This picturesque c19th pre-railway age bridge is located in the environs of Crasna in the county of Vaslui in eastern Romania. It is known as Podul Doamnei (Lady’s Bridge), spanning about 90 metres over a former riverbed of the river Barlad, which now flows nearby within embankments. The structure dates from 1841, at the height of the Russian Empire’s protectorate over the Danubian Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia. It represents a vestige of of the first modern road building programme in the old Moldovan Principality, promoted by Michael Sturdza, its then reigning prince.
The bridge was on an important commercial road, linking the principality’s highland centres in the Carpathians, where a relative majority of the population lived with crop producing and animal husbandry lowlands. There was also an important local traffic between some of the “itinerant” capitals of the c15th – c17th princes of Moldova, towns as Husi, Barlad or Vaslui, from a time when that institution functioned as a travelling princely court. The emergence of the railway age in Romania, the state that emerged through the union of Moldova and Wallachia in the aftermath of Crimea War, gave a fatal blow to this road’s commercial traffic and the local economy that it sustained. As a consequence nearby villages disappeared, the population moving to more prosperous ones along the railway. Diminished traffic and landslides made the authorities in the mid c20th to change the course of the road and finally in 1981 to close the bridge and declare it an architectural monument, which is still its status today.
Its designer was major Singurov, a Russian army engineer attached to the Moldavian princely court, charged with the public works, during the protectorate of the Tsarist Empire over the principality. That was a period of reforms that marked the onset of Westernisation within the Danubian Principalities under the aegis of Russia, known as the Organic Statute (Regulamentul Organic in Romanian) administration, which lasted for two decades, between 1834 and 1854, when the onset of the Crimean War put an end to that relationship. It is somehow ironic on account of the traditional anti-Russian discourse in Romania that the Russians were those who first implemented the benefits of Western cultural, constitutional and economic advancement in this region dominated for centuries by the Ottoman Empire and its civilization. That remarkable process, which nowadays is forgotten or swept under carpet, was magisterially detailed by the American historian Barbara Jelavich in her book Russia and the Formation of the Romanian National State, 1821 – 1878 (Cambridge University Press, 1984). The Doamnei Bridge is thus a beautiful architectural relic of that epoch of upheavals and transformations.
Prince Michael Sturdza (1794 – 1884), who ordered the construction of the bridge, was a prominent personality of the time, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and an able administrator. He was also the first ruler in the Danubian Principalities to free Gypsies (those owned by the court and the monasteries) from their centuries old enslavement. The bridge was part of an ample road building programme of the forth and the fifth decade of the c19th initiated to stimulate the Moldovan economy, financed with proceeds from grain exports, the main revenue making activity in this region until the emergence of the oil industry at the beginning of the c20th.
The architectural style of the bridge is quite utilitarian, although on broad lines is baroque, a style associated with the Westernisation process in Russia itself. The most conspicuous baroque like elements are the decorative panels at the centre of the bridge parapets that contain dedicatory inscriptions on each interior side in Romanian and Latin languages respectively.
The northern side inscription in in Romanian rendered in an peculiar transition lettering, between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, another instance of the intense Europeanisation drive at that time, when the Romanians aimed to shed not only the Ottoman influences, but also the Slavic heritage of the Middle Ages, a continuous source of conflict with the Russian overlords.
The inscription reads as: “This bridge is edified by the orders of the high prince [voyvode] Michael Sturdza of Moldova, in his 8th regning year and built under the ministry of Mr. logophete Constantin Sturdza, has been opened to the travelling public on 8 November [Julian calendar] 1841″ (the original Romanian text is as follows: “Acest pod este construit din poronca pre inalt Domn Mihail Grigoriu Sturza V.V. [voyvode] domn Terei Moldovei in al VIII an al domniei ?sale si savarsinduse supt ministeria d log Const Sturza sau deschis pentru călători în 8 Noem 1841″).
The inscription in Latin is on the southern side at the centre of the bridge, mirroring the first one, and contains a translation of the Romanian text detailed above.
The Latin text: “Pons haec extructa est Jussu Serenissimi Domini Michaelis Grigoriu Stordza, principis regnatis Moldaviae, in octavo anno regiminis sui. Ad finem quae deducia Ministerio D. Logoteta Const. Stu[rdza]. Patefacia Via locibus 8 Novembris 1841″ (source: Podul Doamnei din Chitscani). Both panels are crowned by a coat of arms of the Principality of Moldova, nowadays badly damaged.
The bridge was not a small feat engineering accomplishment for this underdeveloped principality that functioned under sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire and the protectorate of Russia, in effect a double periphery of those mighty powers, far away from their bustling and flourishing imperial cores. The local economy, industry and also architecture will really take off only after the region’s international trade routes, which were represented the Danube waterway and the Black Sea navigation, will be completely freed following the Russian – Turkish War of 1877 – ’78 and achievement of Romania’s independence, recognised by the Treaty of Berlin that concluded that war.
The construction is oriented on a West – East direction which exposes it to a peculiar sort of weathering. Its northern façades are darkened by the strong Siberian origin winds and precipitations that come via the system of open plains and hills linking Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The southern oriented façades are less weathered, preserving more from the original stone texture and colour. The stone used is a local yellow – grey soft limestone of Sarmatian age, type of rocks close at hand in this area of Europe, spread from Transylvania to southern Ukraine and Russia’s Black Sea region.
The bridge is said to have had initially just three arches built, with another two added during renovation works in the late c19th.
The width of the road supported by the structure is about 9 metres, which could take quite an sizeable traffic, a testimony of the intense circulation of goods and persons of those times.
The Lady’s Bridge (Podul Doamnei in Romanian) is now a a lonesome and imposing historical structure in the middle of nowhere, as this Google Maps satellite image corroborates.