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Pride and Prešeren, A Poet’s Revenge Exploring Ljubljana’s Myths

“Most national anthems are about kings and queens, or wars,” says Barbara, our local Ljubljana tour guide for the day. “But here in Slovenia, our national anthem is an ode to drinking. The name is Zdravljica and this literally means ‘A Toast’ or ‘Cheers’.” As if to prove what a convivial bunch the Slovenes are, Barbara then launches into a one-woman rendition of Zdravljica, which is met by suitable applause from her audience, the various bloggers of The Travel Mob.


We are standing under the statue of the very man who wrote this anthem, a cry for Slovenian independence and for peace between men, on the square in Ljubljana named after him – Preseren square.


France Preseren was a Romantic Slovenian poet of the 19th Century, of relatively humble background, who helped champion the use and development of the Slovenian language at a time when Slovenia did not yet exist as a country (at that time the Slovenes were merely a small ethnic Slavic group within the Austrian Habsburg Empire). Fast forward nearly 200 years to modern times, when Slovenia is finally an independent country (as of 1991), and Preseren is now considered the nation’s official bard and its most important cultural figure.


Aside from the national anthem, one of the poet’s most loved works (albeit not by Slovenian school children necessarily, who are all forced to learn it by heart), is Povodni mož or ‘The Water Man’: the story of a devilish river-dweller and a not-so-dainty damsel…

A more human, less froggy version of the Vodnik from Wikipedia
A more human, less froggy version of a Slavic Vodnik from Wikipedia

The Water Man, in Myth and Verse


The Water Man as a creature is not Preseren’s unique invention but in fact a reoccurring character in Slavic myth and lore; a kind of river spirit who was often malevolent and capricious, and usually held responsible by townsfolk for any drownings in the local area. Sometimes depicted as a frog-like old fellow with webbed feet and algae for hair (think Old Gregg in the Mighty Boosh… minus the “mangina”), these magical creatures were also said to be able to disguise themselves as humans, albeit usually with rather odd taste in clothes, so that they could mingle with society and cause further mischief than simply snatching the odd careless swimmer.


Preseren and His Water Man

In Preseren’s famous poem, one such Water Man appears as a handsome young suitor in Ljubljana’s Market Square on the occasion of dance, having heard of the peerless pulchritude of a local girl called Urska. Unfortunately, Urska is no demure and bashful beauty, but rather a latter-day Paris Hilton, posing and preening and looking down her nose at everyone. Preseren makes it clear that this snooty pin-up already has plenty of local suitors, who she is in the habit of leading on and then rejecting, and on this particular occasion she has disdained to even dance with anyone at all.

A handsome stranger sits at the yellow table. Photo by Barbara Zajc.
A handsome stranger sits at the yellow table. Photo by Barbara Zajc.

Oh dear Urska, if only you weren’t so proud, maybe you would have made a lovely wife for one lucky Ljubljanite! But no, you just had to go and choose the bad one! The freshly-arrived foreign fellow offers Urska his hand, which she willingly accepts, to the envy of all the other girls (and the frustration of all the other would-be suitors), and the two of them begin to circle around the dancefloor in time with the band.


However, this strange chap is quite the hot stepper and leads her at a preternatural pace, gathering speed, as they spin around almost without touching the ground. Clouds gather the waters of the Ljubljanica river start to churn, and Urska urges her dancing partner to slow down. But there’s no stopping him! Spinning round together like a tornado they veer off the dancefloor driven by a demonic force out onto the river’s surface.


Their speed is so great that they create a whirlpool in the waters, drilling down into the river depths… the waves of the Ljubljanica crash over their heads and the pair are never to be seen again!


The poem ends there, but the insinuation is that, like the vodnici of lore, this devilish Water Man kept Urska trapped in the river depths below as his watery “wife” for the rest of her days… although Preseren doesn’t speculate if she liked her new life blowing bubbles, or not.

Slovenia's most famous poet was unlucky in love. (Photo from Wikipedia).
Slovenia’s most famous poet was unlucky in love. (Photo from Wikipedia).

Preseren, Poet Not Playboy

One interesting thing to note about the poem is that it was partially inspired by the writer’s own life. The poet was rather unlucky in love, to say the least and one of his first romantic disappointments was his unsuccessful courting of a certain Zalika Dolenc, the daughter of an innkeeper whose inn Preseren used to frequent during his student years. Zalika clearly thought she was a bit too much of the hot stuff for a poor legal clerk like Preseren (as he was in those days) and he got the thumbs down. Preseren’s revenge was to write The Water Man, and originally in fact the heroine was given the name Zalika. It was only later, in the amended version to be published in the collection Poezije (Poems), that he changed her name to Urška.


