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RELICS OF 150 YEAR STRUGGLE AGAINST TURKISH INVASIONS LAY SCATTERED NEAR SOUTHERN BORDER

Castles mounted to resist Ottoman Turks today in ruins

Built on an outcrop of volcanic rock and lowering over the village below, south-central Slovakia's Fiľakovo Castle seems an intimidating and invincible fortress. But looks are evidently deceiving - in 1554, when 10,000 invading Turkish troops laid siege to it, the citadel fell quickly into Turkish hands, and remained there for the next 39 years.
To ward off the expansionist Ottoman Empire, several castles were erected in the late middle ages on modern-day Slovak soil. During the 16th and 17th centuries, troops of the Hungarian Empire struggled constantly against the aggressive intruders; wherever they failed, towns conquered by the enemy had their buildings burned, their valuables looted, their men-folk killed and women raped.
Today, ruins are all that remain of that long-ago Slovak Maginot line - the castles were built atop hills within sight of each other to signal approaching enemies. Nevertheless, tours of these historic sites take visitors on an imaginative journey back to another era, when bloody battles were waged for decades on the central European plain.


Divín castle survived Turkish occupation (1575 - 1593), but fell to ruin after it was burnt down in 1694 to drive out a fearsome noble family.
photo: Ján Svrček

Built on an outcrop of volcanic rock and lowering over the village below, south-central Slovakia's Fiľakovo Castle seems an intimidating and invincible fortress. But looks are evidently deceiving - in 1554, when 10,000 invading Turkish troops laid siege to it, the citadel fell quickly into Turkish hands, and remained there for the next 39 years.

To ward off the expansionist Ottoman Empire, several castles were erected in the late middle ages on modern-day Slovak soil. During the 16th and 17th centuries, troops of the Hungarian Empire struggled constantly against the aggressive intruders; wherever they failed, towns conquered by the enemy had their buildings burned, their valuables looted, their men-folk killed and women raped.

Today, ruins are all that remain of that long-ago Slovak Maginot line - the castles were built atop hills within sight of each other to signal approaching enemies. Nevertheless, tours of these historic sites take visitors on an imaginative journey back to another era, when bloody battles were waged for decades on the central European plain.

Čabraď


A stone cannon-ball today remains lodged in a crumbling fortification wall of the Fiľakovo ruins, built on an ancient volcanic formation.
photo: Ján Svrček

For visitors travelling from west to east, the journey begins at the Čabraď ruins, some 35 kilometres west of the town of Veľký Krtíš. First built in the 13th century to defend access routes to central Slovakia's rich mining towns, the castle was reconstructed in the 16th century to withstand the Turks.

Unlike some its less fortunate neighbours, Čabraď was never overrun. But when the threat of Turkish invasion was lifted in the 17th century, Čabraď lost its importance, and its inhabitants moved out. To assure that their castle would never be occupied by anyone else, the former owners burned it down as they left.

Today, the ruins are one of the country's least accessible, with only a small sign off a local road (highway 75 heading west from Veľký Krtíš) to point the way (look for the sign on the right immediately after passing the marked road to Cerovo village). But for those who hike through the Krupinská planina (Krupina plain) forest to the castle, which now sits in Slovakia's biggest national protected area for snakes and other reptiles, the view of the sturdy fortifications rearing up from the wild vegetation is unforgettable.

Divín


Kamený vodopád (Stone Waterfall) greets visitors to the Šomoška ruins. The basalt columns are found in only six other places on earth.
photo: Ján Svrček

To the north-east of Čabraď is the ruin of Divín Castle, built in the 13th century by the local lords of Lučenec town. In the 16th century, the castle was rebuilt and expanded into an anti-Turkish invasion fortress, but to little avail - the Turks occupied the castle from 1575 to 1593.

In the 17th century, Divín was inhabited by the House of Balassa, one of richest Hungarian families of the day. The Balassa's were also a rough lot, infamous for their reckless and thieving ways. One member of the clan, Ján Balassa, was twice imprisoned for fomenting anti-Habsburg conspiracies. For these reasons, the imperial general Strasoldo had the castle demolished in 1694 to drive the family out.

A fortified Baroque church and a Renaissance manor house, both from the 17th century, represent Divín's main historical attractions today, while the nearby Ružiná dam doubles as a summer recreation centre with wind surfing and swimming. To get there, follow highway 50 north out of Lučenec to Mýtna, then take a right at the village's only intersection and follow the road a few kilometres to Divín.

Fiľakovo

Fifteen minutes south of Lučenec (15 minutes by train or by car via highway 71) is Fiľakovo, a town of 11,000 mainly Hungarian-speaking inhabitants. Perched on a volcanic rock formation some 65 metres above the town, Fiľakovo Castle (open Tue-Sun, 10:00-18:00) was originally built as a wooden structure in the 13th century, but was recast into stone during the Turkish invasions.

Again, the measures taken to buttress defences proved insufficient, and the town fell under Turkish control from 1554 till 1593, when the site was reclaimed by Hungary. Fiľakovo's town emblem, a palm tree on a green hill, is a reminder of the period of Turkish reign, as are the stone cannon-balls still lodged in the walls of the ruin.

Today's castle is extremely tourist-friendly, with a walking tour accompanied by explanatory plaques in Slovak, Hungarian and English, and English-speaking guides available. Several deep pits burrow into the castle's rock foundations; butterflies, lizards, spiders and birds of prey thrive among the crags.

From atop the ruin, visitors have a panoramic view of the region, including the Cerová hills on the Hungarian border to the south. The castle's Bebek Tower contains detailed accounts in Slovak, Hungarian and English of the structure's storied history.

Šomoška

The final stop on the ruins tour is Šomoška, which literally straddles the Slovak-Hungarian border - while the ruins stand on Slovak soil, the village in the castle's shadow belongs to Hungary.

Šomoška was built in the 13th century and expanded in the 16th century, but - again - the Turks made a mockery of the fortifications by occupying the castle in 1573.

The hike up to the ruin from Slovakia (if you've got your passport, you can also cross into Hungary and visit from the south) follows an 'educational trail', with sites and curiosities explained along the way. One such rarity is kamený vodopád ('stone waterfall'), a basalt lava formation which hardened into curved columns four million years ago and now resembles liquid rock pouring into a stone sea. Such basalt columns, which at this site are a haven for snakes and lizards, are found at only seven places on earth: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Northern Ireland, California and Wyoming.

The ruin itself is in remarkable condition, crowned by a two-storey main tower with apertures looking out on the Hungarian village below.

To find the ruin, follow highway 71 south out of Fiľakovo towards the Hungarian border. On the highway as you approach the town of Šiatorská Bukovinka will be a large sign for Šomoška. Take a left into the town and follow a gravel road to the trail head, where you'll be expected to pay a 30 Slovak crown ($.60) entry fee.

A more complete version of this article will be published this summer in The Slovak Spectator's sixth annual travel guide Spectacular Slovakia 2001. Leading up to the magazine's publication, travel stories will be printed in this space over the following weeks.

To pre-order copies of this year's Spectacular Slovakia, contact Ján Svrček at 07 5923 3302, or e-mail him at jan.svrcek@spectator.gpp.sk.
To book advertising space, please contact Raluca Benko at 07 5923 3225, or at slspect@gpp.sk.

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