The rise and fall of Slovak castles (Spectacular Slovakia - travel guide)

Romantic Bojnice Castle is one of Slovakia’s favourite tourist destinations. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

This regularly updated feature on castles in Slovakia includes the developments of Slovakia's many castles and a list of Slovakia's top 10.

This article was published in the latest edition of travel guide Spectacular Slovakia.

Today Slovakia is recognised as the world leader in car production per capita. What is less well known is that this country also has the highest number of castles per person.

Theoretically, the country could be comprised of 180 small kingdoms of 30,000 people, each with its own castle or chateau. Unfortunately, because of a lack of maintenance, there are just 120 castles with visible remains, and even most of those are largely in ruins. Luckily for visitors, there are still dozens of castles to tour, replete with their former majesty and cold beauty.

As a mountainous country, Slovakia is naturally predisposed to castles that use the high ground and stone as construction material. Starting in the Middle Ages and up to the 18th century, the aristocracy of the Kingdom of Hungary preferred to build their castles in Slovakia’s easy-to-defend territory, said art historian Peter Kresánek.

Most of those constructions fell into disrepair as their military importance decreased and landowners sought out more comfortable residences. For a long time, few had a passion for castles, and what was not destroyed over the years became construction material for nearby homes.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, more and more people have shown an interest in these magnificent constructions, and volunteer groups have formed to preserve and renovate castles.

In the beginning

The story of Slovakia’s castles begins in the 9th century when Slavs began building wooden fortresses in present-day Slovakia, with about a dozen stone castles replacing them in the 11th century – including in Bratislava, Nitra and Trenčín.

The best example of one of these constructions is perhaps the most well-known of Slovak castles – Bratislava Castle. Its first mention dates to the 10th century, but the castle hill was also inhabited in the Celtic and the Great-Moravian era. Despite turbulent times, fires and a lack of money for its maintenance, Bratislava Castle still stands on its hill above the Danube River. In recent years it has undergone major renovation, and Slovaks voted to make it one of the three symbols representing the country on their new euro coins, introduced in January 2009.

Mongol invaders in the 13th century brought about a period of consolidation in the Kingdom of Hungary’s defensive strategy, and by the end of the century, around 150 castles had been built or fortified to protect the area from further raids. Later, many castles became administrative centres or living quarters for Hungarian nobles. This period gave birth to Orava Castle, which is one of the most-visited castles in Slovakia. It became part of cinema history in 1922 when German director F. W. Murnau shot the vampire movie Nosferatu inside its walls.

Slovakia's castles: Going big

More new castles were built and fortified during the 15th-century Hussite wars, this time taking into account firearms. In this era, Trenčín, Devín and Spiš Castles became three of the biggest in Europe.

Of all Slovakia’s castles, the grand and gloomy Spiš Castle is probably the most celebrated. It is reputed to be the largest castle ruin in central Europe, and in its stony decay it seems to erupt out of the hill on which it is perched, as if the earth itself were trying to resurrect a lost Gothic past. Perhaps that is why the castle was used in the American movie Dragonheart as a castle by the sea, while in reality it is more than 600 kilometres from the nearest shoreline. One of the best preserved castles built in this era is Kežmarok Castle, constructed in the mid-15th century. Today it is used as a museum that tells the history of both Kežmarok and the castle itself.

Ottoman invaders lead to renovations

Another round of castle building took place after the Ottomans conquered lower Hungary in the 16th century. By order of the ruler, castle walls like those at Vígľaš, Fiľakovo and Krásna Hôrka were significantly extended. Also the fortress at Komárno was rebuilt according to Italian military engineering designs, becoming the strongest fortified construction of the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1594 the fortress resisted a month-long siege by an Ottoman army of 100,000 soldiers and later became a symbol of European military architecture.

But it is not only castles that were used in the fight against the Ottomans - even some monasteries were fortified and absorbed into the defence system. Hronský Beňadik is an example. The abbey was first established in 1075, and the local monks were instrumental for centuries in spreading Christianity before the whole complex was fortified to face the Ottoman raids. The monastery was declared a national cultural monument in 1945.

During the Ottoman wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, Slovak castles played a considerable role in the defence of the whole region, which had become a geopolitically important crossroads. Many travel books and publications written in those times describe Slovak castles, according to Kresánek.

However, the stories were not only about heroic battles. For instance, one famous legend recounts the exploits of Elizabeth Báthory. Otherwise known as the Blood Countess, this Hungarian aristocrat became notorious in the early 17th century as a serial killer who tortured and killed scores of young women – possibly up to 650 victims – in her residence, Čachtice Castle. Many myths and legends have surfaced surrounding Báthory’s crimes, most notably the claims that she bathed in her victims’ blood in a bid to retain her youth. Whatever the truth, she has been the grisly inspiration for writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and artists from across the world. The list includes a song by the American thrash metal band Slayer and a 2008 English-language fantasy film which was an international co-production between Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the United Kingdom. It comes as no surprise that much of the small municipal museum in Čachtice focuses on Báthory.

Twilight of Slovak castles

Most of Slovakia’s castles were destroyed after a series of anti-Habsburg uprisings in the 17th century which ended in 1711. Because the castles were considered to be centres of rebellion, rulers decided to render them useless. The emperor’s army systematically deprived them of their defensive capabilities by destroying important parts of their walls, embrasures and other tactical structures. After that the castles were used as watchtowers and continued to decay.

Some saw their prospects partially revived with new lives as more pleasant and luxurious chateaux, family residences or museums during the romantic period toward the end of the 18th century. For example, after the Thurzo family took over Bojnice Castle in the 16th century, they promptly remade the heavily fortified defence structure into a Renaissance-style chateau. Later, János Pálffy, a wealthy heir and castle-makeover enthusiast, gave the castle a late-Tyrolean Gothic look.

