4) Castles of Slovakia – the castle, the legend
One of the most beautiful features of Slovakia are old castles. Ruins, museums, hidden in woods, visible from a distance… Simply all kinds, you name it. Slovakia, starting with the southern tip of the Small Carpathians and ending in the north-east of country, is rich with old romantic castles on hilltops copying the old borders with the Czech lands and Poland. Naturally, it is no coincidence, this line protected the borders of the old Kingdom of Hungary (1000 – 1526) in Middle Ages. Also, there are many castles in the central region.
Castles of the West
The line starts with the legendary Devín castle, one of the oldest castles coming all the way from 9th century (the Great Moravian empire). It survived centuries and was blown up by Napoleon armies but the ruins are conserved and preserved for next generations. It is a symbolic Slavic place where the Slovak national awakening heroes famously met in 1836 and promised themselves to work for the sake of the Slovak nation. Later that day they drank in the local pub but had not enough money, so one of them had to run to Bratislava to collect some money to pay the bill. The first part of the story is taught in the schools and preached as an important milestone in Slovak history, the second is not – but it is a true story nonetheless 🙂 Later, the castle became a border point of the Iron Curtain as Moravia and Danube rivers meet underneath and create the Slovak-Austrian border. It was one of the heavily guarded points of the border between the East and the West for decades, but people could still walk up to the castle and enjoy the view on the hills and lowlands of free Austria behind the river. It is a beautiful view really.
Another castle brings another story. An extraordinary story. I mentioned Dracula in the beginning and now I am going to introduce you the Slovak Dracula. It is a woman though, not a blood-thirsty man. The story or Elisabeth Bathory is quite well-known in Europe, but not many know that she is connected to a Western-Slovak castle in the White Carpathians range called the Čachtice castle.
Erzsebet (her original name in Hungarian) was a wife of a mighty man – Hungarian noble, Captain Ferenc Nádasdy, one of the commanders of the Habsburg army fighting the Turks in Central Europe in late 16th and early 17th century. That is probably the reasons why were her atrocities against local women from poor families overlooked for many years. The thing is that – according to the tradition and folk stories – she had a twisted idea that she would stay forever young if she bathed enough in the blood of innocent young women. So she – actually her servants (as cruel as her) – started to abduct women from nearby villages but also from distatnt ones, probably not to raise much panic in her own villages. But Elisabeth and her gang did not only take the poor girls – they also abducted young women from richer families and a problem soon emerged. Word had spread that the evil was coming from the castle high above Čachtice and Višňové villages. When the situation became unbereable and the crimes could not be overlooked any more – and after Captain Nádasdy heroically fell in the war with Turks – the authorities stepped in and ended the cruelties of the twisted noble. Elisabeth was, however, not executed (as anyone else would be for such crimes), they put her to a home prison where she died four years later.
And her legend lives on. Some people believe that she was a victim of a conspiracy and that the nobles around her wanted her huge properties but it actually looks like she was responsible for many abductions. And the properties of the Bathory-Nadasdy families fell to the Hungarian crown, not to other nobles. So much for the conspiracy.
The castle is in ruins now, however, the ruins have been conserved and tourists keep coming to this place. Being there I had to admit that it is one of the most beautiful castle ruins in Slovakia – and the surrounding is equally beautiful. If you happen to be in this south-western corner of Slovakia on the Czech border, have a look there. Čachtice castle is one of the top places in this country and I simply love that place. In addition to the nature and castle beauty, the Bathory legend gives this place a special, although a scary, flavour. Not to mention that we speak of a partly true legend here (maybe except for the bathing in blood part – and, in general, it´s difficult to say after 400 year what was real and what was later added by the folk fantasies).
Beckov (pronounced Bets-kou) is also a place which takes the breath of a visitor of Western Slovakia. Driving on the D1 highway again, you suddenly see a solid rock which is rising out of nowhere. It is situated literally on a flat land within the valley of Váh river and rising beautifuly with a lovely castle on the top. The caste itself is a ruin but perfectly conserved and and easy to access and visit. Together with the Čachtice castle, Beckov is another picturesque symbol of Slovakia. And there is a legend as well.
