Bridges are both feats of engineering and important gateways, and as such they have always attracted the human imagination. Since times immemorial, legends have been told of how the construction of a particular bridge is to be attributed to the Devil, or that evil spirits lived in it.
In the Balkans, there is a different legend about some old bridges such as those at Acra in Greece and on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It attributes their durability and strength to a human sacrifice that the master builder had to make.
Bulgaria also has such a bridge. This elegant five-arched structure in Nevestino, a village near Kyustendil, is known by two names. One is Kadin Bridge, the other Nevestin Bridge. The root of the former is a Turkish word and the latter is Bulgarian. Both words mean the same, a married woman, and both reflect the legend about how the bridge came to be.
Once upon a time, the story goes, three brothers who were builders, were commissioned to construct a bridge over the River Struma. The work went awry from the very beginning. Each night an unknown force demolished everything they had built during the day, and every morning they had to start all over again.
Finally, the builders realised that the bridge needed a human sacrifice. The three agreed to entomb in the foundations of the bridge the first person to pass by on the following morning.
The elder brothers told their wives about the agreement. The youngest played fair. On the next day his young wife came to the construction site to bring his breakfast.
Neither the builder nor his wife protested against their fate, and carried out their roles in accordance with tradition. He "built" her into the bridge and she asked him to leave one of her breasts uncovered so she could feed their child.
So, the bridge was finished.
Statue of the woman whose sacrifice, according to the legend, made completing the bridge possible
The legend had a great influence on the people in the region. The nearby village was named Nevestino. The local women would break off small pieces from a stone in the central arch of the bridge, boil them in milk and drink the liquid, believing this would boost their breastfeeding.
The Balkan story of a person, usually an young and beautiful woman, who has to be built in a structure, has deep roots. According to one interpretation, it reflects the old belief that each building has a soul that comes from the first person to have died in the construction, thus becoming its spiritual protector.
There are other legends about Kadin Bridge. One says that the bridge built itself. A heavy iron rod, moved by no visible force, broke pieces of stone from the surrounding mountains. The rocks moved to the construction site on their own, and took their places. When the bridge was ready, the stones that had already been broken but had not yet reached the river froze in their places.
Another legend has nothing to do with the supernatural, but it also involves a woman. When Sultan Murad (it is unclear which of the five Ottoman rulers with this name is being referred to) was passing through the area on his way to some battle, he came across a Bulgarian wedding party. The law required the wedding guests to stand aside to make way for the sultan and his entourage. However, they did not move.
Instead, the bride approached the sultan and made a low bow. Enraptured by her boldness, he offered her a gift. The young woman asked that a bridge be built at this spot, and her wish was granted.
Kadin Bridge was built to facilitate travel into the Western Balkans
Legends are legends but, unlike most other places, Kadin Bridge still preserves traces of its real history. A builder's inscription recalls that the 100-metre-long stone bridge was built by Ishak Pasha, Grand Vizier of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, in 1469-1470 to facilitate travel from Constantinople to Skopje and the western Balkans.
Today local traffic in sleepy Nevestino still uses the bridge, and there is a quiet park around it. The times when Kadin Bridge was on a major route are long gone, and tourists divert from their journey to Skopje only for a quick photo op before continuing to the border with North Macedonia.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.