We saw the picture in the guidebook. Ponte del Diavolo, Tuscany. Giddy on glossy guidebook pictures, we vowed that we would find the bridge when we were in Tuscany.
And we did. Looking like a miniature model of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Giants’ Causeway’ bridge from The Silver Chair, the bridge spans the Serchio River. Built in the 1500s, it still functions as a pedestrian bridge. Solid, rain-slick, mossy stones that people have walked on since the middle ages led us, single file, to the high crest. We took turns spitting off the top, since we’d promised Anne’s mother we would. The bridge is a thing of imagination, triple-arched, looking like the line of a skipping-rock captured in stone. You can barely believe it's real.
We walked down the slippery boulders to the other side, where a fourth, incongruous arch had been cut in the wall of the bridge later and lined with modish brick for the local train to pass through.
I’ve always liked bridges. I lived in the San Francisco area for 3 years, and I grew to love them. Bridges mean connection. If it’s a good bridge, though, it means a connection that is made more powerful and memorable because of its very rarity and beauty. I remember.
The Dumbarton Bridge is the one I took to visit the campus of Menlo College, just down the street from Stanford University. It was a singularly long, graceful bridge, swinging through salt marshes. The Oakland Bay Bridge took me into the city for concerts, shopping jaunts, and food with friends. It was the most commonplace of the lot. The San Mateo bridge took me over to Foster City to visit my family-away-from-family for several Thanksgivings and Easters. The Richmond-San Rafael bridge took me north to Santa Rosa for a few events and visits. Then of course, the Golden Gate. I only crossed it once, but I saw it often, from the City, or from ferries, where it loomed out of the fog grey instead of orange, or from—my favorite—Angel Island.
Last year, I drove across another bridge, the Lions’ Gate bridge in Vancouver. I realized for the first time in a while that the best views of the area are almost always from the center of the bridge. You can just see everything from there…skies and waters, there is space and a feel of the land at the very edge of itself. There’s a sense of fragility, though you’re on solid concrete ground, at the center of a slender, human concoction of rods and sand and rock and metal.
But, as with mountains when you get right up close to them, sometimes you lose the context for them. The best place to get a view of a bridge itself is to see it from some distance. The best place to see the Golden Gate bridge, for example, is to see it from Angel Island, the small sentinel island of the San Francisco Bay. From there you can really see it, from that distance realize its purpose, to see exactly how it connects the two headlands that flank the entrance to the great Bay itself. From the island only you can see why the connection matters.
In the pouring rain, we squinted back up toward the arched peak of the Ponte del Diavolo. We had found the bridge. We hiked back up the rain-slick, mossy cobblestones, pausing once more at the top for a last, dreamlike look at the foggy river valley.