photo: Ján Svrček
It is no surprise that Slovakia has such a wealth of castles, considering its position in the centre of Europe. The armies of Rome (Rím), Hungary (Maďarsko), Poland (Poľsko), Turkey (Turecko), Austria (Rakúsko), Napoleon, Germany (Nemecko), and Russia (Rusko) have taken turns invading the country for thousands of years, with varying degrees of success. The fact that Slovakia exists at all is in part testament to its castle-building tradition.
Unfortunately though, most of the castles provide only Slovak-language tours or provide English-language tours at several times the price or only a couple of times during the day. You need to ask "Robíte prehliadky aj v angličtine?" (Do you have guided tours in English?). Even if they do not, they may have an English language guidebook (knižný sprievodca).
I remember the first time I went on a castle tour in Slovakia, with a couple of English friends dutifully in tow, expecting me to use my six-months worth of very limited Slovak to interpret the wonders of Bojnice Castle. Unfortunately, the tour guide seemed extremely bored and anxious to complete the tour as quickly as possible. I have to admit that the commentary my friends received was less fact than fiction.
Before we begin our virtual tour, we should choose between a hrad (castle), pevnosť (fortress), strážna veža (watch-tower), zámok (chateau), kaštieľ (mansion), or palác (palace) from more than 300 across the country. Theoretically a zámok has a decorative rather than defensive function, and sits in a valley unlike a hrad, which is built on a rock or a hill, although there are several sites that seem to cross the boundary. For example, Oravský hrad (Orava Castle) looms above the village of Oravský Podzámok (Beneath Orava Chateau).
Many are now in ruins (zrúcaniny), although some of these, such as the magnificent Špiš Castle are more interesting to visit because of this.
Before you enter the castle of your choice, take a little time to admire the ornamental gardens, known somewhat confusingly as anglický park (English park) or francúzsky park (French park - similar but more symmetrical and with many steps, fountains, and statues).
From the outside you can see the fortifications (opevnenie) of the castle, the ramparts (hradby), towers (veže), turrets (vežičky) and arrow slits (strieľne).
Passing through the barbican (barbakán), you cross the moat (priekopa) over the drawbridge (padací most), and through the gate (brána) you enter the bailey or courtyard (nádvorie). It is usually at this point that you buy your tickets (vstupenky) and find out about tours and guidebooks.
One advantage of taking a guided tour is that you will probably hear many of the legends (povesti) of the castle. Many of these are universal in nature - such as the oddly familiar tale of a ghost (strašidlo) haunting the corridors or a princess (princezná) locked in a tower away from her true love.
Places encountered on the tour usually include a castle well (studňa), an armoury (zbrojnica), a banquet hall (hradná sieň), a dungeon (hladomorňa), a torture chamber (mučiareň), or a crypt (krypta).
If you happen to visit the castle on a festival day you may be lucky enough to see a display of medieval life. For example at Orava Castle there are demonstrations of sword-play (šermovanie), ancient arms (historické zbrane), music (hudba), falconry (sokoliarstvo), and drama (divadlo). All very necessary stops on what is a very steep castle tour.
While your tour guide may seem somewhat obsessed with describing each and every one of the people in the portraits (portréty) and families represented by coats of arms (erby) on the castle walls, rest assured - this is an entirely normal part of any castle tour. For some reason it is believed that you cannot enjoy the atmosphere of a castle until you can name every single noble (šľachtic) who has ever spent the night there, and recite their vital statistics. It is best to just let that part of the tour wash over you as you soak up the atmosphere.
11. Aug 2003 at 0:00 | Conrad Toft