Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trenčin: the Lesopark

On the map, as you home in on the lovely city of Trenčin, you’ll notice the medieval city seems to be clustered around something on its southeastern side. Its streets coil up only so far above Mierové námestie, the central square, then get lost in a blur of greenery. The cause of all this is the wonderful Lesopark, and the best thing about the Lesopark is its serendipity: you wouldn’t even think it existed at all as you stroll around the city centre far below.

If one looks up at all in Trenčin it’s at the castle. This is quite understandable given its dramatic situation on a crag high above the Vah river: it’s not for nothing all the guidebooks shout about this fortress as one of the best in Western Slovakia (the link, incidentally, reveals the castles that are really the best). And indeed, it’s the castle which provides the most fairy-tale of entrances  to the Lesopark. You ascend up the narrow lane of Matúšova until it kinks around the Fatima restaurant to rise to the castle gates and there, off to the right, is a courtyard which appears to be a dead end, albeit one with a cracking view of the old town below you. As you turn around from the viewpoint, a secreted old gateway in the wall leads directly into this:

Trees, beautiful trees: the lesopark has them in abundance. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trees, beautiful trees: the lesopark has them in abundance. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Lesopark, or forest park, has to be the most elusive of any urban park in Slovakia: of the ilk of Bratislava’s better-known Mestské Lesy, and actually better-kept in many parts. But once you’re inside (you enter into the old orchard which served the castle initially, then climb into denser woods), you’ll realise just how huge a space this is: over 200 hectares, and the veritable lungs of the city with everyone from dog walkers to canoodling couples to off-road runners coming up here to do their thing. That said, the place still has a deserted feel. And this is due to the substantial size of the ancient 19th-century beech, birch and spruce woodlands crowding the steep slopes here.

There are numerous trails to plan a walk through this inviting woodland, as well as a 5km running track (the Oxygen track) – with purpose-built training apparatus at the rest stops! One path leads to the Memorial of the Tortured, pictured below: not a particularly appealing name but a poignant monument nevertheless. Nearby here, Hotel Brezina, enveloped within the trees, can make for a good refreshment break… There are playgrounds and even a learning trail too.

It’s a brilliant spot to work up an appetite for a tasty bite to eat at one of Trenčin’s increasingly well-regarded eateries…

A memorial inside the park. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A memorial inside the park. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Stay: Trenčin’s recently refurbished historic hotel

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK (we recommend the entrance by the castle – the most convenient to town and also pretty dramatic)

OPENING: The lesopark is always open really.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: After you’ve worked up a hunger with a stroll round the Lesopark, it might be time for dinner at La Piazetta 800m southwest of the park entrance next to the castle.

The Pixies hit Pohoda in 2006 - Image by Jo Fjompenissedalheibakke

Trenčin: Pohoda!

Imagine it: a delightful medieval castle town in Western Slovakia with a buoyant arts scene on the cusp of where two of its main ranges of hills, the Malé Karpaty and the Biele Karpaty, come together. The town in question is Trenčin, the quirkiest parts of which are going to get a lot of publicity on this site – and indeed already do. Here (well actually just outside, on the old airport, which boasts great views of said hills) every July, Pohoda, one of Europe’s greatest music festivals is held.

Pohoda was celebrating its 20th year in 2016, and it’s important people realise what that means.

After Slovakia became an independent nation in 1993, this festival really helped put Slovak music and culture on the map. Founder Michal Kaščak started Pohoda when no one knew anything about the country except during the time when it had “Czecho” at the front of it. He started it when times musically in Slovakia were fairly sterile and he built it up into a festival which is at least as important in Central/Eastern Europe as Glastonbury is in the UK: and it is now the biggest and best music extravaganza in this part of the continent, with rock to dance to classical to folk to electronic all (and always) represented with panache.

