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Historic Goal Attained in Slovakia

Country #100 and its cold, castles, and closures

sunny 50 °F

The town of Trenčín, Slovakia, was my favorite day trip in country #100

If you had asked me in my teens if I would ever visit 100 countries, I would probably have said that sounds interesting, but unlikely. If you had asked me when I was in my twenties, when I was working for an airline, I would probably have said, “Maybe someday.” If you asked me when I was in my 40s, I would I have said, “Absolutely!” And here I was, 42 years after taking my first trip abroad. I was on a train from Vienna, Austria, to Slovakia, country #100!

The Old Town of Bratislava, Slovakia, and it’s charming, cobbled streets

I have to admit I knew very little about Slovakia before buying my airline tickets. Formerly part of Czechoslovakia before the peaceful 1993 “Velvet Divorce,” it was kind of a mystery to me. Only one hour by train from Vienna, I was hoping to not only see Bratislava, its capital, but also to see the countryside. From my early research, it had some pretty amazing castles. Being a History teacher and aficionado, that was enough for me!

One of Slovakia’s many cool castles, Devin Castle, on the outskirts of Bratislava

The train from Vienna was simple to arrange — like all public transportation in Austria. They depart hourly and don’t require a seat reservation nor any passport control or border crossing formalities. They have Uber, as well, so after stepping off the train and making my way to the front of the station, I summoned my Uber to my hotel. Six minutes and four Euros later, I was being driven through the streets as a light, spring snow fell.

So many scenic buildings catch your eye while wandering the cobbled streets of the Old Town

The weather was quite a bit colder than I expected, just like the temperatures had been in Austria. Arcadia Boutique Hotel in the Old Town of Bratislava was a beautiful building with incredibly friendly and helpful staff. We discussed travel options with them as we checked in, and they gave advice on sights, as well as train, bus, and car hire information. Our room wasn’t ready, so they stored our bags while we set out to explore the town. The sun had come out, so we decided to head to the castle on a hill overlooking the Old Town. The views from the walls were supposed to be spectacular. I learned long ago that when the sun is shining, seize the moment and head for the best vantage spot in town!

The main square in Bratislava’s Old Town, Staré Mêsto

The Old Town’s cobbled streets and buildings are from a variety of periods from medieval through the Renaissance, to the 1800s. I stopped frequently to take pictures of churches, towers, and charming squares. There are whimsical elements, too, like a bronze Napoleon leaning, arms folded, over the back of a bench in the main square. Using the iPhone maps app, it was easy to navigate through the irregular grid of streets. There were lots of restaurants, cafes, and shops that I made mental notes to come back and visit. The weather couldn’t decide what it wanted to do, though. There were brief periods of almost hail-like, thick snowflakes that I called tiny snowballs. They would stop and the sun would come back out moments later, though.

Bratislava’s buildings are bedecked in statues and a treat to the eye as you wander it’s streets

After about 10 minutes, we left the Old Town, crossed under the main road, and began the twisting climb up through a steeply-sloped residential area of quaint houses. The castle was easy to find, and we entered through the gate. The ticket office seemed closed, but the castle grounds were open. There were a few groups of people here and there also taking in the magnificent views. The castle stretched across the top of the hill. It was a later castle, modified as a residence with windows and whitewashed walls. Square towers jutted upwards from the ends of the building, each capped by an octagonal, red-tiled spire.

Bratislava’s castle atop a hill overlooking the Old Town

I wandered along the castle walls with their magnificent views of Bratislava below. Catching your eye immediately were the angular, white walls of St. Martin’s Cathedral. It’s thin tower was topped by a small bronze dome and needle-like spire. The red tile roofs of the Old Town spread out behind the Cathedral, punctuated here and there by more church spires. Behind the Old Town, the modern office buildings of the newer city provided a backdrop that stretched into the distance. To the right, the wide Danube flowed, crossed by a modern bridge suspended from huge white pylons. A saucer-shaped observation deck surmounted the pylons called, appropriately, the UFO Restaurant. Behind the whimsical alien craft were rank upon rank of Soviet-era apartment buildings stretching away in a pastel, urban sprawl.