For more on Preseren’s love life and the (often frustrated) erotic poetry, it produced check out this insightful essay by Henry Cooper. In the meantime, here is a transcript of The Water Man translated by the same Henry Cooper and seven others in a book called Izbrane Pesmi / Selected Poems, published by Mladinska Knjiga, and available at their bookstores, such as this one on Slovenska street. (Thanks to Matej of Luxury Slovenia for furnishing me with this transcript).


The Water Man by France Preseren


Though long for its beauties Ljubljana was known,
Than Urska there never was any more fair,
No maidens, no women were known anywhere
In flow’ring allurement with her to compare. –
The star of the morning midst stars is most bright:
So also did Urska midst girls most delight.

Of maidens and women, both spinsters and wed,
In private the eyes with hot tears would smart
When he whom they loved gave to Urska his heart;
But she had of suitors too few, for her part.
Once she of a much-vaunted youth was aware,
she tried to entrap him in her open snare.

She knew how to promise and how to refuse,
And how to be amiable, how to be proud;
The young she enticed, to the old smiles allowed;
With talents and tricks she was fully endowed;
For long she kept men eating out of her hand,
But met one at last whom she could not withstand.

One afternoon, Sunday, the Old Market Square:
The trumpets and fiddles and zithers all played,
From all of Ljubljana, lo, every fair maid
Lightheartedly danced in the linden tree’s shade;
Among them queen Urska the beautiful reigned:
For long she to join in the dancing disdained.

Though many invite, she rejects everyone,
She snubs their entreaties and proud is her glance,
With new-found excuses refusing to dance;
The sun is now setting, the shadows advance,
Already the seventh hour fully has passed
When Urska decides to start dancing at last.

But when she in search of a partner looks around
A youth by a small yellow table she spies;
No stalwart his equal is there ‘neath the skies,
To dance with him ev’ry girl highly would prize. –
Fair Urska, desiring a catch with her hook,
Directs on him, as though enamoured, a look.

This seeing the young man approaches the maid:
“Do you wish to dance?” – for he has the first word –
“Where Sava’s swift waters with Danube’s are stirred
This morning I first of your great beauty heard,
Already, fair Urska, we two are well met,
Already, fair Urska, to dance I am set!”

He speaks and in front of her deeply he bows,
Fair Urska bestows upon him a sweet smile:
“I have not a single step danced yet awhile,
For you I’ve been waiting, I’ll say without guile;
So come, waste no time now, just give me your hand,
The sun’s going down and the dance soon will end!”

The handsome young man now gives Urska his hand,
And swiftly the pair round the dance-floor take flight
As if each is borne on two wings feather-light,
Their spinning around’s an ethereal sight;
It cannot be seen if they touch the ground,
As swept by a whirlwind they dance round and round.

In awe, the musicians now play not a sound,
On seeing this sight all the bystanders stare;
And, hearing the trumpeters no longer blare,
The youth loudly stamps and they hear him declare:
“I care not a whit for the fiddle and bass
Let others strings sound when I’m dancing apace!”

Apace have come rushing black lowering clouds,
They hear in the sky fearful thunder resound,
They hear how the winds grimly whistle around,
They hear rushing rivulets noisily pound,
And all of those there feel their hair stand on end –
O Urska, fair Urska, such woes now impend!

“Fear not, fairest Urska, just keep well in step!
Fear not,” he declares, “if the thunder resounds,
Fear not that the water so noisily pounds
Fear not the strong winds with their whistling sounds;
Just speedily, speedily make your feet haste,
Just speedily, quickly, there’s no time to waste.”

“I must have a rest now, I’m quite out of breath!
Let’s stop for a little, kind dancer, my dear!”
“The white land of Turkey is not at all near,
Where Danuble is met by the Sava so clear,
The deafening waters are waiting to greet
You, Urska! so quickly keep moving your feet!”

He spoke, and they danced on more rapidly yet,
Away from the dance floor and further they whirled,
Beside the Ljubljanica thrice round they swirled,
Still dancing, they ‘neath the loud waters were hurled.
A whirlpool was seen from their boats by some men,
But nobody ever saw Urska again.

So there you go… beware proud ladies! Hell hath no fury like a poet scorned!

Duncan traveled to Ljubljana with the Travel Mob whose combined stories, videos and photos on Ljubljana you can read about on their website. The blogtrip was patroned by Visit Ljubljana. Duncan is also extremely grateful to Get Your Guide, the tour booking platform through which he met his local guide Barbara, whose imparted insight into Preseren and Ljubljana was essential in the researching of this article, not to mention his other recent story for The Fairytale Traveler, on the legend of Ljubljana’s fearsome dragon.

Duncan Rhodes

Duncan Rhodes is the London and Barcelona-based Chief Editor Urban Travel Blog, where he pretends to enjoy things like street art, molecular cocktail bars and experimental dance clubs. When really he loves Greek & Roman history and legends (which he studied at university), J. R. R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons and Game of Thrones.

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