That’s really no exaggeration:  acts such as the Prodigy, Gogol Bordello, Roots Manuva and Nick Cave helped establish Pohoda as a fixture on the calendar of Europe’s coolest festivals during the last decade. It’s not just international acts: lots of Czech and Slovak groups (the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra are always astounding when they come on) feature annually too and often wind up being the most incredible surprises of the entire weekend. And it’s not just the music, either: it’s also an advert for Slovakia’s alternative foodie scene, and a mouthpiece for many voices in Slovakia that rarely get heard from environmental to human rights groups. As far as the music is concerned, funny we should mention those first two acts. Because for the 20th edition of this party, the Prodigy and Gogol Bordello returned to Pohoda! Meaning 2016 had one of the best festival line-ups thus far – and paved the way for even greater line-ups in the future!

Anyway, Pohoda is no longer just in the category of annual event. It’s in the category of institution! And it’s thoroughly worth using it as a reason to visit Trenčin and this corner of Slovakia. On this site, we’ve already got a bunch of content to help you with your visit to Trenčin!

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: a stunning castle just outside Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

For full updates on the lineup go to the Pohoda site. For the 20th anniversary festival in 2016, do check this exciting festival report: The 2018 festival dates have not yet been announced.Ticket prices in 2017 were 89 Euros

Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

It’s not just the nature that’s spellbinding in Slovakia: some of the smaller towns – whether as a result of castle strongholds against marauding Turks, or being major Medieval mining centres or having healing spas – grew up in magnificence centuries ago and have not lost any of their glory since.

Note that we’re talking towns (or large villages with decent facilities) here: not either Slovakia’s big cities (which will get tons of other mentions anyway) or the country’s myriad small folksy villages – which will be the focus of later articles!

10: Rožňava

Rožňava is yet another of those former mining centres – and along with Skalica by far the least known about destination on this list. That’s partly to do with its location, in the east of Slovakia. The town centre is meticulously preserved: studded with more of those incredible burgher’s houses (17th and 18th centuries). The cathedral is particularly interesting – artwork inside includes depictions of mining activity in times gone by – with more about the mining legacy in the nearby museum.

Get There: Direct bus from Bratislava or train to Košice and then bus (6-7 hours).

More Info: We don’t have any more info on Rožňava ourselves – yet! (although this will change very soon). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact: but for now perhaps the best is on Visit Slovakia.

9: Spišská Sobota, Poprad

We’re not including the whole of Poprad here. Poprad’s got enough, right, what with the wonderful adventures awaiting in the High Tatras just above town?:) And the majority of tourists will come to Poprad and never see this gorgeous Medieval neighbourhood, because they’ll be busy getting up into the mountains asap. Mistake: Spišská Sobota is a tranquil locale of Renaissance buildings about 1.5km northeast of central Poprad, just past Aquacity Poprad. It boasts architecture by the enigmatic Master Pavol, who was of course the man behind the amazing altar in Levoča.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Get There: Train to Poprad (4 hours).

8: Ždiar 

OK, it’s debatable whether to include Ždiar in the town or village category, but its Tatras location makes it enough of a popular stop with tourists that it’s got half-decent facilities – and the sheer length of it, stretching up the foothills of the High Tatras as it does, mean it’s a town for the purposes of this list. With Ždiar, it’s not any one building that stands out but all of them (at least in the centre) because this place is dotted with great examples of Goral-style painted wooden houses. Goral culture is an important and distinctive element of the culture in this part of Slovakia. For Englishmaninslovakia’s post about Ždiar, follow this link.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus, which continues to Zakopane, Poland in the summer (5.5-6 hours)

Typical Ždiar building
Typical Ždiar building ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

7: Skalica

Skalica receives little attention outside of Slovakia: except perhaps from the good people of the Czech Republic, as the town sits right on the border. But Skalica is cool. And very, very pretty. The postcard pictures are of the Baroque-domed rotunda, originally dating from the 1100’s – but the town also has several intriguing churches and an early 20th-century Kultury Dom (culture house) inspired by Czecho-Slovak folk culture.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Kúty (1.75 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more info on Skalica ourselves – yet! (but we do have this lovely article on the Skalica region, Zahorie). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact, on Skalica: but for now perhaps the best is on Skalica.sk (where the English translations are dubious at best but can be made sense of)

