Κυριακή, 1 Οκτωβρίου 2017

Mystical Slovakia - part I

 (Bratislava, Cachtice castle, Beckov castle, Orava castle, Liptovský Hrádok)

In September 2017, we have traveled to Central Europe and the main corpus of our trip was a five day tour of Slovakia with a route designed to allow us to explore its beautiful castles and some of their legends, as well as other places of interest.

Devin Castle



At Slovakia we have arrived sailing on the Danube from nearby Vienna. The boat trip to Bratislava takes just a little longer than an hour, and soon after we had passed the picturesque ruins and towers of Devin Castle at the border between the two countries, we caught the familiar sight of Bratislava Castle sitting on the top of the hill, overlooking the city and the river -but also offering views of Austria and in clear days, even Hungary.
Bratislava Castle
The 9th century castle that after a long period of remaining ruined, since 1957 has been successfully restored to its last (Baroque) style, presently houses exhibitions of the Slovak National Museum, and the Treasure Chamber with interesting archeological finds that we had the opportunity to visit three years before, on a previous weekend stop at the capital of Slovakia, after a tour of Czech Republic.
This time we had decided to rather spend our time in the old city following the alleys among the various Baroque buildings with the mysterious symbols and figures on the walls that every so often caught our attention.

Michael's Gate

Michael's Gate is the only city gate preserved of the medieval fortification, and St. Michael’s Tower, built around 1300 is -literally- a landmark of the Old Town. According to some beliefs it is also haunted by a 'Black Lady' called Ursula. She is said to be tortured by the guilt of sending an innocent woman to burn at the stake by accusing her of witchcraft, only because the man that she loved had made the wrong choice for a girlfriend...

The 'haunted' Green House at the Main Square

Among the Baroque buildings at the Main Square (Hlavne namestie) one can easily take notice of the Green House, today housing a Pharmacy at the ground floor, but back in the day it was the oldest and most known pub in Bratislava. 
Apart from the ordinary customers, it is said that a white Lady with the name of Lucia also frequently appeared here, and some claim she still does every year right before her name day.

The nearby Old Town Hall and Tower is also supposedly haunted by various scary stories and a number of dragons and other gargoyles silently watching the visitor from its walls.

Dragons and other gargoyles silently watching the visitor from the Old Town Hall walls
Today it houses the Museum of City History, and on its basement the exhibition "The Barbarism of Torture".

The Old Town alleys of course take some very atmospheric look when the dark falls, especially as you walk away from the center and toward the medieval City walls...
The Old Town takes quite an atmospheric color after sunset
After spending the night on a botel on Danube under the shadow of the UFO Observation Deck and the Castle, we picked up our rental station-wagon and let our tour begin. 
Bratislava bridge with the UFO observation Deck and Danube. View from Castle Hill
We left the capital behind, and after about one hour's drive, we arrived at our first stop which was also one of the main targets of our trip, the visit of Elizabeth Bathory's Castle. 



Čachtice Castle

We had already seen the exterior of her mansion in Vienna (not open to the public), but here we had the opportunity to see the actual place where, after her arrest in 1610 for the kidnap, death and torture of quite a number of girls (alleged between 100 and 650) that kept going missing from the nearby villages, the 'Bloody Countess' had remained imprisoned until her death on 21 August 1614. 

The statue of Countess Elizabeth Bathory at the main square of Čachtice
The tall wooden statue of the Countess at the main square near the entrance of the local Museum (housed in the impressive Renaissance Draskovic Manor house), as well as the names of the restaurants next to it left no doubt that we had come to the right place, the village of Čachtice...

From here it has been quite an adventure to get to the castle due to the persistence of our gps to lead us there not via the traditional route, but by some other, unknown way taking us all the way around the hill -thanks to which nevertheless we did get a bonus view of the ruined castle from under the hill and the opportunity to go hiking following unmarked paths through the forest.

View of the landscape and the Castle ruins from under the hill
But after a while we were beginning to feel uncertain whether the paths led to where we wanted to reach, so finally we decided to ignore our gps, we drove back to the village and took the normal route that starts right from the square and leads directly to the parking.
Čachtice castle - exterior view
And after another 20 minutes hike up the hill (wondering why couldn't they have made the parking a little bit closer), we finally arrived at the entrance of  Čachtice castle -or rather all that remains from it...

We followed the path through the stones and let ourselves wander around the ruins to the South tower where Elizabeth Bathory's living quarters must have been...
Čachtice castle

And, of course, the dungeon where a basic torture chamber had been recreated perhaps to feed on the Bloody Countess's legend.
Castle Dungeon and Torture chamber
 Our tour ended at the castle shop where we have leant of other interesting legends related to the castle, such us the one of the dragon that plagued the area until one of Bathory's earlier known ancestors, named Vid, had managed to slain it, thus gaining the name "Bator" (the Hungarian word for "bold, courageous") and at the same time adding three dragon teeth on the family's Coat of Arms.
We left with a bottle of red wine with a label pressed for commemorating 400 years from Elizabeth Bathory's death (-it is produced at the Agricultural Cooperative farm that stands where Bathory's mansion used to be, from which only a wall now remains standing...) Had we come a few weeks earlier, we would still have the opportunity to also visit Čachtice Underground, a series of labyrinthine tunnels and cellars of which 150 meters are open to the public -sadly, only in the months of July and August.
The cemetery of Cachtice


Castle Beckov 


Čachtice is one of the three medieval castles (3 Hrady) that once provided strategical points to supervise the river Váh, in the area that at one time marked the north-western border of the kingdom of Hungary. The other two are the castles of Tematin and Beckov. Beckov is the oldest of these castles with a history that goes back to the period of the Great Moravia (2nd half of the 9th century) and gets its name from the old settlement that used to exist right under the castle hill -or, "magic rock" as the local guides refer to it. 

