Spiš Castle — Slovakia’s Medieval Gem
Besides my role as driver on our Eastern Chronicles road trips, I’m also responsible for making lists of the places we are going to visit, and so I usually do some serious research and planning. But when I wrote the agenda for the Eastern Chronicles road trip through Hungary and Slovakia, I didn’t pay too much attention to Spiš Castle. To me it was only a nice, interesting place to stop over briefly on our way from Prešov to Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. But as soon as we arrived there, I realized how wrong I had been.
Covering an area of 41,426 square meters, Spiš Castle (Slovak: Spišský hrad) is one of the largest castles in Europe. In spite of this impressive fact, seeing it from the foothills wasn’t that spectacular. We started climbing up the hill along a winding path, accompanied by a few other tourists, so I thought the castle would be quite empty. I even worried that we had gone there outside of their open hours, but immediately after entering the castle’s gate I noticed with amazement that the courtyard was actually crowded. And then the adventure began: the fortress is so big and it features so many interesting things that our group involuntarily split up to explore it individually.
Today’s castle, with its fusion of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural styles, was originally built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier castle. It was the political, administrative, economic, and cultural center of Spiš County. Between 1464 and 1528, Spiš Castle was owned by the kings of Hungary. Afterwards, it become the property of the Zapolya family, who, by the way, owned more than 70 castles at that time. Nonetheless, they decided to use Spiš Castle as their seat of power. The castle was then transferred to the Thurzo family, and then to the Csaky family, who abandoned the castle in the early 18th century, considering it too uncomfortable to live in. The Csaky family preferred to live in a nearby village, where they built manor-houses using stone material from Spiš Castle. As if that all wasn’t enough to relegate the castle to the status of a ruin, the whole structure burned down in 1780, securing its fate.
After WWII it became the property first of Czechoslovakia and then of Slovakia. Starting in the second half of the 20th century, the castle was partly reconstructed and major archaeological research was carried out on the site. The lower courtyard, built in the 15th century to be used by the castle’s troops and as a refuge for the population, was opened to the public in 1983. Finally, in 1993, Spiš Castle was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites (along with the adjacent locations of Spišská Kapitula, Spišské Podhradie, and Žehra).
Strolling through the castle’s ruins I realized that the terraces I was walking on, with their small portals and windows overseeing stunning views of the local surroundings, had initially been the houses of castle owners. Near those terraces, there was a donjon (a circular tower) which had been built in the 13th century. Climbing up the tower on the narrow interior stairs was really exciting. When I got to the top of it, I started to daydream, imagining what it would have been like to live in this castle centuries ago.
Connected to the tower was a Gothic chapel from the 15th century, behind which was the most precious part of the castle: a massive, 3-floor Roman palace, rebuilt in Gothic style in the 15th and 16th centuries. The refined columns and Roman windows are the most exceptionally preserved parts of the original architecture. They were built by Italian stone-cutters in the 13th century.
The castle stands on dolomite rock, which is believed to have already been inhabited 4,000 years ago. Ten years of archaeological research revealed (among other important historical facts) that a marvelous underground world of caves lies right below the castle.
I even learnt a fascinating story which had been revealed by geologists and archaeologists in 2003, the story of a unique discovery of coins dating back more than 20 centuries: “On a stone platform, where Spiš Castle stands nowadays, there was a vast hill fort, which was later inhabited by the people of the Puchov culture. These people participated actively in merchant activities and they also had lively commercial connections with the Roman Empire. At the turn of the 2nd century, an unpredictable incident happened to the owner of these coins, who was probably a respectable merchant. This man in his 30’s or 40’s was looking for a safe place to hide. He finally took shelter in the interior of the Dark Cave (located in the northwest of the Castle Hill), which was then accessible from above. He entered the cave with a serious gash on his right thigh, which he possibly sustained in an accidental fall. It is hard to tell.” However, it is certain that the man never made his way out of the cave; he passed away due to fatal injuries. But for long centuries, he maintained his considerable property: “As in a fairy tale, silver Roman coins spilled out of his leather money bag.”
Eventually, we ended up spending almost four hours at Spiš Castle. It turned out to be one of the road trip’s highlights and an amazing surprise to me in particular. Until you get a chance to visit this amazing medieval Slovakian gem, I recommend that you watch “DragonHeart”, the film, and “The Lion in Winter”, the TV show: both of them used Spiš Castle as a filming location.
Awesome photos taken by Flavius Neamciuc.
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