In the course of 14th century, this part of Slovakia belonged to two mighty men who had stunningly big properties and even the kings of old Hungary feared them. One was Matúš Čák (Máté Csáky in Hungarian) who, for example, owned the Trenčín castle (will get to it soon) and the second was mighty and rich noble Citbor from Ctiborice who got Beckov from the king several decades after Čák´s death. Beckov belonged to his dominion and the legend says that this Ctibor noble had a personal clawn called Becko. Once Ctibor went hunting and after the whole day he was so tired that no one could cheer him up. Except for Becko who was so funny and lovable that Ctibor, being in a good mood, granted him a wish to ask whatever he wants. The cunning clown told him he wanted a castle on that big rock next to Váh river. And Ctibor built him a castle, however, the castle was so beautiful that Ctibor wanted to live there. In exchange for the castle Ctibor suggested Becko that he would give him as much gold as the clown weighed. Becko agreed with one condition – that the castle will bear his name. This wish was granted (Beckov mean that it is Becko´s).
There are more legends about the castle, the real story is that it was really Ctibor´s castle in late 14th century, but was built a century earlier and belonged to Matúš Čák in early 14th century, later it was king´s Charles Robert´s and in late 14th century it was given to Ctibor by king Zigmund Luxembourg. In 15th century, long after Ctibor´s death, the castle was given by the same king to Banfi noble family and they rebuilt it in such a good way that the castle and the village withstood several Ottoman attacks during the 16th century (especially after the 1526 Mohács catastrophe when the Hungarian king Ludwig II. and many nobles lost their lives in a tragic battle with Suleyman Magnificent´s army). When the Turkish danger moved down South a century later, the castle started to be less important and when it burned down in 1729, no one bothered to repair it.
Luckily, the ruins are well conserved nowadays and the place is a great attraction and exptremly popular by families and tourist in general. A must-see place.
Last, but not least in the region, is the before mentioned Trenčín castle in the town of Trenčín. The castle is a valuable museum nowadays and the city is famous for three things – the lovely castle itself, ice hockey (NHL stars Marián Hossa, Pavol Demitra, Zdeno Chára or Miro Šatan came to North America from Dukla Trenčín club) and for the Roman inscription on the castle´s rock from 179 AD. This ancient inscription was made on behalf of II Adiutrix legion´s commander Marcus Valerius Maximianus, general of Emperor Marcus Aurelius who fought the Germanic tribes in this region in 170s. Romans managed to defeat the Marcomanic armies (look for Marcomanic wars in history books for further information) and part of Maximianus´ legion (with Maximianus himself) stayed in Trenčín – then called Laugaricio by Romans (it was their winter camp at the time). The inscription mentions the victory over the Marcomans and the 855 soldiers of II Adiutrix under Maximianus´ command staying in Laguaricio for winter.
This story might sound familiar to you – I am sure many of you have seen the Gladiator movie (directed by Ridley Scott). Even though not correct in all the facts, the movie starts with a Roman general defeating the Germanic tribes for his beloved Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The emperor died shortly afterwards (however, in real life it was not by the hand of his son Commodus, he died in Vienna in 180). So when we put together the facts, the opening battle scene of the movie (see youtube still below) is actually happening in the territory of current western Slovakia and Russel Crowe might be Marcus Valerius Maximianus himself here. The movie thus depicts forrests near Trenčín and it is a well-known fact that Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent some time in the territory of current Slovakia (then home of Marcomanic and Quadic tribes) and wrote his Meditations here.
