The bridge that divides us – Ronda at war over crumbling patrimony

If there is one thing that Ronda is known for, it is its emblematic bridge, El Puente Nuevo. Literally millions of tourists from all around the world come to our small town in southern Spain to photograph the lofty construction that gaps the deep El Tajo gorge. However, these days the residents of Ronda are up in arms due to new bridge traffic regulations, forced on by cracks in the century-old construction.

El Puente Nuevo, literally meaning ‘the new bridge’, is not a new structure by any means, though it is the most recent of the three bridges that span the chasm where the Guadalevin River splits the town in two. The older still-existing bridges include the 11th century Puente Árabe or Arab bridge (sometimes called the Roman bridge), and the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge, which present incarnation is dated back to 1616. When it comes to Ronda, everything is old…

The idea of a new bridge was proposed as early as in 1542, but construction didn’t start until 1735. Unfortunately, the rapidly built, single-arched bridge collapsed. The construction of the present Puente Nuevo started in 1759 and was completed more than 30 years later, in 1793. Gapping a 100-plus meter deep gorge, it finally gave the citizens of Ronda a direct route between the Casco Histórico, or old town and the area called El Mercadillo, the present day downtown core. The triple arched bridge measured 98 meters tall by 70 meters long and was the work of the renowned Aragon architect José Martín de Aldehuel, who was also responsible for Ronda’s bullring, as well as the reconstruction of Malaga’s cathedral. The material he used for the construction was extracted from the riverbed below, so the design would fit harmoniously the warm colours of the cliffs that surrounded it. His beautiful bridge still stands until this day, but the question is, for how much longer?

Through the years, Puente Nuevo has been subject to many uses and popular legends. When Ronda’s police station was located at the market end of the bridge, the hidden chamber above the central arch was used as a prison. It is also said to have been a torture chamber during the Spanish Civil War. However, what is most unique about the bridge today is that more than two centuries after it was opened, it is still the major thoroughfare to get from one part of town to another. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing burden of urban development, namely vehicle use, has become a major risk factor for the bridge itself and therefore for Ronda’s patrimony.

Constructed in a time of horse and carriage-use, the Puente Nuevo was never intended to withstand the ceaseless strain of modern day bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the last few years we have witnessed how passing vehicles have gradually degraded the road surface. The endpoint of the bridge meeting the historic quarter of town started sinking, creating a large indentation in the road surface. Bumpy roads aren’t uncommon for any of us living in rural Andalucia, but it ought to be a cause for concern when the depression is located at the joining point where a bridge meets land, particularly when the embankment is a 100 meter free fall, should said structure fail. Furthermore, it is worrisome when the same bridge is one of the town’s most important historical monuments, the emblematic symbol of Ronda, and the key tourist attraction of which the town lives.

Though smaller repairs have been made in the past years, it wasn’t until this winter that the municipal authorities took the bulls by the horns and dealt with the impending crisis. And this is when the ‘war’ of Ronda started. Many, or dear I say most of its residents, accustomed to be able to speed across the bridge at all hours, were furious when the town hall first closed the bridge for essential structural repairs, and then proceeded to regulating the hours of vehicle traffic on the bridge. In a small town like ours, global disasters rarely seem to affect people, but when their ability to drive their car across a National monument is regulated, watch out. That is when the people of Ronda start to protest. Our peaceful and somewhat sleepy streets became a placard-filled zone over night. Neighbours and friends spoke in loud voices or became enemies due to disagreement about the new rules. Anyone in public office had to be prepared to answer screaming citizens who wondered what the politicians had done to ‘their’ bridge, seeing the partial closure as an act of treason. Their concern was not for the bridge, but for their God-given right to motor across it.

“NO to closing the bridge without alternatives”, protest banners in our barrio say.

And I agree with them. The bridge should not be closed without alternatives, but what many people fail to recognise is that for one, the bridge has not been closed. Its hours of use have merely been regulated. The bridge is still open for traffic most of the day and the night. Only 6.5 hours of 24 have been regulated, with reduced traffic between 10.00 am and 13.30 and again between 17.00 and 20.00. The driving restrictions generally go into effect once people already are at work or at school, based on local statistics. The second regulation, long time overdue, sets the speed limit on the bridge itself and throughout the historic quarter of town to 20 km/h, with vehicle size at max 3.5 tons. This is welcome news for both the bridge and the ancient buildings in the historic centre, which before had to withstand speeding vehicles fuming past on the narrow cobbled streets. In the past, if one stood at the bridge when one of the huge recycling trucks passed over it, one could literally feel it shaking. It is actually a miracle that Puente Nuevo is still standing!

As far as the protesters second concern, people do have alternatives. One can drive across the bridge for the 17.5 out of 24 hours daily when bridge traffic isn’t regulated. Furthermore, anyone is allowed to walk, bike, or drive two wheeled vehicles across the bridge at all hours of day and night. Emergency vehicles and community services such as buses and taxis can also pass at any hour, in addition to residents of the historic quarter and hotel guests/staff in the same area. Otherwise, commercial deliveries, people conducting business at the town hall and parents with children in school in the regulated zone are given expanded hours of use to facilitate their needs. Besides, residents have the option of driving around the Circunvalación or ring road, something that might take them another 20 minutes. The alternatives seem quite reasonable and well thought out. Granted that this detour may seem like a tremendous inconvenience to some locals, but compared to the hours of commute that many people in other parts of Spain and the rest of the world have to do, it is a mere trifle. While an alternative road closer to the centre would be beneficial, this will take time to decide on and to build. This is precious time that the ancient bridge doesn’t have, certainly not unless we ease its traffic burden, ideally for good.