The view from the walls of Bratislava Castle

Entering through the castle’s inner gate, we realized the building itself was closed. Little did I realize it at that time, but this would be a theme throughout my 3-4 days in Slovakia. March is definitely off-season. Many churches, museums, and nearly all castles would be closed. We peeked through the windows, explored the Baroque gardens, and then as the sky looked threatening again, headed back downhill. The tiny snowballs pelted my jacket, again, as the wind whipped at my collar.

Looking from the Castle walls across the Danube at the UFO restaurant

Now seemed like a good time for lunch. One of the first places we saw, once back in the Old Town, was an Irish pub. Promising ourselves to try Slovakian food later for dinner, we succumbed to the draw of the familiar. We settled into the warm and cozy confines of the pub for lunch. Afterwards, it was time to check into our room, which was a delight. I highly recommend Arcadia Boutique Hotel for anyone visiting Bratislava.

An interesting sculpture on the path to the castle

The sun had come out, again, so it was time to continue exploring. The Old Town Hall, with its City Museum located inside, was next. As you ascend the tower, pictures and signs explain more of the history and development of the town. Reaching the top, you step out onto a platform going around all four sides of the square tower. The views were great from the top, and the sun continued to shine to make them even better! One interesting novelty is a cannonball fired from Napoleon’s siege of the city in 1809 that remains embedded in the tower’s wall.

The Old Town Hall with its museum and wonderful views

Next, we returned to St. Martin’s Cathedral where we were happy to find it open. We paced quietly around its hushed interior, taking photos of the altar with its soaring Gothic rib vaulting above it. The stained glass was gleaming and beautiful in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Nearly 20 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned in this cathedral. Through the years, it has been rebuilt and redecorated in a variety of styles. It’s slender, pyramidical facade rises to 280 feet tall.

St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava

Next, we wandered along the remnants of the 14th century town walls. We stopped next to see Poor Clares Church, which was an order of nuns formed in the 13th century by Clare of Assisi. Their vows of austerity were fairly strict. However, they must have eased up on them in Bratislava for one decorative indulgence - a towering, richly-decorated, Gothic spire atop the church. I had to lay down on the street cobbles to photograph the gargoyles that leaned out from the walls. Their stone glare seemed to follow passers by with menace. Music drifted from inside the church, but alas, the church was closed. We could not go inside.

The ornate Gothic spire on Poor Clare’s Church, encrusted with ornamentation and gargoyles

With our next stop at St. Michael’s Gate, we had pretty much visited most of the sights in Old Town that we wanted to visit. I understood why some folks do Bratislava as a day trip by train from Vienna. You can see the attractions of this compact, walkable city center in a day. We did fulfill our promise and tried a Slovakian restaurant that evening. The food was okay — I had a noodles, cheese, and bacon dish. Weirdly, the next evening, we went to a different Slovak restaurant (with a completely different name) and it turned out to be simply another branch of the first restaurant we’d tried! So, be forewarned: Slovakian Flagship Restaurant and the Slovak Pub have identical menus and the same beer selection.

St. Michaels Gate to the Old Town, Bratislava

Our hotel had recommended a tour guide to us, but his offer for a day’s sightseeing in his car turned out to be way out of our league, price-wise. So, we went with Plan B on our second day. We caught the train to the town of Trnava, about 45 minutes away. Trnava is known as the Rome of Slovakia because it was the headquarters of the empire’s Catholic church after the Turks seized many of their towns. There are lots of churches there, and it was the seat for many years of the empire’s archbishop.

Walking down the Main Street on our day trip by train to Trnava

After disembarking from the train, we walked about 10-15 minutes to the walled town center. Lots of construction was going on. Slovakia appears to be gearing up for an influx of tourists. Many places we visited were either being spruced up or were actually closed for renovation. Remember what I said about “Closed” being a theme for Slovakia? In Trnava is where it truly struck home that perhaps visiting this country in its off-season wasn’t the best decision. In short, other than the tiny 14th century Church of St. Helen, which was our first stop, every single church in Trnava was closed during our visit. Enticingly, some had their front doors ajar for residents to step into the lobby, kneel and say a quick prayer. The doors to the inside of church were locked, though. This was frustrating to say the least. Even the very cool looking synagogue was also shuttered.

