Present Meets Past on the Ol’ Road of Steel

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Who can tell for sure when the present becomes the past and the future becomes the present? And whether the past is actually left behind and stays there, seizing to work its magic? When setting foot on an old road of steel, it’s impossible not to question time and its destructive force. While most of the iron may have disappeared, its traces are nevertheless as much alive today as they were in 1908, when glamorous parade trains inaugurated the first railroad connecting Sibiu to Brașov, two of the most important cities in Transylvania.

With so many landmarks enjoying all the publicity they could ever ask for, it’s easy to overlook those hidden gems that are often left forgotten. Valuable pieces in the great puzzle that is our history and legacy, they’re just lying there, waiting to be noticed, to be seen, to be touched, to be saved from the doom they know they cannot escape.

Funny how we’ve never noticed it before. I guess we just didn’t bother to look. The signposts were always there, but just like many other before us, we never gave the place too much credit. After all, what was there to see about two viaducts. What fools! It’s so simple to look away and ignore the past. But we must remember that history is not only what we read in books, it is also the reminiscence of the bloody and sweaty hands of men and women just like you and me, who dreamed of immortality and in leaving something behind, only to be forlorn decades after.

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At precisely 9:30 in the morning of the 29th of August 1908, two parade trains left the station in Făgăraș to inaugurate the new railway that would finally connect Transylvania to the rest of Romania. Back then, the region was under Austro-Hungarian occupation. The first sector of the railroad opened in 1895 and was financed by the empire. But a few years later, the economical crisis was already taking its toll, and there was simply no money to finance the final and harshest sector. The cost exceeded 4 million Florins, the equivalent of $9.4 million today, money raised from locals who indebted to banks for 50 years just to see a steam train stopping in their locality. They built the 68 kilometers of railway in just one year. And it wasn’t all that easy.

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Two reinforced concrete viaducts were built, the first of their kind in Romania. Podu’ Ilii, or the Big Bridge, is the longest, measuring 167 meters in length. It was the first one we visited. We simply left our car by the side of the dirt road we followed from Șinca Nouă to the heart of the mountains. We followed the signpost and walked the 500 meters or so to the overwhelmingly massive structure. It made us feel so small, like a nullity in front of the giant arches supporting the narrow bridge. Setting foot on the viaduct meant turning another page in history, and we felt the past finally catching up with the present.

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Nowadays, the still standing viaduct makes farmers’ lives much easier, as it is used by carts and tractors to reach the agricultural lands nearby. Even though it doesn’t appear to have aged too much, the tracks have long disappeared. The only hope it still has in front of merciless time is the Geocaching treasure hunt that has, against all odds, reached these parts, as there’s a container placed on one of the bridge’s supporting legs. The other viaduct is almost a kilometer away. We took our time and retraced the old railroad tracks all the way to Podu’ Negru, or the Small Bridge, much more isolated and almost impossible to detect from the main road, which only makes it even more mysterious. It is shorter, 99.4 meters in length. Attacked by vegetation, tall trees reveal only bits and pieces of the stately structure.

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Besides the two viaducts, a 535-meter tunnel was dug into the mountain, the Diana Tunnel. Exploited uninterruptedly for 35 years, they could no longer bear the load. Apparently, they presented small cracks that endangered the safety of the railway traffic. As a consequence, between 1941 and 1943 the current railway crossing the south of Transylvania was built. The ol’ rails piercing the Homorod Valley were abandoned and became history, together with the two viaducts and the tunnel.

We pursued the ol’ road of steel, with its tracks long gone, trying to differentiate the ditches made by tractors from those where the old rails once laid. No one bothers to come here in these barren plains by the mountains to see these monuments of national technical patrimony. And it’s such a shame not to take some time and just remember…

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