The ruins of Čachtice Castle, and behind it the view towards the Czech Republic.
Photos by James Thomson
Cashing in on the alleged misdeeds of a serial killer to turn your town in to a tourist attraction is a controversial approach. But when your legend is as irresistible as Čachtice's, you don't really have an alternative.
Compared to the nondescript nearby city of Nové Mesto nad Váhom (the nearest major train station), Čachtice is a pretty enough sort of place, strung along the road which forms the town's backbone. But it is the castle high above the town - and its gruesome tale - which has drawn the tourists and, more recently, film-makers.
Because in the late sixteenth century the lady of the manor, Countess Elizabeth Báthory developed, if you believe the most lurid version of the legend, an unfortunate penchant for bathing in the blood of virgin maidens. According to some accounts, more than 650 women were procured in order to supply these supposed means to keep her young. There is also mention of a coterie of witch-like assistants applying hot irons and even (just for good measure) a sadistic dwarf, retained to assist in the most depraved rituals. Only in 1610, after reportedly being spotted torturing girls at the manor house in the village, was the countess found out and condemned to life-long imprisonment in the tower of her own castle; forced, one presumes, to rely on more conventional cosmetics.
More sober versions of these events suggest that the victims were not just unmarried peasant girls but townswomen and wives of lesser aristocrats, and that the abductions took place not just in Čachtice, but at the Báthory estates in Hungary, Austria and elsewhere in Slovakia. It is, in any case, hard to credit that more than 600 women could disappear from the 17 villages which then formed the Čachtice estate without someone noticing a shortfall in the virginal maiden department.
Others argue that Báthory, a uniquely rich and powerful woman for her time, was caught up in a power struggle in which her male rivals blackened her name in order to bring her down. Apart from an account of her trial - from which the tales of dwarves and demented female assistants appear to have emerged - no corroborating evidence of her crimes seems to have survived.
But wherever the crimes reportedly occurred, locals remain convinced of their veracity. They may be prepared to settle for a lower figure – I was offered 300 – but seem determined to keep the virgins, the sanguinary ablutions and their mad countess, 'Bátoryčka' (yes, even mass-murderers get a diminutive in Slovak). Some pretty weird stuff went on in the late 1500s, they tell you.
To the sceptical, this may sound a lot like shrewd marketing. But if you undertake the long, steep journey up to Báthory's castle (it's a good idea to take some water if you plan to walk) it starts to seem a little more believable. The scenic ruins are in a stunning position, with views on a clear day to the Czech Republic, across rolling hills far to the north-west. More importantly, the site is far enough above the villages it commands that in the pre-modern period it would have been easy to imagine any manner of 'weird stuff' going on up there.
The castle itself is a picturesque ruin, though entrance-ways, high walls and one tower - perhaps that in which Elizabeth was incarcerated - still stand. Low arches are still visible at ground level, suggesting buried cellars or dungeons. The site is unmanned and hence there is no entrance fee: most information boards are in Slovak, though suggestively daubed with bloody hand marks lest you miss the point. After reaching the castle from the village of Čachtice (where there is a local museum in the manor house, closed on Mondays), a walking trail continues to Višňové, another village visible from the castle: both places have small railway stations.
The legend - and the castle's dramatic position - has inevitably attracted the attention of film-makers. But as in the way of London buses, none turn up for ages, then several all at once. The first, Bathory (the name has been de-diacriticalised, if that is a word, for international consumption), premiered in 2008 and was directed by renowned Slovak auteur Juraj Jakubisko. It is reckoned to be the highest-budget Slovak film ever. Filmed in Slovak and English, and starring British actress Anna Friel in the lead role, it takes a rather more sympathetic view of the troubled countess. The second recent film (so far, at least), due for release in 2009 and entitled The Countess, is directed by French star Julie Delpy, who also takes the lead role. Given her previous work, this is also unlikely to be a slasher movie.
But whatever these films' takes on the legend, the town should probably be readying for a large influx of new visitors in their wake. There was little sign of any preparation in summer 2008: the steep road up the hill peters out into a rutted track a few hundred metres short of the castle (there are no real parking facilities: just ditch your car on the grass and start hiking). All to the good, on a quiet day: you will have the atmospheric ruins to yourself, free to wonder what exactly did go on up there...
Population: 3 808 Nearest urban centre: Nové Mesto nad Váhom (7 km)
Čachtický hrad (Čachtice Castle - ruins)
Hiking from Čachtice bus station - yellow path. Duration: 45min
The castle ruins are also accessible by car, though you must to park your vehicle before you
reach the castle.
Tel: +421 (0)32 743-4431