Beckov Castle at night
 The name originates from the word "bludinec", which once described a labyrinthine place, although according to one legend, the castle was named after Duke Stibor's jester, Becko, for whom it is supposed to have been initially built, but after it had been completed, it was cashed out for the jester's weight in gold, as the nobleman decided to rather stay there himself. In truth, Duke Stibor, or Stiboricz was a dedicated knight and advisor to King Sigismund who offered him the castle on July 16th 1388, after which he did rebuilt the castle at Gothic style and established there his family seat.
Our pension, Kuria Beckov right under the Castle 
We had chosen to spend the night at Kuria Beckov, a very charming pension in a building that has a long history itself, standing since the 19th century and since then used in different ways, initially as horse swapping station and later as a coaching inn, and restaurant. It sits right on the bottom of the castle cliff and the view of the castle from there is really amazing... On a windy night one can almost hear the poor servant that is said to have been thrown from the cliff for having injured one of the Duke's dogs, while trying to protect his child, cursing his master to meet him after one year, as it is said to have happened, the lifespan of the cruel Lord coming to an early end after the fatal bite of a viper.  

In the morning we enjoyed a hike to the recently renovated castle, where we particularly loved the ruins of the Gothic chapel with the beautiful arched windows. At the time initially built, during Stibor's rule, the Chapel was decorated with beautiful paintings and sculptures, including that of a Black Madonna.
Maria in the Gothic Chapel
On our way out, we had not neglected to take some photos of the old Jewish graveyard adjacent to the road leading to the entrance of the castle...

Our journey next took us to another country altogether, as after a couple of hours drive we had crossed the borders to Poland and went on to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and spent one night in Krakow (-this part may be covered in another blog post), before turning South again and resuming our Slovakia tour the next day. 


Orava Castle

Orava castle - exterior

We have arrived at Orava Castle late in the afternoon and immediately took the next available guided tour (unfortunately provided in Slovak language only) that took us through the many corridors, stairs and rooms all the way through the Lower, Middle and the Upper part of the beautiful Gothic castle, where several scenes of the 1922 Nosferatu film had been shot, as director F. W. Murnau had chosen it to represent Count Orlok's residence Transylvania.  
Orava castle. View from the stairs at the Lower section (photo by Maria)
Oravský Hrad, as expected, has many legends. In one of them, the castle is claimed to have been built in one night by none other than the devil himself for a wealthy old man, after he had agreed to offer his soul in return had the castle been completed until dawn, when the rooster would have crowed thrice. But the morning came and as the rooster crowed for the third time the castle was still unfinished, as there were still three rocks to be built on. The devil got mad, he took the rocks and threw them away (its being said that one of those rocks is in Orava, the second one in Dolná Lehota and the third on the Šibenica Hill) and the old man lived his remaining short life without any worries for his post-mortem habitat. 

Orava castle
The castle also has its resident White Lady. She was supposedly brutally murdered by the husband and now is seen at night to walk through the castle with a lantern in one hand (the other has been chopped) while checking on her property.
The White Lady of Orava castle
The tour lasted 1.5 hour (in fact, it was the short one, the other was the 2 hour option that also included a visit to the Chapel, but we were already running a bit late), during which we have followed our guide through the beautifully decorated rooms with the portraits hanging from the walls and the old antique furniture making a very atmospheric scenery that could easily host a new nosferatu adaptation...
Orava Castle - interior
Orava Castle - interior

In its rooms, the castle hosts historical, ethnographic, archaeological and natural history exhibitions, even one about the movies that have been filmed there, the central exhibit of which is of course, Count Orlok. 
Count Orlok
When the tour had finished, with Maria, we lingered a little longer at the yard to take some more photos. When we had finally arrived at the exit we found the heavy door already locked...
At the main entrance of Orava castle

For a moment, I think it may have crossed our minds how tempting it would have been to spend the night in there, but our friends had already gone out, so we found the guide and he let us out. We went down the hill very satisfied from the overall Orava Castle experience, and once or twice may have thrown a quick look behind just to check that no shadow had been following us...



Liptovský Hrádok

From there it took us 40 minutes to our next stop, the castle at Liptovský Hrádok, which now consists of the ruins of Castle Hrádok (first reference from 1341, heavily damaged during the Rebellions of the Estates at the turn of the 17th and 18th century), built on a small dolomite hill on the banks of the river Belá, and the Renaissance Manor that had been added to the castle structure in the 17th century and today operates as Chateu Grandcastle, offering stylish and romantic 4 star hotel accomodation. The impressing complex sits on the back of the small lake that was created from the moat that in the past had been separating the castle from the surrounding landscape. 
Castle Hrádok and Chateu Grand Castle

Of course we could think of no better place to spend our night. The Castle-manor has been beautifully restored and is perfectly decorated maintaining the atmosphere and feeling of the old times and wandering through the long corridors and the Halls and high ceiling rooms with the antique furniture and old paintings on the walls, one easily feels rapidly slipping back centuries in the past.

After enjoying a gourmet dinner at the castle's restaurant, and when all the rest have withdrawn to bed, with the time nearly approaching midnight, I lost no time, grabbed my tripod and cameras and went on a quest to investigate all the areas of both the Manor and the Castle.
I had a pleasant surprise when I discovered the entrance to a long (37m, but with limited width) cave under the castle. And then there was the stairs leading down to the wine cellar which was guarded by a human skeleton (prop) (I think...).
The skeleton at the cellar
Beneath the castle - view from the stairway leading to cellar

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