On the approach to the so-called Podul Prieteniei (Friendship Bridge) which links the Romanian city of Giurgiu with its Bulgarian counterpart Ruse across the Danube are two white columns. The column on the left is engraved with the year 1952, the one on the right 1954. The dates signify the beginning and end of the bridge’s construction: the 2.8 kilometre bridge took just over two years to complete, opening in the presence of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Todor Zhivkov on June 21st, 1954.
For the next 59 years the Podul Prieteniei was the only bridge across the Danube linking Romania and Bulgaria. In those days of course, before Romanians were free to holiday where they like, traffic was limited to lorries carrying goods, occassionally joined by the odd Australian driving a camper van to Kabul.
A new bridge, between Calafat and Vidin, opened in 2013, a mere 14 years after construction began (it no longer takes two years to build a bridge in these parts).
Alas, both Calafat and Vidin are in the proverbial middle of nowhere, and until either is linked to civilisation by a motorway the bridge is fundamentally useless. The majority of traffic between Romania and Bulgaria still uses the old Giurgiu-Ruse bridge.
And these days there is a huge amount of traffic, not least at this time of year as half of Romania packs its bags and heads for Greece.
That would not be a huge issue, even on the single-carriage way Podul Prieteniei, if the bridge was fully operational. It isn’t, and hasn’t been for some time.
Repairs to the road surface and to a hydraulic mechanism that can be raised to lift part of the bridge, allowing taller vessels to pass underneath, have now been ongoing for almost two years.
In the same amount of time it took to build the damn thing from scratch, today’s engineering giants have been unable to complete some simple repairs.
As such, crossing the bridge takes hours. About two hours, unless you are there before six in the morning (as we were a couple of weeks ago), in which case you might be done in under an hour if the wind is blowing in the right direction.
Coming back from Greece this week we arrived at Ruse around 4pm, fearing the worst. Amazingly, we were over the bridge in half an hour. That, unfortunately, was only the beginning.
Of several passport lanes available, just two were open. It took more than an hour to get through.
Welcome to Romania.