The Mária Valéria link between the towns of Štúrovo and Esztergom will cut a 100 kilometre round trip down to a five minute walk for some.
The Mária Valéria bridge, connecting the southern Slovak border town of Štúrovo with the Hungarian city Eszstergom, had been blown up during the Second World War by retreating German troops. But 57 years then passed while communist and later democratic governments neglected the severed link between the central European neighbours.
During those almost six decades, said Pavol Lukáč, an analyst with the Bratislava-based Slovak Foreign Policy Association, the Mária Valéria span "became a symbol of the impossibility of communication between the two countries" which had often found themselves at odds during the previous thousand years.
But in 1998, with European Union encouragement and finances, the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet wrote reconstruction of the bridge into its government manifesto "to restore Slovak-Hungarian relations, which until 1998 were marked by ever-present tensions."
The Slovak PM did not hide his satisfaction last week at the fulfilment of what had become an important foreign policy promise. "The fact that the bridge was built by Slovakia and Hungary, with the participation of European Union funds, is a strong symbol of changing and unifying Europe," Dzurinda told The Slovak Spectator August 7.
Mária Valéria, which is scheduled for opening this September, awaits only an asphalt surface, weight-bearing tests and a lick of anti-rust paint.
The 20 million euro ($17 million) project was handled by GanzIS, a Slovak-Hungarian consortium involving about 100 workers from the Hungarian Ganz steel maker and Slovakia's Inžinierske Stavby (IS). Through its Phare funding channel, the EU distributed 10 million Euros for the project, five million to Hungary and five to Slovakia. Each country stumped up another five million euros of its own money.
Milan Dziak, head of IS operations, said that on-site relations since breaking earth October 17, 2000 had mirrored the two governments' warm relations. "It was hard, but we worked well in a team with the Hungarians. Communication was great, the only problem being that them guys spoke Hungarian," he said with a laugh.
But as the 500 metre long, 11 metre wide bridge took shape, the language barrier was overcome, he added. "All Slovak workers learned a few basic Hungarian phrases, 'cheers' [egészségedre] being one of them, while the Hungarians caught a few Slovak words too."
Mária Valéria's linked spans are a welcome sight for locals and visitors as well. Since the bridge was destroyed in 1944, those who wanted to visit the opposite side of the Danube have had to use a slow, tiny river ferry to get across.
"Finally! Common sense awoke," said Ladislav Fekete, Štúrovo's deputy mayor, remembering the 1999 bridge construction treaty signing which he said was attended by about 5,000 spectators from a town of 11,400 inhabitants.
"We have long had great relations with Esztergom, and for us this friendship is nothing new," he added. "It was inevitable the bridge be fixed. In the 1990s, we even received a fax from Japan. [It came from] some Japanese tourists who had visited Eszstergom and wondered why the bridge had not been fixed for so long. They couldn't believe that nobody was interested in doing it."
For local Štúrovo inhabitants, the bridge will mean greater access to opportunities on the other side of the Danube, as well as greater cultural and economic co-operation. About 200 people from Štúrovo, which is burdened by a 25% unemployment rate, work in Eszstergom's Suzuki car plant in shifts. Getting to work has long been a problem.
"When the bridge is open, they [migrant workers] will be able to get there easily by bike, or even by foot," Fekete said. "It's also possible that more people will start looking for work in Eszstergom's surrounding areas because access will be easier."
The ferry had presented frustrating problems for locals, he continued, because the last boat of the day left Eszstergom at 16:00. "If you missed that you had to drive home 108 kilometres through Komárno [the nearest Danube River border crossing], even if from the other river bank you could see your house."
Dzurinda also touched upon this issue. "Our government promised to strengthen cross-border co-operation. A journey which today takes up to half an hour [to cross the river by ferry] will take about five minutes after the bridge is finished. And people won't be bound by the arrival and departure times of the ferry. That's a big practical plus."
It's a plus which Štúrovo inhabitants have been happy to confirm. "I could easily get on a bike and go shopping for sports clothes or go out to discos there," said 18 year old Martin, a student at an electrical engineering secondary school. He added that within a couple of years he might also look for a job in Hungary.
Jozef, a retired Slovak from the nearby village of Bruty, said that he had regularly come to the construction site to see how the bridge was progressing. "Every time I'm in Štúrovo, I come here to see what's new. I can't wait till it's finally finished," he said.
"God, I have bad legs," he continued as he leaned on his cane. "But when they open the bridge, I'll walk there [to the Hungarian side] and back, believe me."
13. Aug 2001 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová