In a vast desolate plain of western Slovakia, with the majestic Tatra mountains as a backdrop, stands Spiš Hrad, one of Europe’s most impressive castles (writes Julia Ossena). It is literally a breathtaking view as the landscape unravels in front of your eyes once you have left the quaint village of Hodkovce, just a stone's throw away from the entrance gate.
Seeing the building from a distance is already a treat for the eyes. Solemn and solitary, battered by the elements, the austere grey walls seem to have been dropped from a child’s toy chest: it just looks so perfect, its dark silhouette cut on the monotonous horizon.
But it’s only once you’ve reached the foot of the monumental hill on top of which it sits - 200m above the surrounding land - that you realise the amazing scale of its towers. Like a silent dominant matriarch staring down at you through its many empty murder holes, the construction could be that of a giant. For proportions here are truly gigantic and leave you feeling like Jack climbing the bean stalk.
Fighting the Tatars…
Researchers have proved that the region has been populated for around 40,000 years. A massive hill fort was built during the era of Christ, and archeologists recently uncovered ancient farming houses of the same period around the site. However it’s assumed that Spiš castle’s foundations were built between the 11th and 12th century. The current circle tower, Roman palace and some of the upper part of the castle date from the middle of the 13th century.
At the time, the country that wasn’t yet called Slovakia used to suffer immensely from invasions, the most notorious ones being launched by the terrible Tatars. The castle and its unbeatable location proved to be of great efficacy to defend and protect villages of the area. Its size could contain nearby villagers and enable them to withstand a siege for several weeks. It quickly became an object of envy amongst nobles, and its ownership was the reason for many bitter fights in the 14th century.
After being enlarged in Gothic style at that time, one of its owners built a small fortress on the slope below it in 1443, as well as a large courtyard, which gave it its current appearance. Twenty years later it passed onto the hands of the Zapolsky family: although these privileged masters owned over 70 properties, they decided to reside in Spiš, modernising it and adding a simple but charming chapel, heightening and thickening the tower and rebuilding the Roman palace in a more Gothic style.
Spiš became a Habsburg property in 1528 as the famous family took over most of Europe. It stayed inhabited until the mid-17th century when the current owners decided to move out for a cosier manor in the village of Hodkovce, leaving only a small military unit on site. After a fire devastated the place in 1780, it became an abandoned ruin until recent times, when the country realised its true potential and undertook reconstruction efforts, before reopening it in 1983.
A taste of ancient time
The steep ascent to the main gate will lead you to a succession of towers, cellars, walkways and courtyards, as well exhibitions about life in the castle throughout the centuries. The sweeping views from the top of the donjon are unforgettable, and will make you understand exactly why the place played an essential role in the region’s history, and why it caused such envy within the aristocratic network.
Your imagination will race to the thought of heavily armed knights staring at the horizon in search of a sign of forthcoming invasion, fearing an invisible but destructive enemy. Like the solid incarnation of the last gate before a land of Barbarians, the isolated although definitely defiant nature of Spiš is truly moving, like the symbol of a proud population struggling to keep the invaders at bay with a fiery and courageous bravado.
A complete visit of the area will be achieved by an exploration of the little-known Drevenik National Natural Reserve nearby. An easy yellow-marked tourist path leads through this inspiring corner of land where you will encounter rare flowers and thriving wildlife. From Dreveník plain you will have the privilege to enjoy a beautiful view of the Branisko range and Levočské Hills.
The combined visit of the reserve and mighty castle will give you a taste of old style Western Slovakia, in all its wilderness, splendour and power. In summer you might come across other visitors, mostly from Poland or Slovakia itself, but nothing big enough to ruin your moment in this spectacular corner of Europe, so close to us but still spared from mass tourism’s damages.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".