Slovakia is a castle lover’s paradise.
More than 600 castles and châteaux (some in a better state than others) grace the rolling hills and dim forests of this Central European country. In fact, while Wales may boast to possess the highest density of castles in the world, Slovakia has the most per capita, a claim only disputed by their Czech neighbours. (Just bring back Czecho-Slovakia = problem solved)
Built during a downright castle boom in the 13th century, to protect the northern fringes of the emerging Hungarian Kingdom against Tartar and Hussite raids, most of them lost their military role with the advent of cannons and became the seat of aristocracy or administrative centres.
The decline of these once magnificent fortresses continued in the following centuries, until the vast majority was derelict. Some were abandoned due to the rising discomfort of their noble owners, others burned down or were razed by ravaging armies. Their crumbling ruins were left to rot, until the Czecho-Slovak government regained interest in these remnants of their cultural and historical heritage. After Czecho-Slovakia split apart, the Republic of Slovakia carried on with the reconstruction of their medieval past.
Today, many of these castles have become popular with the locals but remain virtually unknown to most international tourists. Devín Castle and Spiš Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) may hog the limelight, but dozens of impressive ruins across Slovakia offer a great and less crowded alternative.
Legend has it that a jester named Beckov was offered to wish for anything he desired, after he greatly entertained his lord, Stibor of Stiboricz, during a hunting trip. Modest as he was, Beckov requested that a castle, overlooking the fertile Váh Valley, was to be built for him. Stibor kept his promise and within a year music and laughter echoed from the castle’s walls.
The jester had become the lord, however, Stibor soon realized the strategic importance of the castle’s location. Again, he pledged to grant Beckov anything he wished for in exchange for the fortress. Being his humble self, Beckov agreed to cede the castle to his former master if he was given his weight in gold. He also demanded that the castle was to be named after him from this day forth.
Yet again, Stibor complied and the keys to the keep changed hands. Soon after, the jester vanished, seeking his luck elsewhere, only leaving his name behind.
Although, the legend has been exposed as mere fiction (the castle had already stood guard for well over a century when Stibor became its owner), the military importance of its position is indisputable. The upper ward sits enthroned on a rocky outcrop, only accessible via a set of steep steps, while the outer courtyard is enclosed by a wall and guarded by two gates, a barbican, and a moat, making it mere impossible to conquer.
Constructed in 1208 (one of the oldest castles in the country), Beckov Castle provided security to the surrounding farming communities and exerted control over vital trade routes, while withstanding both Turkish and Tartar invasions. It was later redirected as a prison, as well as military barracks, before it was ravaged by a fire in 1729.
Today, Beckov Castle proudly stands as one of the most spectacular ruins in the country. In addition to its majestic appearance, the outer courtyard features a handful of stalls, selling local products, and a small stage used for raptor performances.
The adjacent hill, covered in high grass and wildflowers, offers superb views of the castle and is just a short walk away. You will also find an old Jewish cemetery next to the entrance gate.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take a bus from Nové Mesto nad Váhom bus station to Beckov OÚNZ bus stop. From there it is just a short 5-minute walk up the hill to the castle entrance.
General admission | 4,5€
Students | 3,5€
Overlooking the foothills of the Little Carpathians in Western Slovakia, the towering walls of Čachtice Castle are the last witnesses of a harrowing past.
Erected to defend Hungary’s western border in the first half of the 13th century, the castle became the main residence of Elizabeth Báthory at the turn of the 16th and 17th century, following her husband’s death in 1604. Driven by her desire for eternal youth, Lady Báthory, aided by her accomplices, allegedly murdered more than 600 maidens in Čachtice Castle (and other estates across Slovakia), a disgraceful deed that would crown her the most horrific serial killer of all time.
At last, her vile sins were uncovered by the Palatine György Thurzó, and even though she was spared the death penalty, the Blood Countess was condemned to a life in captivity. In 1614, after being locked up in a walled-up room in one of the castle’s towers for four years, she succumbed to her punishment.
