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The Legends of Lakes, Mountains & More in the Adriatic

Across Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, massive crystal-clear lakes are tucked beneath white-crested peaks, their banks framed by timeless evergreens and ornamented by centuries old castles and cathedrals. The lakes’ blue-green hue reflects the sun’s rays and the verdant valleys surrounding them bloom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the spring. For generations these lakes and mountains have drawn visitors in search of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. But… is something else drawing people to these geological masterpieces? Something a little less… of this world?

In fact, these fairy tale landscapes and pristine natural wonders are an integral part of a rich oral folklore tradition. Fancifully woven stories passed down over the years teach us about the spirits of the lakes and mountains and how they came to be. Before heading off to explore the wild and rugged Adriatic on one of our tours, step back in time and learn how fairies, dragons, and supernatural folk made this region truly magical!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled and the Legend of the Sunken Bell

Hidden among the Julian Alps’ jagged peaks, and just 22 miles from Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana, is Lake Bled. Visitors from around the world head to the lake’s picturesque shores to take in the gorgeous surrounding mountains and forests, and to take a trip out to little Bled Island! The legend goes that once upon a time a young widow lived in the castle on the island. Her husband had died many years prior, a victim of highway thieves who threw his body into the waters. Her sadness was so great that she gathered all of the gold and silver she had and commissioned a beautiful bell to be placed in the chapel on the island in his memory. But a great and terrible storm sank the boatmen and the bell on their way to the island. Overcome with grief, she sold all of her belongings, offered the proceeds to build a new church on the island and left Slovenia for Rome to live out her days as a nun. After her death, the Pope who had heard of her misfortunes and her good deeds sent a new bell to Bled Island in her name. He declared that anyone who believes in God and rings the bell three times will have their wishes come true. Today, the little church still stands on the island—a popular place for weddings. Be sure to ring the bell for yourself when you visit!

The Golden Horned (Left, by Michael R Perry/Flickr), Triglav Roses or Pink Cinquefoil (Right, by Peter Stevens)

Mount Triglav and the Legend of Goldenhorn

In the heart of Triglav National Park is Lake Bohinj—Slovenia’s largest natural lake. On a clear day, towering Mount Triglav’s reflection can be seen in its still, turquoise waters. The tallest of all the Julian Alps and the country’s highest peak (9,395 ft above sea level), Mount Triglav is so cherished in Slovenia that their flag features it prominently in a coat of arms. One of Slovenia’s most well-known legends tells of the mythical Goldenhorn, a magnificent white chamois buck whose realm was high atop Mount Triglav and whose horns were said to be the key to unfathomable treasures.

Once upon a time the mountaintops were covered with lush greenery and overflowed with sweet water and wildflowers. The Alpine paradise was inhabited by White Women, graceful and kind nymphs who helped the villagers from time to time. Goldenhorn also lived there and protected the White Women’s home from the greed of people. In gratitude, they gifted Goldenhorn with magical blood. Whenever it was spilled by a hunter, healing Triglav roses would spring forth. Eating just one single leaf would instantly restore his health and strength!

One day a young hunter in a nearby valley fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the village. To win her heart he set off into the mountains in search of Goldenhorn’s treasure. He found the majestic beast high on a rocky cliff. In an act of love and rage, the hunter shot at Goldenhorn and wounded him. Healing blooms immediately grew from the place where he stood. Quickly, Goldenhorn lowered his head to taste a single petal of the blooming Triglav rose and was wholly renewed! Before the hunter could escape, Goldenhorn ran toward him, and the hunter, awed and terrified by the gleam and ferocity of the golden horns, fell to his death below. Angry at the greed of humans, Goldenhorn destroyed the magical paradise and was never heard from again.

Today, the highest peaks are still barren and snow covered. But the lake valleys below are a popular hotspot for summer vacations as travelers come to unwind, take advantage of the numerous outdoor activities, and explore the tiny, traditional villages that still dot the lake’s shore. See if you can find the statue that honors Goldenhorn on the shores of Lake Bohinj!

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia (by Malcolm Carlaw/Flickr)

Plitvice Lakes and the Legend of the Black Queen

Inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Plitvice Lakes sit high in the karst region of central Croatia. Nearly 1,000,000 people visit the natural forested park and lakes each year. But legend has it that this area wasn’t always overflowing with water! In ancient times there was a horrible and lasting drought in the area and the winding river that normally flowed abundantly dried up and turned to dust. The villagers prayed day and night for rain until one day the queen of the fairies, the Black Queen, heard their cries from her palace hidden in the rock walls of nearby Mount Velebit. Taking pity on them, she sent rain to the valley, in the form of great storms with raging thunder and lightning. It rained so hard for so long that the water pooled and created the network of 16 interconnected lakes you can visit today, starting with Prošćansko jezero, the first and highest (2093 ft above sea level) of the entire lake system. Geologically speaking, they were formed over centuries as above-ground and subterranean karst rivers formed, merged, and cut their way through the mountains. Either way, we love the panoramic views and restful vibe they provide!

