Posts Tagged With: castle

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

Categories: photography, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trenčín – A Slice of Slovakia

If you venture east of Bratislava or south of the Tatras, Slovakian cities are pretty hit or miss from a tourism standpoint. While the country’s natural landscape is always stunning, the small urban centers spattered throughout its center are as likely to be industrial and harshly practical as historic and picturesque. However, these days most of Slovak living happens in these very places, and to skip over the heart of modern-day Slovakia would be doing yourself a disservice. Fortunately, Trenčín, a western Slovakian city with about 57,000 inhabitants, can provide both your touristic appeal and a taste of typical Slovak life as it exists today.

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Having recently spent five days in Trenčín, I feel like the city is a tiny slice of so many of the best things Slovakia has to offer. Trenčin lies in a valley surrounded by gorgeous almost-mountain hills which serve as the perfect  backdrop for a straight-out-of-a-storybook castle perched upon a rocky craig. The pedestrian old town streets below are frequented by families and university students along with tourists and are dotted with cafes and restaurants. These streets curl around the rim of an extensive forest area where you can find Slovaks getting their typical weekend dose of nature along the wooded trails. And although Trenčin still has the typical communist-era block apartments and industrial areas, they sit quietly on the edges of town, rather than looming over it like concrete giants as they do in so many places throughout Slovakia.

Castle watchtower over the city

Castle watchtower over the city

During my months in Slovakia, I’ve passed by Trenčín’s majestic castle on a cliff several times. Thanks to its location and impressive lighting, it will always strike you long before you enter the city limits. It may only be the third largest in Slovakia (behind Spiš Castle, which lies much further east, and Bratislava Castle, which to be frank, isn’t really a castle in the way you want it to be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t vie for a spot as the greatest, at least in the traditional sense. Its light stone exterior, tall towers and high walls give it the classic castle aesthetic. Trenčín Castle proves to be historically impressive too with the first mention of the structure dating back nearly a millennium. The remains of a Slavic rotunda can be dated back to the ninth century. It’s hay day seems to have been in the 13th century when owner Máté Csák used it to control the majority of Slovakia. Most of the remaining structures are from the 15th century and a fire in 1790 made extensive restoration necessary, but the history of the location still long precedes and overshadows many of Slovakia’s hundreds of remaining castles.

Remains of a castle wall

Remains of a castle wall

The views of the town from above are more than reward enough for the fairly steep climb up to the castle and there are plenty of places to stop and take them in. Once you get to the gate, it is necessary to purchase a tour if you want to  enter the castle grounds.  The prices are very reasonable (less than 3 € for a student ticket and a camera pass) for a half-hour mini-tour of the Mathias Tower, which is all you really need unless you really want to see the castle galleries, which takes an hour longer. For us, there were no English guides available, so the tour consisted of a friendly Slovak woman leading us from room to room with a packet of translated information, which was actually quite interesting and more informative than some other castle tours I’ve been on.  Climbing the historic tower with its labyrinth of tiny doors and staircases for tiny medieval people was entertaining. When we reached the lookout deck at the top and saw the expanse of the surrounding valley below us, I suddenly understood why this castle and its vantage point were so important many centuries ago. Continue reading

Categories: hiking, photography, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In the Heart of Slovakia: Bojnice

Spending the last two weeks in Bojnice confirmed what I already suspected – I am falling in love with Slovakia.  The small town beneath Bojnice Castle is bursting with charm and we were overwhelmed with hospitality. Our hosts here made sure to not only make us feel comfortable, but to show us what daily life is truly like for the people of Slovakia. Here we were graciously invited into several homes for great conversation and our first tastes of authentic, homemade Slovakian meals.  I also got the chance to horseback ride for the first time since I was 12, hike through the autumn-colored hills surrounding the town, explore a castle fit for Cinderella, visit one of Slovakia’s four zoos, witness an intense hockey practice, and, most notably, try Zumba for the first – and then the second –  time (which was most necessary to off-set my high intake of Slovakian cuisine). Even after staying a weekend beyond what my teaching duties called for, I was very sad to see Bojnice go, but it will be remembered as the place where I began to understand what it means to live in Slovakia.

Bojnice Castle from the hills above

Fall foliage finally comes to Slovakia

Celebrating the big 23rd birthday with a hike, the best way to celebrate if you ask me.

Generally being in love with life and fall.

My little rambunctious students on our trip to the zoo. They are completely oblivious to how cool it is to have a castle in your town.

They do know how to draw a mean giraffe though. This adorable poster made up for all of their eight-year-old antics.

Paragliding. The new number one item on my Eastern Europe bucket list.

As far as silhouettes go, Bojnice Castle pretty much takes the ideal-castle cake.

Categories: travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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