These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Orava Castle: Dracula's Slovak residence

By Howard Swains

    A raft trip along the Orava river is the best way to reach the castle.
 A raft trip along the Orava river is the best way to reach the castle.
 Photo by Howard Swains

With mist clinging to limestone cliffs and hovering above a wide, winding river, Orava Castle, which stands in angular majesty above this creepy landscape, has a sinister, Hammer-horror appearance. And it has not gone unnoticed. The exteriors of the 1922 classic vampire film "Nosferatu" were filmed here, when the castle doubled for Transylvania. These days, the castle is most attractive to another kind of bloodsucker, tourists, who have made Orava the second-most popular museum in the country.

Orava Castle stands on the site of an old wooden fortification, built after the Tartar invasion of 1241. Its history since then reveals a familiar pattern of construction, destruction, reconstruction, fire, various ownerships and territorial squabbles. The original design was in Romanesque and Gothic style; it was later reconstructed as a Renaissance and Neo-Gothic structure, hugging the shape of the 520-metre spur on which it perches.

The mining magnate Thurzo family, who took charge in the mid 16th century, were responsible for a great deal of rebuilding work, although its present form wasn't finalised until 1611. It burnt down again in 1800, after which the Pálffys moved in to splatter the place with their specific brand of tasteful extravagance. And then, after a period of dilapidation and the World War II, the castle became a national monument and prepared for entry into travel books.

The highest compliment one can offer to the most recent reconstruction efforts is that it's impossible to see the joins. The castle – split into three levels and a wide array of palaces, courtyards, chapels, battlements and towers – seems as though it has been magically preserved from the middle ages. Even in the most decorative rooms in the interior palaces, replete with wood panelling, plush furnishings and the like, it feels as though the owners have simply popped away for a moment rather than died out hundreds of years ago and handed their former home over to a heritage trust. This is anything but a ruin.

A band of actors and minstrels is employed at the castle to produce short bursts of action as visitors make their way around the place. At the minimum, they stand guard in full regalia, or play charming violin ditties in the library. At their most energetic, they will sometimes do choreographed battle, swinging maces and clattering sword onto shield, all as their fair maiden prize looks on, staving off indifference. It's also possible, if you time you visit right, to meet the king and be knighted, then to celebrate with free-flowing slivovica.

Even the approach to the castle is spectacular, especially if you arrive by raft, which is possible by travelling to the nearby village of Horná Lehota then jumping aboard the fleet of wooden vessels propelled downstream. This is by far and away the most appealing, if not the driest, way to travel. The river affords the best view of the castle, and the raft captains, in traditional dress, provide a running commentary on the trip as they punt the raft along.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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