Dragons, bridges and organs in Ljubljana

JILL WORRALL
Last updated 05:25 26/05/2014

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There's a bridge in the centre of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, that brings a smile to many a traveller's face, if not some mock consternation.

The Dragon Bridge, which is more than 100 years old, features four fiercesome dragon statues, two at each end. The story goes, that should a virgin cross the bridge, the dragons will wag their tails.

The joke has long worn off for the locals in this small European capital but it entertains the tourists. Reports of the dragons' tails waving are for, whatever reason, non-existent.

More than a dozen bridges connect the left and right banks of the Ljubljana River and three, including the Dragon Bridge, are much loved by the locals and frequently photographed by visitors.

One of these is actually three bridges in one. The central bridge was built in 1842 out of limestone to link the old and the new parts of the town. But in 1932 two new footbridges were added to each side to relieve congestion in the growing city.

The third bridge, known as the Cobblers Bridge, replaces a bridge that first spanned the river in the 13th century. At that time it was home to many butcher's shops but apparently the smell was so bad the ruler of the day ordered the butchers to be relocated; they were replaced by shoemakers.

Both trades plied their wares on the bridges because in the Middle Ages the city fathers charged a toll for anyone coming into the town to sell goods. By setting up on the bridge right outside the tollgates, the merchants avoided the tax but still got all the passing trade.

Today Ljubljana's bridges are a favoured rendezvous for couples wanting to declare their love by affixing a padlock to the bridge railings. Some of the padlocks bear names or initials, but all are firmly locked. The tradition goes that once you've attached the padlock the key should be thrown into the river. 

Padlocks have even sprouted on bronze sculptures on the bridge balustrades. 

Worried about damage to the bridges, authorities regularly remove the padlocks but they soon return. It's not difficult to find replacements: there are shops advertising "Love Locks" close to the bridge.

It's also not unheard of to find the occasional person attempting to remove their own padlock with the aid of boltcutters - when true love doesn't run smoothly you don't really want a reminder of what might have been every day on the walk to work.

While the padlocks are relatively new, Ljubljana traces its origins back to at least the first century AD when the Romans established a town here. Another local legend suggests that it was actually Jason and the Argonauts on their way to find the Golden Fleece who founded it. There's no proof of course but the Dragon Bridge links the city to the story.

Apparently when Jason and his Argonauts were close to Ljubljana they were attacked by a terrible marsh dragon that lived in the area and Jason successfully slayed the beast.

Over the centuries that followed the Roman settlement invaders came and went, including the Turks in the 15th century who destroyed many of its buildings, especially churches.

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Earthquakes have also helped shape the city - a 15th century quake saw many Baroque churches and house rise from the rubble, and then in 1895 another quake struck. This rebuild left the city with a now treasured collected of Art Noveau buildings.

A prime example of Ljubljana's Baroque heritage is the Cathedral of St Nicholas. This was built during the 18th century on the site of a 13th century church. What would have been a simple, relatively unadorned building was replaced with a confection of Baroque frescoes, white stucco, gilding and pink marble. 

Choir stalls and casings in dark wood and a floor paved in black and white bring a sense of calm to the Baroque extravaganza that is the church interior. When I ventured in last year I was fortunate enough to catch the end of choir rehearsal. The singers were being accompanied by one of the cathedral's three pipe organs.

The main organ was built in 1912 but one of the other three is a restoration/rebuild of an original 1739 instrument. It was one of those serendipitous moments of travel; there's a sense of discovery that adds to the occasion.

I left the church, the sounds of the magnificent pipe organ still in my ears, through the bronze doors that were installed to mark the visit of the late Pope John Paul II.

Ljubljana is home to fewer than 250,000 people so the historic heart of its capital is easily explored by foot. This is made even easier because many of the squares, bridges and avenues that line the river have been turned into pedestrian areas.

The river flows between stone embankments beside which are outside tables and umbrellas for dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars. In summer-time these are crammed with a mixture of visitors and locals working their way through glasses of Slovenian wine and tall glasses of locally brewed beers.

On the menu is likely to be pork, but the Slovenes are fond of horsemeat too so one needs to be careful navigating the main course list.

The array of desserts is less perilous (other than in a general health sense) as the Slovenians are masters of highly calorific and tempting pastries such as their famous custard square.

Unlike the Kiwi version, it features a thick layer of cream on top of the custard. 

Eating one of these is not an elegant operation. 

- Stuff

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