6: Kežmarok

Kežmarok often gets overlooked in favour of Levoča or Bardejov in Eastern Slovakia and whilst it’s not quite as spectacular as either, this town in the shadow of the High Tatras has a better castle than both and has a very smartly done-up Renaissance town centre, including its two famously contrasting places of worship: the stunning wooden church and the rather more stark pink Lutheran cathedral.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Poprad (4.5 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more information on Kežmarok ourselves – yet! But for the moment the town tourist information website has the best in-English info available on the net.

5: Trenčin

The easiest of Slovakia’s great Medieval towns to visit is Trenčin. As you’re heading along the main route east in Slovakia its vast castle, rearing out at you above the Vah river valley, would be reason enough to visit. Clamber up for great surrounding views of the Small Carpathian mountains through one of Eastern Europe’s curious covered staircases from the Staré Mesto (Old Town) but don’t forgo a stroll around the centre – with the central square of Mierové Námestie a trapped-in-time treasure trove of largely 18th-century buildings. There are a load of great castles in the Trenčin area, too: the city’s castle itself is sublime, and just outside there are more fortresses such as Beckov Castle.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Get There: Direct train from Bratislava (2 hours).

Trenčin as seen from the castle
Trenčin as seen from the castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

4: Levoča

Just east of Poprad and therefore easily factored into any trip heading east in Slovakia, Levoča is justifiably one of Slovakia’s most celebrating medieval beauties (as far as towns go at least). The big draw here (standing out above a host of alluring buildings stationed around the central square) is the Gothic church of Chram Svätého Jakuba, which has the world’s highest wooden altar – replete with elaborate decoration. The work is the great legacy of Master Pavol of Levoča: responsible for much of Slovakia’s best Medieval architecture. There’s also a great hike that you can do from the centre up to Mariánska Hora, a famous pilgrimage destination.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (5 hours)

More info: See our article on Levoča’s wonderful autumn music festival. Otherwise, try the English section of the town’s tourist information website.

3: Banska Štiavnica

A few more people have heard of this other ancient mining town (also Unesco-listed) southwest of Banska Bystrica and south of Kremnica. Banska Štiavnica was once the Hungarian Empire’s second-most important city. It rose to prominence at a similar time to Kremnica (actually slightly earlier) but on the back of silver ore deposits in the local mines, this time. Steeply-pitching cobbled streets, a brace of castles and a dramatically-situated Kalvaria number amongst its many architectural jewels.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Banska Štiavnica Area:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Get There: Bus/train from Bratislava to Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3.5-4 hours)

2: Kremnica

The most beautiful of Slovakia’s ancient mining towns is the least-visited. It owes its splendour to the presence of lucrative goldmines in the area – which have been used since the first centuries AD and, since the 13th century, actually made this one of the world’s foremost mining centres. West of Banska Bystrica, it’s still the site of the world’s oldest-working mint, which once produced coinage for locales as far-distant as the Middle East.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Zvolen or bus/train from Bratislava to Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3-4 hours).

RELATED POST:  The geographical centre of Europe is just outside Kremnica – our more detailed post on the town itself is coming soon.

1: Bardejov

In the north-east of Slovakia, Bardejov’s Unesco-listed námestie (central square; see the pic above) is one of the largest, most in-tact and visually stunning in the country: flanked by 17-18th century burgher’s houses and with a Town Hall placed unusually in the middle of the square, dating from 1505 in Gothic/Renaissance style. Around the edge of the Staré Mesto (Old Town) you can walk much of the old city walls.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (7 hours).

More info: Bardejov is a great base for visiting Eastern Slovakia’s fabled wooden churches. and soon on the site we are making Bardejov into one of our Top Slovak Stop-offs (as well as Modra, Piešt’any, Trenčin, Banská Štiavnica, Poprad and Košice)!

