by Erica Johnson Debeljak

Of all that man is impelled to build in this life, nothing is in my eyes more precious than a bridge.... So, everywhere in the world, wherever my thoughts wander or pause, they come upon faithful silent bridges as the eternal and eternally unsatisfied human desire to link, to reconcile, and join all that springs up before our spirit and our eyes, so that there should be no divisions, no confrontations, and no parting. — Ivo Andric

One warm Saturday morning in late April 1999, my husband, Ales, and I strode across Tromostje — the Three Bridges — toward Ljubljana’s main market. We had taken this walk countless times since I had moved from New York to Slovenia seven years earlier, because, although parking is scarce everywhere in the center of Ljubljana, it is nowhere scarcer than in the environs of the main market on Saturday morning. It was our habit to park on the far side of the Ljubljanica River and go the rest of the way on foot. It was pleasant, especially in nice weather, to thread our way through the narrow lanes of the town, an empty wicker basket swinging at each of our sides. Over the years, however, the walk had become complicated, first by one stroller, then by one stroller plus a toddler who, as toddlers do, dawdled behind, peered down steaming manholes, and darted into moving traffic. The walk back to the car with two sleepy children ready for naps and baskets laden with vegetables and fruits and flowers, fresh cheese and bread and salami, was altogether less pleasant exercise. But this, in any case, was our Saturday morning custom. When for one reason or another — illness, inclement weather, an extended vacation — we were compelled to miss a Saturday or two, we always returned as soon as it was possible to do so.

Ljubljana’s main outdoor market occupies two large squares along the right bank of the Ljubljanica River — Pogacar trg and Vodnik trg. To the southeast, the narrow cobblestone streets of medieval Ljubljana meander away from the market and ascend the slopes of Castle Hill. Across the Ljubljanica to the west pulses the modern core of the city. The horizontal plane of this fast-developing commercial sector is dominated by Slovenska Street, which was naturally enough once called Tito’s Street, as all main streets in what was once Yugoslavia used to be called. Ruling the air over Slovenska are the high-rise structures of Trg Republike where Ljubljanska Banka, the largest Slovenian bank, and other financial companies are housed. Thus the market place, like the city itself, is situated geographically and spiritually at a sort of crossroads: between east and west, old world and new.

Nestled between the old town and the river, the market enjoys the company of several old clerical gentlemen: the Bishop’s palace, the Theological Seminary, the double-spired Cathedral of Saint Nicholas who was said to be the patron saint of fishermen. Heedless of the stern demeanor of these edifices, the market extends her sumptuous length between two of the city’s principal bridges — Joze Plecnik’s Three Bridges at her feet and the Secession-style Dragon Bridge at her head. A placid and voluptuous deity, she holds sway like the sovereign Ljubljana never had. Her offerings seem to blend right into the green waters of the Ljubljanica, there being no barrier where the market stops and the river begins. An opulent fish market is housed in the lower level of the colonnade that fortifies the right bank of the river. This location affords buyers the opportunity, while waiting for their fresh trout to be wrapped in paper, to lean out of the colonnade’s stone window frames and dip their fingers into the very water where their purchase might have been caught in the early hours of the morning, offering ritualistic thanks to the pagan saint of fish.

Opposite the arcades of the fish market, a low covered structure separates Pogacar trg from Vodnik trg. Some of the stalls within the covered market offer standard fare, items that could be purchased at any of the supermarkets springing up around Ljubljana and its suburbs: domestically manufactured yogurts and packaged cheeses, dairy products imported from nearby Austria and other member of the European Union, even Philadelphia cream cheese from America. But from other stalls more mysterious stuff beckons: pungent Alpine cheeses, kasha and pearl barley, Bosnian kajmak, pickled quails’ eggs, sausage made from bear, deer, ibex. The distinction between what is authentic and indigenous and what is foreign and somehow false is a distinction that also rules beyond the walls of the covered market. Pogacar Square, for example, is filled with low wooden tables that are rented out to merchants who display the same high-quality goods available at any of the numerous Albanian-run green grocers in town. Aficionados look down their collective nose at this part of the market, dismissing it as inferior to the genuine article. These are, after all, mere renters: merchants and traders. They are not the real growers of food and so fall beneath the mark, regardless of the crisp bright produce they import from southern climes during the winter months.

The genuine article can be had just above Pogacar Square, up the ten shallow steps beside Saint Nicolas Cathedral in the direction of Castle Hill. There, rickety old women stand behind rickety old tables and aggressively peddle oils and herbs, goldenseal and nightshade, marjoram and monkshood, berries and wild mushrooms, all of which they painstakingly gathered in the woods around the city. No renters, these women are borrowers, healers, and witches. Their furrowed skin long ago acquired the woodsy complexion of the land they traverse — heads bent, eyes fixed upon the forest floor, stooping once in a while to collect the precious fruit, which they later measure with tiny pennyweights. Beyond the mushroom sellers, in the corridor to the right of the covered market that connects Pogacar and Vodnik Squares, an altogether different commerce is taking place. In the narrow passageway between the cathedral and the seminary, the flower market explodes in a blinding impressionist blur of color. Sellers line up to hawk their blooms: daffodils and tulips, sunflowers and lupines, Sweet William and peonies — depending on the season. Standing beneath a fresco of Saint John the Baptist encircled in a brilliant halo of blossoms, they haggle with their customers over the price of a small piece of heaven.

