Read, Write, Run, Roam


Unchain my heart: “Love Locks” in Europe

On our recent trip to Paris, I noticed a slew of locks attached to the Pont de l’Archevêché . It reminded me that we’ve seen locks on bridges in Prague and Ljubljana, and while I knew the locks represented love, I never researched why. Luckily, a New York Times article did it for me.

The article claims that installing “love locks” on a bridge became popular after Federico Moccia wrote a 2006 book titled, I Want You. In it, a man tells a woman a made-up legend in which lovers encase a lock around a bridge, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber, to show that they’ll never leave each other. After the book sold over a million copies, life became art. However, it’s worth noting that one  journalist actually cites it as a Serbian tradition from World War II, when couples from the town of Vrnjacka Banja symbolically sealed their love before the men went off to fight.

Regardless of its origin, the practice hasn’t been confined to Europe. A quick web search shows that there are love lock bridges on almost every continent. I even found several websites encouraging honeymooners to bring locks with them and “seal the deal,” so to speak.

Butcher’s Bridge, Ljubljana

Here’s the thing: it’s really stupid. Not only do the locks damage stonework and affect the weight of the bridge, crappy padlocks add nothing to architectural beauty. They do make for some interesting pictures, but that’s about it.

As much as I love Muz, I’m not buying a perfectly good lock, wasting it on a bridge, and then polluting the river with a metal key.  I guess I’m just cheap. And not terribly romantic.

Besides, love–and locks–can go awry. Apparently, spurned lovers sometimes return and write terrible things about their (former) loved ones on locks and bridges. So while I’m all for tradition, especially Serbian ones, I’d advise people to leave their locks for luggage–and seal your love with a kiss instead.

Prague’s Love Locks


A krempita by any other name…

“When you go to Bled, you must eat krempita. There is another word for it, but it’s simply very good krempita.” This was our homework when we told our language teacher we were going to Bled. Being good students (aside from skipping class last Wednesday-sorry!), we decided to try the famed pastry while we were in Slovenia.

No fork? No problem. Image source here.

Krempita is actually a Serbian pastry that features an eggy custard sometimes layered under soft meringue and sandwiched between pieces of buttery pastry. To say it’s good is a serious understatement. It’s also seriously dangerous. It’s not too sweet, so you can convince yourself that it’s not that bad for you. Downright healthy, even. Until you eat your second piece, fall into a diabetic coma and sense people stepping over your listless body to finish off your plate.

Why am I talking about Serbian desserts in a Slovenian post? Because the famous “Bled” pastry is the genius of Serbian chef Ištvan Kovačevič, who worked at Bled’s Hotel Park in the 1950s. Former ex-Yugoslav countries are constantly saying that another country is using their song/idea/recipe, but in this case it appears to be true. (Cue the comments from Macedonians or Bosnians who claim it as their national pastry.) Kovačevič may have called it krempita, but in Bled it’s known as kremna rezina or kremšnita.

There are several places that serve kremšnita, but we stopped at Slaščičarna Šmon for a taste. Or three.

We had three forks. Otherwise this would be a post about arm-wrestling.

The verdict? Amazing. I normally do not like meringue in my kremšnita/krempita. But the meringue topping here is very soft and light and not sugary at all. Muz was a fan, though he preferred the chocolate rum concoction. (Shocking, I know.) I was also a fan of the fruit pie we got, but Kuma and Muz thought it seemed “too healthy.” Muz is getting more Serbian by the minute, isn’t he?

We waddled out of Šmon with confectioner’s sugar sticking to our suddenly tight t-shirts. It was a bit sad to leave Bled and its kremšnita, but we knew that we could find a worthy substitute in Belgrade. After all, a kremšnita by any other name tastes just as sweet.

Slovenian Church on Sunday: Lake Bled’s Church of the Assumption

Though I may not be a fan of most castles and fairy tales, there’s always an exception to the rule. Mine is Lake Bled.