Trenčin: Hotel Elizabeth

Hotel Elizabeth ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Hotel Elizabeth ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I tried thinking of several possible titles for this article: “The hotel with the Roman remains”, “A night below the foundations of Western Slovakia’s mightiest castle”, something along these lines. Either of the above headings would be true, as would any title to the tune of “Trenčin’s Most Glamorous Hotel.” But again, not quite right.

Hotel Elizabeth is one of a select number of that coveted group of hotels known as the Historické Hotely Slovenska (Historic Hotels Slovakia) who set the bar very high with accommodation standards country-wide – character-rich old buildings, a dose of the glamour of yore, resplendent bars and spas, etc – but of this group, it’s one of the more down-to-earth. It certainly doesn’t boast about its best attributes, or put on intimidating airs and graces.

Which is why a title which drew attention to any one (or more) of these attributes just wouldn’t do. That said, and with attention span for reading on the web being limited, I’ll harp on about Hotel Elizabeth’s attributes anyway (in no particular order), because they are rather singular.

Historické Hotely Slovenska is only 15 hotels strong, and with the exceptions of Hotel Marrols in Bratislava and perhaps Hotel Bankov in Košice, there are no other independent hotels in Slovakia that currently warrant inclusion. No others that tick those necessary boxes, historic characterquality refurbishment and top-notch service. And of the 15, Hotel Elizabeth is one of a handful tourists would ever normally visit, being smack bang in the middle of one of the towns well and truly on the tourist trail.

Trenčin makes the cut for Slovakia-bound holidaymakers because of its preserved medieval centre, its straight-off-the-postcard fabulous castle straddling a crag above, and its evidence of early Roman occupation in the region, plastered on the side of the same crag. If you dig any or all of the above, Hotel Elizabeth is very much the hotel for you. Perhaps it’s the only hotel for you, because it stands like a striking sentinel at the entrance to that afore-mentioned medieval centre, and hugs two sides of the crag, directly below the castle and with exclusive access to those Roman remains.

The Hotel ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Approach…

The crenellated lemon yellow and white hotel exterior achieves some nigh-on improbable angles as it skirts tightly around the crag on which Trenčin Castle sits – so tightly the cliff overhangs parts of the building and you feel prompted to park on the other side of the car park to avoid the possibility you can’t help but vaguely entertain, i.e. that there will be a landslide that’ll write off your vehicle. Car parks. I’m not just slipping in a mention of car parks as a creative attempt at listing hotel facilities: I want you to visit the car park if you stay here regardless of whether you arrive by car, because of the intriguing carving high up on the rock face above (a haughty noble with a woman prostrate at his feet). The first of many neat historical points of interest the hotel factors in.

As you make your way from car park to reception, I’m not going to deny there are a few wobbly moments. Wobble one: an outlet of the national casino chain Herňa on the premises (in poor taste, I thought). Wobble two: hideous fake flowers by the door (again I sighed but it would be far from the first high-end hotel to make this easily-avoidable mistake). Through the doors though, and you’re in a striking glass-roofed courtyard, which now beautifully joins together what had been two separate buildings: light, lovely and intelligently worked. It’s here where you understand what the hotel is trying to do: play on the history of the building and modernise it. The glass lifts shooting up to the skylights high above; the huge glass ceiling hanging cascading down to the chic lobby bar. Contrasted with the traditional, those lemon yellow old walls again and, right by the reception desk, historical point of interest number two: the ruins of a old bakery (unearthed during the construction of the hotel spa) beneath a window in the floor.

The Rooms…

We got a castle view room. A castle view unlike any other, because you’re looking up at the castle directly up a wooded cliff which has become a nature haven as development of any kind is impossible. So a myriad birds and an eyefull of looming bastions, but nice because of the extra tranquility, even if the natural light on this side is a little lacking.

