Bratislava Castle is visible from far across the plains of Lower Austria. Perched high upon a hill overlooking the city, it is a watchful structure. As castles were meant to be. I have never been inside. Nowadays, it’s rare that I enter such places. I never thought I could become blasé about castles. I come from a land of so few. Hearst Castle. Disneyland Castle. Both are recent follies. Those are the only two I can think of.
Slovakia is said to be the most castellated country in Europe. Did you know that there is an English word, an adjective, for “having many castles”? Castellated. Nothing like English vocabulary for keeping a writer humble.
The eerie ruins of Devin Castle rise above the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers. This one sees a bit of tourist action, as it’s just outside of Bratislava. I ventured inside, attracted by the dramatic location. There is not enough money for reconstruction, the brochure states. The tone is apologetic. Modern artistic metalwork is displayed in the courtyard. The type of thing you find at art fairs. It clashes with the old stone. There are vases of fresh flowers in the ladies’ room, which is the poshest ladies’ room I’ve ever seen at a tourist attraction. It seems like a way to appease the tourist. Sorry for the rubble. Here’s some pretty stuff. Here, look.
I prefer the vestiges over the perfectly restored. Using my imagination. The reality of time.
Far on the edge of the other side of Bratislava, past the concrete labyrinth of Petržalka, near the borders of Austria and Hungary, Rusovce manor house sits empty, neglected. It is guarded by a motley group of curs. They charge at anyone who lingers near the fence. But their barks are half-hearted. Their tails wag. Whenever I walk the forest trails that begin behind the mansion, I pause to speak to them. I have never seen the caretaker who lives in the dilapidated shack, but my husband caught a glimpse of him the last time we were there.
Things get really interesting when you venture further away from Bratislava. I’ve written posts about the grim history of Čachtice and the mysterious beauty of Orava. They are among the well-known castles of Slovakia. When I began to hike the trails of the Little Carpathian mountain range, I soon stumbled upon others. Sometimes that castle symbol on the map would turn out to be just a pile of rubble, but other times I was rewarded with a rest stop within massive, crumbling walls.
One of the few restored castles is at Smolenice. It is mainly used as a venue for weddings and other social functions. This village is the starting point for hikes to Zaruby, the highest peak in the Little Carpathians. I’ve hiked this path with fellow expat Naomi, who writes the most insightful blog about Slovak culture that I’ve ever come across. Smolenice looks like something out of a fairy tale when you look down from above, but the skies are usually too hazy to get a decent photo of it.
Plavecky Castle overlooks rolling hills and open plains. Every ruin I’ve seen is situated on high. They were originally constructed to guard against invaders – Tatars, Turks, Napoleon. Did these places once have a tower for lighting warning fires for the neighboring castles, Lord of the Rings style? I haven’t been able to find an answer to that.
The most unexpected – and my ultimate favorite – discovery so far has been Ostrý Kameň. To get to most Slovak ruins, you need to work. There are no roads, parking lots, souvenir stands. You must hike forty minutes, at the very least, but more often it takes hours, and you can count on the last part being straight up. I’ve mentioned before that hiking trails in Slovakia can be downright sadistic. This trail was no exception.
After I scrawled my signature in the castle book and continued along the trail, I paused to gaze down at the haunting remains. It seemed so familiar. I was too filled with wonder to be unnerved.
During these journeys along the well-worn paths that wind through the forest and climb relentlessly up, my imagination runs free. How did people get to these places back then? Am I walking the same old road? I pay attention to my body as it reacts to the various locations. Mostly, I feel a sense of euphoria. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I tense up. Shallow breath and constricted throat. In a couple of places, I’ve felt physically ill and frantic. I quickened my pace until the feeling went away. Things happened in these woods. I have come across old cenotaphs by the side of the trail, usually in the form of wooden crosses and candles, but also heavy stone monuments. The inscriptions tell the story of deaths that took place over a hundred years ago. A woodsman was murdered here. A man was run over by a carriage there. These are indeed the same old roads.
Perhaps the most distinctive ruin in the Little Carpathians is Pajštún Castle. A casualty of Napoleon’s army, the original gargoyles still glare down at visitors. The trees bear the scars of lovers’ initials, but, like all of the ruins I’ve encountered, the stones themselves are relatively free of graffiti.
A couple of the gargoyles have fallen to the ground. The force of their wrath is eroded away with each passing year.