Lake Bled looks just like this in real life: completely, ridiculously beautiful. It’s clear glacial lake surrounded by a castle, a wooded path with horse-drawn carriages, and alpine mountains. In the middle of the lake, the Church of the Assumption rises from a tiny green island. The church can only be reached by a special rowboat called a pletna.

Lake Bled is so pretty and surreal, I was half-expecting to see leprechauns offering rides to the church on unicorns. When that didn’t happen, we hopped on a pletna for 12 euros per person roundtrip. We were thinking of being cheap and renting our own rowboat, but we were glad we didn’t. The island is surprisingly far from the dock area.

Once we arrived on the island, we walked up 99 steps to the church. It’s said that grooms carry brides up the stairs to prove their “fitness” for marriage. I decided Muz had already proved his worthiness by giving me a year-long sabbatical, so we all walked up and entered the church for a small fee. The church was pretty, but nothing special compared to the other churches I’ve written about. Its most distinctive feature is the bell that sits in the center of the church. Guests are allowed to ring the bell and make a wish.

There are oddly specific instructions on how to make a wish:

What happens if I ring it 4x?

We rang the bell, perused the gift shop, and made our way back down to our pletna for the return trip home. If I get my wish, this won’t be the last time I see Lake Bled.

A Slovenian Tragedy

Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It’s not a bleeding digit, but this fallen scoop of ice cream seemed awfully sad. I took this photo on the path around Lake Bled, Slovenia.

I call it Meltdown.

Slovenian castle life is no fairy tale

I was never a big fan of  princesses and castles. While some of my friends dreamed of being Snow White or Cinderella, I poured over my gruesomely illustrated Grimm Brothers. Why? Well, aside from being a weird child, castle life didn’t seem so hot. Women were always locked up (Rapunzel) or forced to perform boring chores (i.e., Cinderella and Snow White). In the end, they “won” a lifetime of being stuck in another old -though nicer-stone house, married to a stranger (Sleeping Beauty). Compared to them, Hansel and Gretel were much cooler.

So although our Slovenian guidebook featured Predjama Castle on its cover, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic when Muz suggested we stop there on our drive from Ljubljana to Bled. I figured it would be an old, weird building that looked nothing like the cover of our guidebook. I kept this opinion to myself as we drove through the green countryside and unpaved roads. Thirty five minutes after leaving Ljubljana, we came across this:

I was completely wrong. The castle is even more striking in person. It was built into a stone cave in 1274. Later, the castle was expanded to include secret passageways through the cave. Secret passageways? Caves? I was intrigued. We paid the 9 euros per visitor (yikes!) and walked in.

Once we were inside, I realized that the best past of the castle was the exterior. We walked through mostly barren rooms, armed with a guide that helpfully marked rooms as “vestibule” or “room with cistern.” There was no sense of how people lived in the castle…until we saw the mannequins.

Creepy, waxen, life-size dolls sat in silence, miming chores like yarn spinning and child care. The baby doll had an oddly wizened face. Castle information notes that Predjama life wasn’t easy, and the dolls seem to confirm this. Despite their creepy appearance, they weren’t terribly realistic since they were clean and seemed to be passive about the whole affair. Plus, the air was fresh, and you know that no one smelled good in an isolated castle.

Especially this guy demonstrating “life” in the torture chamber.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was suitable for children. Sure, I read about Bluebeard’s homicidal tendencies when I was a child, but seeing a mannequin being shackled and tortured seems a bit much. While visitors are encouraged to envision their own stories about the castle, Predjama has a good story to tell.

At one point in the 15th century, the castle was the home of  robber baron Erazem Lueger. Erazem got into a bit of trouble with he killed someone connected to the Roman Empire. He fled to this castle and began a new life as an anti-Hapsburg politico. He killed another connected guy and became a target of Austrian emperor Fredrick III, aka “Fred.” (He wasn’t actually named this, but it’s easier to write.)

Fred looks like a Disney character, no?