In recent years, scholars have started to take a closer look at her life and even questioned her conviction, nevertheless this hasn’t prevented her persona to massively influence pop culture and inspire multiple characters in book and film. So even though, you might have never heard of Lady Báthory, chances are that you have come across one of her “clones”.
The castle (and the surrounding nature reserve) makes for a perfect day trip from Bratislava and offers perfect views of the surrounding hills and plains.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the train from Nové Mesto nad Váhom either to Čachtice or Višňové. There are hiking trails leading up to the ruin from both villages, however the one from Višňové is in fact distinctly shorter (20-30min), so I recommend getting off the train there. Head to the main road, then cross the bridge to your right. Once the road bends, continue uphill past the salmon-pink house.
General admission | 3€
Students | 2€
At first glance, the castle of Lednica will strike you as extremely underwhelming and not worth the trip to be completely honest. Bar its terrific location (hovering above the valley floor and hugging the flank of the iconic rock formation of Lednické bralo), the site itself is super small (like you-have-seen-everything in-a-minute small), the most interesting part being the narrow, cavernous entrance.
However, there is one unique feature that might change your mind.
A long iron ladder leads up to one of the castles watch towers, yet the ascend does not end there. A steep manmade staircase, carved out of the bare stone, follows the crest of the rock formation uphill. Once you reach the top, it is the perfect spot for a lunch break, offering great views of the valley.
At the end of the day, it is yours to decide whether a rock hewn staircase is worth the visit or not. Maybe not as a daytrip from Bratislava (the way I did it), but if you are in the area, you might as well check it out.
A well can also be found on the way up to the castle. According to legend, a beautiful maiden named Katarína was kidnapped by the castle’s owner on her wedding day, however, instead of complying to her fate, she chose death by plunging herself off the walls into the depths below. Where she fell a spring emerged, bearing her name till this day.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the train to either Ilava or Púchov and then the bus to Lednica. There is a bus stop right below the castle.
General admission | 2€
Probably deriving its name from the Slavic goddess of youth and spring, Lietva (also Lada or Letva), the castle was (once again) erected in the first half of the 13th century. Perfectly positioned along the Amber Road on a rocky peak, it most likely played an important administrative, as well as military role in the area. The castle’s battlements were gradually upgraded and it received its Gothic-Renaissance overhaul in the 16th century, after falling under the ownership of the Thurzó family. Even though it was one of the biggest castles in Slovakia, it was left deserted and fell into decay after the Thurzós died out.
The castle is quite extensive, however, not all areas are open to the public due to ongoing construction work. Since 2018, the castle houses a small exhibition and the castle courtyard seems to be used for events such as concerts, as indicated by a small stage.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take a bus from Žilina main bus station to Lietava, Majerpri moste. From there follow the marked path. It takes between 20-30min to reach the castle.
General admission | free
Tematín Castle is by far the most remote ruin on the list.
Located on a ridge of the Považský Inovec mountain range, its crenelated towers and crumbling ramparts break through the dense forest canopy high above the Váh Valley. A quite strenuous hike (at least in 35°C) is required to reach its walls, yet the presented panorama more than compensates for the ascend. You might even spot boars on your hike up. However, keep your distance, especially if they have piglets!
Built in the 13th century, in unison with the castles of Beckov and Trenčin, to guard the north-western border of the Hungarian Kingdom, it remained an important fortress until its destruction by Imperial forces during Rákóczi’s War of Independence, an attempted insurrection against Habsburg rule by Hungarian noblemen. After the siege in 1710, the castle was burnt down and left abandoned.
Since 2007 the castle has been slowly restored to its former glory by the Civic Association Hrad Tematín. Today (August 2021), the castle is still under major construction but open to the public.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are a couple of hiking options available. The fastest way to reach Tematín Castle is from the small resort of Bezovec near the village of Nová Lehota (1 ¼ hr), however there are also marked trails starting in the villages of Lúka and Hrádok (both roughly 1 ½ hours), which are directly connected to Nové Mesto nad Váhom by bus.
General admission | 1,50€