frame of the bridge deck was manufactured in Venice and shipped by sea to be lifted into place in Bordeaux.

The central section of the bridge is longer than a football field. We never saw it elevated so borrowed the image below. It requires only 11 minutes to raise the 2,800-ton segment 360 feet to allow cruise ships and tall sailing ships to dock in Bordeaux.

Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas raised, CC BY-SA 3.0, A. Delesse (Prométhée)

The price seems somewhat exorbitant given that boats can not travel but a small distance due to the presence of the Pont de Pierre. But, presumably business interests in Bordeaux balked at losing the income produced by ships’ presence. And, the bridge also seems to serve as a major economic development tool for those neighborhoods on both sides of the river. Cranes abound for new residential and commercial compounds in the former warehouse and industrial areas.

The bridge is a sculptural stunner in the cityscape. With the long daylight hours of August and early September, we somehow never viewed it after dark. Spots Bordeaux describes its evening artistic merit:

The Chaban-Delmas bridge has a singular lighting system that transforms the infrastructure into a colourful work of art. The visual artist Yann Kersalé (designer of the lighting of the Opéra de Lyon and the Cours Victor Hugo in Bordeaux) was sent by UNESCO to realize the bridge lighting: thousands of LED lamps highlight the fluid lines and fine apron, while a play of colours on the pylons speak of marine movements: the marine blue tint announces the high tide and a Veronese green signals low tide.

Napoleon would be impressed.

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