Western Slovakia Castle Tour: Nine of the Best

Hrad Červený Kameň on the edge of the Small Carpathians

Hrad Červený Kameň on the edge of the Small Carpathians

We all know about the normal top tens of Slovakia: Spiš Castle, Trenčin, maybe Kežmarok. Spotted the theme yet? Castles. Slovakia does, of course, have very good castles (it is one of the most densely castellated countries in the world – and fights with its neighbour the Czech Republic over the number one spot). But why does it always have to be the same castles that make the best-of list? Spiš Castle has to be on there, I guess, because it’s just about Eastern Europe’s biggest fortress in terms of the area it covers. But with all those tourists? It’s far from the most interesting. Western Slovakia has some really good opportunities to go castle-spotting where you’ll get away from the crowds and see some scintillating ruins – all within a day’s jaunt of Bratislava.

First off: here’s a map which shows all of the below castles – good orientation!

1: Červený Kameň

This castle sets the bar pretty high, but it’s the closest to Bratislava, above the village of  Časta, a 40-minute, 50km drive northeast of the capital, just beyond the small city of Modra. Červený Kameň translates as the Red Stone Castle – but there’s pretty little evidence of red stone here. The red stone refers to the rock the fortress was built on, not the building material (the castle is largely white). My girlfriend’s sister worked here as a guide and I can vouch for the very informative tours in German and English (in case your Slovak is not up to scratch!). Actually, this castle has a very good website in English so having alerted you to it, here we go – we need say no more! Cool things to look out for include the vast cellars and the incredible library – but this is a furnished castle, not a ruin.

You can also read much more about the castle & its surroundings in our post, The Small Carpathians: An Intro (the Small Carpathians being the forested hills running in a chain across Western Slovakia, in which most of these formidable ruins can be found). As if that weren’t enough, also read our post about a great hike between Červený Kameň and the wonderful Zochava Chata above Modra (link to change from bold very soon).

2: Plavecký Hrad

The broken ramparts of this castle rear above the woods over the village of Plavecky Podhradie, a hop/skip/jump across from Červený Kameň on the northern face of the main chain of the Small Carpathians. (North across the valley plain from here, there is another wave of hills that are also technically Small Carpathians, but this area is largely devoted to a military zone).  In terms of castles rearing up above woods, only Gýmeš and Tematín can equal this fortress – which dates from the 14th century. To get here from Časta below Červený Kameň, it’s a 42km one-way drive via Smolenice and Trstín or a 20km walk over the hills. From Plavecky Podhradie itself, it’s a slightly challenging 2km hike up to the ruins. Read our post about the castle here and visit the surprisingly decent quality of English info on the castle here.

3: Nitranský Hrad (Nitra Castle)

From Červený Kameň it’s a 50-minute drive east via Hlhovec or Trnava to Nitra – home to one of Slovakia’s best cafes (that I have yet found). Nitra also has a very impressive castle. It’s an 11th century castle complex crowning the Old Town and approached by some very pretty streets. A big statue in the courtyard commemorates the last papal visit to the city. There’s great crypts in the castle and it could be defined as a mix between ruin and furnished fortress.

4: Hrad Gýmeš 

By rights Gýmeš should feature at this point in this blog entry – it’s next-closest to Nitra – a very extensive ruin accessed by driving 11km northwest of the city and just north of the village of Jelenec. It links in with Nitransky Hrad and Oponický Hrad too because they are all connected historically, as fortifications raised as defence against the Turkish incursions into old Austria-Hungary – and as such is part of an official hike tying in all three, and a further-reaching tour of similar fortresses which includes a few in Hungary as well. See our post on Gýmeš Castle for more on the fortress itself, its surrounds and the Nitransky Hrad-Hrad Gýmeš-Oponický Hrad hike.

Oponický Hrad

5: Oponický Hrad

Head either north from Nitra (or hike the three hours 45 minutes along the trail from Hrad Gýmeš; see above for more on this hike) to the next hrad up. Hrad means castle – you’ve probably worked this out by now. This is, despite being far more ruined than either Nitra or Červený Kameň, much more of an adventure because not so many people make it out here. Even by the standards of pretty isolated Hrad Gýmeš above, this really is solitude standing – utterly magnificent solitude. It’s just 20km north of central Nitra on route 593, just before the village of Oponice. It’s a broken series of ruins jutting out over a woody hill, dating from the 14th century. After changing hands a few times it fell into the clutches of the Apponyis family who built one of the most prominent surviving buildings, the palace. It was a stronghold against the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries (actually that’s the reason why Slovakia has so many castles – a line of fortifications the old Austro-Hungarian Empire put up to defend against marauding Turks). Slovakia might be a pretty chilled place today, of course, but once it was part of a raging war zone!

6: Topolčiansky Hrad

There’s no denying it: as castles go in these parts, Topolčiansky looks pretty crazy. In the mountains known as Povazsky Inovec (a southerly arm of the Malé Karpaty) near the village of Podhradie, the tower of this castle (which is actually in tact enough that you can climb part-way up) looks so disproportionally tall and narrow it looks like it will fall over any second. It’s a medieval castle that’s been abandoned since the 18th century. It’s actually really near Hlohovec. If you’re coming from the south you take the Hlohovec exit from Rte 61 and then follow Rte 514 northeast through villages like Velke Ripnany to reach Podhradie. Don’t get it confused with the town of Topolčiansky to the southeast which is actually not all that near the castle. From Oponický Hrad, the last stop on your castle tour, carry on north up Rte593 to Kovarce, then turn left to get back on Rte 64 to Topolcany, from where a road leads via Zavada to Topolčiansky. A clutch of other castle ruins are nearby Topolčiansky… but of course there are – this is Slovakia, there are many ruins and this is but one blog post!

