Monthly Archives: April 2013

Off-The-Beaten-Path Castles in Slovakia

Panorama from Šariš Castle

Panorama from Šariš Castle

As I’ve been saying in my previous posts, Slovakia is chock full of castles. But just when I thought I’d found myself becoming blasé as I passed them on my cross-country bus rides and train passages, spring sprung and the sport of castling took a whole new twist.

I’ve seen plenty of the castles located in major towns or cities with paved paths leading right to the iron gates and with eager tour guides waiting inside.  However, now that the hills are thawing and the sun is shining, off-the-beaten path fortresses tucked into the ripples of Slovakia’s landscape become accessible. Castles that can only be reached on foot have turned trips into less of a visit and more of a quest.

Šariš Castle

Newly blooming flowers along the path to Šariš Castle

Newly blooming flowers along the path to Šariš Castle

You can see Šariš Castle sitting atop an almost volcanic looking flat-topped mountain from miles away. From a distance, the silhouette of the castle perched above Veľký Šariš was none too impressive. However, after hiking an hour or so from the village center, up a path winding around the mountain, it became clear I had underestimated. The castle consists of a mid-restoration wall surrounding, undulating, lush, green grounds dotted with benches, brambly trees, and of course, the occasional tower or other remains from the 13th century icon.

This castle contains more greenery than most others in Slovakia, and appears to be just as much public park as historical site as people we’re barbecuing within the walls with no apparent reprimands. The 360 degree views make the meandering walk up to the building worth the 60 minutes of work, and it is even possible to see the High Tatras poking over the surrounding hills.

This wooden sculpture stands guard as the walls come into view.

This wooden sculpture stands guard as the walls come into view.

The lush grounds inside the castle

The lush grounds inside the castle

Checking out the valleys below

Checking out the valleys below

Chris relaxing on the castle wall.

Chris relaxing on the castle wall.

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Coming Soon: Castles, Castles and More Castles

Despite a lethargic start, spring is now going in full force here in Slovakia, and, oh my, is it beautiful. These over-70-degree, sunshine-soaked days have been perfect for exploring the finally-thawed hills, and in particular, the castles that are tucked within them. Unfortunately, the longer days and gorgeous weather have been keeping me outside so much that I’ve been remiss about posting, but a full update is soon to come. For now, these photos can serve as a sneak preview.

The majestic Strečno Castle

The majestic Strečno Castle

Scaling some castle walls.

Scaling some castle walls.

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A Visit to Spišský Hrad

Spiš Castle - Looking pretty good for pushing 1,000 years.

Spiš Castle – Looking pretty good for pushing 1,000 years.

If it is castles you seek, look no further than Slovakia. With over 300 hrady throughout the country, ranging from ruins to meticulously kept near-palaces, everyone can find one to their liking. Bojnice’s fairy tale castle is sure to please anyone in quest of their Disney princess experience. You could easily imagine any medieval knight riding off into the sunset towards Trencin’s fortress. The white and red modern marvel looming over Bratislava may come across as more palace than castle, but the capital’s fierce defender, Devin, guards the Danube from its rocky crag. But, despite all of the competition, it’s Spišsky Hrad that earns the premier spot on all of the Slovak tourism literature and guide books.

Approaching the castle from the pedestrian path

Approaching the castle from the pedestrian path

Although it will require traveling further east than any of the previously mentioned castles, you won’t regret the trip when you see the looming 12th century ruins come into view. The rocky remains rise up from an already rocky limestone base over the village Spišské Podhradie, which literally means, village under Spiš Castle. From the village, it is easy to walk (just follow the yellow trail signs), or drive to the castle. In light of the scenery, it really seems most appropriate to gallop up to the castle gate on horseback, but as far as I know the only four-legged creatures in the vicinity is a herd of deer that reside in the castle woods. In reality, it only takes about 15 minutes to walk to the entrance from the village. From this path, no tourist entrances, parking lots, or even modern buildings are visible to taint your view as you walk back in time.

These hoofed beasts can cause quite a thunderous ruckus in the field below the castle.  Be sure to notice one at the bottom posing, tongue out and all.

These hoofed beasts can cause quite a thunderous ruckus in the field below the castle. Be sure to notice one at the bottom posing, tongue out and all.

If you look closely, you can see my frantic effort to see the deer before they ran into the woods.

If you look closely, you can see my frantic effort to see the deer before they ran into the woods.

You can take a path around either side of the castle and enter through the main gate. We were fortunate enough to run across a man setting up for paragliding on the hill near the parking lot just as we rounded the corner. Apparently the dreary, blustery, perfect-for-castling weather also made for pretty great paragliding as he soared over the castle the entire time we were inside.

If paragliding wasn't cool enough, paragliding over a castle certainly is.

If paragliding wasn’t cool enough, paragliding over a castle certainly is.

In my opinion, the closest humans really get to flying.

In my opinion, the closest humans really get to flying.

And he doesn't even have to pay admission.

And he doesn’t even have to pay admission.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to listen to the supposedly intriguing audio tour as April is just a pinch before the peak season when they are offered. Instead, we paid the 5€ entrance fee and gave ourselves a walking tour with an English pamphlet as our guide. For the most part the views from outside of the castle trump the interior, but there is an interesting museum of artifacts from both inside the castle and from excavations of nearby caves. Climbing the narrow, winding staircases of the castle tower, which is thought to date back to the castle’s earliest days, also makes the entrance fee a worthwhile investment. If you can avoid the “flying ants” that a sign claims are an imminent threat (still unsure of what that means) you will be able to overlook the expanse of land that the castle once ruled over.

