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.

Spišský hrad

Massive ruin

 photo: Chris Togneri

Put simply, Spišský hrad (Spiš Castle) is one of the most remarkable sights in Europe, if not the world. “The largest castle in central Europe,” according to the Beliana Slovakia and the Slovaks encyclopaedia, the hulking ruin crowns a rock outcropping above the village Spišské Podhradie. A more impressive scene is not to be found.

Local legend has it that the castle was constructed by one of two brothers battling for the heart of a local girl named Zorica. Bystroň and Dragovit were twins, the story goes, whose father instructed each to build their own fort on two separate rocky hills in the same valley. Soon after, the lovely Zorica caught the eye of both.

Bystroň successfully wooed Zorica first. When she said yes to his marriage proposal, it was much to the distress of Dragovit. Not to be put off, though, he persevered. After a series of romantic, clandestine rendezvous, Dragovit begged Zorica to reject his brother and instead move into his fort. A fickle young dame, she agreed.

Bystroň was enraged. He set off for the back-stabbing Dragovit’s fort and set it ablaze, hoping to scorch the star-crossed lovers inside. They escaped, however, and fled the scorned brother’s wrath and the region forever. Bystroň, meanwhile, continued working on his fort. It eventually grew into the mighty Spiš Castle.

Folklore aside, the first official written record of the castle dates back to 1120, when it was used as a boundary fort on the northern frontier of an early feudal Hungarian state. It grew larger and larger during centuries of construction and bolstered defensive fortifications. In 1780, though, the compound was gutted by fire. It spent the next 200 years slowly decaying.

The castle was saved from total ruin in 1970, when local conservationists stabilised the walls and remaining standing structures. A massive restoration project followed, and in 1993 Spišský hrad was selected as an Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site.

In 2000, the castle was again threatened when the northern wall was struck by lightning and extensive repair work was necessary. The wall has since been rebuilt, and that section of the castle is again free of scaffoldings.

To enter the castle grounds, visitors climb a paved road to the front gates, then pass through to the hallowed grounds. In the lower section of the castle is a museum displaying weapons, armour, torture tools and a replica of the castle before it fell to ruin.

The highlight is a trip up the castle tower. Climbing stairwells so low and narrow that only one hunched body at a time can pass, you emerge on the observation deck high above the beautiful Spiš region. Yellow fields of rape weed checker the otherwise green landscape rolling up to the base of the High Tatras, creating an image that is typically Spiš.

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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