If you're in the High Tatras it would be a pity to miss the mediaeval urban feasts which surround them. Levoča, home to an almost perfectly preserved sixteenth-century town square is nearby. Just to the south is the UNESCO-registered Spiš castle and the settlements which developed beneath it. But nearest to the mountains, indeed almost in their shadow, is Kežmarok.
Among the town's main pulling points is its characteristic, German settler-inluenced, 'Spiš' urban architecture, its 'articular' wooden church (a sister church to the one in Hronsek, described in the section on Banská Bystrica Region) and the terrific backdrop. There is an excellent view of the peaks from the top of one the town's main attractions: the castle.
Kežmarok appears to have hedged its bets on the tourism front. The castle, the main attraction in so many Slovak towns, also incorporates a motor museum, presumably to tempt those suffering from castle fatigue.
The motor museum is exclusively for vehicles of Czechoslovak origin, and none the worse for that. Unfortunately, it doesn't feature the gorgeous Tatras of the 1960s, a period when Czechoslovakia was turning out some of the most interest-looking cars in the world.
Inside the castle’s motor museum.
Photos by James Thomson
Once you have enjoyed the cars and motorbikes (or just sat in the large, café-equipped castle courtyard preparing yourself with an ice cream) you should be ready for the fortifications...
The guided tour of the castle, which seems to operate on a fairly relaxed schedule, is well worth it. Some of the guides speak good English; but the exhibits are labelled in English even if yours doesn't.
It's a large castle with an eclectic range of displays.
One room is devoted to the 37 craft guilds - ranging from locksmiths to wheelwrights to fishermen's equipment makers - which operated in the town at one time or another until the nineteenth century. Later on comes a selection of civic artefacts and symbols, including two so-called fire swords. These weren't intended for combat, but were hung from the town hall to denote enemy presence (black handle) or epidemic (red handle).
Other rooms house a re-created nineteenth-century pharmacy, and the laboratory of a celebrated local civic leader, Dr Vojtech Alexander, who was an early proponent of X-ray technology.
The main tower of the castle is named after the fate of one of its former inhabitants. The Hunger Tower was where Beata Laski was imprisoned by her husband Arthur in the sixteenth century. Her crime? To organise, against Arthur’s wishes, the first proper expedition into the nearby High Tatra mountains, which until then (1565) had been largely shunned by locals for fear of dragons and bandits. In reward for Beata’s emancipated attitude, and returning home safely, her husband accused her of adultery and locked her up in the tower for six years. When she was finally released by the new owner of the castle she had gone mad.
The mountains loom on the edge of town.
Photos by James Thomson
Despite its macabre history, the view from the tower of the mountains is spectacular on a clear day (though the ubiquitous tower-blocks on the edge of town make for a less-than-attractive photographic foreground.)
Another regrettable episode is recorded with commendable frankness in the latter part of the exhibition. A long list records the scores of local Jews who were deported during the war, and an old sign recalls the short period when one of the town's streets was named after Adolf Hitler.
The tour finishes with a selection of odd mountain-related bric-a-brac, including something called a ski-bob, which appears to be a sort of bicycle on skis.
Opposite the castle gates is a pub-restaurant, the Kežmarská Reštaurácia, with good local food at reasonable prices.
It's worth noting that during one weekend each July the whole town hosts a popular folklore festival, which comes highly recommended.
Events in Kežmarok
April: Musical Spring in Kežmarok
The popular musical event features concerts of classical music.
July: European Folk Crafts
Annual open-air festival of traditional and folks crafts.
July: Lokal Life
Annual festival of local musicians and bands
October: Jewish Culture Days
Presentation of Jewish culture and traditions in Kežmarok
December: Christmas market
Traditional Christmas market on the main square