The topography of the city and its control

Located on the bay of Brest and along the banks of the river Penfeld, the town of Brest rises from sea level to 103 m. Dresden, on the other hand, situated in the valley of the Elbe and on the adjacent heights, has a difference in altitude of more than 250 m in its urban area. However, the difference in altitude is less noticeable in Dresden than in Brest, as the Elbe valley is very wide in the urban area of Dresden. Both places thus face topographical challenges and (re)act accordingly to overcome rivers or height difference. Brest shows itself to be very tech-savvy and innovative in this respect. 


Before the first bridge was built, people used to cross the Penfeld by ferry service on payment of a fee. The first bridge was the Pont Gueydon in 1856, a pontoon bridge connecting Recouvrance with Brest’s town centre. A second pontoon bridge, the Pont Tréhouart, has been located at the level of the Ateliers des Capucins since 1990. However, both pontoon bridges are only accessible to French Navy personnel. 

National Bridge – Recouvrance Bridge

After strong insistence by the inhabitants of Recouvrance and more than twenty years of various projects, the Pont National or Grand Pont was built in from1856- to 1861, a swing bridge with a span of 104 m, consisting of two balanced swing wings that allowed ships with high masts to pass. The swing wings, which weighed 750 tonnes each and were supported on steel rollers, could be turned by just four men each; they were controlled from the roadside by simple tie rods operating high ratio gears. The bridge was destroyed in 1944 and replaced in 1950-1954 by the Pont de Recouvrance, which was moved slightly upstream and was for a long time the largest lift bridge in Europe. Ship passage is made possible by raising the bridge span between the two 70 m high pylons. If necessary, however, the movable bridge span can also be lowered to the water surface.

2.1 National Bridge, below the footbridge, circa 1905 

2.2 Recouvrance Bridge, raised deck, circa 1960 

Transporter Bridge – Harteloire Bridge

About 1.3 km upstream from the Pont National, the ferry bridge built by Ferdinand Arnodin in 1898 at the entrance to the port of Bizerta (Tunisia) was dismantled in 1909 was rebuilt in Brest- but only for military purposes within the Arsenal. The river was crossed in a gondola suspended by a trolley from a fixed girder with a span of 109 m between two pylons, without obstructing shipping traffic. The structure, badly damaged in 1944, was demolished in 1947 and the Pont de l’Harteloire was built over the site (1948-1951) – a public motorway bridge for large vehicles and heavy goods traffic on National Road 12. Due to its clearance of 40 m, even larger ships can pass under the steel truss.

2.5 View of the transporter bridge in the arsenal, 1st half of the 20th century 

2.6 The gondola of the Transporter Bridge, circa 1910 

2.7 Harteloire Bridge and military boats, ca. 1950s 

Ramps and stairs 

Due to the very steep terrain, which the military knew how to use for their own purposes and additionally heightened with defensive structures, there are numerous ramps, ramp roads and stairs in Brest in the areas near the banks of the bay and the Penfeld, which overcome many small but also large differences in height. 

The staircase from the harbour up to the Cours d’Ajot serves two purposes: overcoming the difference in height, but also military protection, as the upper flight of stairs had to be constructed so that it could be folded up at the request of the military. The staircase became world famous through the film “Tugboats”, shot in 1939-1941, with Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan.

2.9 Édouard Boucher de Perthes: Project for the construction of a staircase from the commercial port to the Cours Dajot, 1867 

2.10 Stairs from the commercial port to the Cours Dajot, early 20th century 

Cable car

A special feature of urban transport infrastructure in Brest is the cable car that runs from the western edge of the town centre to the Plateau des Capucins, making it possible to cross the river without having to cross one of the bridges located further away.


Augustus Bridge

The Augustus Bridge is the oldest of the current eight bridges over the Elbe in the city area.  In the early Middle Ages, there was already a ford on its site to cross the Elbe. The first bridge, probably a wooden bridge, existed there around 1070. In 1287, a stone arch bridge was mentioned for the first time. It was designed not only as a traffic route but also as a defensive structure: Two of the 24 arches were designed as drawbridges, and in addition one of the middle bridge openings was made of wood so that it could be burnt down for defence reasons. Over the centuries, especially after ice or floods, the bridge was repeatedly repaired and rebuilt. The economic upswing in Saxony under Elector Augustus the Strong led to an enormous increase in traffic, which is why the bridge was extensively rebuilt from 1727-1731 according to plans by Daniel Pöppelmann, the master builder of the Dresden Zwinger: The pillars were strengthened, the bridge was raised and considerably widened. As the bridge was dilapidated after two severe floods, in 1845 and 1890, and did not meet the requirements of modern shipping traffic, it was demolished from 1907-1910 and rebuilt according to the design of Wilhelm Kreis with only nine, now wider and higher arches. In 1945, German troops blew up a pillar and the adjacent arches of the bridge, which were rebuilt in its original form.

2.3 Canaletto: Dresden seen from the right bank of the Elbe below the Augustus Bridge, 1748

2.4 Augustus Bridge (Canaletto view) 

Loschwitz Bridge

The Loschwitz Bridge, also called the “Blaues Wunder”, connects two districts in the east of Dresden. Since 1870, the communities on the right bank of the Elbe and the owners of villas in Loschwitz had been demanding a better connection to the city of Dresden through the construction of a flood-protected road or a bridge. In 1880, after rejecting several construction proposals, the Royal Saxon Hydraulic Engineering Commission formulated nine requirements for the construction of the bridge, including a support-free river opening of at least 135 metres and an easily calculable iron construction. Since one of the favoured proposals, a suspension bridge, did not meet the requirement of a statically determined iron construction, it was decided to stiffen it: The type of “stiffened 3-joint suspension bridge” was invented. 

The Loschwitz Bridge was built between 1891 and 1893. The supporting structure of the carriageways consists of four triangular, stiffened truss walls on each side, which are connected to each other with joints and to the banks with anchors. The middle walls are articulated on the bridge foundation. 

In those days, many people considered it a miracle to build a metal bridge with such a large span without intermediate piers. The light blue paint of the bridge therefore led to the nickname Blue Miracle – based on a German saying that refers to the traditional dyeing of fabrics and the moment when the colour, which initially appears yellow, miraculously turns into blue through contact with the air.

In 1945, courageous citizens prevented the bridge from being blown up by German troops by cutting the fuses.

2.8 Loschwitz Bridge, 2016 

Mountain railways

In Dresden, the terrain is characterised by major differences in altitude but only outside the city centre. Especially directly north of the Loschwitz Bridge where there are very steep slopes which are about 80 m high. This explains why there are two special features of urban infrastructure here: a funicular railway, built in 1895, and a suspension railway, built in 1901, which lead east and west of a deep valley incision to the expensive villa quarters on the heights. 

2.11 Hanging train, 2006