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I’m balancing on a narrow strip of concrete high in the air, the wind dancing with my open jacket. Far bellow me, the river races past, carrying tiny islands of ice in its current. How did I find myself in this precarious situation, tottering across the high backbone of Tartu’s Arched Bridge? A couple of beers, a bit of history and a fascination with student rituals, that’s how…
Tartu’s bridges carry as much history as they do foot traffic. They have been burnt down, blown up, sung upon, and in one rather newsworthy case, had lewd public acts of procreation performed on them. Two of the most significant ones don’t even span water. You’ll find them at the top of Tartu’s Toome Hill.
The most picturesque is Angel’s Bridge (Inglisild), named not after an angel at all, but through a spot of confusion in translation. This multi-pillared wooden bridge links two knolls of Toome Hill, and once allowed astronomy students to reach the university’s observatory when obstinate neighbours refused to give them access (or so the story goes). A thin wooden bridge was erected on this spot in 1814, and was replaced by the sturdier girder bridge of classical design in 1836. The bridge was renovated in 1913, when it was adorned with a carving of Georg Friedrich Parrot, the French rector who in 1802 convinced Czar Alexander I to support Tartu University. Around the same time, students began using Angel’s Bridge and the facing Devil’s Bridge (see below) as platforms for choir performances. Choirs would have sing-offs with each other between the bridges, contests that are thought to be precursors to the modern Estonian Song Festivals. And the name? It’s said the bridge was named after an English garden – in Estonian, the word for English (inglise) is similar to the word angel (ingel). One history doubts this, however, as no English garden was ever planted on the hill. It’s more likely it was named in contrast to the nearby Devil’s Bridge.
The current Devil’s Bridge (Kuradisild) - a rather ugly concrete arch - was constructed in 1913 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty (whose rule over Estonia would last just another four years). It replaced two earlier structures, one erected in 1808 and a second in 1841. The name is borrowed from the bridge’s construction supervisor, a German by the lengthy name of Werner Maximillian Friedrich Zoege von Manteuffel. Roughly translated, his last name sounds something like “man-devil”.
But the bridge loaded with the most controversy is Arched Bridge (Kaarsild), the pedestrian walkway that spans the Emajõgi river from the Town Hall Square to Atlantis nightclub. It was atop this iconic structure that I found myself that windy night in the middle of winter, following in the footsteps of countless university students who had gone before me. You see, it’s somewhat of a student ritual to walk across the high arch of the bridge, particularly at night, particularly when one is slightly intoxicated. Among some students it is believed that your time in Tartu is incomplete until you have gone “üle Kaarsilla” (“over the Arched Bridge”). It’s certainly not a course requirement. In fact, some citizens look down on the practice. That said, it’s not illegal, and it’s not as scary or dangerous as you might first believe. The concrete beam is neither as narrow nor steep as it appears. Once you’re up there the view is amazing and the feeling is quite exhilarating. If you plan to cross the bridge, check first that it isn’t slippery with ice or snow, and try to do it sober, if at all possible. The Arched Bridge gained international recognition in summer 2007 when a couple was photographed grinding half-clothed on apex of the bridge. The images were published in tabloid newspapers across the world, and spawned countless local legends. Some Tartu bars now serve a shot named “Sex on the Bridge” to honour the occasion. More recently, a group of pranksters mounted the bridge in the small hours of the night and deposited a tableau of two blow-up dolls cavorting on a steel-frame bed. The installation was discovered at first light and promptly removed by the authorities, causing some bohemian types to complain about the censorship of “public art”.
The controversy surrounding the Arched Bridge concerns not just what goes on above it, but also what lies below it. Beneath the surface of the river remain the stone foundations of the Stone Bridge (Kivisild), an earlier structure that existed on the same spot. When the Stone Bridge was opened in 1784, it was seen as a catalyst for Tartu’s development. It was built by order of Empress Catherine II, who dispatched 25,000 rubles to the city to help it recover from the devastating fire of 1775. The handsome structure featured two heavy stone arches supporting two towers, with a central drawbridge to allow river barges to pass. The Stone Bridge stood until 1941, when the retreating Soviet army blew it up. Their dynamiting efforts destroyed only half of the bridge, yet the remaining portion was obliterated in 1944 by the retreating Nazis. The Arched Bridge was built in its place in 1959. Today one historical society is pushing for the removal of the Arched Bridge and the resurrection of the Stone Bridge. They aim to raise 25 million euros for the project. So if you do plan to go “üle Kaarsilla”, you best do it before there’s no “kaar” to go “üle”.
Please note that we here at Tartu In Your Pocket neither condone nor suggest that you walk over, or perform any sort of public displays of affection on top of the Arched Bridge. You do so at your own risk ...but you have to admit, it could be fun.