Jutting out from the porous rock face, the white walls of Predjama Castle feels like a stark statement on the surrounding landscape. Built into the rock itself, Predjama Castle stops any visitor in its tracks. Today, it’s a spectacular site and one of Slovenia’s many photogenic vantage points, but hundreds of years ago, it was an impenetrable fortress.
The whitewashed walls date back to the 16th century, built up on the foundations of the original medieval castle. After being destroyed in a siege, the castle received a make over, but as you wander through its drafty passages, you can still feel it’s a place echoing with ghosts and memories.
The Karst region of south-west Slovenia, its mountains are filled with a complex subterranean world. Where natural caves and passages wind into each other for kilometers at end, plunging deep underground become a world of their own. Where a flesh-colored amphibian, called the Human Fish, calls this complex habitat its home. Some of the cave networks even span a length of 25km, with grand chambers adorned with columns of fused stalactites and stalagmites. At the heart of the Karst Region, Predjama conveniently sits right above a complex network of natural underground passages.
A castle as stunning as Predjama not only visually grips you at first sight, but if you look into local legend, you’ll find a fascinating story and an unresolved mystery wrapped up in its rock clad walls.
A Castle Carved into the Rock
At the end of August, the sun scorched down on the Slovenian countryside and stepping through the cool entrance into the castle offered some respite from the summer heat. No air-conditioning is needed when you contend with the draft of the breezy passages contained within the seemingly hanging castle .
Our guide led us up to the top of the castle, up the stairs and through a network of bare rooms, pausing at a corridor where the natural rock met the Renaissance façade.
“See the brick here,” he pointed to the roughed down brick clinging to the rock, “this is the site of the medieval castle. The inner chambers here belong to the older part of the castle, but the outer part was reconstructed in the 16th century.”
The castle seemed to move vertically, from the waxworks down in the cave in the torture cellar to the stairs leading up and up into the natural caves behind the castle that once served the function of housing the castle’s wine supply, or was there something more?
The Slovenian Robin Hood
In the 15th century, there was once a knight named Erazem Lueger, or Erazem Predjamski in Slovene, who became Slovenia’s answer to Robin Hood. Erazem earned his legend as the robber baron, supposedly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. But it was only when Erazem killed Marshall Pappenheim at the Vienna court in a heated argument that things turned for the worse for Erazem.
Erazem’s victim, Pappenheim, had powerful relatives, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. This propelled Erazem to flee back to Slovenia and barricade himself in his castle at Predjama.
The Emperor sent Gaspar Ravbar, the governor of Trieste, to lay a siege Predjama Castle. Hoisted up into the living rock, the castle was impregnatable, and the only way to defeat Erazem was to starve him and his men out of the castle. However, the siege was said to last a year, where according to folklore Erazem and their men pelted their enemies with cherries. The castle being embedded in the rock was connected to passages inside the caves, allowing Erazem to smuggle food in and out and stand the siege. Water filtered down into the castle through the rock, being collected through a channel that drained into a well. The cold and drafty castle may not have been the coziest, but it was perfect to withstand a siege. The Emperor began to get impatient and Ravbar needed to act soon.
Some how, Erazem managed to smuggle food into the castle, which being embedded in the rock face meant that the castle had a secret passage out to one of the nearby villages through the caves.
Water was no issue either, as it filtered down into the castle through the rock, being collected through a channel that drained into a well. The cold and drafty castle may not have been the cosiest, but it was perfect to withstand a siege. After a year, the Emperor began to get impatient and Ravbar needed to act soon.
A Most Unheroic Death at the Castle
After bribing a servant at Predjama, Gaspar Ravbar discovered a weak spot in the seemingly impenetrable fortifications. While most of the castle seems impossible to attack, there is one small area which would crumble under cannon fire – the toilet. The servant, according to local legend, agreed to leave a candle in the window, signaling when Erazem had some private business to attend to, making him perfect cannon fodder. Thus, in the most unfortunate death, Erazem met his maker by canon while on the John.
Although, outside folklore, it’s said Erazem met a more dignified end when he was betrayed by one of his men and shot by canon in his personal room, rather than while on the loo.
The Mystery of the Secret Tunnel from Predjama Castle
Up at the top of the castle, the giant cave opens up with views across the valley, but at the back, some worn down stairs lead up into the darkness.
“There is a complex network of caves in here,” my guide said, “but they never did find the legendary passage that took them out of the castle. Many are still looking for it, though.”
The Karst Region in Slovenia houses many secrets. Just under the castle, many still go spelunking into the complex network of natural tunnels inside the mountain side. In nearby Postojna, its cave network spreads out for 25km with impressive colossal stalagmites and stalactites, which have been tourist attractions since the 1800s. And then there are Skocjan caves home to the largest known underground canyon in the world. So perhaps the secret tunnel of Predjama may lay hidden behind the castle hanging out of the hillside, once a vital lifeline, now forgotten inside the side of the mountain.