Two Castles, Two Churches, Two Thousand Ants

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Slovakia  , Presov,
Sunday, August 15, 2010

My primary target for today was Spiš Castle. Spiš Castle didn't have the best of anything I'd seen in a castle on this trip, but it did have an exceptional of everything. None of the other castles had everything I would look for. It was large. It had a great multi-level layout. It hadn't been "restored" to death. It confined souvenir booths to the lower courtyards. It had a good view of the area. It had a long outer bailey wall. It had preserved some unusual historical features, such as a row of stone towers that once formed part of a palisade and a Romanesque building. As an extra bonus, there were no wax sculptures in the whole place.

It also had an audio guide (free with ticket), which I prefer to a live guide because I can move at my own pace, and without a crowd. The castle was built in the 12th century, and extended several times over the years. There were also periods of remodeling when later owners tried to bring it up to par with the glamor of "modern" palaces. Unfortunately, a fire swept through the castle 1780 and destroyed everything not made of stone that the owners couldn't rescue. As the final family to inhabit it, the Csáky, had many palaces to live in (and pay for), they abandoned the castle after the fire and it fell into disuse.

Several legends involving the castle were also included in the audio guide. Given that basically every legend at Trenčín Castle turned out to be false, I'm skeptical of the stories. One was a love story between a Tartar princess and a Hungarian prince, which ended with the Tartar King killing his daughter to prevent her from marrying the prince. Another was a robber-knight who thought he'd convinced some of the garrison to betray the castle, but was in turn betrayed. Another was a complicated story that basically boiled down to the sister of one of the castle owners being duped into letting someone kidnap his child and then killing herself when she (mistakenly) thought the child was dead.

As my audio tour ended, a group of costumed players began a demonstration of Renaissance fighting. It was more of a stunt show than historically based, I'm sure, but it was entertaining. At the end, they grabbed an audience member, of course. There was a surprisingly long set-up, which I didn't understand because it was in Slovakian, but after a good ten minutes of talking with her, they gave her a hat to pass around. From what I could infer they threatened to behead her if she didn't get enough money out of the rest of the audience. I'm not sure if she didn't get enough money, or if she had only ever just been trying to improve her method of execution, but at the end she was placed in front of a firing squad. The actor really fired-off a blank, and the noise must have been quite a shock on the receiving end, but he shot one of the other actors instead of the woman and the audience member was able to escape.

Leaving Spiš Castle, I saw a faded sign for the church in Žehra. One of the museums I'd been to, can't remember which one at this point, mentioned the church in Žehra as a place to visit. I couldn't remember why either, but it was just 2 km away, so I stopped by. The church was under renovation, but through the barred gate I could see the inside of one wall covered with Gothic murals. The effect probably would have been more impressive had I actually been in the church, or if it hadn't been covered with scaffolding, but it was okay for a drive of 2 km, and would almost certainly worth seeing when the restoration is done.

Another church I visited primarily because I was in the area was St Martin's Cathedral. On a hill surrounded by 14th century walls sat Spišská Kapitula, an old religious complex featuring the sizable, mostly-Gothic church.

The castle, the church in Žehra, and Spiš Castle were all included in the same UNESCO World Heritage listing. I decided it must be much easier to get something on the list if you included it as part of an application for something that really deserves to be there than if you try to get it on by itself. St Martin's Cathedral wasn't all that impressive, and I'd seen higher quality Gothic altars in other churches in Slovakia. It did have some elaborate wooden family crests hanging at the tops of the walls. The crests were generally set inside of an elaborate border, which reminded me of the kind of highly detailed work I'd seen in the sunburst emanating from a typical monstrance.

I wrapped up my sightseeing in the Spiš area a little after 2pm. I was just under an hour away from my hotel, so I had plenty of time for a quick trip to a second castle, Šariš Castle, which I could just barely see from my hotel.

Because I knew basically where it was, I didn't take out my map until I was almost there. At that point, I noticed the castle appeared to be quite a distance from the road. I thought maybe the road it was on was too small to show-up on my all-Slovakia atlas, but in my gut I knew that was unlikely.

When I pulled into the small parking area for the castle, the building itself was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a long path leading off into the woods and part of an old poster with only the words "Šariš Castle" still visible. There was no indication of how far it was, but there were a handful of cars around and a small group of hikers visible on the trail ahead of me, so I set-off.

It was one of those hikes where you're better off not knowing what you were getting into. If the sign at the beginning had said "One hour hike, climbing several kilometers", I probably would have called it a day. Since I didn't know, I set out for the castle, giving myself a half hour to find something indicating I was on the right track. I found a sign to the castle, but again without times. However, the yellow bars I'd been following changed to yellow castles shortly before my self-imposed time limit, so I continued on up the hill. The hike wasn't bad, apart from the incline, because it was on an old paved-road and the surface was mostly smooth.

Somewhere in the 45-minutes to an hour range, I made it to the castle. Luckily the gate was open, a closed gate was not a thought that had occurred to me, and I had a brief flash of having walked all that way to be locked out. Although I could make out castle towers even from my hotel at the bottom of the hill, the castle was actually a ruin. Only the towers and short sections of the wall remained, or had been rebuilt. All of the signs were in Slovakian, but from the pictures and scaffolding I gathered there was the beginnings of some sort of architectural and reconstruction work taking place.

I spent a fair amount of time at the ruins, as they covered quite a bit of ground. I might have stayed longer, but a thunderstorm was approaching (I just made it to my hotel as the rain began to pour). I did stay long enough to figure out how to climb up on to one of the towers. There were other people up there, so I knew it was possible, and probably safe. What I didn't expect was to find a giant swarm of flying ants at the top. I had also encountered a group of flying ants, albeit far fewer and much less annoying, on the top floor of the Spiš Castle tower. Apparently flying ants in the region are attracted to large piles of masonry perched on big hills. At least they weren't flying stinging ants, so my only concern was that I managed to shoo them all out of my hair after I escaped their main force.

There were a few too many people around and too much evidence of modern life left by the workers for me to quite get the feeling I'd stumbled upon some long-lost castle in the woods, but it was neat to see a castle in the "before" state. That is, to see a castle in the "before" state that wasn't just a pile of over-grown rubble, indistinguishable from the surroundings like at Slovensky Raj. If the workers keep at it, in a decade or two Šariš Castle could rival Devin or maybe even Trenčín, although I don't see it getting close to the impressiveness of Spiš. They just need to be sure to add a parking lot near the top.

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