Kežmarok is probably the only town in Slovakia with a castle that just didn't belong. It seems strange, but when the Zápoľský family built the ring of stone on flat ground in the center of the town back in 1463, Kežmarok's inhabitants looked at it suspiciously, curious what the lords of the manor were up to. They were right to wonder, for the residents of the little fortress - which looks like it wouldn't last long in the face of a hostile invasion - tried to take over control of the free royal town. But the citizens of Kežmarok resisted, ignoring the new aristocracy that ensconced itself between the squat painted houses of the old market street and the artisans guilds. The town and the castle warred for 250 years, the story claims, fighting a battle of street fights and riots.
Standing on the castle parapet today, gazing at the majestic High Tatras on the skyline, it's hard to imagine the never-ending skirmish without a giggle. But then, in this town of 40,000, nothing is exactly as you'd imagine.
Take the wooden church, located at the other end of the long, carefully restored Hlavné námestie. Outside, the building looks simple, almost modern: a low-slung, white-plastered structure, with round glass portholes in its slightly slanting walls. The church was built by Kežmarok's supressed Protestants in 1688, when the Sopron Agreement gave them the freedom to do so (although it had to be located outside the town walls). Its ship-like architecture is sometimes attributed to Swedish and Danish sailors who are said to have helped out in the construction.
Step inside, and the church is like a Baroque jewel box, carved from wood and scented like a cedar closet. Four massive pillars of yew, whole trees lathed into smooth spirals, support the roof; the roof's rough boards are painted sky blue with white fluffy clouds and pink angels, sheltering 1,500 people. Dark spruce marks the walls, a lighter wood the straight-backed pews, and in front, gold paint on the massive altar shines even behind scaffolding. The church no longer hosts Masses, but on a recent afternoon a group of German tourists burst into song in the little ark, as if to demonstrate the richness of its sound.
Right next door stands another anomaly, the towering, dark orange, New Protestant Church that took over for the wooden structure when it became unstable. Designed by the architect of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to be built in the Orient (he donated his plans to Kežmarok instead), this church is like a mirror image of the other, with all the beauty on the outside. Its asymmetrical form, with one slender spire standing next to a massive dome, cuts an impressive profile, in bright ochre touched with green, against the blue silhouettes of the High Tatras.
Kežmarok pulses with bright colors; some of the newly-restored buildings have been painted a resounding blue, turquoise or purple. And while they may not be quite authentic, the city has been declared an Urban Preservation Area. Today, a handful of cafes draw Kežmarok's residents to the city center, and schoolchildren race on the tree-lined sidewalks. As the sun slips behind the Tatras, a gang of teenagers gathers on the wall of the castle. It looks like they're just having fun, but around here, you never can tell.
Kežmarské informačné centrum. Hlavné námestie 46, 0968/4046-7.
Kežmarok makes a good starting point for a visit to the High Tatras, the Spiš Region, or the focus of a day trip from Poprad.
How to get there
Take a train to Poprad-Tatry (the main Bratislava-Žilina-Košice line stops there). A small commuter train from Poprad to Plavec stops in Kežmarok (20 minutes), and leaves Poprad at 3:56, 5:24, 5:55, 7:11, 9:47, 11:56, 13:57, 14:41, 15:45, 17:11, 18:01, 21:03, and 22:43.
The bus line from Bratislava (via Prievidza, Banská Bystrica, and Poprad) to Bardejov stops in Kežmarok. The full trip from Bratislava takes 8 hours, and leaves at 6, 6:20, and 21:30.
The bus from Košice to Poprad (via Prešov and Levoča) stops in Kežmarok. The full trip from Košice takes 2 hours and 40 minutes and leaves at 14:45.
Kežmarok Castle Museum- Hradné nám. 42, 0968/2618. Open Tu-Su, 9-16, June-Sept. Hourly Slovak tours (18 Sk); Also German tours.
Dining and Accommodation
Penzion No. 1- Michalská 1, 0968/4600. Two doors to the left of the train station, an ugly cement cube hides a cozy penzion run by a friendly couple. A few doubles, with or without bath, common space, and a hammock in the backyard. 150 Sk per person per night. Breakfast 30 Sk.
Hotel Štart- From the town center, walk around the castle, past a few apartments, and up a steep hill. An old Communist ski lodge, worse for the wear, with lots of clean dorm-style rooms, obscure skis strewn around, and a teeny-tiny little piste out back. Double room, 300 Sk per night.
Hotel Club- Mudr. Alexandra 24, 0968/4051-3. In a restored building on the main street, a high-class hotel with convenience. Double room, 900 Sk per night for Slovaks, 1,800 for foreigners. The restaurant, called "the most elegant" by at least one resident, offers delicious food (try the chicken, greenbeans and egg dish), steaks, and a salad bar at reasonable prices in a simple atmosphere.
Restaurant, Bar Baronka- Hlavné nám. 46. In the same building as the information center, good Slovak food, pulsing radio music, and mediocre service. A wide selection of good Slovak and Czech beers.
17. Jul 1996 at 0:00 | Hannah Wolfson