In the heart of the Spiš country, a historical area in Slovakia’s north-east, the remnants of a massive ruin rise against the dramatic backdrop of the looming Tatra mountains. Sitting stern on a rocky limestone outcrop, overlooking the small, medieval town of Spišske Podhradie, its imposing appearance dominates the surrounding countryside.
The grand halls and palaces of the upper ward hug the steep cliffside, shielding them from three directions, while the castle’s keep stoically towers above the assembled buildings. Past the two gates that lead up to the inner sanctum of the fortress, two baileys form the outer defences, guarding the southern slopes of the hill. The main gate is protected by an advanced line of barricades, a moat, and a barbican, whereas two guard towers keep watch on the outer courtyard.
The exposed position further strengthens its claim for greatness.
This castle was neither designed to merely protect and guard the realm, nor was it constructed to serve as the seat of nobility. Heck, it certainly wasn’t made to look pretty on the back of travel brochures.
No, this castle was built to set itself apart, to stand out from its peers and to elevate the standard.
This magnificent fortification was built to make a statement.
A statement to every presumptuous general foolish enough to attempt to breach its formidable defences:
“Take your chances but know that your host will perish in the shadows of my battlements, just like all the others that came before.”
Many an army has cast their dice, but the castle’s ramparts humbled them all.
However, in 1241, a raiding Tartar force came mighty close of making this whole introduction utterly redundant.
THE TALE OF THE TARTAR PRINCESS
From the battlements of the mighty castle, its inhabitants could already spot dark smoke rising in the distance and the wind carried with it the stench of death. The duke had fallen and the king’s horses and men lay now scattered across the muddy riverbanks, their once colourful banners and pennants sullied beside them. By nightfall, the raiders had arrived, and the surrounding hills came to life in the flickering glow of campfires.
Expecting a swift victory, Sha’ban Khan ordered his troops to assault the fort the coming day. Wave after wave was thrown against the castle but all were repelled by its impenetrable defences and the dedication of its guardians.
Nevertheless, aware of their predicament, the defenders decided to act. On the second day, a small band of riders under the command of Mikuláš, son of the castle’s steward, sallied out and vanished in the forested hills. As faith would have it, they came across the Khan’s daughter Šad, who was resting on a glade, watering her horse. Sensing an opportunity, they took her captive and returned to the castle through a hidden passage.
As the Tartars were mounting another attack the following morning, the defenders presented Šad on the ramparts. Fearing for his daughter’s life, Sha’ban Khan was forced to negotiate. In exchange for his child, the Tartar army would have to move on, leaving only a few men behind. By the tenth day, Šad would be released. To guarantee the Khan, Mikuláš would ride with the Tartars as a hostage, until the princess was returned.
And so it happened, that on the tenth day Šad returned to her kin and Mikuláš was set free in the same hour. However, instead of riding back to the castle, he waited for Šad in the cover of dark. Unbeknownst to any, they had deeply fallen in love during their brief encounter in the woods, and Šad had decided to forsake her countrymen.
Before long, word had travelled through the realm that the new lord of Spiš had married his son to a Tartar princess and the bells tolled loud and wide to celebrate this most unusual liaison. Dark clouds loomed over the newlywed couple, however, as Sha’ban Khan, enraged by his daughter’s betrayal, had dispatched a single rider carrying a cruel gift.
On their way back to the keep, her father’s present was delivered.
An arrow whizzed through the air, piercing Šad’s heart, and the rider cried out, sending her father’s regards, before disappearing into the dark forest. With disbelief in her eyes, the princess groaned and passed away in Mikuláš’ arms, who’s sorrowful cries could be heard far and wide. Bereaved of his love, he buried her on the glade they had first met.
Šad paid with her life, but the brave deeds of Mikuláš meant that Spiš Castle did not fall prey to the plundering Tartar hordes.
Although, Spiš Castle has never been conquered by enemy troops, its demise eventually came in 1780 when it fell victim to the flames (like pretty much every castle in Slovakia ever). It is not certain what caused the inferno, but theories suggest that the fortress was either struck by lightning, set ablaze by a moonshine brewing garrison, or burned down by the owners themselves, who tried to avoid a fee on roofed buildings.
Time and time again, the castle was challenged by brute force as well as intrigue, yet all it took to breach its defences, was a stroke of fate by courtesy of mother nature, a bunch of hammered soldiers tinkering with alcohol, or a couple of cunning, tax evading aristocrats.
After the destruction, its once mighty walls eroded and its resources were reused by the local gentry as well as the peasant population, until it was acquired by the Czecho-Slovak state following World War II. In 1961, it was declared a national monument and reconstruction began in 1969. Together with Spišska Kapitula and Žehra, it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.
The castle might have lost its initial purpose, yet despite its age it remains sublime.
To this day, the sturdy guard towers, crenelated walls, and grand halls of this marvellous masterpiece of medieval masonry stand as a testament of the ingenuity of its time.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE
Spišská Kapitula is a beautifully preserved ecclesiastical town, situated in the eastern outskirts of Spišske Podhradie. Sometimes called the Slovak Vatican, it is enclosed by a wall and consists of a single street lined by medieval buildings. The town is complemented by a monastery and St. Martin’s Cathedral.
Step inside the cathedral to find intricate altars, marbled tombstones and a wall painting showing the coronation of Charles I. King of Hungary. Many of the castle’s owners are also buried here.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Locate in the village of Žehra, four kilometres south-east of Spiš Castle, the Church of the Holy Spirit is renowned for its exceptional series of wall paintings. Even surviving a fire in the 15th century, the oldest paintings date back to the 12th century.
They depict the Last Judgement, Golgotha (site of Jesus’ crucifixion), and the Last Supper among others.
BEST VIEWS OF THE CASTLE
To see the castle in all its glory, I recommend two spots.
The first one is located on a hill right behind the parking lot (the one beneath the castle entrance). Without much hassle (for you lazy people out there), you will get a great view of the eastern side of the castle. If you follow the path veering off to the left, you will find another vantage point after roughly 300 metres.
Another great spot can be found near the cathedral of Spišska Kapitula. Follow the road that leads out of town and then bends around the walls of the ecclesiastical town. Once you pass the parking lot of the church, you will be presented with perfect views of the castle.
HOW TO GET THERE (from Košice)
You have two options. Either take the train/bus to Prešov, followed by another bus to Spišske Podhradie, or the train to Krompachy and then the bus to Spišske Podhradie.
Depending on your connection, it will take between 1 ½ and 2 hours to get there.
The main entrance to the castle is located on the other side of the hill, so it will take roughly 30 minutes to get there from the town centre. Head up the hill past the cemetery and follow the footpath running below the castle walls on the right-hand side.
General admission | 8€
Students | 6€
Castle Tower | 1€
OPENING HOURS (every day of the week) *
April | 9:00-17:00
May-Sep | 9:00-19:00
October | 9:00-17:00
November | 9:00-16:00
The castle is closed from December to the end of March.
*Prices and opening hours as of August 2021.