So Gladiator himself was in Slovakia – another reason why to come here 🙂
Castles of the North
Probably the most beautiful castle of northern Slovakia is the Orava castle which used to guard the old road to Polish kingdom. There are many legends about this lovely castle turned into museum (above the village of Oravsky Podzamok), one of them saying that a local knight, brutal against his people, once wanted to beat the servants of his lady. However, the lady protested and even threatened him with a sword if he doesn´t stop with the brutal beating. He took the sword from her a stabbed her in his anger. When he realised that his lady was dying, he begged for forgivness. But it was too late and she passed away. Of course, her ghost came back in the following years to haunt him and the locals say until these days that on the All Souls Day (in early November), you can see the lady ghost stabbed with a sword walking around the castle. So much for the ghosts.
Another lovely castle – even though it is in ruins, is the Strečno castle east of Žilina (regional city, the gateway to northern Slovakia). It was first mentioned in 1316 but probably was built still in 13th century. The legend say that a beautiful lady called Zofia Bosnyak lived here in 17th century. She took care of poor people (she gave out little breads called “bosnianks”), opened orphaneges and she was generally beloved, however, she died young. Her husband, famous and powerful Hungarian palatine Ferenc Veselenyi then married another beautiful lady and naturally – as people do nowadays – folk gossiped that Zofia died because of sadness as her husband fell in love with this other lady. Well, sad story in any case (she probably died of a plague), she was only 35 years old and was later called “saint” by locals. The body of this incredible woman was preserved until 2010 when some crazy guy burned it. Idiot.
Strečno castle belongs to the most preserved ruins in Slovakia and has a twin castle Varín or Starý hrad (Old castle as it was beuilt before Strečno in 13th century) – not so preserved – on the other side of the Váh river which divides the castles. Also worth to visit, both castles offer an amazing view on the Váh valley.
Further east is the castle of Likava. This early 14th century beauty is being slowly reconstructed and is available for visit. As one of many other castle, this one also has a dedicated group of citizens who are taking care of it (as the state does not really care – with a few exceptions) and actually preserve the castle for next generations. The legend says that this castle was once a prison for the famous Slovak folk hero Juro Jánošík (something like Robin Hood, but the true story is that he was a general outlaw in early 18th century) after he was captured and was waiting to be hanged in nearby Liptovsky Mikulas in March 1713. It is actually probably not true, but one of the Slovak romantic writers of 19th century created a lovely versed story about him in the prison and Slovaks like it as part of the national legend. Another – earlier – legend says that there is a treasure buried in the castle. The local lord buried it with his servant (because Turks were coming), but to keep the treasure secret, he threw the servant down the rock after hiding the gold. However, the lord later went crazy and died the same way and the ghost of the murdered servant guards the treasure until these days. There are also other legends, you might hear them once you visit this lovely castle in the heart of Liptov region 🙂
North-eastern region has also many lovely castles, one of the most notable is the Lubovniansky castle in the town of Stará Ľubovňa (Marián Hossa of Chicago Blackhawks was born here!). On the bansk of the Poprad river flowing under the castle is a big rock which is connected to a legend from early centuries – a count called Lubovniensky came to the valley seven hundred years ago with his sons and loved the place so much that he decided to build a castle on the nearby hill. However, as they started, each night everything what they built was destroyed. Soon they found out that the locality was ruled by cruel witch who, naturally, had no intentions to allow the count to stay there in a lovely castle with a lovely view. So she destroyed everything. The count was determined though. He offered the witch his soul if she allowed him to build the castle. They made a deal and castle was standing in one day! However, the count was haunted by his own consience later and seeked out a priest in nearby monastery for a confession. When the witch found out about the betrayal, she grabbed a big (read REALLY BIG) rock and wanted to throw it on the castle to destroy it. But she couldn´t finish her plan – a bell from the monastery rang in the same moment as she wanted to drop the rock on the castle and she lost all power – the rock fell out of her hands and landed on the banks of the river where it lays until now. And the count lived there happily ever after with his family 🙂
Another visit-worth castle in the north-eastern corner of the country which – according to the legend cost his owner, count Gaspar Séredy, his life due to a lost bet is Zborov which lays close the lovely spa town of Bardejov. Both the castle and the town are worth visiting if you are in the region. The town has a famous square dominated by the Cathedral of St. Egidius and is part of the UNESCO heritage. Also, there is a charming Jewish quarter which is currently renovated. Last, but not least, is Bardejov famous for his thermal spa. Definitelly a good place to go if you happen to travel to eastern Slovakia.
