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Ghosts, spirits and falconers haunt Bojnice festival

As spring arrives each year in the Upper Nitra Valley, Bojnice locals gear up for their biggest event - The Annual International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits. Now in its 6th year, the festival attracts visitors young, old and beyond life for events in and around Slovakia's most romantic castle.
The 12th century Bojnice Castle, which was dressed up one hundred years ago to mirror the chateaux of the French Loire River Valley, floats above the trees on a hill above the small town. Its cluster of elegant round towers and spiked roofs conjure fairy tale images of knights in shining armor saving princesses from evil godmothers, or of a visit to Disneyland.


The fairy-tale spires of Bojnice Castle hold scary surprises this time of year.
photo: Matt Evans

As spring arrives each year in the Upper Nitra Valley, Bojnice locals gear up for their biggest event - The Annual International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits. Now in its 6th year, the festival attracts visitors young, old and beyond life for events in and around Slovakia's most romantic castle.

The 12th century Bojnice Castle, which was dressed up one hundred years ago to mirror the chateaux of the French Loire River Valley, floats above the trees on a hill above the small town. Its cluster of elegant round towers and spiked roofs conjure fairy tale images of knights in shining armor saving princesses from evil godmothers, or of a visit to Disneyland.

During the Ghost Festival, the Disneyland comparison seems all the more appropriate. A mass of kiosks line the road leading from the town square to the castle, selling food, clothes, wicker baskets, ceramics and just about everything else you can imagine. Meanwhile a mixture of traditional, pop and thumping disco music blares from a corner of the castle grounds.

Closer to the palace, the 1990s begin to fade into the 1590s. A miniature pirate ship might be spotted sailing across the moat. Young squires take up arms against each other to fight for their honor nearby.

The castle tour holds center stage for the celebration, just inside the gate's iron jaws. Guides in medieval period costumes usher visitors into the fairy tale castle where ghosts, witches, fortune tellers, marksmen, fair maidens and other surprise visitors lurk. But not before a melodramatic mock execution in the inner courtyard.

Inside, the castle's labyrinth of halls and spiralling staircases lead through room after room of natural sets for spontaneous shows, re-enacting ancient medieval legends and cliches. Belly-dancers might writhe through the Oriental Hall. A king and queen may hold court in the enormous Huňadyho Hall. All the while, Halloween-type characters jump from the shadows for a quick spook.


Falconers await on castle grounds.
photo: Matt Evans

It gets a bit corny, in all honesty, much like the attractions at Disneyland for anyone over age 10. But, the light hearted and uninhibited atmosphere makes for a lively day, anyway. And it's a good excuse to tour the beautiful castle and admire it from all angles.

The Bojnice Castle you see today is a product of several stages of construction over the castle's 900-year history. Seemingly all the big names of Hungarian and Slovak history owned the castle at some point: Matúš Čak of Trenčín, King Mathius Corvinus, the Thurzos, Pálffys, and others.

Many flashier parts of the interior were embellished during late 19th century reconstruction ordered by Count Ján František Pálffy. The intricately carved wooden wall in the Great Hall, the ceiling in the Golden Room, and the swirling black and white marble floor in the Marble Hall are prime examples of the French Romantic makeover.

Some of the best attractions of the festival lie adjacent to the castle at the outdoor amphitheater and at the zoo. On the hour, falconers spellbind audiences in the amphitheater as majestic hawks, owls and falcons swoop down over the crowds at their master's commands. The Bojnice zoo next door is Slovakia's oldest and largest zoo, housing 2,250 creatures on more than 100 acres. Some surprisingly extensive habitats include llamas, kangaroos, emus, elephants, a reptile house and birds of prey like those used in the falconer shows. The bears' steal the limelight with their playful antics .

The trip to Bojnice is quite a trek, making an early start the best plan if you are travelling from Bratislava. The abundance of activity and length of travel may merit a stay in one of several surrounding pensions or hotels. Call ahead, however, to ensure that space is available. Also, check out the terrific website (www.bojnicecastle.sk) for a preview of the castle and additional lodging and dining options not listed below.


Travel Tips


Getting there
By bus - Be patient, it's 3 1/2 hours from Bratislava. Get off at the church in the central town square, or just past the castle at Bojnice Kúpele (the spa). Or catch a city bus from Prievidza, just 5 km away. Prievidza, the largest city in the region, is surprisingly remote, with no direct rail connections to major cities.
By car - Take the E572 highway from Nitra to Prievidza. It is a long twisty road (2 hours). Bojnice is 5 km from Prievidza.


Lodging
Hotel Lipa- Sládkovičova 14, 972 01 Bojnice, tel.: 0862/5430-308. Beside St. Martin parish church in the center, opposite the main square from the castle. Decent food in the restaurant. Prices double room: 640 Sk for Slovaks and foreigners.
Hotel Régia - 972 01 Bojnice, tel.: 0862/5430-991. Decent hotel with great location overlooking picturesque castle. Prices double room: 1,370 Sk for foreigners, 640 Sk for Slovaks.
Športcentrum Bojnice - P.O. Box 38, 972 01 Bojnice, tel.: 0862/5430-241. A 15-minute walk from the spa along a winding country road. Fully equipped: TV and telephone in each room (you can even call out), plus tennis courts, fitness center, sauna, restaurant and money exchange. Eat here or at Salaš Vígľaš, just up the road. Prices double room: 1,000 Sk for foreigners, 600 Sk for Slovaks.
Penzión Mado - Jesenského 15, 972 01 Bojnice, tel.: 0862/5430-170. Our choice. Friendly staff, small but good restaurant, comfy rooms, centrally located. Prices double room: 1,490 Sk for Slovaks and foreigners.

Non-stop taxi service 0862/5432-020

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