Devín: Defending Bratislava at Devín
By Howard Swains
Accessible via the No 29 bus from beneath the UFO bridge in Bratislava, the restored ruins of Devín Castle stand on a cliff rising 212 metres above the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers, which is also the border between Slovakia and Austria and along the Danubian and Amber trade routes. It takes neither a military genius nor a pioneering city planner to identify the strategic worth of such a location, and the earliest archaeological finds on the site date from the new stone age, in the fifth century B.C.
Further evidence of settlements date through the late iron age and there is also evidence of Celtic, Germanic and Roman occupations, as well as the suggestion that Devín once provided a temporary home to Goth, Herul and Gepid tribes.
A stone medieval castle was built in the 13th century A.D., with a palace added 200 years later, as well as further fortifications to protect the castle against the Ottoman invasion. When Napoleon occupied and then destroyed the place in 1809, he was the first marauder to penetrate the castle's defences, leaving behind the current ruin, which has been carefully preserved and now houses a museum detailing the castle's chequered history and containing many artefacts discovered on the site.
Napoleon was, of course, unable to destroy the natural beauty of the area, and the castle's hilltop location affords spectacular views along both rivers and across both countries, surveying forests, marshlands, vineyards, more rolling hills, and the capital city. From the ground, the castle is equally attractive; it is an imposing fortress whose turrets and towers seem to be a natural extension of the vertical rock-faces launching up from the riverbank.
The most photogenic part of the castle is the tiny watchtower, seemingly not much bigger than a chess piece, known now as the Virgin Tower. Separated from the main castle, it balances perilously on a lone rock and has spawned countless legends concerning imprisoned lovelorn daughters leaping to their deaths.
Inside, the castle is a sprawling landscape of walls, staircases, open courtyards and gardens in various states of repair. They are all, however, made readily accessible by a continuing restoration and archaeological project conducted since Devín was reclaimed from the Nazis, who occupied it during the World War II. The castle became a national cultural monument in 1961 and today it is a fully-fledged tourist attraction, with well-paved pathways, informative signage, countless benches and drinking fountains. Areas of the castle are floodlit after dark, further enhancing the appeal, and a series of summer concerts has also been planned.
Just outside the walls, and accessible above the cafe from the river pathway, is a former amphitheatre created in the mid-20th century, where audiences could sit on seats carved into the hill side and watch plays and concerts performed in front of the backdrop of Austria. The amphitheatre was closed under the communist rule, and has not been re-opened since because the area around Devín is an important natural conservation site. The stage and seating area is now overgrown with grass and trees, but theatre-lovers should console themselves with the knowledge that the unique cliff-side and riverbank site supports a number of rare and endangered species of flora and fauna. Green lizards and aesculapian snakes, wheatears and white wagtails, among others, slither and bob among bluebells and Illyrian buttercups, special clover and Pasque flowers.
All this takes place as fisherman dot the riverbanks and canoeists sweep past; the tranquillity interrupted only by a chorus of mobile phones receiving text messages welcoming their users to an Austrian telecommunication service, whose signals have carried across the water.
The riverside paths passing by the castle are popular with hikers and cyclists. The blue path leads through the Devínska Kobyla nature reserve to the Sandberg summit, where excavations have uncovered the bones of prehistoric creatures. The red trail wends its way to the 514-metre peak of Devínska Kobyla, from which the castle itself now becomes something to be peered down upon.
Officially a part of the city of Bratislava, Devín is far enough away from downtown–a 20-minute bus ride along tree-lined, river-flanked, rural roads–to feel like a separate village altogether.
This isolation was even more pronounced during the communist era, when Devín's location at the confluence of the rivers Morava and Danube made it a favoured departure point for those fleeing the regime. Austria is no more than a tempting 40 metres across the narrowest sections of the Morava, a brief swim or literal stone's skim away.
Consequently, the river banks were heavily guarded by communist soldiers, with fences and watchtowers erected some distance from the water's edge, effectively placing Devín within an exclusion zone. Day-trippers were persuaded against visiting the village and were certainly not allowed anywhere near the river, denying Slovaks many of the finest views of the castle and into Austria.
Today, a memorial arch stands a few metres from the river, bearing the names of more than 100 unsuccessful defectors, shot during their attempt to escape. The concrete arch is symbolically riddled with bullet holes and also details some startling statistics from the era: there were more than 180,000 successful escapees from the country; 80,000 people were imprisoned for their attempts; 20,000 sent to gulags; and 2.2 million unwillingly deported from Slovakia.
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.
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