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FROM NORTH TO SOUTH, DOZENS OF CASTLES SOAR ABOVE THE VÁH RIVER

Trenčín region is the bastion of Slovakia's castle history

ONCE UPON A TIME, the lord of Trenčín castle, Štefan Zápoľský, bought a present for his wife - a Turkish slave named Fatima. It wasn't long before Fatima's lover Omar visited the lord and offered him camels, horses and chests full of gold if he would set Fatima free.
"Everything you offer me I already have," came the reply. "The only thing I don't have is a source of water."
Omar and his people thus immediately set to work to provide Zápoľský with his water source. Drilling day and night through the immense rock shelf Trenčín castle rests on, the supplicants took almost four years to finally strike water 80 metres down. Omar immediately took a glass of the water to Zápoľský. The delighted lord kept his promise and released Fatima.


THE western Slovak city of Trenčín is dominated by its castle, collectively the country's largest, oldest, and best preserved.
photo: Chris Togneri

ONCE UPON A TIME, the lord of Trenčín castle, Štefan Zápoľský, bought a present for his wife - a Turkish slave named Fatima. It wasn't long before Fatima's lover Omar visited the lord and offered him camels, horses and chests full of gold if he would set Fatima free.

"Everything you offer me I already have," came the reply. "The only thing I don't have is a source of water."

Omar and his people thus immediately set to work to provide Zápoľský with his water source. Drilling day and night through the immense rock shelf Trenčín castle rests on, the supplicants took almost four years to finally strike water 80 metres down. Omar immediately took a glass of the water to Zápoľský. The delighted lord kept his promise and released Fatima.

The "well of love" situated in the Trenčín castle courtyard has inspired new tellings of the castle's legend for centuries. Based (more or less) on the truth, it is only one of many such legends about Slovakia's over 100 castles. Better-preserved castles have tour guides to tell their stories, while those in ruins depend on locals from the villages crouching below to preserve their histories.

Although castles are almost evenly spread across hilly country in Slovakia, Trenčín region contains some of the most interesting and best preserved examples. Bisected by the Váh river, the region begins with Tematín castle in the south, about 15Km north of the Piešťany spa town. Tematín, now a gorgeous ruin but once part of a string of castles guarding Hungary's northern frontier, used to have fire signals sent from its towers when invaders approached. It was built after the Tartar invasion in 1241.

Next on the way north comes Čachtice castle, famous for the 'Bloody Countess' Alžbeta Báthory, who murdered virgins and bathed in their blood to keep her beauty. Čachtice, along with Beckov and Trenčín castles, was part of the northern Hungarian 'Maginot Line' with Tematín.


ČACHTICE castle, home of the Bloody Countess.
photo: Chris Togneri

In the north the region ends with Považský castle, home to two squires whose ceaseless quarrelling over the beautiful Hedviga resulted in her suicide.

Considered by many people Slovakia's most beautiful, Bojnický castle governs the region's central parts.

But fortified Trenčín castle, proudly dominating the banks of the Váh river, takes the overall honours for the oldest, largest and best-preserved castle in Slovakia. First erected in 1111 as a stony construction, the castle later saw a rotund built in the shape of a four-leaf clover, which was destroyed and replaced by a 16-metre tower in the Romanesque style. During the rein of Matúš Čák Trenčiansky (1260 to 1321), the castle finally acquired the shape we now see it in, with a keep rising 30 metres.

"Matúš Čák, also called the Lord of the Váh and the Tatras, owned 32 castles in 12 counties [almost the whole of current western and northern Slovakia]," says Martin Lančarič, one of the castle's guides. "By and large he was a useful battle strategist, because he always picked the right side to fight on."

At the beginning of the second millennium A.D., castles were built to protect access paths to other regions, a function similar to what borders do today. After the 16th century, when the Turks began a series of invasions (bringing the Zápoľský family to power in Trenčín), castles became defensive fortifications as well.

"In 1790, Trenčín castle burnt down, as did most castles during the battles in those times. The Habsburg family ordered them destroyed because they couldn't break into them," says Lančarič.


BOJNICE castle in Trenčín region, considered by many the most beautiful in the country.
photo: Chris Togneri

Trenčín castle's last owners were the Illeszházi family, which owned it until the 19th century but then moved into a nearby manor house. Many other castle-owning families did the same, as living in the valleys was far more comfortable than living on the hills, once the times had become less dangerous.

And what is the truth behind the Omar and Fatima legend?

"The well in reality was dug for almost 40 years, and not by Omar's people but by the locals. They never hit a water source. The water you see there, which is up to 25 metres deep, is rain water that has collected since the 16th century," Lančarič explains.

"But the Turks, Omar and Fatima really existed. He was likely one of the hardest working locals digging the well, while she was probably a slave imported to the country."

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