Folk stories of knights, maidens, evil queens, bloody bridges and countless others – these are all an integral part of Zagreb’s history.
If you are looking for scientific proof, you’re in the wrong place. But fantastic, compelling reading? Please, proceed.
What’s in a name?
If you are wondering how Zagreb got its name, there is a very popular legend surrounding it.
There are a few versions of the story, but the storyline, or should we say – the keyword, is mostly the same.
It goes something like this.
A white knight came from a faraway land, wandering into the valley of Mount Mevednica, rising above Zagreb. The valley was dry and deserted. Desperately thirsty and tired, he sat by the dusty road to rest.
Suddenly, a beautiful maiden appeared in front of him, like a daydream. In a soft voice, she asked him if he needed help. The knight begged her for some water. „I have none, there is no water in this barren land“, the maiden answered. The knight’s head exhaustingly fell into his arms. „However, do not despair“, she continued, „but scrape the dirt’s surface with your hand“ (in Croatian, the verb she used is „zagrebi“).
He bent down and did what she told him. To his disbelief, a crystal stream started flowing from the place where he scratched. He immediately took a sip and felt his life coming back to him.
The knight thankfully asked for her name. „Manda“ – she replied. The knight then took her arm and asked her to marry him, promising to build a palace for her and a life full of riches. As she said yes, the land around them blossomed and the valley became fertile.
Other, less elaborate one, tells a similar story of a thirsty lord, who saw a well on his way and a local maiden named Manda standing next to it (obviously, the man already knew her name this time). He yelled to her, “MANDO, DUŠO, ZAGRABI!” translated as – “Manda, sweetheart, scoop some!”
And this is how today’s city of Zagreb got its name, according to the legend.
Today, a fountain called Manduševac can be found on Zagreb’s main square, built on the place where an actual spring once was. It was covered up in the 19th century and dug up again after the reconstruction of the square in the ’80s.
Locals named it after the mysterious maiden Manda, who kindly saved the knight’s life to rid him of his thirst. Manda also became a popular Croatian female name because of this legend.
The vicious and cruel Black Queen
If all legends were filled with chaste, well-meaning maidens and virtuous white knights, folk history would be quite boring.
Here’s one that isn’t.
Barbara Celjska (Barbara of Cilli) was a factual historic figure who lived in the 15th century, born in today’s Czech Republic. She became a Hungarian-Croatian queen by marrying King Sigismund.
According to sources, she was very beautiful, but also pretty abusive and deceitful toward others. During her rule, she allegedly spent time in the Medvedgrad Fortress on Mount Medvednica. This is why some consider her the real Black Queen.
Legend has it that The Black Queen lived a very decadent life. People tell stories of how she had numerous lovers in the absence of her husband while residing in Medvedgrad.
After she was fed up with them, she ordered the poor souls to be thrown over the walls and down the mountain! Some say “the luckier ones” were lowered into the valley in a cage… with a wild boar in it. Just how lucky they were, you be the judge.
As if that wasn’t enough, her favorite pet was none other than a black raven. It sat on her shoulder and attacked people if she gave the order.
There are several stories about her death.
Some claim that during a great draught in the city, the only well which hadn’t dried up was located on Medvedgrad. The Queen kept it hidden and let the dogs loose on everyone who tried to drink from it.
However, she didn’t seem to count on the fact that dogs get thirsty too. Eventually, her well ran out of water and she couldn’t control the mad dogs anymore. They turned on her and by trying to run from them, she fell over the castle walls and met the fate of her former lovers.
Another popular myth says that when the Ottomans prepared to take Medvedgrad, none wished to come to aid The Black Queen, so she desperately sought help from the devil.
In a Faustian maneuver, she made a deal with him promising control over Medvedgrad and her own body. He drove them away, but she didn’t keep her end of the deal, which we guess is not exactly the smartest of moves if you’re dealing with the Prince of Darkness. Enraged, he turned her into a snake and locked her in a chamber underground.
People believe she still slithers somewhere, guarding her treasure in the hidden corridors which connect Medvedgrad with Kaptol and Gradec.
For the uninitiated, Kaptol and Gradec are two separate historic towns which were combined in the 19th century to form modern Zagreb. Zagreb’s Cathedral is located on Kaptol, while Gradec is the home of St. Mark’s Square, the church with the same name and the Croatian Parliament Building.
Back in the day, these two towns were connected by a structure called Bloody Bridge, which is the subject of our next legend.
Like water under the bridge… or not
The citizens of Kaptol and Gradec weren’t the friendliest of neighbors. Some say that Gradec’s citizens were jealous of Kaptol’s wealth, because of the income they generated from their mills.
The wooden bridge over Medveščak Creek that used to connect the two towns supposedly became the scene of many a head-crashing, brawling and bare-knuckle fighting everytime the townspeople came across each other. Thus, it was given the name Bloody Bridge.
Even though it was a name the locals used for it, clearly it stuck until today.
North of Jelačić Square, the street between Radićeva and Tkalčićeva still bears the original name – “Krvavi Most” in Croatian.
It also became the subject of one in a series of novels by Marija Jurić-Zagorka, a famous Croatian fiction writer from the 19th century. Her romantic crime-thriller The Secret of The Bloody Bridge tells the story of a nobleman’s dead body found under the bridge. A whole mystery surrounding it unfolds.
If you’re looking for a book recommendation, our editorial staff encourages you to pick up this one!
A legend born out of fire
The Stone Gate is a religious and cultural landmark of Zagreb. It’s one of the best preserved monuments of old city core.
In the past, the town of Gradec had four entrances, one from each side. The Stone Gate was built in the 13th century, serving as a passage into the city from the east with a watchtower above it. The other three gates were torn down in the 19th century.
What’s interesting is that the gate caught fire four times throughout history. A famous legend was born after the last incident, which Marija Jurić-Zagorka has also written about.
One night, a fire broke out from an inn on Gradec. It spread so quickly that the sleeping townspeople just couldn’t contain it. The time everybody woke up, the flames consumed half the city. It spread from west to east, all the way to The Stone Gate.
After they finally put out the fire, a girl named Manduša was looking for her painting of Mary, Mother of God. Suddenly, while going through the ashes, someone shockingly pulled out the painting from the rubble.
It was untouched.
People started gathering around it and couldn’t believe their eyes. Manduša took her painting, put it against the walls at the gate and cried: “Mother, bless the people of Gradec, and watch over us forever. From this day on, all will come and pray to you here at The Stone Gate!” Amazingly, the gate never caught fire again…
And thus, The Stone Gate became a sanctuary where Catholics come to light candles and pray. A popular phrase even came into daily use among Zagreb’s people – if you strongly hope something will happen, you say “I’ll have to go light a candle at The Stone Gate.”
The city’s archbishop Franjo Kuharić declared Mother of The Stone Gate the patron saint of Zagreb on the 31st of May, 1991. This date is also known as the official Zagreb Day.
That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading our legendary article!
Author: Dan Mekinec
Photo Credit: (1), (3), (4) and (5) Photonet, (2) Ivo Pervan, Croatia Tourist Board