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.



Northern Slovakia

Kežmarok

This castle doesn't loom dramatically from some imposing hill, and no rich count ever saw fit to fancy it up. Yet for visitors to the nearby High Tatras, Kežmarok Castle makes for an interesting sightseeing trip.

Few Slovak towns have a past as checkered as that of Kežmarok. Its burghers waged a two-century feud, starting 1385, with their counterparts in Levoča for the right to build the only warehouse in the Spiš region; its main church, St. Elizabeth's, was attacked and badly damaged by Hussites in 1433; the town took the Polish side for a time in the struggle between Poland and Hungary for the control of the Spiš region; and then it became embroiled in the post-Mohacs (1526) struggle for succession to the Hungarian throne, initially supporting the Habsburgs and then switching sides. Later, the town took part in the anti-Habsburg revolts of the early18th century.

The castle took shape in the middle of all this turmoil. It gained its current form in 1462, when the noble Zápoľskí family had it built it on the site of a late Romanesque structure, repairing St. Elizabeth's and folding it into their design. The family favored a late-Gothic style. Perhaps foreseeing trouble from the Turks - or perhaps simply inspired by the tumult that characterized the town's history - they fortified the castle heavily; they even included a moat, complete with drawbridge.

In the 16th century the castle changed hands several times, as the fortunes of the Kežmarok elite shifted with the ups and downs of the Hungarian succession struggle. It underwent three major facelifts over the century, which gradually gave it its present-day Renaissance-style exterior. It was in the 18th century that the castle received its present-day baroque interior, with its sgraffito walls and lovely plaster decorations.

The main attraction however, is still St. Elizabeth's Church, which underwent a baroque makeover in 1658. The rich stucco decoration of its lunette vaults, created by Italian masters, are of especial interest.

The next 300 years were difficult ones for Kežmarok castle, marked by fires, the economic decline of the region, and some rough handling by its 19th-century owners, who destroyed a wall to build a barracks. But the castle was restored in 1964, and today makes a fine day trip from the Tatras.

Hrad Zborov

Zborov is located eight kilometres northeast of Bardejov. A path marked by red signs leads from the centre of the village to the castle, the walk taking around 45 minutes. If you take the yellow-marked path going across the brook, you can reach the castle in 25 minutes.

This castle was built in Gothic style on the road from Hungary to Poland at the beginning of the 14th century.

Later, in the 16th century, the Serédy family transformed it into a representative aristocratic residence and massive Renaissance fortress.

The castle played an important role during the anti-Habsburg revolts. In 1684 it was conquered and ransacked by the imperial army of General Schultz, the same thing happening one year later under the leadership of Turňa. In 1914 it was damaged again during battles between Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies.

Bardejov, a beautiful old town close to the castle, offers many fine examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

For more information visit www.bardejov.sk.

Oravský Hrad

    Oravský Hrad
 Oravský Hrad
 Photo: Chris Togneri

Built into a rolling rock formation close to the Orava river, the multi-leveled Orava Castle cuts a dashing, romantic figure. Its balcony-ringed highest tower conjures images of princesses in waiting. Yet much of its current Gothic look is pure artifice: it was significantly made over in 1906 to repair structural damage. That's when its facade received its neo-Gothic facelift.

Just south of the border with Poland directly on the road between Budapest and Krakow, the castle occupies prime strategic real estate. Indeed, archeological evidence indicates that the castle hill served as the site of a fort belonging to the Great Moravian empire, circa 9th century.

Construction of the existing castle began in the mid 13th century, and for the next 400 years it flourished as a property of the crown in an era when trade between Hungary and Poland boomed. In 1556, with the Hungarian royalty in crisis after the fall of Lower Hungary to the Turks, the castle was handed over to the magnate František Thurzo, who gained feudal rights to tax the peasants in surrounding villages. The castle remained in Thurzo family hands until its nationalisation in 1945.

Inside, the castle is pretty well kept and chockfull of old furniture, torture equipment, and other artifacts from its prosperous past. But to see the interior, tourists must endure a one-hour guided tour, which can be arranged in English. But like Spišský Hrad, this one is best enjoyed from outside. A slow walk or drive through the town of Oravský Podzámok, just below the castle, offers many wonderful views of this elaborately built castle.

Hrad Stará Ľubovňa

The town is located 47 kilometres northeast of Poprad on the road leading to Poland. The path to the castle leads through an old chestnut alley. In one of its yards stands a 400-year-old lime tree, 25 metres high, 4.5 metres thick.

The castle was built in the second half of the 13th century as a border fortress. Probably built on the order of Prince Boleslav, the husband of a daughter of the Hungarian king, Béla IV, the castle was first property of the king, later of the Dugeth family. In 1412 King Sigismund pawned the castle together with 13 Spiš towns to Poland, a pawn that lasted for 360 years.

Since the castle was renewed and enlarged many times, it now offers a range of architectural styles. Its Renaissance fortifications, for instance, were constructed in the 16th century.

The castle served as a hiding place for the Polish crown jewels during the Polish-Swedish war of 1655-1661 while in 1768 the nobleman, Móric Beňovský, later the king of Madagascar, was imprisoned here.

At present, the castle serves as a museum offering both folklore and historical exhibitions. A fine view over the Ľubovianska fold can be enjoyed from the castle. Nearby, tourists can visit a beautiful outdoor museum showing many examples of local village architecture.

For more information visit www.staralubovna.sk.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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