Lake Worth, Austria (Left), Worthersee Mandl statue in Klagenfurt (Right, by Ádám Erdélyi)

Lake Wörth and the Legend of Worthersee Mandl

Deep in the heart of the Austrian state of Carinthia is Lake Wörth. The largest lake in this district, it’s been a popular spot with tourists for more than a century with clear waters, Mediterranean climate and easy access by rail. Even today this is a great spot for those who want to relax along sunny shores, swim warm waters or hike the nearby nature trails! Many travelers to the area also stop to visit the nearby town of Klagenfurt. In the heart of this charming town’s square, amid bustling crowds and quaint coffee shops, is a little bronze statue of a gnome-looking man called Worthersee Mandl. Despite his tiny size and how unceremoniously he sits, perched with a fountain and keg, this colorful character represents the dramatic fashion of how Lake Wörth came to be.

The legend goes that many years ago another small town sat where Klagenfurt did and it was filled with sinful people who wouldn’t relent from their drinking, dancing and debauchery even during Holy Week and on the eve of Easter Sunday! So Worthrsee Mandl stood in the center of town, warning any passersby that if they didn’t change their ways they would all be punished. Undeterred, the townsfolk continued their revelry. Angry at the greedy people who would not listen, Worthsee Mandl unplugged the cork on his heavy keg and water began to pour out. It flowed and flowed and kept flowing. The waters consumed the whole town—all the buildings, the churches, the homes, everything. The magical water even transformed all the town’s inhabitants into fish! After many days of flooding, a giant lake sat where the town and valley had been. Locals say that the little town still sits at the bottom of Lake Wörth, submerged by the waters.

As you wander the little alleys and shops of Klagenfurt, keep an eye out for the little brass statue of Worthsee Mandl—a reminder to not be consumed by wicked ways. And if you listen carefully on a quiet night at Lake Wörth, it is said you can still hear the underwater church bells ring!

Postojna Cave Slovenia (Left), Endemic Olm (Right, by Nacionalni park Una)

Postojna Cave and the Legend of Jami the Little Dragon

Forged deep underground by the Pivka River over millions of years is Postojna Cave. This massive karst cave system, in southwestern Slovenia, is one of the country’s major tourism sites. And it’s no wonder why! These dramatic caves are a treasure trove of geological wonders from mighty stalactites and towering stalagmites to formations called curtains (that resemble folded draperies). The cave is also the home to the endemic olm, the largest troglodytic amphibian in the world. These “otherworldly”-looking aquatic salamanders are unique because they are exclusively cave dwelling and native only to the karst caves in Central and Southeastern Europe. Perhaps it is their unique place among the fauna of the world that helped spawn the legend of Jami… the little dragon turned “human fish.”

Legend says that centuries ago, fire breathing dragons lived in the caves. They were a terror that frightened townsfolk who feared for their homes, crops, and livestock. When the mighty River Spirit of Pivka swelled and surged, it purged the dragons from the cave. The Pivka River only allowed Jami, a little dragon, to stay behind for he was kind and only longed to befriend the local children and spend his days playing in the fields and streams with them. Understandably, however, the children were afraid of Jami and so he lived alone in the cave longing for companionship.

At the depths of his depression, a cave dwelling beetle appeared. He introduced Jami to all of the cave’s little creatures and his circle of friends grew and grew! After a while they asked him to take a turn guarding the cave’s magical pearls. Jami, not wanting to disappoint his new friends, eagerly agreed and took a post watching over the treasure. Soon after, however, he fell asleep and his snores shook the cave walls. An evil goblin named Switch heard the commotion and followed the snores to find Jami fast asleep atop a pile of pearls. Overcome with greed, and not at all afraid of the dragon, Switch snatched up as many pearls as he could carry.

But Jami felt the rustling and woke up with a start! He snatched Switch into his claws and bared his sharp teeth at the pitiful goblin. Realizing that he was outmatched, Switch began to beg for his freedom. He promised to grant Jami a wish should he let him go. Jami, who still dreamed of a day he could frolic with the village children, agreed to let him go in exchange for humanity. Eager to be free, Switch mumbled some ancient magic words and the cave shook with thunder and smoke. When the smoke finally cleared, Switch had disappeared and Jami remained—a small dragon with human-like skin and a human-like smile—forever destined to play with his little cave-dwelling friends and guard the hidden treasure of pearls.

In 2016 scientists discovered a clutch of olm eggs in Postojna Cave, which look a bit like pearls, and the world watched as two new “human fish” were born! If you visit the cave, stop by the Vivarium Proteus exhibit to learn more about the “human fish” and their ecology along with interesting facts and tidbits about the wide world of cave dwelling creatures that make their home in Postojna Cave!

Curiosity piqued? Explore these natural wonders for yourself on our Discover the Adriatic: Croatia, Slovenia and Venice vacation—and you might just come face to face with a dragon or glimpse the Goldenhorn with your own eyes! (And even if you don’t… these incredible landscapes are unforgettable!)

1 Comment

  1. Tess

    What charming stories! Thank you for sharing them along with the photos.


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