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.

Bojnice: The impeccable taste of the equine aristocracy

By James Thomson

    Bojnice’s fairytale castle.
 Bojnice’s fairytale castle.
 Photos by James Thomson

If Trenčín castle has bone fide mediaeval credentials (and Kofola on tap) and the ruins of Čachtice have a haunting location (and a gruesome legend to match), what could yet another castle have to offer? Answer: the prettiest fairytale towers this side of the Loire Valley, and the most impressively ugly inhabitants since the Munsters.

Bojnice is - by visitor numbers - Slovakia's top castle. Which is ironic, because as a castle it's basically a fraud. Although references to a defensive position on the site first crop up in the 9th century, most of the present confection dates back just over a hundred years.

But what a delight! This is an almost perfect pastiche of a mediaeval castle. Just with better carpets, electric lights, double glazing and uniformed attendants who use deodorant. From the suits of armour and stone spiral staircase, to the wood-panelled drawing rooms, dungeons and grottoes, the whole place feels like one long take from a Disney film, or an entire level of Tomb Raider.

If all this weren't enough, the decorations are stunning, and sufficiently varied not to be boring. Carved, gilded ceilings, intricately painted walls and knights' halls keep your tour ticking along nicely, as does some spectacular woodwork. The Blue Room, for instance, features, along with a ceiling of 144 golden stars, a staircase with three finely carved wooden dogs. Visitors are asked to choose which they like the most, and hence reveal their character through that of their respective pooch: intelligent, crazy or 'speculative'.

Another highlight, arriving early enough to quickly justify the entrance fee, is the collection of family portraits.

The aristocrats who owned this castle may have been fabulously wealthy but, if these portraits are anything to go by, they were also extraordinarily ugly. Small children may burst out crying; older ones are more likely to burst out laughing (a touring party of high school children on my visit were particularly merciless). And these are portraits, not photographs. You may have thought that the whole point of commissioning a portrait was to make you look good, or at the very least not to make you look like a horse. But the evidence here suggests otherwise.

By comparison, portraits of Count Ján František Pálffy, the castle's last family owner, make him look fairly normal, apart from a particularly luxuriant handlebar moustache. He spared no expense in giving this castle, reportedly his favourite, a late-nineteenth-century makeover.

The similarity with French chateaux is deliberate: the gothic castles of the Loire valley were used as the template for the exterior design. The interior was modelled on the Tyrolean Gothic style, with extensive use of wood panelling and furniture; an Innsbruck firm, Gebrüder Colli, was appointed to decorate and furnish it, as well as to fit the doors and windows. Pálffy himself was closely involved in devising the interior, reaching for other styles when the mood took him. In 1907 he commissioned Gebrüder Colli to make a replica of the gilded ceiling of the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. They did an impressive job: you can see the results in the castle's Golden Hall.

Which is more than Count Pálffy got the chance to do: he died in 1908, before the work was completed. His final resting place, a gigantic red marble sarcophagus, can be seen in the crypt of the castle chapel next to those of other family members. On the way past, don't miss the grotto (no good castle should be without one) with its still pools of spring water. The cave has been extended and is big enough to walk around; you can also see the coins which you tossed into the courtyard well a few minutes before now lying in one of its pools.

The castle hosts a range of tours and events. Apart from an annual festival dedicated to ghosts and fairytales, there are also regular, dimly-lit evening tours in which 'supernatural' visitors are guaranteed to pay a visit. Expect some scares: on one fairly typical tour (attended by more than 40 high school children, plus your correspondent) the frights threatened to set off an uncontrolled chain reaction of hysterics, as the tears of the more sensitive teenagers encouraged the bolder ones to embark on a few freelance efforts of their own. Cheesiness aside, wandering around a castle like this in the dusk is genuinely atmospheric - and a good alternative to tearing around every tourist attraction before closing time.

The town of Bojnice is an agreeably small place. Most of the bits you'll want to see are on the main street, which has a tree-lined arcade running down the middle. On either side are restaurants and cafes, along with a local AiCES information centre which can book accommodation (there are also rooms above the shop). It gets busy in the summer, but everything from pensions to swanky four-star accommodation is available, some of it away from the main drag.

At the top of the street, marking the castle entrance, is a park-like series of flower beds and greens, one of which hosts a seven-hundred-year-old linden tree.

And if all that wasn't enough, opposite the castle there's a zoo as well. Started in the 1950s as an animal sanctuary, it now has an impressive selection of beasts, including monkeys, eagles, elephants, bears, a panther and one rather sad-looking orang-utan. There is also a children's area where the smaller hairless apes get to interact with, and generally molest, the rest of the menagerie. Another highlight is the zoo's position above, and with excellent views of, that fairytale castle.

Events in Bojnice

February: Valentínsky víkend na zámku (Valentine’s Weekend at the Castle)A kissing competition to celebrate the day of lovers, friends and people of good will.

May: Medzinárodný festival duchov a strašidiel (International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits)

June-July: Letný hudobný festival (Summer Music Festival) Concerts of classical music in Hunyady hall

July: Rozprávkový zámok (Fairytale Castle) The biggest theater festival of fairy tales in the Central and Eastern Europe

September: Rytierske dni (Knights Days) Live knights scenes and participation in various activities

December: Šlachtické Vianoce a Traja králi na zámku (Christmas and the Three Kings at the Castle) Hope, love and beauty are the Christmas themes for the nobility of the castle

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

Make your comment to the article... (1 reaction already made)