Fred wanted to kill Erazem and tried to storm the castle. It was impenetrable, so he decided to starve Erazem out. This didn’t work because food was being delivered through secret tunnels in the caves. Things went on like this for over a year. Erazem grew cocky. It’s said he even threw fresh food at Fred’s henchmen to prove his invulnerability. But every castle has a weak spot-or weak people. Fred’s men bribed a servant into divulging when Erazem would be in the most vulnerable place in the castle: the bathroom. While Erazem was relieving himself, he was relieved of his earthly duties. Fred launched a cannon ball right to the “throne.”

It’s not exactly a feel good story. But it does confirm my childhood impressions that castle life is no fairy tale.

Loony, lovely Ljubljana

Kuma wanted to explore the region, so we went to Slovenia last weekend. Why Slovenia? Because I wanted her to see the next hotspot for Balkan tourism. Slovenia is pretty and small enough to explore thoroughly by car. It has something for everyone: castles, beaches, caves, and picturesque views. Even the pickiest eater could enjoy Slovenian cuisine, given its Italian, German, Hungarian and Slavic history.

Readers might remember that Muz and I went to Ljubljana in December and saw a wacky holiday light display juxtaposed against the gorgeous 18th and 19th century architecture of Old Town. I noted that Slovenia’s public art was memorable, if not odd.

My second visit there did not disappoint. We walked to Butcher’s Bridge, a recently completed foot bridge in Old Town connecting the old fish and meat market pavilions. The bridge was planned in the 1930s, but war halted the project. The bridge was completed this spring. Shortly after it opened, people began to hang locks on the wires of the bridge to signify their enduring love. Some of the locks have names or dates etched on them. There’s no sign of removing them. At first it looks like random vandalism, but it’s somehow fitting for the slightly industrial bridge.

Butcher’s Bridge also features statutes by Slovenian sculptor Jakov Brdar. Many have religious or mythological roots. Despite the “love locks.” don’t expect romance from the art. A prominent statue is a disemboweled Prometheus. Savvy mythologists (oxymoron?) may remember that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and allowing an eagle to eat his intestines. The next day, the intestines would regenerate and the eagle would return. Gross.

Is it commentary on animals eating people? A reminder not to mess with Zeus? It’s not quite clear–but it’s certainly interesting. Other statues are equally gruesome. Odd skulls and mating toads offered discomforting but unforgettable company as we walked from the Market to Prešeren Square.

Ljubljana is a fun, funky mix of quirky and staid. Hipster bars are wedged between stores selling fine jewelry and expensive baby clothing. A death metal band performed a block from the classical music school. And a bridge designed in 1930 was built to hold skulls and locks. Ljubljana may be small, but it’s full of surprises.

Lighting the way home: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Our last stop on the Christmas market tour was Ljubljana, Slovenia. You haven’t heard of Ljubljana? Neither had we, until we told people we were moving to Eastern Europe. No less than four people told us that Slovenia and its capital city Ljubljana should be on our “must-see” list.

We didn’t know if Ljubljana had Christmas markets, but since it was on the route home and we had heard good things about it, we decided to spend a night there. What started as a stop of convenience became a highlight of our trip.

Ljubljana’s old town is one of the most picturesque city centers I’ve seen. The Ljubljana River winds through it, flanked by cobblestone pedestrian streets. Three footbridges bring people to the restaurants and shops lining the riverbank. Overhead, the Ljubljana Castle sits on a dramatic perch. At the center of old town, a square boasts a pink Franciscan church and a statue of Slovenian’s national poet, France Prešeren.

During the Christmas season there are additional kiosks selling crafts and, you guessed it, mulled wine. How did I ever get through winters without it? The town also sets up an elaborate holiday lighting display. Unlike other cities, Ljubljana isn’t content to merely have ornaments or candy canes. Their cosmic theme was unexpected-and awesome.

As we looked up, we noticed additional displays. Was that…a DNA strand? Ok, cool. But that other thing kind of looks like, well, a fetus. And that one?

Yep, it’s an inseminated egg. Merry Christmas.

Not sure what it has to do with the holidays, but between this and the cosmic display, I decided that one night in Ljubljana was not enough for this lifetime.  We’ll be back when the weather is warmer and, hopefully, when the public art is even wackier.