For the merchantmen traveling downstream on Europe’s second longest river, towards Pressburg (Bratislava) and beyond, it must have been an impressive sight to behold.
Right at the junction, where the great Danube and Morava rivers join stream, a steep and jagged cliff shifted into their view, crowned with an imposing castle.
Sailors rushed across deck, animated by their captain’s commands, to safely navigate the bend of the Danube in the shadow of the castle’s fortifications. The vessel, fully laden with cargo, ploughed through the swirling, green water, while peasants, their skin tanned by the sun, spurred their oxen to do the same deed in the fields. Seasoned fishermen lined the riverbanks, casting their nets to put food on the plates of their loved ones.
Wooden windmills creaked in the gentle summer breeze and the chimneys and furnaces of Pressburg drew smoky lines across the horizon, hinting at the sprawling town below. Inside the castle courtyard, far beneath a soaring buzzard looking for his prey, soldiers refined their sword skills, all the while daredevil knights mounted colourful dressed horses and closed their visors to break lances (and possibly bones) for the admiration (and entertainment, let’s be honest) of the gathered aristocracy.
A couple hundred years later a lot has changed, yet the picture presented to me during my visit is surprisingly similar.
Ships still float up and down the Danube but unload tourists instead of trade goods nowadays. The oxen on the fields have disappeared, replaced by the strength of modern machinery, while wind turbines stand tall in the distance, fulfilling the same duty as their wooden ancestors. The way of the sword (and the lance) is still being practiced, however, the soldiers have grown shorter, exchanging steel for wood. The joust, a once brutal and potentially deadly affair, has evolved and transformed into family friendly entertainment. Medieval fairs have become a hit amongst our youngest generation.
Now in 2021 this historic site has become one of Slovakia’s most popular destinations for domestic as well as foreign visitors (some sources even say THE most popular).
THE DEFENCE OF MANY EMPIRES
Ever since people first settled in the area, Devín has been of immense strategic importance.
Following the decline of the Sicilian amber trade, the sought-after commodity was thereupon collected along the shores of the Baltic Sea and moved south towards the Mediterranean, even reaching faraway Egypt. At the same time, intrepid merchants navigated the torrents of the Danube, trading local, as well as foreign goods from the Black Forest all the way to the Black Sea. Profiting greatly from its location at this intersection, the settlement quickly rose to become a regional centre of power by the end of the Bronze Age.
In the 1st century BCE, the Romans extended their border to the Danube River and integrated Devín into the Limes Romanus, a series of fortifications stretching all the way from Scotland to the Middle East, built to defend the empire’s northern frontier.
This shift from an economical centre to a politico-military role remained throughout the Middle Ages, first under the Great Moravian Empire (9th century) and later the Hungarian Kingdom. After a long and hard-fought war with the Bohemians over the Babenberg succession (major Austrian dynasty before the Habsburgs), the Magyar kings were keen on defending their western border and ordered the construction of a stone fortress on the cliff top, further elevating Devín’s status as an important border castle.
Due to concerns about Hussite raids from Bohemia, Sigismund of Luxemburg, at that time king of Hungary, ordered all the border castles to be strengthened. Beginning in the 15th century, the castle was gradually extended.
After the Ottomans swept across the southern part of the Hungarian realm, the castle’s defences were once again bolstered to shield what was left of the kingdom. With the Ottoman defeated and the incorporation of Hungary into the Habsburg Empire, Devín Castle finally lost its significance as a border castle. During that time, it was owned by several Hungarian nobles, most notably the Báthorys and Pálffys.
When Napoléon’s troops laid siege to Bratislava, during the Napoleonic Wars, Devín Castle was blown to pieces. The site lay in ruins for over one and a half centuries, until the Slovakian government declared it a National Cultural Monument in 1961, starting to reconstruct the once mighty fortress.
The Moravian Gate, built in the first half of the 15th century, functions as the entrance to Devín Castle. The ticket office is also located here. Once you leave the gate behind, the footpath leads you up the hill, alongside green meadows, and grazing sheep. This extensive area is protected by the outer wall, featuring two more points of access in the east and north, built to give quicker access to the village of Devín and the road to Bratislava respectively.
While exploring the outer castle, you will also be able to find the ruins of an old guardhouse next to the northern gate, more ruins close to the cliff-side ramparts (probably an ammunition depot), as well as the remains of a church from the times of the Great Moravian Empire (9th century) and an 11th century chapel.
The main castle itself can be divided into a lower and upper part. The lower part features several semi- or fully destroyed buildings, one of which now houses an exhibition hall, the courtyard, and the castle’s well.