However, the most amazing – and the biggest of these castles is the Spiš castle. It is actually the biggest in the whole Central Europe, really. You can spend a whole day there. As one of the oldest castles of Slovakia it survived the bestial invasion of Tatars in the spring of 1241 when the Genghis Khan´s offsprings slaughtered half of Hungarian kingdom (up to 1 million people). Historic annals say that mountains of dead bodies layed on the sides of the roads and king Bela IV. had to flee, only to return next year after Tatars withdrew (because their khan Ogaday in Mongolia died and the commanders rushed home to fight for the throne). Spiš was one of the few sparred places and many new castles were built after this horrific experience – actually most of Slovakia´s castles were built after 1241. Spiš itself was built into a big castle, where later one of the kings – Janos Zapolya (Ján Zápoľský) – was born in 15th century. This place is one of the must-see places when you come to Slovakia. A true treasure for Slovaks.
Castles of Central Slovakia
Central Slovakian region is very rich with old castles, so I will guide you only through the top ones (or according to my choice and taste 🙂 ). Let´s start with the romantic fairy-tale Bojnice castle which is a bit off the main highways but it is definitelly worth the visit. This lovely chateau is enfolded by several legends, one of them being about the miraculous spring which healed the ill people. It was located just under the castle hill and, naturally, the poor people of Middle-ages kept coming there in big numbers, according to the legend. They were healed by the spring water after they drank it or swam in it. However, the greedy local castellan decided to build a fence around the spring and make money of the entrance fees. So the poor had to give their last to take a swim in the spring, but it was a good business for the castlellan – people are always willing to pay for health. Castellan collected the earned money in his locked cashboxes and greedily counted them every day, sometimes even in the night when he woke up only to open the boxes and kiss the coins. Yes, a greedy greedy man. But once – in the dead of the night – an old and sick beggar came to the spring and crawled across the fence to swim in the spring. He was caught, of course, and the castellan immediately arrived to the scene and demanded money from the man. The beggar was pennyless and the castellan was merciless. He threw the man in jail. Old rotten disgusting jail under the face of the earth. The beggar cursed the greedy guy – his money would turn into stone, he said. Fearful castlellan ran to his cashboxes and found stones instead of coins. Shocked and in disbelief, he lost his mind – forever. He was a crazy man afterwards, so the legend says. Well, no one is happy in life if he/she is greedy and merciless. The castle itself is from 12th century (was wooden) and after the Tatar invasion it was built in stone. Its current fairy-tale looks come from the wealthy and noble Palffy family which inhereited the castle in 17th century and kept it until the 20th century. Nowadays it is a museum and there is a zoo, too. People love coming there. It is one of the most beautiful castles of Slovakia. Don´t avoid it if you are in the region 😉 The picture below speaks for itself!
Another nice castle – even though in ruins – is the Šášov castle (read Shashow). It is located south of the medieval royal town of Zvolen in central part of the country. According to the legend, it was built by the Zvolen lord as a gift for his court-jester (šašo in Slovak, hence the castle name – it means court-jester´s or clown´s) who saved his life during a bear hunt. In reality, the castle was built to guard the crossroad of the main road leading thouth the valley of Hron river (the same where Marcus Aurelius started writing his Meditations) and the road leading to Kremnica, a medieval town where the coins of the Hungarian kingdom were made (thus an important crossroad!). In late middle ages it was owned by the mighty noble Doczy family (together with the nearby – and equally charming – Revište castle) but fell vicitm – as many other Slovak castles – to the anti-Habsburg uprisings. It was burned in 1708 during the Ferenc Rakoczi uprising and has been in decay since. However, you can visit it – and the nearby Revište as well – it is being taken care of by volunteers. Thanks to their efforts these two castles still stand proudly.