Just Another Castle

MKHrad08

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.

MKHrad01

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.

MKHrad10

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.

MKHrad09

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.

MKHrad07

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.

MKHrad03

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.

MKHrad02

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.

MKHrad04

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.

MKHrad05

A couple of the gargoyles have fallen to the ground. The force of their wrath is eroded away with each passing year.

MKHrad06

59 thoughts on “Just Another Castle

  1. Beautiful spots and photos! I’m sure is amazing to see them in person. Thank you for sharing and have a great weekend!

  2. The pictures and writing are beautiful. You have such a great talent. I never get tired of reading your posts.

    • Thanks, Van. I’m so fortunate to have had so many vibrant experiences. I’m particularly grateful for this one. So happy to have you along for the ride.

  3. I am traveling in the land of castles. I’m back in Scotland following the trail of Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and Sir Walter Scott. This post resonated (as do all of your posts) As I walk through the grand rooms and follow the garden trails, I am reminded that time is a great equalizer. What was once the purview of kings and queens, is open to all those who enter the doors. We peer into their lives of history and pass comments that are filtered through the cultural norms of our time. Today I was at Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s home. I think he has the right of it: “Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.” Spectacular photography.

  4. Your reference to LOTR was timely. Just like Fangorn forest, I’m guessing these forests are very old and hide a lot of tales, maybe even a orc or two.

    Your description made my mind wander. The effort to reach these abandoned castles is well worth it.

    • The hills are old, for sure. The Carpathians stretch all the way into Transylvania. They are haunted mountains. I enjoy the grueling hikes. Anywhere else, you’d have the castles all to yourself, but Slovaks are fabulous hikers. I’m always amazed to see older people and kids at these places.

  5. An evocative post. I too am drawn to castle ruins and the ghosts that linger on … as they do. There is always a sense of sadness for me to the passage of time and the lost stories that surely are rooted here, but not necessarily the ones that have been shared. It would be impossible to know them all … and yet they happened as surely as we stand in the midst. Thank you for the meaningful walks you and your camera share with us.

    • Yes, so many stories in those old stones. Some of them surely banal. I often wonder what they did to pass the time in these isolated places. Were the people stationed there at the request of the kingdom? I suppose I could find the answer if I researched it, but I kinda like fabricating stories in my imagination.

  6. On Tish Farrell’s blog you commented “I often contemplate the Edge, too.” On these paths through the mountains, and past ruins, you seem very close to the Edge. Only a footfall away from slipping into a past dimension. Eerie.

  7. I was never a fan of castles when I was a little girl. My mother would drag me along and I’d spend the day looking down at my feet. Now, I find there is something about them. And Slovakia is a beautiful place to find them, indeed.

  8. I just closed my eyes and wandered back in time while reading, maybe I could comfortably walk 30 miles a day. What seems isolated castles now, will to be sure once of gathered close by a number of bustling settlements/communities about agriculture, trade, manufacture of crafts, local mining/quarrying, forestry, woodcutting, etc before wars, mass industrialisation and urbanization took hold changing the landscape, fabric to society. So much now reclaimed by nature,leaving only the rocky ruins atop watching over long overgrown roads along valleys, gateways through outer ramparts and forests, etc. Yes, plenty of past stories long since forgotten, now just caught in a haze to an imagination.

    • Thirty miles a day. Not sure I could do that. I’ve never stopped to think how far I could walk in a day – on flat terrain or Slovak trails. I’ve done at least 20km hikes in the mountains here – felt good at the time, but aching legs for days afterwards. It’s the roads through the forest, now narrow paths, that get my imagination going – wandering peddlers, servants on errands, courriers, and ambushes.

      • A marathon is around 26 miles (42 Km), and the best cover it in a little over two hours. Therefore perhaps a 12 hour day with a pack might be possible, depending on the terrain. Though if it were something like trekking from Port Moresby to Kokoda, it would probably be more like only 10 km in 12 hours.

        “Aching legs for days afterwards,” maybe another couple of days hike will of walked off the soreness… lol.

        Apparently, some researches have mapped the historical roads (and other formations designed to take advantage of the natural environment) around the ruins and surrounds of Old Zvolen Castle in central Slovakia (I skipped most of the reading just get to the map).

        Yes, it seems traveling back then had more challenges than the ease it is done with today, to be ambushed in a forest. Way more stories about the journey than a destination, and to meet people along the way, a far different world without the frantic pace often associated with a here and now today..

        • It’s true that the best cure for sore muscles is to work them again. The Kokoda trail…no way I’d ever try that. I’ve been to PNG and that jungle is beyond my capability. I will look up Zvolen castle, which is one of the many I haven’t made it to.

  9. In your article you state” Did you know that there is an English word, an adjective, for “having many castles”? Nothing like English vocabulary for keeping a writer humble”.

    What is this adjective? While on tour we were often were told “ABC” which meant ” another bloody Castle , or church” – but I disagree with this, as I was awestruck with each and every one.

    You also made a very curious statement: “…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”.

    WOW – I really felt a presence at some sites too that I cannot describe. It does not happen at all sites, but at two sites I actually felt a very powerful, indescribable presence . Can you elaborate your feelings here?

    • Hi there- the word is “castellated”. I mentioned it twice in the post, but you must have read the email version, because I updated it afterwards. ABC. That’s kind of how I think right now, about the tidy and well-behaved castles, anyway. As far as feelings – it was just inexplicable physical discomfort. Our bodies know when something isn’t right. So far, I haven’t felt any presences in these woods. I have at other places, though. It’s an unforgettable feeling.

  10. Wow! A real photo essay on castles! Makes this post ‘Castellated!’ 🙂

    I particularly like the picture of the Devin Castle! Kudos on Your presentation, and Regards.

  11. You have taken me back to Slovakia and I am gripped by your post. Unfortunately we couldn’t go to the Devin Castle and see the flowers when we were in Bratislawa because of flodding. We were also briefly in the Little Carpathian but didn’t go to those breathtaking woods and ruins, where there weren’t any roads or parking spaces. I just wonder, Julie, whether nowadays we are so much better off with all our noise and traffic! If I remember well, Slovakia was also quite rich when the Fugger dinasty was busy in the banking, gold sector or textile trade. I wishy you many more of these exciting trips.:)

    • Hi Martina – there are so many interesting places to see in Slovakia, but they’re still so off the main tourist radar that it takes some effort to get to them. I see a lot of potential, but of course it will take motivated and ambitious locals to see this and make the necessary effort. You are one of the few tourists I know of who have ventured beyond Bratislava, Kosice, or the High Tatras. You have a fantastic sense of adventure! 😀

  12. Hrad Devin was by far our favourite near Bratislava!

    Thanks for the scoop on so many more (Pajštún Castle looks a treat)!

    • I was up near Devin again yesterday. No matter how many times I see it from a distance, high up on that hill overlooking the river, I’m still impressed.

Comments are closed.