To reach the upper part of the castle, you must first cross the moat via a wooden bridge, before scaling a series of steps. Once you reach the end of the stairs, you may enter a small cave system transformed into a mini museum. Learn about the previous castle owners, its different expansions, and its ultimate destruction by French forces during the Siege of Pressburg in 1809. Accompanying the exhibition are a couple of glass cabinets displaying a wide range of artifacts representing Devín’s different eras, including military equipment, pottery, and coins among others.
However, the possible highlight of this trip lies just a few steps further up the rock. As you reach the summit, the picturesque landscape of the Danube valley starts to unfold before you. In the east you can spot the apartment blocks of the Slovakian capital. In the west on the other hand, you might even be able to make out the contours of Vienna on a clear day.
If you can, head up there late in the afternoon, when most big tour groups have already left. Leave the hustle and bustle of the lower castle behind and enjoy some level of serenity.
WHAT ELSE TO DO
WALK ALONG THE DANUBE
Instead of heading up to the Moravian Gate (castle entrance) pass the gate underneath the cliff to get to the junction of the Danube and Morava rivers.
Along the pedestrian and cycling path you will find a couple of monuments commemorating the fall of the Iron Curtain, which ran down the Slovakian border. The Iron Curtain was a series of walls, barbed wire fences and other fortifications, splitting Europe in half, from the Baltic all the way to the Adriatic Sea, following Europe’s political division into the Western and Eastern Bloc soon after World War II. One of the statues, a huge metal heart, was created using rusty barbed wire salvaged from the Iron Curtain itself, while another one was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to Slovakia.
Looking up to Devín Castle from the river’s edge, you will be able to spot the Maiden Tower (also known as “nun” or “virgin”), a small octagonal watchtower perched on top of a rock separated from the main castle and only reachable via a narrow stone wall. Legend has it that Nicholas, the then castle owner, was about to marry Margaret of Carinthia, a liaison not wanted by her parents. Through trickery the Carinthians were able to enter the castle and Nicholas and Margaret retreated to the tower. After, Nicholas fell in battle, Margaret, overcome by sorrow and grief, threw herself of the cliff, hence the name.
You can come here for a break after exploring the castle, however, I recommend that you do that on the hill next to the remains of the Great Moravian church, as it is a little bit more secluded and located within the castle’s premiss.
HIKE INTO THE SURROUNDING HILLS
After you are done exploring Devín Castle and have walked along the Danube, I highly recommend that you seek higher ground and head up into the hills surrounding the village of Devín.
Head back to the main road, however, turn left (instead of going back to Štrbská bus stop) and follow the road until you reach the first street leading off to the right called Hadia cesta. After following it up the hill for a couple of minutes, the road will take a sharp left. Continue straight on the dirt path leading up into the forest. Shortly after you will spot a wooden board to your right, informing you on the local flora and fauna.
At this point turn left and take the narrow pathway running along the fences of the last row of houses. Two minutes later veer off to the right. Now just climb the hill as far as you want. Once you reach a certain elevation, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Consider heading up there in the evening during golden hour, for the perfect light, to take pictures of Devín Castle and the glistening Danube and Morava in the background.
Getting up the hill will take between 20-30 minutes from the main road.
When you return to the main road, instead of heading to Štrbská bus stop, turn right. There is a closer stop just a couple of metres away.
HOW TO GET THERE
Coming from Bratislava, bus 29 will take you directly from the city centre to Devín Castle. There are a couple of stops along the Danube, however, I recommend that you get on the bus at Most SNP. The bridge spans the river right next to the centre and Bratislava Castle and is easily recognized by the restaurant, resembling an UFO, on top of its single pylon.
Keep in mind that there is a bus terminal, however, bus 29 stops directly under the bridge on the city highway running along the Danube. At the stop you will find a couple of wooden seats and a colourful graffiti on the bridge pillar behind, so you can’t miss it.
Tickets are purchased at one of the orange ticket-machines. Choose the cheapest option (2 zones/30 minutes; 0,9€ as of August 2021). Buy a return ticket as well, as there is no machine in Devín itself.
The bus ride takes roughly 20min.
Get off at Štrbská bus stop. From there it is just a short 5min walk to the castle’s entrance.
General admission | 6€
Students | 3€
Winter Season (Nov-Mar) | 2,5€ for everyone
When I visited the castle, student tickets were 4€, while the basic ticket price was 8€, probably due to the medieval fair happening on the castle ground.
High Season (Apr-Oct)
- Tue-Fr | 10:00-18:00
- Sa/Su | 10:00-19:00
Winter Season (Nov-Mar)
- Tue-Su | 10:00-16:00
Last entry is always half an hour before closing.
*Prices and opening hours as of August 2021.