Cheesin' and freezin'

Cheesin’ and freezin’

To my own surprise, even after feeling a little “castled-out” after several months in Slovakia, the afternoon spent playing in Spiš Castle’s shadow will probably remain one of my most iconic moments in this country.

Castle walls

Castle walls

Ancient walls which once defended the castle now enclose an area where Slovak rock concerts occasionally occur.

Ancient walls which once defended the castle now enclose an area where Slovak rock concerts occasionally occur.

View from a hill beside the castle

View from a hill beside the castle

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Lost Days in Krakow

St. Mary's Church dominates Krakow's main square.

St. Mary’s Church dominates Krakow’s main square.

I’ll admit it, I was bad in Krakow. I got so caught up trying to squeeze as much of this spectacular city into three days as possible that I was remiss with my camera and less than dutiful with my note-taking. We were having so much fun and doing so much that it seemed like we had just got there when we had to leave, which to be fair, was basically true.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

We did manage to fit in several amazing meals in during that short time.  This included the best burger I’ve seen thus far in Eastern Europe, and rivaling the best ever, at lovekrove (it even had guacamole!), my first ever raw vegan experience at RO RAW, some apparently quintessential Polish pizza-bread things called zapiekanke and, of course, traditional pierogies and sausages at the Easter Market.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

As always, we took full advantage of the fantastic free (read: tip what you can or feel is right) tours which you can find offered in so many European cities and were overwhelmed by Krakow’s amazingly rich history. (Most of its architecture was spared in WWII, which is rare.) Of all of the spots in the city, I gravitated most towards the Jewish District, Kazimierz. It hums with youthful energy, full of totally unique restaurants, pubs and shops in addition to important tourist sights such as synagogues and churches.

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The entrance to the last active synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter

Unfortunately, as upbeat and fun as this district now is, one can’t forget the somber and scarily recent history of persecution, mass deportation and genocide that began here during the Nazi occupation during World War II, which leads me to a much more serious part of our visit.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

I can’t fully explain the experience of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. What I can say is that any one who feasibly has the opportunity to see it for themselves should be sure to take it.  It isn’t until you step onto the grounds that you can completely (or at least speaking for myself) understand the horrifically efficient and scarily regimented way such unfathomable crimes of hate were carried out here. To see the expanse of the grounds sprawling all around you and to take stories from history books and place them in a real location is an experience that will stick with you for a lifetime. Hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder that vigilance against such inhumanity is necessary in the future.

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A restored Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz

Despite the dark parts in its history, Krakow has emerged as a vibrant city of hope. The energy, architecture, food,history, both the bleak and the inspiring, and most importantly, the people, are all part of what makes Krakow a city which proved to be above and beyond the mass amounts of backpacker hype that it receives. Prior to visiting, I thought a week in any city of that size would be excessive. But now, seeing all it has to offer, I know I’ll have to return for at least that long to make up for this three-day blur of a trip.

Luckily – for those interested interested in knowing more about the specifics of Krakow – Chris happened to create a much more witty and detailed record than I. You can check it out in his post on his blog A Wayfarer’s Murmurings.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it's properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it’s properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

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RO Raw: An Adventure in Raw Dining

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

The last time I ordered a salad in Slovakia, the roasted mushrooms and tomatoes I had expected arrived on a bed of cheese cubes rather than lettuce.

Even as a self-proclaimed dairy queen and carb-lover, spending a significant length of time on a Eastern European diet of heavy meat, potato and cheese dishes can really leave you craving something green. So, after hearing about RO Raw, a raw vegan restaurant in Krakow from a delightfully non-preachy enthusiast, I was intrigued. A  longing for fresh veggies combined with a curiosity of how anything but a glorified salad could be made with just raw, vegan-friendly food kept the place in the back of my mind until I finally made it to Poland over Easter break.

I must admit, I initially approached the idea with caution. I was really hungry and in the back of my mind wondered if I might need another meal later in the evening to sustain me. But as soon as we walked into the bright, whimsical restaurant in Wolnica Square and took our seats next to a stuffed carrot and broccoli stalk, I had a good feeling about the whole experiment. Once I saw the ingredient combinations on the very conveniently English-friendly menu, I knew we’d picked a winner.  After starting with shakes, one Green Insanity (apple, banana and spinach) and one Brazilian Delight (Brazilian nuts, pineapple nuts, cranberries, banana) we struggled to choose from a menu where everything sounded fresh and fantastic.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

The first step was to eliminate the additional normal, but not raw, vegan section. If we were going to try it, we were going to go all of the way.  After that, it became more difficult, mostly because of the high number of unfamiliar items. Vegan sandwiches made on raw bread. How does that work? Raw soups? They can also be served at 41 °C, thank God. Pumpkin Tagliatelle or Carrot Spaghetti? The possibilities, which I thought would be so limited, were endless.

Luckily our waitress was one of the most patient, kind and genuine I have encountered in Eastern Europe, or quite possibly ever.  She answered our probably stupid questions about just about every item on the menu, the restaurant and the vegan scene in Krakow as a whole. Finally, she helped us decide on the Discover Raw which included samples of Raw Pumpkin Cream Soup, A Passion for Fresh Salad, Raw “Pierogis”, the Raw Sandwich, and Zucchini A La Lasagne to seal the deal. Continue reading

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