We live in the Barrio San Francisco, right outside of the town defensive wall, just beyond the Casco Histórico. To get from our home to the downtown area takes a brisk 12-minute walk or a sauntering 22-minute stroll. The bus, which now passes more frequently, costs 1 euro or 50 cents for pensioners and students, and brings you downtown in a couple of minutes. Angry neighbours have told us that the people of our barrio have been discriminated against. The poor people of our neighbourhood cannot afford the extra expense of driving around the ring road, they say. (If you are that poor, can you even afford a car?) Others complain that the bus is too costly, though many of these same people can be seen daily at the local bodegas consuming the equivalent of at least half a dozen bus trips. Just an observation…

The other comment we often hear in our barrio is “The bridge won’t fall down! And, if it does, we’ll just build a new one.”

The first claim is an erroneous notion, as bridges do fall down. We do not have to go any further than to Ronda itself, where the bridge constructed prior to the Puente Nuevo collapsed after less than 6 years of use, resulting in the death of 50 people. Every bridge construction represents structural challenges that must be taken into consideration before starting a build, such as the geology of the area, intended use, environmental factors, and the material to be utilised. In the case of Puente Nuevo these factors might have been perfectly calculated at the time of the construction, but now 225 years later many of these factors will have been altered.

Historically speaking, bride collapses are usually the result of multiple factors. Design flaws, weather changes, increased usage and poor maintenance might all be a contributing factor to an eventual collapse. As additional weight is placed on a bridge, the structural elements might end up supporting more weight than the bridge is capable of carrying, or certainly more than the architect intended it to do. In Ronda’s case, the materials used, a porous combination of limestone and sandstone, might one day render the bridge too weak to withstand the weight of any vehicles. There is a minimum amount of maintenance necessary for a bridge to remain upright for its intended lifespan, and the key point to this is that every bridge has a life span.

A far more insidious danger to bridge structures is water damage, which can gradually and invisibly wear away at the surrounding rock and surface material where the bridge stands. Though the piers of Puente Nuevo seem solid enough and stand on relatively dry land as we speak, they are placed on either side of a river whose level were higher than the bridge foundation just a few decades ago. Today the water level in the river is regulated, but if a base of a bridge sat inside the river in the past, the moving water would have caused additional erosion. In addition, there might be other unknown weaknesses in the current bridge’s foundation, since another architect who abandoned the project with the foundation piers partly made started the initial bridge construction.

Lack of maintenance is often a contributing factor to bridge collapses. When visual cracks appear, the concerned ought to be the damage that isn’t seen. We have witnessed previous attempts to fix Ronda’s monumental giant, as local construction crews tried to stop cracks and leaks by pouring bags of quick-dry cement into a manhole at the historic end of the bridge. But as Ronda’s gorge itself is a proof of, water will always find a way, and no Band Aid solution will ever be enough.

Maintaining a century old bridge that ends in an historic town, dating back to before the Romans were here, cannot be easy, as was discovered when the most recent repairs were done. Wastewater and sewers from parts of the historic centre were found to be flowing directly underground and filtering through the bridge, causing rapid deterioration to the structure. After the latest repair, the wastewater is now led away by huge pipes. We can only hope that these continue beyond the bridge and into a water treatment plant.

As for the second option of the protesting locals, that we can “just build a new bridge”, this is a very shortsighted solution, which would be devastating for Ronda. First of all, keeping a bridge open until it falls down puts citizens and visitors at risk. Secondly, a collapsed bridge would ruin Ronda’s patrimony and historical significance, and would forever destroy the town’s chances of becoming a UNESCO world Heritage site, as it supposedly hopes to become. A collapse would give the town a tragic image, instead of a mind-blowing one.

Visitors come to Ronda to see the bridge, not any bridge. Nobody would come and see a new bridge, unless it was a hyper modern structure and the world’s longest pedestrian glass bridge, designed by Calatrava, and that would not solve the town’s traffic problems. Even if it is free for tourists to walk across the Puente Nuevo, Ronda thrives because of these very visitors. Tourism is not only the largest, but also the only significant industry in town, other than a handful smaller vineyards and olive oil producers. In other words, Ronda without a bridge would starve. So, when local restaurants complain that their visitor numbers have gone down due to the ‘closed’ bridge, imagine how these businesses would suffer if Ronda’s tourism industry no longer existed. Reduced vehicle traffic on the bridge will not affect tourism negatively, rather the opposite, as visitors generally choose to walk. And with the majority of the town’s businesses and therefore residents indirectly living from these tourists who primarily come to see the bridge, this should be the town’s main priority to protect, even if it will inconvenience us in the short run.

Take any great construction in the world, the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel tower or Andalucía’s own Alhambra, all these have to be protected for the sake of humanity. We do not take shortcuts through any of these historical monuments, nor should we be allowed to drive freely over Ronda’s most important patrimony, certainly not if this can cause its collapse.

I can see the frustration of parents who are used to popping their kids up to town for their karate classes, but at one point things have to change, even in our town. Whether we like it or not, the bridge cannot take it’s current load. It is cracking. All around the world children walk to school and to violin lessons, alone, with classmates or with adults following them, so why not here in our safe little town? If I were the mayor of Ronda, I would take the present opportunity to start ‘walk to school’ and ‘bike to work’ campaigns, myself being the first one to do so. I would change my own and the town halls habits for greener options and try to bring the residents with me. Walk the walk, as it were.

The last judgement on Ronda’s bridge issue has not yet been pronounced. There is an election coming up this summer. Any candidate who wants to win the popular vote just has to promise to open the bridge for 24 hours a-day traffic again. And this would pretty much be a death warrant for our bridge. Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope. Every day as we walk across the Puente Nuevo we notice more and more locals doing the same. We can only pray that as time goes by, they will get used to this new way of rondeño living and even learn to appreciate the extra bit of fresh air and exercise, while pondering the stunning views from our magnificent bridge.