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.
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.
Some teachers and I spotted Strečno on a westbound train from Liptovský Mikuláš to Žilina. We proclaimed immediately upon sight that we had to stand on its rocky overlook and immediately consulted GoogleMaps to find a name. A visit to Strečno Castle was planned for the next day as it was only a short bus ride from Žilina.
Monday afternoon, we used the ever-effective keep walking towards the giant stone tower method of navigation to find our way from the bus stop to the castle. This way first led us up some stairs, to a site where workers were constructing a small replica village. It turned out to be a fortunate blockade as the small path around led us through bushes and up the edge of the cliff to the castle wall, a way we found much more fitting than flights of metal stairs.
After scoping out the area from the edge of the castle’s cliff, which is just the kind of cliff you want your castles to have, we searched for a way to enter the castle. Since the students had informed us that castle could be visited free of charge, and we saw no other clear entrance, we figured this particular castle must be a free-for-all. The walls proved to be easy enough to hop over and we didn’t see any other visitors inside. Of course, further exploration proved a much more established entrance on the other side of the castle would have required less climbing and left the attendant less confused, but of course, as they say, hindsight is always 20-20.
While trying to identify Strečno Castle, we also came across another ancient keep. Starý hrad (literally meaning Old Castle) turned out to be just a 4 km walk over the river and through the woods. The walk itself follows the red trail along the Váh River and past some houses that have a pretty killer view of Strečno Castle. After passing through a couple of fields and some sparsely wooded areas, we caught sight of the most remote castle I’ve seen so far.
Hidden on a hill amongst trees both old and young, Starý hrad has no entrance gate, donation box, or even really sign apart from the hiking post at the bottom of the hill. The incognito nature of the castle tangled in the forest made it feel as if we’d stumbled upon it by accident. We explored the ruins by climbing though crumbling windows, doorways and walls until we saw the reason for the chosen location. While we had hiked up an admittedly steep, but tame incline, the opposite side of the castle sits on a cliff hundreds of meters above the Váh River . With barely-there walls and crumbling rock, I found much more adrenaline flowing through my veins as I scooted along the perimeter of this castle in comparison to Strečno’s fortification, but the thrill made the scenery even more vivid.
While skidding down over crunchy leaves on the castle’s tamer side, my friends and I joked that every castle we visit, is for the moment our favorite. I’m sure if you’ve read my blog before you’ll think the same thing. But something about the way Starý hrad is utterly undisturbed, with no corresponding parking lot or attendant makes the experience much more whimsical and exciting. With the warm weather ready for further exploration, it may be usurped at any time, but for now, Starý hrad earns the top spot in my Slovakian castle ratings.