The suites here are huge, with vast bathrooms that get stand-alone bath tubs ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The suites here are huge: vast bathrooms, stand-alone bath tubs ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The space of the doubles is neither bigger nor smaller than you’d expect; the decor is intriguing, however, because gone are the historic features you might have expected, replaced by an absolutely modern vibe I wasn’t anticipating at all. Safe, upmarket, beige-white. The sharp abstract impressions of the old town above the beds weren’t to my personal liking, but they were cleverly done (some would ridicule my old-fashionedness for not liking them I’m sure). Putting the flat-screen TVs in the middle of otherwise gorgeous ornate mirrors was an interesting move. And the art in the corridors doesn’t always work (glamourously dressed ladies clad to blend in with their respective historic-looking backgrounds – and not always blending in). But comfortable beds, oodles of desk space, original toiletries in the spacious bathrooms. No tea- and coffee-making facilities (except in the suites), but they’re always order-able for free – and the lobby bar makes for a good place to sit while you sip. All-told: 78 rooms – and maybe, overall, this is what modern-traditional means for a hotel. In any case, by virtue of the size and the relative glamour, this is hotel of choice for visiting celebs – Slovak premier Fico is a repeat visitor and most leading music acts in the world have bedded down here at some point due to the nearby Pohoda Festival (one of Central Europe’s best and biggest music festivals, in case you weren’t aware).

Terrace view ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Terrace view ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Rest…

I’m a big fan of the old building subverted by adding a touch of the modern, glassy look: for me that is a definite success story of the post-refurbishment Hotel Elizabeth. From several points on the upper corridors there’s great views looking back down at the interior reception courtyard. But the best example of this is the view from the Marcus Aurelius terrace, an outside bar again sporting a modern, dark wicker vibe. Down from here, you glimpse one of the hotel highlights: those already-mentioned Roman remains, and historical point of interest number three. Essentially, this Roman Inscription , a record of the victory of a Roman detachment of soldiers over Qadi and Marcomanni tribes in 180 AD, is a proof (one of the only surviving proofs) of ancient Roman occupation of the Váh river valley area. There’s a second viewing point, from a small room with translations of the inscription in many languages, around from the terrace.

The ancient Rome theme marches on (a little) in the Caracalla spa, a small but prettily colonnaded place with a surprising variety of massage treatments. In keeping with a place that encompasses multiple epochs, the opulent Cafe Sissi on the other side of the lobby is much truer to the hotel’s late-19th century roots. In an elaborate curve (following the cliff, remember) it sweeps around the edge of Trenčin’s old town; high wide windows, exquisite breakfasts, good coffee and cakes, chandeliers, decorated glass panels, sofas standing in as seats. The Restaurant Elizabeth might take over for evening dining, but it’s the cafe that anyone would have to admit was an essential stop-off on a Trenčin best-of tour.

I think back now, as I’m writing this, to the first time I came to Trenčin, in 2012. It was raining, which already had me in a bad mood. When I got to the historic centre having (incredibly) initially walked the wrong way out of the train station into a gloomy industrial area, the hotel (it is the first thing you see as your eyes, in that first sweep over the town, wander down from the castle over the burnished steeply-pitched rooftops) was under reconstruction. Corrugated iron, scaffolding, boards on the windows and the sound of the drizzle hammering into them. The location of the building at the beginnings of Mierové námestie, the thoroughfare through the beguiling medieval heart of Trenčin, means it can’t help but be your first impression of the place. It wasn’t a great impression, back in 2012, and Hotel Elizabeth’s state of disrepair had a lot to do with that. That was then. And we reach the point. Since the dramatic makeover and its reopening (2013) the hotel continues to strongly influence Trenčin’s feel. The message it sends out now? That the town is back to being the proud, lively, history-rich place it used to be – with one truly quality place to stay.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: Single rooms 99 Euros, Double rooms 115 Euros, Suites from 165 Euros (2016 prices). 150 Euro weekend break for two deals (see the website) include the very good buffet breakfast, unlimited wellness/spa entry, and one evening meal for two.

BOOK THE HOTEL ELIZABETH

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