Question: In what city of explorers did 15,000 people navigate a 10-ton meal at a 3-mile table, 140 feet in the air?
Answer: Lisbon, Portugal—the Vasco de Gama Bridge
As if building an 11-mile bridge isn’t spectacle enough, Lisbon got itself into the Guinness World Book of Records in 1998 by hosting a meal at the world’s biggest dining table. Running for a 3-mile stretch of the Ponte Vasco da Gama, the table sat more than 15,000 people to celebrate the opening of the bridge the following week. It took nearly ten tons of the traditional dish feijoada (pork and beans) to feed the crowds and enter the record books. After lunch, clean-up was managed by a Spanish dish soap manufacturer that boasted it could wash all 15,000 dishes with one liter of its liquid cleaner.
This grand meal was just one more moment in the colorful history of a fascinating public works project, the creation of Europe’s longest bridge over water.
- The Tagus River estuary divided Lisbon from its suburbs, with a six-mile gap at its widest point, and crossing it was a burden. In 1966, a 3,000-foot bridge spanned the narrowest part of the river. But it could only serve a fraction of the traffic and ended up causing bottlenecks.
- When the city voted on plans for a new bridge, they chose the widest part of the river instead, which led to protests over cost, feasibility, and necessity. The city argued that it was actually going to be better environmentally: its location would minimize the interference of the bridge pilings on the flow of the river, and the powerful nighttime searchlights could be positioned so as not to illuminate the waters, thus not disrupting the natural behaviors of the sea life.
- Construction began in 1995. Four teams were tasked with building their sections simultaneously, with over 3,000 men working at any moment. Even so, it took three years to finish.
- In 1997, internationally renowned civil and structural engineering specialist Anthony Freeman, son and grandson to two of Europe’s most famous bridge builders (both named Sir Ralph Freeman), was brought in to apply his expertise with difficult suspension and cable-stayed structures. He was standing on the bridge when the equipment fell from above, killing six workers. He suffered serious head injuries from which he never recovered and died the same year the bridge opened—never having crossed it.
- On the eve of Expo 98, the world’s fair, Lisbon opened the bridge. The city chose the timing to mark the 500-year anniversary of Vasco da Gama, for whom the span is named, finding the sea route to India.
- The bridge is now 19 years into its expected lifespan of 120 years. To ensure it will last that long, it is designed to withstand wind speeds of 155 mph and is intended to stand firm during an earthquake four times stronger than the one that devastated Lisbon in 1755. Its foundation piles continue 300 feet below sea level at their deepest, ensuring stability for the century ahead.
Witness all the marvels of the Iberian Peninsula when you join O.A.T.’s Northern Spain & Portugal: Pilgrimage into the Past adventure.