Battling the Turks: southern Slovakia castle ruin tour
Text by Chris Togneri
Built on an outcrop of volcanic rock and lowering over the village below, south-central Slovakia’s Fiľakovo Castle seems an intimidating and invincible fortress. But appearances can be deceptive - in 1554, when 10,000 invading Turkish troops laid siege to it, the citadel fell quickly into Turkish hands. It remained there for the next 39 years.
To ward off the expansionist Ottoman Empire, several castles were erected or fortified in the late Middle Ages on modern-day Slovak soil. During the 16th and 17th centuries, troops of the Hungarian Empire struggled constantly against the aggressive intruders. Wherever they failed, towns conquered by the enemy had their buildings burned, their valuables looted, their men killed and women raped.
Ruins are all that remain of that long-ago Slovak Maginot line - the castles were built atop hills within sight of each other to signal approaching enemies. Nevertheless, a tour of these historic sites takes visitors on a journey to another era, when bloody battles were waged for decades on the central European plain.
Travelling west to east, the journey begins in Levice, a town of 35,000 on the Hron River. In the city centre are the crumbling remains of the town castle, which was first built in the 13th century to defend the rich mining towns to the north.
Originally a Gothic structure, it was rebuilt into a renaissance fortress in the 16th century, when it was incorporated into the kingdom’s anti-Turkish defence system. Invading Turks destroyed the castle in the 18th century. It was partially rebuilt in the 20th century, but today remains in ruins.
North of Levice on the Hron is a former monastery in the village Hronský Beňadik. The abbey was first established in 1075, and the local monks were for centuries instrumental in spreading Christianity.
The monks left in the 16th century when the complex was fortified and absorbed into the anti-Turkish defence system. In the 19th century the grand church was renovated in the Gothic style, and the monastery was declared a national cultural monument in 1945.
To get to Hronský Beňadik, take highway 564 north out of Levice for 15 kilometres.
Also located on the Krupina plain, the Bzovík castle has one of the country’s best-preserved fortification systems. The square fortress has four four-storey bastions, with 20-metre-tall walls surrounding a courtyard where the remains of the cathedral sit.
The castle was originally a Benedictine monastery built in the 13th century. It was heavily damaged during a 15th century attack by the Hussites. A century later, it was fortified again with the aim of fending off the Turks.
To get to Bzovík, follow highway 527 approximately 20 kilometres north of Veľký Krtíš.
First built in the 13th century to defend access routes to central Slovakia’s mining towns, Čabraď castle was reconstructed in the 16th century to withstand the Turks. Unlike some of its less fortunate neighbours, Čabraď was never overrun. But when the threat of Turkish invasion was lifted in the 17th century, the castle lost its importance and its inhabitants moved out. To assure that it would never be occupied again, they burned it down as they left.
Today, the ruins are one of the country’s least accessible. A small sign off a local road (highway 75 heading west from Veľký Krtíš) points the way (look for the sign on the right immediately after passing the marked road to Cerovo village). But for those who hike through the Krupinská planina (Krupina plain) forest to the castle, which now sits in Slovakia’s biggest national protected area for snakes and other reptiles, the view of the sturdy fortifications rearing up from the wild vegetation is unforgettable.
Modrý Kameň (Blue Stone) castle was first erected in 1137. Originally designed as an anti-Tartar fortress, in the 16th century it became yet another link in the anti-Turk chain of castles. In July 1575, however, the Turks conquered the castle after a three-day battle and stayed for 18 years. While retreating in 1593, the Turks blew the castle up, leaving it in ruins.
In 1730, Gabriel Balassa - a member of the House of Balassa, one of the richest and wildest Hungarian families of the day - had a baroque castle built where the lower part of the original castle had stood. The upper Gothic castle was left in ruins. When asked why the castle is named ‘Blue Stone’, a groundskeeper said: “There was probably a blue stone in the original fortification. It could still be here, but nobody knows where.”
The castle today houses the Slovak Museum of Puppets and Toys. On a hill above the ruin is Calvary Hill, which was first documented in 1789.
To get to Modrý Kameň, follow highway 527 south out of Bzovík in the direction of Veľký Krtíš. The ruin is approximately five kilometres north of Veľký Krtíš.
To the north-east of Čabraď is Divín Castle, built in the 13th century by the local lords of Lučenec. In the 16th century, the castle was rebuilt and expanded into an anti-Turkish invasion fortress. But the efforts were to little avail: the Turks occupied the castle from 1575 to 1593.
In the 17th century, the House of Balassa, a rough lot notorious for their reckless and thieving ways, also inhabited Divín. One member of the clan, Ján Balassa, was twice imprisoned for fomenting anti-Habsburg conspiracies. For these reasons, the imperial general Strasoldo had the castle demolished in 1694 to drive the family out.
To get to Divín, follow highway 50 north out of Lučenec to Mýtna, then take a right at the village’s only intersection and follow the road a few kilometres to Divín.
Fifteen minutes south of Lučenec (15 minutes by train, or by car via highway 71) is Fiľakovo, a town of 11,000 mainly Hungarian-speaking inhabitants. Perched on a volcanic rock formation 65 metres above the town, Fiľakovo Castle (open Tue-Sun, 10:00-18:00) was originally built as a wooden structure in the 13th century, but was recast into stone during the Turkish invasions.
Again, measures taken to buttress defences proved insufficient and the town fell under Turkish control from 1554 till 1593. Fiľakovo’s town emblem, a palm tree on a green hill, is a reminder of the period of Turkish rule, as are the stone cannon-balls still lodged in the walls of the ruin.
The castle is today extremely tourist-friendly. A walking tour with explanatory plaques in Slovak, Hungarian and English, and English-speaking guides aid visitors. Several deep pits burrow into the castle’s rock foundations; butterflies, lizards, spiders and birds of prey thrive among the crags. From atop the ruin, visitors have a panoramic view of the region, including the Cerová hills on the Hungarian border to the south. The castle’s Bebek Tower contains detailed accounts in Slovak, Hungarian and English of the structure’s chequered history.
The final stop on the ruins tour is Šomoška, which literally straddles the Slovak-Hungarian border - while the ruins stand on Slovak soil, the village just metres away is Hungarian.
Šomoška was built in the 13th century and expanded in the 16th century, but - again - the Turks occupied the castle in 1573.
If you’ve got your passport, you can cross into Hungary and visit from the south. If not, the hike up from Slovakia follows an ‘educational trail’, with curiosities explained along the way. One such site is kamenný vodopád (stone waterfall), a range of basalt lava formations which hardened into curved columns four million years ago and now resemble liquid rock pouring into a stone sea. Such basalt columns, which at this site are a haven for snakes and lizards, are found at only seven places on earth: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Northern Ireland, California and Wyoming. More volcanic activity can be seen at the nearby ruin in Hajnačka.
The Šomoška ruin is in remarkable condition, crowned by a two-storey main tower with apertures looking out on the Hungarian village below. It is also for sale. Across the country, some 60 castles, chateaux and monasteries have been put up for sale by their owners (mainly municipalities or individuals who acquired the property after communist-seized land was returned to the original owners). The cultural sites have been placed under the hammer because owners lack the finances to renovate or reconstruct. For more information, log onto www.pamiatky.sk.
To find Šomoška, follow highway 71 south out of Fiľakovo towards the Hungarian border. On the highway as you approach the town of Šiatorská Bukovinka will be a large sign for Šomoška. Take a left into the town and follow a gravel road to the trailhead, where you’ll be expected to pay a 30 Slovak crown ($.60) entry fee.
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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