Mimicking the romantic chateaux of France’s Loire Valley, Bojnice Castle has become a wonderful destination for travellers with children. Rumours that the castle is haunted have led to the whimsical International Festival of Spirits and Ghosts, held annually in late April and early May.

The Pálffy family also reconstructed Červený Kameň Castle in an early Baroque style. It now serves as a museum chronicling the development of the housing culture of the nobility and bourgeoisie in Slovakia.

However, most Slovak castles have not enjoyed such a happy fate. Many of them burned down. Two castles outside Bratislava – Devín and Pajštún – were burned down intentionally by Napoleon’s forces, after he had signed a peace treaty in 1805. Two more were lost in World War II, and another two were destroyed by earthquakes.

The latest to be hit by fire was Krásna Hôrka, one of the most cherished and best-preserved castles in Slovakia. Most of the castle was destroyed in March 2012. It is currently being reconstructed.

Other castles simply fell apart because of neglect. In the past, castles had no historical value to locals, who left the structures to crumble. Tragically, many destroyed the castles by using their walls as construction material for their own homes. Art historian Kresánek mentioned Bzovík Fortress as one which was partially looted by locals for its materials. “Foundation materials of the whole village of Bzovík have their origin in Romanesque-Gothic parts of the monastery,” Kresánek said.

Saving Slovakia's national treasures

In the beginning of the 20th century castles drew the focus of various tourism clubs and later the state. Many now serve as museums (Bratislava Castle, Červený Kameň Castle, Orava Castle, Bojnice Castle), some have galleries (Zvolen Castle), and Ilava Castle was turned into a prison. Plenty of the castles remain a dominant feature of the towns and cities they are in, as in Bratislava, Trenčín, Nitra, Zvolen, Kežmarok and Banská Bystrica. Moreover, dozens of chateaux were restored and are commercially used as restaurants or hotels. As time passes even ordinary people try to preserve or reconstruct damaged castles. Thanks to municipalities and volunteers from civic associations, several buildings have started to be renovated. Since 2011, there is even a programme subsidised by the state which enables the long-term unemployed to work on renovations of castles. For volunteers reconstruction has become a sort of leisure-time activity which can also be enjoyed even by foreigners staying in Slovakia.

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While the particular motivation for people who try to save castles varies, most agree that they cannot watch as a historical treasure vanishes. “I do care about people who do not know their history, which is richer than it appears,” Rastislav Rybanský from the civic association renewing Topoľčany Castle said. “I do care for sure about history decaying in front of my eyes.”

Castles in Slovakia

Castles, city castles & fortresses
B Bratislava Castle, www.snm.sk
B Pezinok Castle, www.nsvsr.sk
B Červený Kameň Castle, www.hradcervenykamen.sk
W Smolenice Castle, www.kcsmolenice.sav.sk
W Trenčín Castle, www.muzeumtn.sk
W Bojnice Castle, www.bojnicecastle.sk
W Nitra City Castle, www.nitrianskyhrad.sk
W Komárno Fortress, www.pevnost-komarno.sk
C Banská Bystrica Town Castle, www.banskabystrica.sk
C Hronský Beňadik monastery, www.benadik-klastor.sk
C Banská Štiavnica Old Castle, www.muzeumbs.sk
C Banská Štiavnica New Castle, www.muzeumbs.sk
C Zvolen Castle, www.sng.sk
C Vígľaš Castle, www.zamokviglas.com
C Slovenská Ľupča Castle, www.hradlupca.sk
C Kremnica Town Castle, www.muzeumkremnica.sk
N Červený Kláštor Monastery, www.muzeumcervenyklastor.sk
N Stará Ľubovňa Castle, www.hradlubovna.sk
N Kežmarok Castle, www.kezmarok.com
N Orava Castle, www.oravskemuzeum.sk
N Bytča Castle, www.pmza.sk
N Budatín Castle, www.pmza.sk
E Krásna Hôrka Castle, www.snm.sk

Ruins with exhibit
B Devín Castle, www.muzeum.bratislava.sk
W Čachtice Castle, www.cachtice.sk
W Beckov Castle, www.hrad-beckov.sk
W Levice Castle, www.slovakia.travel
C Kláštorná pevnosť Bzovík (Bzovík fortress), www.muzeum.sk
C Modrý Kameň Castle, www.snm.sk
C Fiľakovo Castle, www.hradfilakovo.sk
N Spiš Castle, www.spisskyhrad.sk
N Liptovský Hrádok Castle, www.grandcastle.sk
N Likava Castle, www.liptovskemuzeum.sk
N Strečno Castle, www.pmza.sk

Manor Houses with exhibit
W Dolná Krupá, www.snm.sk
W Oponice, www.chateauappony.sk
W Topoľčianky, www.zamok-topolcianky.sk
C Svätý Anton, www.msa.sk
N Strážky, www.sng.skhttp://http://www.sng.sk/en/uvod/vysunute-pracoviska/strazky
N Markušovce, www.muzeumspisa.com
E Betliar, www.snm.sk
E Trebišov, www.muzeumtv.sk
E Humenné, www.muzeumhumenne.sk

Castles and monuments where foreigners are welcomed to help with reconstructions
N Sedliacka Dubová, www.dubovacolonorum.sk
N Lietava Castle, www.hradlietava.sk
N Sklabiňa Castle, www.hradsklabina-donjon.sk
C Banská Štiavnica, www.en.kalvaria.org
E Šariš Castle, www.hrad.wbl.sk

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