You have seen bridges all around the world laden with love locks. Engraved with initials or messages to friends, family and loved ones, love locks remain a classic token of love even in the digital age. Adding love locks to a bridge may be part of some of your bucket lists, while many of you may already have crossed it off.
But while a simple glance at a love-locked bridge may give you romantic feelings, there’s a not-so-romantic truth behind them. Millions of love-locks on a bridge or a fence add to its weight, making it dangerous to be anywhere near it. Some cities around the world have gotten rid of these locks so that their landmark bridges remain safe. Other cities see adding locks purely as an act of vandalism.
So which love-struck couple or star-crossed lovers started this trend that would span generations yet to come? What’s the symbolism behind the lock? And who noticed a tiny lock on a bridge or a fence and mimicked the action? Let’s see here.
What are love locks?
A love lock is a simple padlock that two partners attach to a landmark like a fence, bridge, monument or even a tree. The couple then follows the tradition of throwing away the key to symbolize their everlasting love, something that cannot be broken. Typically, couples engrave their initials or messages onto the padlock. Sometimes, it is the date that is engraved. Whatever it is, it is something that is symbolic to the couple or person who attaches it to the landmark. The key is most often thrown into a nearby water body.
The beginning of the 2000s has seen an increase in the practice of adding love locks. Some locations and landmarks across the world have become known for the millions of padlocks added to them. However, certain cities and municipalities treat them more as a nuisance or vandalism. It does cost quite a lot to get them removed. On the other hand, some city officials consider them as part of modern culture and use them as tourist attractions or fundraising projects.
A Serbian tale of love…or heartbreak?
The origin of the story of love locks is most often attributed to Paris, or more specifically, the initially padlock laden Pont Des Arts Bridge in Paris. Well, why shouldn’t it, since Paris is deemed one of the most romantic cities in the world?
But no, Paris isn’t where it all began. It actually started in a little town in Serbia called Vrnjačka Banja in 1914, when the First World War was about to break out. Young men were being called to fight on the front lines in what seemed like a hopeless battle. One such man was Relja, a Serbian officer. Like the many stories in which men leave their sweethearts behind and go to war, Relja had to do the same. His sweetheart was a schoolmistress named Nada.
Inseparable, young and in love, they quickly become engaged, with dreams of eternal love and a family. But one of life’s often cruel ironies was just around the corner, as Relja had to leave for the war. A miserable Nada stayed in the town, believing that her love would return, just as he promised. But Relja never returned to Vrnjačka Banja. He fell in love with a woman in Corfu while at war. A devastated Nada fell into depression upon receiving the news of her broken engagement and it is said that she died of a broken heart, young and alone.
Neither did the tragic tale go unheard of in the town. The other young women were troubled by the incident. What they did to ensure the immortality of their own romances was what started the act that would span for centuries to come. The young women of Vrnjačka Banja bought hundreds of padlocks en masse. They wrote their names and those of their sweethearts on the locks prior to attaching them to a bridge that served as Nada and Relja’s regular rendezvous spot. The keys were then flung into the river to ensure loyalty.
As the years went by, the tale of Nada and Relja slowly faded into the background and remained forgotten. That was, until Desanka Maksimović, the Serbian poet, brought it back to light with her poem, Molitva za ljubav (Prayer for Love). Thanks to the poem, the tale caught fire and star-crossed lovers all over the town began attaching love locks to a pedestrian bridge. The bridge soon got the name the Most ljubavi or the Bridge of Love.
A popular trend
The tradition was soon copied by towns all over the world, some more than others. Cities like Paris and Barcelona stood out for the millions of love locks that were attached to their bridges. But these cities would eventually be forced to cut off the locks with bolt cutters as the bridges were threatened with the weight of millions of locks. This did not, however, deter the few daring individuals who still brought and used loved locks on the bridges. The rest of Europe saw the proliferation of love locks towards the beginning of the 2000s. The reasons varied as did the locations.
While the rest of the world had its own reasons for using love locks, South Serbia believed in their own set of superstitions. The locks affixed to the Bridge of Love have never been removed. While there are over fifteen bridges in the town of Vrnjačka Banja alone, nobody can mistake the legendary bridge that captured the hearts of millions of individuals across the world.
Unlocking the locks
As the use of love locks spread like wildfire around the world, local authorities have often had them removed. Reasons vary from safety issues to preserving the heritage, as we’ll see from the examples I’ve cited here.
A woman in Winnipeg, Canada, was seriously injured when she was cycling across a love-lock attached bridge. A love lock snagged her arm. The injury led to a trip to the emergency room to get 21 stitches.
The Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet on Vancouver Island has resulted in some controversy regarding the love locks attached along the trail. The complaint is that the locks serve as an unwanted distraction from nature.
The Humber Bay Arch Bridge in Toronto has had love locks removed. The reasons cited were aesthetics and the structural concern if the Bridge went on to become a destination for attaching love locks.
In February 2015, in Canberra, Australia, authorities took matters into their hands by removing love locks from a bridge that became a popular spot for affixing the locks. Locks were also removed from various other locations in Canberra. The authorities acted out of concern due to the possibility of any future threats to public safety. A large number of locks may lead to the overloading of the bridge. Corrosion due to structural interference was an added issue.
