On Valentine’s Day, visiting two European monuments dedicated to a tragic love story and breakups

Travellers tend to associate Europe with romance, and while the continent certainly deserves that reputation, not much is known of how it celebrates the opposite: heartbreak.

Two cities in Europe love breakups so much, that they have museums dedicated to the phenomenon. One retells a tragic love story from mediaeval times, while the other doffs its hat to bittersweet affairs of the 21st century.

Love Bank, Banská Štiavnica

On a bright sunny day, I stood at the heart of Banská Štiavnica — a UNESCO-protected mediaeval town in Central Slovakia, once considered the El Dorado of the Hungarian Empire. In its heyday, the volcanic soil of Banská Štiavnica made it among Europe’s richest towns. Over time, its glory has faded, but visitors are still drawn to the sleepy town which claims to house the world’s only “Love Bank”.

Couples can deposit small cherished tokens of their love in a lovers’ vault, comprising 1,00,000 tiny drawers. The Love Bank owes its origins to star-crossed lovers Marína Pischlová and Andrej Sládkovič; the building in which it is situated — the House of Marina — is also where Pischlová lived, and fell in love with Sládkovič.

Katarína Javorská, the manager, told me the couple’s story as I took a tour of the Love Bank: “Andrej and Marína fell in love in this house itself when they were just 14. They wanted to marry, but her parents didn’t approve of their relationship and forcefully married her off to a wealthy gingerbread maker. Andrej was heart-broken and in her memory, wrote the world’s longest love poem, the 2,910 lines long Marina, in 1846. Today it’s a national treasure and their story is even taught in textbooks.”

While Andrej and Marína’s story is impressive, how the Love Bank came to be is even more intriguing. Katarína explained, “The Love Bank is a fundraising project to save and restore the historic House of Marína, and bring more love to the world through Andrej’s poem. We have created love boxes from the poem. Each Love Box bears a piece of the original manuscript.”

Strolling through the museum, I saw smiling couples, friends, families and even singles depositing their love tokens in tiny vaults. I saw a woman storing a five-month-old pregnancy scan, a married couple putting away flowers from their wedding, and a girl preserving her departed dog’s picture. Not only can you deposit tokens of love for other people, but also for art, nature, food. Love in all forms is preserved.

On Valentine’s Day 2019 (14 February), Katarína informed me that the Love Bank would “start the world’s biggest love experiment for 1,00,000 love seekers”. “We want to test whether the first real Love Bank in the world can help people find true love. Anyone from around the globe can go on our website and their love wish. We will print the wish without revealing the sender’s identity and store it in the Love Bank. We strongly believe that the power of Marína will mystically make the sender’s love wish come true. We will continuously evaluate the results of the experiment on our website and will publish the final results on Valentine’s Day in 2020,” she told me.

I then moved on to the other interactive exhibits: a ‘love-o-meter’ that claims to measure the strength of a couple’s love, and talking portraits that bring alive Andrej and Marína’s love story, depicting emotions like yearning, wrath, jealousy, and passion.

While Andrej and Marína’s romance didn’t end on a happy note, they continue to inspire other lovers to believe in the power of love and work towards preserving it.

Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

Wandering through the cobblestoned streets bordered by baroque architecture in Zagreb, I felt it was Valentine’s Day: hearts everywhere! Throughout the year, the city proudly displays its best-known traditional souvenirs — “licitars” (gingerbread hearts). They are so popular that they were included in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list too.

Yet, in a city full of hearts, broken hearts are displayed too. Broken hearts have found solace in Zagreb’s ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’.

The museum’s location is perfect — a former 18th-century palace set in between Saint Mark’s Church and Saint Catherine’s in Zagreb’s Upper Town. The museum is the brainchild of two Zagreb-based artists, film producer Olinka Vistica and sculptor Dražen Grubišic. After their breakup in 2003, the two joked about setting up a museum to house the mementos of their relationship, and in 2006 with the help of their friends, their ‘joke’ became reality.

Started as a travelling exhibition of donated items, their idea found a permanent home in 2010.

A low, arched entrance welcomes visitors to all-white rooms lined with donated items from around the globe — the sentimental relics that remained at the end of relationships. At first glance, the objects look mundane; but the accompanying original narratives written by their anonymous donors took me through a roller-coaster of emotions — anger, grief, amusement, surprise, and sometimes, laughter.

A stiletto represents a clandestine encounter between a prostitute and client; next to it, a broken garden gnome — witness to the fiery fight between a couple when their 20-year marriage collapsed. A love letter evokes sympathy for the lovers who had to part ways in Sarajevo because of the Balkan war; an axe — used by a woman to hack every piece of furniture belonging to her cheating ex-girlfriend — elicits emotion of a different kind. Some of the objects made me sad: “Endured longer than (our) love” and “Was made of a sturdier material than (our) relationship” read the captions that accompany a prosthetic leg. Others speak of the bitterness associated with a break-up — like the G-string that comes with the caption “He was as cheap and shabby as his presents”.

I finished my tour with the purchase of a ‘Bad Memories Eraser’, and a cup of tea at the Brokenships Café.

As much as the Museum of Broken Relationships is a repository of pain, it is also a place of healing. Just like the Love Bank. Both places drive home the point that at times, endings can also mark the beginning of something new.

Archana Singh is a brand strategist turned travel entrepreneur and writer, who likes to visit offbeat places in search of untold stories. Follow her on Instagram.

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