Despite a multitude of previous disappointments when it comes to castles in Europe, I was dead set on visiting Spišský Hrad. I’d heard it was amazing, and the pictures I’d seen had reassured me that this was the kind of castle I was looking for. Hence my willingness to blow my budget on two nights in a €28/night hotel…
I didn’t get up early to get the first bus to Spišské Podhradie, the town below the castle. I slept in until about nine thirty, getting up just in time for breakfast. It was quite a hot day, a change from up in Zdiar where the days were cool and the nights chilly even in September, so I figured that shorts would be appropriate. I actually took my very hated hat also, which turned out to be a good idea.
A local bus runs relatively frequently from Levoca to Spišské Podhradie, so I only had to wait about half an hour for the bus and it cost me all of about a euro. I didn’t actually know where I needed to get off, and the bus wove back and forth going down the mountain towards the town. I was hoping that someone would point out to me if I needed to get off somewhere in particular; as it was, I got off at the last stop in the centre of the town, and it was the right place. The town itself was dusty and silent, almost a ghost town were it not for the couple of little old ladies who’d also got off the bus walking down the street laden with plastic bags.
I didn’t really know which way to go from here, but it couldn’t be that hard – after all, you can’t miss the castle perched on top of the hill behind the town. It kind of stands out. I wandered through the town and up a street that looked promising, which turned into an alley which turned into a dirt track which turned into dry, golden knee-high grass as I walked along the wall of the cemetery towards the obvious path up the hill.
That hill was a bitch. I’ll admit that I’m rather unfit, but it was steep and unforgiving and the sun burning down on me didn’t help. Nor did the fact that I rolled my ankle on a loose rock, or that in general my knees tend to do their very best to make my life difficult. But the view of the castle ruins with the gold grass before it. dark rust coloured shrubs and the cloud-streaked bright blue sky behind it was amazing. I felt a bit misled as I got to the top of the hill and found that I had to walk around half the damn castle to get in, and rather irritated when I saw the car park about fifty metres from the entrance and noted that the people coming by car didn’t arrive all hot and sweaty. Still, they got hassled by a falconer while I slipped in without drawing the attention of him or the hawkers out the front.
Spišský Hrad was basically everything I’d hoped. Technically it’s a fortress, not a castle, being built and used primarily for defense rather than a royal residence. It wasn’t ridiculously restored and full of boring reconstructed rooms – while there had been some reconstruction much has been left as is or simply made safe enough for tourists. There was a relatively interesting museum inside and a proper dungeon with reconstructed torture equipment, some of which had been made slightly wrong, but it was still pretty cool.
So, a brief history of Spišský Hrad: It was built in the twelfth century, and was an important regional administrative, cultural and economic centre of the Kingdom of Hungary. It changed ownership a few times, was updated a few times and then burned down in the late eighteenth century. It’s belonged to the Slovakian government for about sixty years, and these days is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. It’s also featured in a bunch of Hollywood films including Dragonheart. I think that’s the one where a boy has the heart of a dragon or something like that…as the name suggests.
What I didn’t like was the tower. To be fair, the tower itself was fine and had pretty good views. It had a nifty narrow winding staircase with steps ranging from six to twenty-five odd inches high. The problem was a couple of small children. A sign on the door warned that there was an infestation of flying ants, but that it was safe to go up and not to bother the nests. So up I went, and while I saw plenty of dead ones there weren’t any actually flying around. I got to the top and was taking in the scenery with a few strangers when up came these two bloody kids, about ten or so. Now on the top of the tower there were a few mounds of ants, and an obvious nest. So, being a sensible person, I’d done my best to avoid disturbing them. The parents came up first and told the kids to stay away from the ants, so what do the little brats do first? They run over and kick them, which surprisingly enough instantly resulted in every damn one taking flight and within about three seconds there were swarms of them. You couldn’t avoid breathing them in, which is totally disgusting, and if you closed your mouth they went up your nose. And the stupid parents didn’t even tell off the kids, or have the courtesy to apologise to the other four people up there who had previously been enjoying themselves sans a flying ant storm. Given that I’m not writing this from jail, I clearly managed to resist the temptation of throwing the kids off the tower. Which at the time seemed like an entirely justifiable option given the number of flying ants that made it into my throat and lungs. They don’t taste too good and coughing them up isn’t enjoyable.
There’s a few different levels of the fortress, and the outer walls contain a large grassy park-like area which also features a stage. From the tower, and been from the lower walls, the stage looks more like a laptop, which I found quite funny and a little anachronistic.
After visiting the castle I walked the outer walls – or at least as much as you can. Apparently the castle and surrounds host a number of endangered species, including one cute little thing called a spermophile. That’s right, there’s a cute little ground squirrel whose name means ‘sperm lover’. OK, so it’s not so bad when you remember that sperm means ‘seed’, but at first it does seem more like the name of a dodgy porn movie than a sweet and nervous little squirrel.
I was lucky enough to find one peeking out of its burrow at me. It was pretty cute.
After about three and a half hours at Spišský Hrad I figured it was time to head back to Levoca or risk having to wait an extra hour and a half for the next bus. So I headed back down the way I came, only disappointingly the view of the castle as I left wasn’t quite as beautiful – the sky was inconsiderate enough to rid itself of interesting clouds and just sit there all bright blue and boring. I found some pretty flowers on the way down filled with bees, which I decided against picking to put in my hair, and saw a few lizards and funny looking beetles.