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Ponte 25 De Abril

Suspended in History

The striking similarities between the Ponte 25 de Abril and its San Franciscan sister are taken by some as totems of a deeper connection between the two cities. They point to trams clattering up steep streets, the languid influence of beach culture, and even the number of hills the two towns are built on. If we uproot these bridges and place them side by side, however, the differences become clearer.

Cables swing skyward in a scooping curve to twin towers painted International Orange. Girders criss cross, spattered with brine. Vertical wires join cable to carriageway, combing out the fog that rolls in off the ocean. It’s as familiar as a thousand postcards, but rather than stretching from Fort Point to the hills of Marin County, this bridge connects the crowded suburb of Almeida with the terracotta rooftops of Lisbon. The striking similarities between the Ponte 25 de Abril and its San Franciscan sister are taken by some as totems of a deeper connection between the two cities. They point to trams clattering up steep streets, the languid influence of beach culture, and even the number of hills the two towns are built on. If we uproot these bridges and place them side by side, however, the differences become clearer.

Statistics are unkind to the 25 de Abril; she cedes 37 m in height, over half a kilometre in length, and 29 years of existence to the Golden Gate Bridge. Her creator was not McClintic-Marshall who built her bigger sister, but rather the American Bridge Company, responsible for the less celebrated Oakland Bay Bridge 10 km east around the San Francisco peninsula. Scrape off the distinctive paint and the pedigree becomes more obvious. One dubious honour, however, belongs to the Portuguese bridge alone; she hums like a swarm of bees as cars cross her metallic platforms, loudly enough to keep people awake in their beds.

A bridge, however, is more than a way of connecting landmasses. Not only an assemblage in asphalt and steel, it is a reflection of those who built it, and a snapshot of a moment in time. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in a flurry of Californian confidence, yodelling, and roller skates, one day in 1937. The party lasted over a week, and on one day alone, 200,000 people made the crossing, many of them in highly fashionable four wheeled boots. A fair number, we can be sure, hummed the song that had been specially composed by Tobias, Rothberg, and Meyer for the occasion, and recorded by The Girls of the Golden West. “There’s a silver moon,” they crooned, “on the Golden Gate, and it’s shining on that blue Pacific shore. It shines above (yodel-ey-hi), on the one I love (yodel-eyy), silvery charms caress the arms I’m longing for.” Chief engineer Strauss’s hands trembled in time to his hyperbole; “This bridge needs neither praise, eulogy nor encomium. It speaks for itself. We who have laboured long are grateful. What nature rent asunder long ago, man has joined today.”.

The 1966 opening of the Portuguese bridge not only joined city to municipality, it brought together church and military, the sombre pillars of state. “On the road from the past,” the banner headline of the Diario de Noticias proclaimed, “the Great Symbol of the future!”. The people of Lisbon, however, were biding their time. They had a different story in mind. While the Golden Gate Bridge is named simply for the stretch of water it crosses, the naming of this bridge has been a more complex affair. The pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony was dedicated to a bridge called A Ponte Salazar, named for António de Oliveira Salazar, the father of the Estado Novo that ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1974. He is a controversial figure, simultaneously voted best and worst Portuguese in History. Detractors point out that his so called ‘New State’ was Europe’s most enduring dictatorship, modelling itself on Fascism. Supporters retort that as early as 1934, Salazar roundly renounced the racial politics of the Third Reich, and provided an escape route out of wartime Europe that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The detractors then wonder, out loud, why such generosity of spirit was not extended to homegrown socialists, communists, liberals, and anticolonials. They also mention PIDE, the agency that underpinned Salazar’s regime from beginning to end with the brutality and intimidation that the words ‘secret police’ always convey. Then, just as the supporters are mustering evidence of robust economic growth and improvements in health and education, the detractors pull their trump card. A Ponte Salazar, they quietly state, was renamed by the Portuguese people; they called it A Ponte 25 de Abril.

25th April 1974 was the day that the Novo Estado, tottering since its creator’s death in 1970, finally fell. A military coup caught the popular imagination, and hordes of people streamed onto the streets alongside the tanks. They stuck flowers into the rifle butts and button holes of soldiers, claiming their long anticipated Revolução dos Cravos, their Carnation Revolution. A panicked PIDE, surrounded and outnumbered in its infamous headquarters, fired the revolution’s only shots, killing four. At the bridge, crowds swarmed, erecting a hasty scaffold. On the day when six centuries of Portuguese imperial exploration, conquest, and subjugation came to a close, the metal letters spelling SALAZAR were prized free. They were replaced with hand painted letters proclaiming the hope of a new start, and capturing a moment in history.

Ponte 25 De Abril
Ponte 25 De Abril
Ponte 25 De Abril

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