The Burning Bridges
at Empire's End
Saturday 8 October 2022: The Kerch Bridge, a vital link for the Russian occupation of Crimea, is bombed. The twelve-mile-long bridge was opened by Vladimir Putin in May 2018. This morning a huge blast appears to have destroyed the road section and set fire to the railway.
One might expect a journey from forty years ago to have some historical resonance, but just seven years? In July 2015 I set off with Sophie and Maddy in an ageing Skoda Fabia to tour Europe. Between Rotterdam and Debeli Brijeg on the Montenegro border I cannot remember anyone asking for our passports. Even there I think we just waved them, it wasn’t until Albania that we had to get out the car and get the stamp.
We drove to Tirana and ate spinach and cheese pies from a street stall. Everything was unfamiliar in Albania. Some of the petrol stations were owned by a company called Kastrati and as we drove further south I imagined the engine noise lifting by a couple of octaves and singing a little more sweetly. Out in the deep countryside our map became a little vague: large roads marked as solid, reliable routes, turned out to be snaking dirt tracks. Approaching a copse of trees, a man in uniform stepped out into the road and flagged us down. There was a police car parked in the shade. I wondered if we might be in for a small, informal ‘fine’, but when the officer found out where we were from, he only wanted to chat. He gave us directions. Take the next right, follow the river for a few kilometres, then the road will become tarmac.
After a while we spotted a bridge down in the valley. It sat in a field, apparently unconnected to any trail at all. A steep stone ramp led up and down over three stone arches. It looked ancient. We parked and walked down through the meadows. I said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone came and walked across it with a mule?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth when we heard voices. Two men appeared, leading a horse with a wooden saddle. One of them spoke a little English and I persuaded him to cross, and recross, the bridge while I took some pictures. When I asked who built the bridge, the two men conferred. One of them thought Napoleon had repaired it, the other was of the opinion that the Romans constructed it, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe they had only repaired it too? He was correct, as it turned out, this was a bridge on the Via Egnatia road and had probably been first built in the third century BC when Albania was colonised by Greeks.
The men wandered off, still discussing the question. I walked across the bridge and found signs of a well-made stone path that quickly disappeared into a thicket. The structure itself had clearly cost a fortune in time and money, and yet now it lay forgotten in a field unconnected to anything, ironic since it once linked Western Europe with Constantinople. Julius Caesar and the apostle Paul had both travelled the Via Egnatia so had both, presumably, walked over it. In developing this route, the Romans made their empire vast, spanning the entire continent, linking the distant outposts of Britannia with the doorway to Asia. Once the route was cut the Roman Empire was severed into two halves and the long process of decline had begun. The Balkans became a barrier not a bridge.
We sat in the shade and had a picnic. No one else came along, not to the bridge or on the road. When it got a bit cooler, we went back to car and resumed our journey south. After we made it into Greece we did not need any passport stamps, not through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Germany and Holland.