What do you picture when you hear the word “castle”? Fanciful ones with narrow turrets like Cinderella would live in? Vertical walls of stone on an island in a lake? Structures rising behind a wall, with a whole city inside? An outlandish ode to excess?
Many of us picture a high fortress, a solid complex of buildings on a hill, able to be defended from marauding warriors. If that’s your vision, you can find plenty on display in Slovakia, within easy reach of the country’s second-largest city, Kosice.
Pictured at the top, the most famous is Spis Castle, known locally as Spišský hrad. It was used on and off for 600 years, in the end becoming one of the largest castles in Central Europe. Most of its big battles were fighting off the Tartars, but with this country’s history, that was one of many fights. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with a nearby painted monastery and town. You can see the old torture chamber (right across from the chapel—nice). It was fanciful enough to be the setting for parts of the movie Dragonheart.
The views are terrific of course and it’s interesting to see the levels of protection built in. Lose one battle, retreat to the next gate, then the next. Lose all those, retreat to the tower.
Lubovna Castle is another imposing structure. It’s fun to watch the tourists panting their way up to the entrance and realize that their ancestors were probably in much better shape to be able to attack at full force. Construction started in the 1300s and eventually it became part of Hungary’s territory and for 360 years was part of Poland. It’s mostly Gothic and Renaissance, with some other touches not entering the picture until the 1700s.
The bonus with this castle is that there’s a great open-air museum down the road and you can buy one ticket for 5 euros that covers admission to both. The open-air museum has historic structures from all over Slovakia, some residential, some religious—like the famous wooden Orthodox churches. It offers interesting insights into how people lived and the photo above is the view from that area looking up.
Krasna Horka went from being a castle that still looked complete to being a ruin as of March when some teens trying to light cigarettes caught the dry grass outside it on fire. That ended up starting a blaze so intense that it melted bells in the belltowers. All the roof parts were completely destroyed, as were artifacts held in the museum there. Until someone steps up to spend the millions necessary to restore it, you’ll have to be content to take an “after” photo from the highway like I did here.
You can still visit the mausoleum built by one of the Andrassy owners for his wife in 1904, however. A Slovakian Taj Mahal. It’s an impressive structure inside and out.
There are plenty more castles to see though—here’s a full rundown—as well as enough natural and man-made wonders to last you for weeks. Plus Kosice will be a European Capital of Culture in 2013. This country gets a tiny fraction of the numbers that visit their sister country the Czech Republic, especially here in the eastern half. See more at the Slovakian Tourism site.
[I was hosted by Slovakia Tourism while researching the 4th edition of The World's Cheapest Destinations and writing an upcoming feature story for Perceptive Travel.]