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 : The lair of the vampire

By James Thomson

    Orava’s brooding castle.
 Orava’s brooding castle.
 Photos by James Thomson

The Orava region is an out-of-the-way bit of Slovakia, but its dramatic valley is well worth a side-trip from Slovakia's main east-west route. One of its biggest draws is its castle.

On a jagged tooth of rock, rising more than a hundred metres above the level of the Orava river beneath it, this is Slovakia's most picturesque redoubt. Of course, there is plenty of competition for that title. Spiš castle (or at least its ruins) in eastern Slovakia has few peers when it comes to sheer scale, and Bojnice castle in the west is much closer to Disney's (and hence many people's) idea of what a fairytale castle should look like.

But Orava Castle is the epitome of a real central European mountain fastness: perched on a vertiginous cliff above a fast-flowing river, surrounded by brooding, forested hills and with a mediaeval village cowering beneath it. It is no coincidence that when F.W. Murnau came to film what is still the quintessential Dracula film, Nosferatu, in 1921, he chose Orava Castle to stand in for the vampire's Transylvanian lair.

To get inside the castle there is a brief, steep walk up the side of the castle rock. This improbable-looking outcrop is part of a range of similar limestone bluffs, known as the cliff belt, which spans Slovakia. Other examples can be found at Manínska Tiesňava, in Trenčín Region, and in the Pieniny Mountains in Prešov Region.

    The Roháče during a September cool spell.
 The Roháče during a September cool spell.
 Photos by James Thomson

After the climb there are three formidable gates, through which visitors enter the first courtyard. The castle is actually a series of palaces, towers and level upon level of courtyards which climb up to the citadel. The lower castle was restored after a fire in 1800 destroyed much of it, but it has not been obviously prettified: the tour will take you through the Thurzo Palace (named after the castle's most famous owners) which despite some decorative wood-panelling and wallpaper is a dark and, out of summer, cold place. The effect is enhanced by the barred but unglazed windows in some of the passageways, the roughly-cut stone floors and some mouldy walls.

One of the highlights of the tour is an appropriately dank room containing a display of instruments of mediaeval torture and a gibbet. Weirdly, the curators appear to have suffered a bout of squeamishness when it came to naming it. As a result it rejoices in the euphemistic title 'Exhibition of Contemporary Justice', though there is a severed head among the exhibits just in case you are in any doubt about the type of justice being meted out.

The whole place is full of unexpected nooks and crannies, with stairways firing off in all directions and balconies giving great views of the steep hills and thick forests of the surrounding valley. The metalwork detailing on the doors and windows - though some of it is recent - is also eye-catching.

    All Saints’ Chruch in Tvrdošín.
 All Saints’ Chruch in Tvrdošín.
 Photos by Jana Liptáková

The next village upstream from the castle, Dolná Lehota, is filled with the long, wooden-roofed, one-storey wooden houses - normally with just a single window fronting onto the road - which are characteristic of much of Slovakia. These dwellings are more numerous in the Orava valley than most of the rest of the country (the village of Podbiel also has several) but Dolná Lehota's position off the main road allows passers-by more opportunity to take a closer look at some particularly fine examples (though bear in mind these are people's homes!).

At the top of the valley are the towns of Trstená (see next article) and Tvrdošín, which is worth a stop if only to see the superb, wooden All Saints’ Church. This was begun in the fifteenth century but its Baroque altar and ceiling paintings are typical of the late seventeenth century.

On the valley's eastern flank are the Roháče. These are part of the Western Tatras range and are popular with hikers and mountain climbers, offering several peaks over 2000 metres. The small town of Zuberec is the main resort in the area: every other house here seems to be a pension. The local tourist information office has helpful English-speakers, and can advise on the best walks or ski-runs, and routes into the mountains.

    The skanzen (open-air museum) near Zuberec.
 The skanzen (open-air museum) near Zuberec.
 Photos by Jana Liptáková

Just outside Zuberec is a skanzen, or open-air museum, this one showcasing the village architecture of the Orava region. It's a good one, and brings home to visitors how late the industrial age came to this part of Europe. One building houses a huge mangle, used to press the locally-produced cloth, made entirely from wood and weighted with rocks. Despite looking like a relic from the Middle Ages, the English information sheet reveals that it was in use between 1913 and 1956.

In the pub by the skanzen entrance (as well as in several shops in the area) you can find the local alcoholic speciality, čučoriedkovica. This is a sweet but potent spirit made from blueberries, a significant number of which you will find in your glass - or down your front - if you attempt to down a shot of the stuff.


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

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