Two months later in the same year, council authorities started to remove love locks from the Southgate footbridge in Melbourne. It was over safety concerns. Reports claim that almost 22,000 love locks were fixed to the railings, thus leading the cables to sag.
Picnic Point in Toowoomba is a heritage-listed tourist site that features a park and a lookout on top of the Great Dividing Range. Authorities are concerned over the growing number of love locks attached at the site.
From 2015-2017 in Norfolk, Virginia, citizens removed hundreds of love locks from a pedestrian bridge over Hague inlet in Ghent. Afterwards, they went to the Norfolk Circuit Court and forced the Norfolk City Council into removing the rest of the love locks. The citizens wanted no more of affixing love locks. Virginia law sees locks as illegal obstructions in a right-of-way. Whoever used the right-of-way in Virginia was perfectly within their rights to remove any such obstruction.
In 2013, a group of locksport enthusiasts in New York organized to remove love locks from the Brooklyn Bridge (Locksport enthusiasts learn skills like lock picking, lock bumping, and other skills that are traditionally known only by locksmiths and other security professionals.)
At the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, there is a 1/2 scale model of the Eiffel Tower on the Las Vegas Strip. Visitors place love locks on the walkway to the elevators. However, they are ordered not to throw the keys from the tower. To put this in practice, the lobby sells open locks without keys.
There are instances in the US where love locks retain their romantic symbolism. Canfield, Ohio, in 2014 saw the installation of the BIG LOCK at the Canfield Fairgrounds as a community project. Visitors can affix a personalized lock to a 12′ x 12′ steel-cage rooster built for the purpose.
In Nevada, people are encouraged to add locks to chains that are strung between the posts at Lover’s Lock Plaza in Lovelock. The name of the town isn’t related to the practice. The town takes its name after the family who settled in the locality during the 1860s. The practice of adding locks didn’t come up until much later.
In San Angelo, the city took inspiration from the bridge in Paris and erected a sculptor known as ‘Forever Love.’
In 2011, a lover’s bridge was created in Discovery Bay, Northern California. Carolyn and Anthony George married on 11-11-11 and took inspiration from the movie, Now You See Me, and created a location for a couple to be locked in love. The couples attached love locks and would throw the keys into the California Delta waterways surrounding Discovery Bay.
Perhaps the most well-known controversies regarding love locks are the ones at Pont des Arts, Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, and the Pont de l’Archevêché bridges. In 2010, the city voiced its concern over the increasing number of locks attached to these bridges, stating that they raised problems for the preservation of the city’s architectural heritage.
During the night of May 11th 2010, many of the locks on Pont des Arts disappeared. They were removed by a student from the École des Beaux-Arts to create a sculpture. However, locks immediately began to appear on the Pont de l’Archevêché, since then spreading to at least eleven Seine bridges, Canal Saint-Martin footbridges and to monuments and parks all around the city. Many tourists who flock to the city believe that this practice originated in Paris, but the truth is the love lock tradition only migrated here towards late 2008.
In January 2014, two Americans who lived in Paris started a campaign and a petition, No Love Locks™, to save Paris’s bridges and monuments. The campaign received international attention. In the summer and fall of the same year, the city began to seek alternatives to the locks. The public was asked to cease attaching locks on bridges and monuments.
On 9th May 2014, when part of the parapet of the Pont Des Arts Bridge collapsed, the locks were blamed. In September, three panels on the bridge were replaced with a special kind of glass that prevented locks from being attached. In June 2015, the collapse of the bridge prompted the removal of the locks.
The city of Florence saw the removal of thousands of love padlocks attached to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge by the city council. The council claimed that besides posing an aesthetic problem, the locks also caused scratching and denting of the bridge metal.
Venice is one of the cities where adding locks to bridges is strictly prohibited. This is particularly enforced on the city’s Rialto Bridge, where adding a love lock will land you with a fine of up to €3,000.
Jonathan Montagu and Nathalie Daoust are a couple who met in Japan. To celebrate their meeting and their love, they commissioned Claire Grotefeld, an artist, to design and create a huge bonsai love tree. The tree was designed for their wedding in October 2014. The tree is now located at Beaulieu Palace House, UK and couples are invited to add their own love locks, thus helping the tree to flourish.
Legends regarding love locks
In some locations, love locks have acquired legendary characteristics.
In Fengyuan, Taiwan, when locks are added to an overpass at the train station, they are affixed in pairs. The locks have come to be known as wish locks. According to local legend, when trains pass underneath they generate a magnetic field that will cause energy to collect in the locks, thus fulfilling their wishes.
In Uruguay, there lies a fountain in Montevideo with a plaque attached to the front. The plaque has an explanation in both Spanish and English. The English version states that when two people place a lock with their initials in the fountain, they will remain together and their love will be locked forever.
While many cities hold to the ancient love story and symbolism of love locks, other cities see them purely as a nuisance, a risk or as vandalism. Many others see them as modern-day culture or heritage. However one may view them, it cannot be denied that they are universal symbols of love, commitment and strength.