7: Hrad Tematín

North from Piešt’any on the way towards Beckovsky Hrad (below) are the moody ruins of Tematín Castle, where you can even stay(!) and for which Englishmaninslovakia now has a lovely post (far more fun and detailed than the scant Wikipedia entry or any other in-English article about the castle).

8: Čachtice Castle

A poignant hilltop ruin with a still more poignant history: that of the legendary “bloody duchess” Countess Bathory, who is said to be the most prolific murderess of all time, and who once resided here… more on this castle coming soon!

Beckovsky Hrad

Beckovsky Hrad

9: Beckovsky Hrad

These are wild parts – head back on Rte 514 to Hlohovec or Rte 499 to Piešt’any and then head north towards Beckov Castle, off the E75 at Nové Mesto Nad Váhom on Rte 507. Beckov has veered slightly more towards the 21st century than the preceding two castles and actually has a good website with some English info (or better yet, read our post on Beckovsky Hrad). This is a quite extensive castle ruin and sits on a rocky bluff (quite percariously, in the way castle-builders seemed to favour). It’s sign-posted off the main E75 road and is quite visible from there but really does look still more spectacular close up.

You can wind up the tour just north at the better-known ruins of Trenčin Castle which the Slovakia section of the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe, authored by me, does a far better job of describing. Trenčin, of course, is one of our top Slovak stop-offs, which means any article you read on here about Trenčin has a mini-guide at the end detailing all our available content on the town.

Trenčin Castle

Ždiar: All Hail the Ginger Monkey

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With the advent of December comes peak skiing season in the High Tatras, and no more appropriate time to mention for the first time my favourite place in these mountains, Ždiar, and the best accommodation option within, the Ginger Monkey.

On this eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar (officially in the distinctive Goral-speaking region of Belianske Tatry or the Bela Tatras), with its traditional log chalets, rustic eateries (kolibe) and sharp-ridged mountains straight out of a picture book, at their most beautiful bathed in sharp late spring or autumn light, is unlikely to remain a traveller secret much longer. Some might say the secret is out.  Ždiar, Ginger Monkey et al have got a glowing write-up in the last couple of editions of the Slovakia chapter of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe (and having written the last edition I’m something of a guilty party). But Ždiar still feels secret, and so does the Ginger Monkey hostel within its sleepy confines.

The building, a traditionally-painted log cabin (a sight to behold in itself), slides into view on the right immediately after you pass the church in Ždiar village centre, set back on and up a grassy incline. My last visit was in the legendary tenure of Australian Dan but now Dan number two has come and gone and his successor is at the helm and, by all accounts, managing proceedings in an equally cool and offbeat way. First impressions? Well, you do have to pinch yourself. In a country that’s only slowly waking up to how to do really good hostels (well, Bratislava excepted) this is, in many ways, the ideal traveller hostel experience- I mean the one you would imagine if you plucked your twenty favourite images of what a welcoming, laid-back middle-of-nowhere bohemian crash pad should be out of your head and combined them in some best-of montage mega-image.

Chickens cluck outside and Wally the amicable hostel hound gives you an enthusiastic (and occasionally slobbering) welcome once you’re through the door. Immediately on the left is the common room/video room where obscure travel-friendly movies with an unexplained bias towards horror are watched of an evening, while across the way is the kitchen, where free tea and coffee and the complementary breakfast are partaken of, and where most of the serious traveller bonding/ drinking goes on. Beers are merely a euro each (cheap even by Slovakia’s standards of low-cost drinking) and, with the strange yet amenable assortment of travellers congregating come seven or so (sometimes they haven’t left from last night’s escapades), you’ll probably find yourself, even if you have a natural reserve, opening up and exchanging travel stories until the wee hours in a manner reminiscent of the good old days when hostels were there to do just this.

Make your way through a reception adorned in maps and tips on hikes and places to eat (Livia’s, aka the goulash hut is surely the best bet – they do beer, goulash and precisely nothing else) along a creaking corridor to the Internet terminal and then climb the stairs to the dorms. If you can, get the one at the front for sublime views (see picture above).

There are a couple of dorms, one single room and one twin room available, plus abundant information on local hikes which you can undertake with Wally. A good one wends down across the river (head left out of the hostel on the main road back towards Kežmarok to find the fording point) then curves back to come out by the ski centre on the other side of the village. Wally knows the way on this one, having been there many times before, but it’s also possible to hike up into the High Tatras from here via Kopské Saddle (which is by the beginning of the Tatranska Magistrala trail, Slovakia’s most famous hike, which crosses the Slovakian Tatras from east to west, and which Englishmaninslovakia walked all of in 2014 and 2015.

In essence, expect oodles of atmosphere and a fair level of cosy comfort (wandering around aimlessly in pyjamas and slippers is OK here).

And did I mention skiing? Ah yes, you can ski. Here’s the link to Ždiar’s Bachledova ski area. Or if you want to continue your Tatras adventure, click here for more.

And finally: check out the Ginger Monkey’s website for info on the continuation of your journey over the border with Poland to Zakopane. It’s a much-done and delightfully scenic trip. You can also read our more extensive blog post about it here.

MAP LINK: Due to Ždiar’s straggly nature it’s hard to capture the salient mapping info on just one screen but – as an explanation – the right of the map is the village entrance, and the left (where those red lines are?) the start of the Bachledova ski area. For the Ginger Monkey, take the second right-hand turn once in Ždiar village and then make for the church, basically (then you won’t miss it)

PRICES: Dorms are 14 Euros per bed, and twin rooms are 34 Euros (2017 prices). There is also now a cottage available for hire. Contact Ginger Monkey for further details.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

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