Discover one of the largest castles in Europe

Despite essentially being a ruin, enough of the walls and internal palaces of Spiš Castle are intact to house a museum and a chapel.

Spiš CastleSpiš Castle (Source: Ján Pallo)

This article was published in the Košice Region Travel Guide. Discover the region on the border between Western and Eastern European culture with our regionial guide.

One of the largest castles in Slovakia, spreading over 41,000 square metres, Spiš Castle is an exceptional example of mediaeval fortification architecture. Its strategic location meant its defenders could survey vast swathes of two trade routes running east-west and north-south, between the High and Low Tatras. This wonderful location was not lost on even the earliest human settlers of the region, and the skull of a neolithic man has been discovered nearby.

Lost in Košice? Impossible with this travel guide. Lost in Košice? Impossible with this travel guide.

There is also evidence of settlements dating from 2 BC, and coins have been found from Celtic and Roman times. While remains of earlier constructions have been found, the present castle was built in the beginning of the early 12th century. During the 13th century a monumental romanesque three-storey prism-shaped palace was added. Today this is a rare example of a preserved secular romanesque building. While it may not seem explicit to some visitors, those who have visited the Cathedral in Spišská Kapitula may draw connections between the architecture of both buildings, as it is largely accepted that they shared the same Italian architects and stonemasons.

By the end of the 13th century, the castle complex had spread over most of its current site. The castle belonged to royal Árpád and Anjou dynasties. Spiš Castle singled itself out as one of the strongest castles in the region during the 13th century as it remained unconquered, though seriously damaged, by Tatar invaders in 1241. In 1464 it became property of the Zápolya family, who converted the castle from a military fortress into a gothic aristocratic seat. They added a chapel, dedicated to St Elizabeth, and made much of their reconstruction reminiscent of other European castles from the period.

The Zápolya family owned the castle until 1528, before it was passed on to the wealthy Thurzo family. They built new palaces, enhanced the fortifications and turned it into a comfortable Renaissance seat. In 1636, the complex changed hands again and went to the Csáky family, which was the last aristocratic family to actually inhabit the castle. In the 18th century, the family left the castle, which after an extensive fire in 1780 turned into ruins. After the World War II the castle was classified as state cultural property.

Later it underwent excavations and reconstruction to include a museum. The castle was recognised as a national monument in 1961 and received a further boost to its restoration efforts when it was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.

Related articleKošice Region travel guide: discover the region on the border between Western and Eastern European culture with our guide. Read more 

Furthermore, part of the castle was also refurbished, superficially at least, by movie directors. The location scouts for The Last Legion and Dragonheart, among others, found a perfect backdrop here for their mediaeval epics and part of the arch over the new entrance gate to the castle is made of finest Hollywood polystyrene.

The castle is essentially a ruin, but enough of the walls and internal palaces are intact to house a museum and a chapel, while the grounds are sufficiently vast to encourage lengthy exploration. There is also a fine, steep trek to head up and around the hill on which it stands, and in the summer, the grounds are sometimes used for music and theatre performances. In short, there’s a full day’s activities available if you so desire.

More realistically, Spiš Castle is best stared at for a long time from ground level, and then visited for a couple of hours, where you can either join a guided tour, or wander freely through what amounts to a vast sprawl of stone and grass. The main sights are the watchtower and the restored areas of the palaces, where the exhibitions of armourments, weaponry and torture devices, as well as a model of the functioning castle, puts everything into context.

The watchtower is likely to provide the most entertainment to the casual visitor. It is an impossibly tight squeeze up a stone spiral staircase, passing narrow windows affording quick glimpses outside, as well as mediaeval latrines cut into the walls, for the soldier caught short during his shift. Emerging at the top, approximately 640 metres above sea level, the reward is a spectacular view over hundreds of hectares of surrounding countryside, and into nearby villages. The closest, Spišské Podhradie, started out as a servants’ village for the castle, giving an idea of the size of the castle.

Opening hours:

The castle is open everyday from April until October.

Ticket prices:

Admission for adults is 8€.
For more pricing options see the website of the Spiš Castle.

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