The many church towers in Trnava - the “Rome of Slovakia”

Several thing were open, though, so the day wasn’t a total bust. We climbed the wooden steps of the City Tower, overlooking the main square. Much like with Bratislava one, it featured historical information and maps on each level as you ascend staircase. The views from atop were similarly wonderful. We also got to walk along a 50-yard section of the medieval town walls.

The medieval town walls of Trnava

We closed out our day pacing through the West Slovakian Cultural Museum. There were some interesting exhibits, including religious artwork, ancient artifacts that have been excavated, and numerous traditional costumes and every day items. The collection of church bells was cool, too. I couldn’t resist reaching out and lightly dinging one or two to hear their clear sound echo.

The Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Trnava

Tired from a fifth day of walking around 10 miles over the course of the day, we called it quits and caught the next train back Bratislava. Trnava had been an easy day trip — so easy we contemplated doing it for another town the next day. I really, really wanted to see some of Slovakia’s incredible castles. The problem was that nearly all of them were closed. One of the marquee ones was Bojnice Castle. It was far away from the train lines or bigger cities, though. We considered renting a car to see it, but with so much closed, we decided it wasn’t worth the expense and effort. So, what to do to get in that Slovakian castle fix? There was Devin Castle a 20-minute ride away from Bratislava, but we decided to save that for Friday before our train ride back to Vienna.

Trenčín Castle looming above the main promenade in this pretty, historic town

Over beers and a deja vu dinner, we made our plans. We caught the Express train the next morning for Trenčín for our final day trip. We stepped off the train and immediately saw our main destination - Trenčín Castle, looming on a nearby hilltop. Built in the 11th century and modified over the years, it sprawls across the slopes, encircled by its stone walls. Towers sprout up along its circular walls, augmenting the defense of its steep, rocky hill. Like most attackers, we knew we couldn’t get inside the walls (also closed, sadly). Nothing could stop us from circling it and besieging it with our cameras, though!

The formidable fortifications of Trenčín Castle

We began walking towards town through a pleasant open park, using our tried and true Apple maps app for walking directions. The tourist information office was inside City Tower. We quizzed the workers about what they recommended to see in the historic center of town, and possibility of visiting nearby Beckov Castle. They were helpful on the former, but not as much on the latter. We then climbed the tower’s steps to the top. The sun was shining and now was a perfect time to take photos from its lofty viewpoint. I really liked Trenčín, so far. It was pretty, compact, walkable, and full of History.

The Piarist Church of San Xavier and the City Tower in the center of Trenčín

Trenčín was originally a Roman army fortress know as Laugaricio. Carved into base of the castle’s rocky hill is an inscription commemorating a Roman victory in 179 A.D. over the Germanic Quadi tribe in the area. We couldn’t find it on our walk to the tourist office, but they let us know the secret: You view it from the second floor of the historic and ritzy Hotel Elizabeth. There’s a window in a hallway, just a few feet from the inscription. There’s even a little half-size statue of a Roman soldier next to the window and a translation of the inscription. Being the military history buff, I was pleased to see the statue was of a Roman auxiliary soldier — not a legionary — which was appropriate because Laugaricio was supposed to be an auxiliary fortress.

My not-so-good photo of the Roman inscription from 179A.D.

After the tower, we walked next door to the baroque, 17th century Piarist Church of St. Xavier. It’s twin towers rival the City Tower, and are surmounted by the black “onion domes” that we had been seeing all through Slovakia. The main doors were open. We entered only to be denied yet again! Another locked and closed church teasing us with front doors ajar! I tried a trick I’d discovered in Trnava, placing my iPhone against the glass of the locked inner door and was rewarded with a photo of a beautiful interior. Of course, that in itself is another tease, making me wish even more I could go in and look around!

The interior of the church of San Xavier

Next, we located the path through the woods above the town square which leads to the entrance to the castle. The pathway was paved with stones most of the way, giving way to dirt for the last few hundred yards. Sign on trees pointed the way once the paving stones gave out. As we neared the entrance, there were a few informational signs in Slovak with a QR code to read the English translation. Apparently, the way we arrived was the historical path for most attacking forces. On the other three sides, the rocky slopes of the castle hill fell away too steeply for storming forces to mount an attack.