The fortunate soul — anointed by stalk, stem, and petal — who emerges from the narrow corridor of the flower market looks out over what seems for an instant like the whole expanse of heaven: Vodnik Square, the green heart of the Ljubljana market, a glorious undulating sea of brightly colored umbrellas opened above wooden push carts. So lovely is the vision of the main market that it is difficult to take in at first glance its individual components. Peasant women — scarves tied beneath their chins, cotton aprons wrapped round their waists — arrived in the square at daybreak and built the market, pushing carts piled high with simple plants grown in the gardens around their homes — fresh rocket and radicchio, ruddy carrots and turnips, cabbage and cauliflower, a feathery spray of herbs here, a cheerful bouquet of carnations there, whatever might fetch a few coins. At dawn, the women crossed the Three Bridges and entered the empty market. They lowered the back legs of their wooden pushcarts to the ground and pushed opened faded umbrellas to prevent the greens from wilting in the sun or getting drenched in a sudden squall. Thus they transformed the empty square into a vibrant pandemonium of color and sound. They drew in the community of the city, the shoppers with their baskets, the clashing particulars of life. With these simple gestures, the Slovenian peasant women became the architects of perfection.

On that warm Saturday in April, Ales and I and our children crossed the same bridge as the sellers had only hours before. Unlike them, however, we were returning to the market after an absence of several months. The preceding winter had been extremely harsh, heavy snows blocking the streets much longer than usual. No doubt there had been Saturdays during that long winter when the cold and lack of business had driven even the most stoic of the market women from their stalls. As it happened, I myself had been laid up for some months. The reason for my inability to pay a winter visit to Ljubljana’s most fertile district was my own impending spring fertility ritual: the birth of a third child. As Ales and I joined the throngs of people going to or coming from the main market across the Three Bridges, we were now encumbered not only with two empty wicker baskets and two over-exuberant toddlers but with a stroller filled to the brim with an infant boy born on the last day of March. Our growing band fell into step with the Saturday morning shoppers passing from the new town to the old, from the west side of Ljubljana to the east. By necessity, we lingered longer on the bridge than usual. In the small community that is downtown Ljubljana, we stood surrounded by friends and acquaintances who peered curiously into the stroller at our new son, warmly congratulated me on the successful birth and teased Ales, the legendary womanizer of old, for his now even more legendary patriarchal status. Everybody enthused about the brilliant weather, trumpeting the belated arrival of spring. And I, gazing from the white marble bridge toward the pale green blur of the market, felt overwhelmed with a sudden sense of joy.

The Three Bridges — Joze Plecnik’s architectural innovation — easily accommodated both the swell of my emotions and our burgeoning gathering. Plecnik, the Slovenian architect who left the greatest imprint on contemporary Ljubljana, was given the commission to modernize the city during the decades between the two world wars that punctuated the last century. He began by modifying the rather ordinary and narrow Spital Bridge that traversed the river between Preseren Square and the market place and, in doing so, he made something striking and new out of a structure that had become all but invisible. Plecnik added two lateral pedestrian bridges to the original, each with a graceful staircase that descended to the lower embankment of the river. The stairway closest to Pogacar trg where we stood on that splendid spring morning provides direct access to the fish market in the colonnade. On the market side of the river, where the bridge could be said to begin, the three segments are contiguous, almost touching one another. But as they span the river over to Preseren Square, the two pedestrian bridges fan out away from the original Spital bridge. What with the stairways and the replicating marble balustrades spiraling outward, Plecnik created a sense of rotation, of rapidly changing perspective: the spinning effect of bicycle spokes. He created something unique that transcended function and went beyond mere architectural beauty. He transformed the very concept of a bridge from something that simply crosses over from one side to the other into a site of congregation, an assembly hall constructed upon the water.

For a moment on that Saturday morning as we stood on the Three Bridges chatting with well-wishers in the spring sunshine, my hand resting lightly on the handle of the baby buggy, Ales’s hand resting on mine, the children running up and down the stairs to the fish market, I imagined that the spokes of the bridge began — like the three-spoked wheel of a bicycle — to turn. The spokes turned and turned in my mind’s eye. They spun so rapidly that the bridge and the world it occupied became no more a series of opposites but a closed circle. In that briefest of instants, I — an American in Europe, a creature of the new world spending her life in the old — floated above the dichotomies of that existence: tradition versus modernity, east versus west, capitalism versus socialism. The relentless divisions of this battered planet of ours blurred and melted into a single brilliant spinning orb. Infinity lay housed within a tiny baby buggy on a pedestrian bridge and, across the river, a modest city market promised its own vision of infinity. Residing at the intersection of river and earth, hill and heaven, it seemed to hold the entire world in its embrace: both classical architectural forms and the random beauty of nature that exploded from each and every market stall. And the bridge that held the picture together, which led across the waters to the pleasing totality of the market, was more than a mere conveyance. It was a meeting place and a place of surpassing perfection.

©2003 Erica Johnson Debeljak

Erica Johnson Debeljak (Ljubljana, Slovenia) is the American-born author of a book called Tujka v hisi domacinov (Foreigner in the House of Natives). Her work appears regularly in Slovenian literary journals, newspapers, and popular magazines and has also been published in the United States, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, and Hungary. She lives in Ljubljana with her husband and three children.

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