Settlement in Poland developed along with the amber routes leading from the Atlantic to the Ural, and from the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea to the Baltic. They were marked out through pristine forestland, fields and marshland. The most difficult points were strengthened by means of wooden beams and fascine. They were not compacted roads with fixed routing, but rather a set of reference points.
Testimony to ancient bridge engineering skills in that area is traces of the oldest structures retained in the village of Biskupin in the Pałuki region, dating back to 737 BCE. Remnants of a 120 m long bridge connecting the existing village to the southern shore of the lake were discovered there. This wooden, 3-metre-wide relic was supported on massive poles topped with square tenons and transverse timbers with mortises.
Other remnants are hardened dikes in the area of Dzierzgoń and Święty Gaj. They are more than 2000 years old. An up to 4.5 m wide structure was made of a few alternating layers of tree trunks and fascine, and the gaps were filled with sand. The edge beams had openings for pegs securing them in place and pieces of amber were found in slits between wooden decks.
Slavs who arrived to the present-day territory of Poland around the 5th century CE did not find a consistent system of roads – they had to build it from scratch. Travelling on land was neither necessary nor an obvious choice as rivers were intensely used as a natural transportation system.
The emergence of a young state in the 10th century required an improved transport system – old water routes were insufficient for
the needs of the developing administration. In the 960s the Piasts erected two wooden bridges while building the borough in Ostrów
Lednicki. The bridges with lengths up to 440 m – one in the west and a 170 m one in the east, were made of beams supported on
piles founded diagonally in the bottom of the lake.
A characteristic feature of the then roads was their seasonality – they were used only during dry summers or frosty winters when the ground was sufficiently hard and dry. With time sections of those roads were hardened. The works were limited to locally available materials and basic technologies. Trees were cut down in forests and then used as the surface; safe paths through wetlands were marked with poles, and in some places dikes were constructed and wooden
decks were built. In the territory of Greater Poland and Pomerania archaeologists have found many traces suggesting that the roads
were reinforced with fascine or timber.
At that time, important pathways were identified by means of stone piles or poles which gave a sense of direction. One such monument is the Roman milestone that has survived until now in Konin.
In the Middle Ages people did not particularly care about maintaining roads. Royal administration or local rulers did not apply any systematic solutions to enable scheduled use and management of roads. Under the rule of King Casimir the Great, a real breakthrough took place in Poland. The state was flourishing, several dozen cities were granted civic rights, which must have entailed the development of a system of roads by creating new pathways and increasing the use of old connections. At the same time, the King introduced legal reform in the Statutes of Casimir the Great which formulated regulations concerning care provided by the ruler to travellers on public roads. Crimes and robberies committed there carried the most severe penalties. The king also defined the right to use the road running across somebody’s property.
In another relic of law-making, the Book of Elbląg, dating back to the 13th century, a duke’s peace law on public roads was established. A person who violated this rule and disturbed anyone’s journey (committed an assault, robbery, or even killed a traveller) had to pay a fine of 50 units of silver, in addition to indemnification paid to the victim or his/her family. According to the records, legal protection applied in the first place to the road as a place and only later to the traveller using such a road.
At that time, due to its widespread availability, wood and sometimes stone was the basic bridge construction material. Stone bridges were built in the south of Poland as early as the 13th century and many of them have survived to the present day.
Such a historic bridge connecting the island of Piasek with the old town can be seen in Kłodzko on the Młynówka river (ca. 1390). The region’s oldest bridge of such a type was reconstructed to finally reach a length of 52.20 m and a width of 4 m. The four-span arch bridge constructed from sandstone aggregate, ornamented with six sculptures, is often compared to the Charles’ Bridge in Prague.
Over more than 400 years after the death of King Casimir the Great until early 19th century roads changed very little in comparison to previous centuries. The owners and administrators of roads failed to fulfil their obligations and only upon the intervention of the king, who received complaints from merchants, were the roads repaired or travelling safety improved.
The largest achievement in Polish bridge construction in the pre-industrial age was the first wooden bridge across the Vistula in Warsaw erected in 1568. According to old drawings and paintings, the bridge was about 500 m long and consisted of 23 wooden spans. Eighteen main spans were triangular and had a truss structure. Five shorter ones – spanning about 10 metres – could be dismantled for the purposes of inland navigation that was intensive at that time.
Insofar as the roadway remained practically unchanged, the look of streets in more affluent cities started changing considerably. In cities built in boggy areas (such as Wrocław or Kraków), when the weather was rainy, wooden logs were put across the streets forming footbridges. Sometimes the whole street surface was covered with timber, which provided a relatively comfortable way of transport for their inhabitants. In the 15th century in Kraków stone pavements were laid. They were separated from the carriageway by stone posts. In 1557, the king imposed a special road tax on Warsaw in view of future construction and maintenance of streets – the so-called ‘pavement tax’ amounting to 1 grosz on each cart loaded with cargo.