The small drawbridge controlling access to the castle

Now that we had a nice view of it, the fortifications did look even more formidable. Behind the outer arcing stone wall, a deep moat guarded the castle as a second barrier. It was crossed only by a relatively narrow drawbridge. This castle would be a difficult one to seize, and for us, impossible to enter! Seeing its rambling collection of hilltop buildings, towers, and even later palaces added by local nobility, it would have been fun to spend hours wandering through it. I took lots of pictures, then turned around and returned downhill like a disappointed besieger.

Another view of Trenčín’s formidable fortifications

On the way back, we ducked through a break in the town walls to the upper part of the city. There was another church with Ossuary (collection of bones from buried parishioners) in the same, small square. What do you think — open or closed? Closed, of course! It was a pretty view from the church, though. We took some more pictures and then walked the narrow streets and found the stairs leading back down onto the main square or promenade. It is lined with shops, cafes, and...wait! Is that a brewpub? Sure enough it was! Even better, the pub was open for lunch and we sat down for a pint and a sandwich at Lanius Restaurant and Brewery.

Castle Beckov looms above the small town on its massive rocky outcrop

After lunch, we took pictures of the very attractive promenade with its well-kept shops and stunning view of the castle looming above them. We ducked behind the shops to get still more views of the castle buildings. Finally, we checked out the Roman inscription, and then headed to the train station. That was where the taxis were, and I was determined to hire one to take us to Castle Beckov. This was probably the only moment in Slovakia where we struggled to communicate. Otherwise, nearly everyone we had encountered spoke enough English for us to get by. We used Google translate and the taxi driver used his pad and paper. We settled on 40 Euros to take us the Beckov, wait about 30 minutes for us to sightsee, and then being us back.

Castle Beckov viewed from below

Castle Beckov sits on a towering plug of rock 70 meters high. Inaccessible due to the sheer rock slopes on three sides, it was the perfect place for a castle overlooking the small town of Beckov. The fortifications were built in the 11th century, so a castle has brooded here for a thousand years! The taxi driver dropped us off at a small turnoff from the road, and we eagerly clambered out and up the slope. As we approached the gate, snapping pictures, we noticed it was open. The ticket office was shuttered, but we wandered in to see if it might possibly be open. We heard the sounds of construction, and sure enough, the workers spotted us and barked at us in Slovakian. We waved our understanding, took a few more photos, then slowly walked back through the gate.

Close up was of the castle, which was unfortunately also closed

We circled the walls as much as we could, then returned to the taxi. Google Translate relayed that we wanted to stop in the town below for more photos. The driver was very accommodating, and actually took us to two more vantage points. A big part of the romance of this castle is actually how it looks from below, perched on its rock and commanding the countryside. As we rode back to the train station, I was happy I’d gotten a nice castle fix that day. We caught the train back to Bratislava, and spent our last evening with dinner and a brewpub.

About 15-20 minutes away from the Old Town is Devin Castle

There was one final act in the saga of country #100. The next morning, we wanted to squeeze in one final castle before catching the train back to Vienna. Castle Devin is in the suburbs of Bratislava, and was a quick Uber ride there. And what’s more, it was OPEN to visitors! The sprawling, hilltop fortifications were begun back in the Iron Age Celtic era. The Romans added their engineering to the defense works. Next, the Slavic kingdom of Moravia made it their stronghold in the 9th century. Finally, the spot was irresistible to Middle Age nobility, and many of the walls and towers date from this period.

Devin Castle is rich in history, and has been a fortified site for more than 2,000 years

It is a great spot to wander for awhile, take in the battlements, the scenic location at the juncture of the Danube and Moravia Rivers, and the quaint town nestled beneath the slopes. The views get better and better as you climb higher in your exploration of the castle. When you reach the windswept highest tower, the panorama beneath you is dramatic. You see the walls marching across the hilltop in a wide, triangular shape. You see the ruins of castle buildings below. Perhaps most dramatic is the thin spire of the Maiden’s Tower, almost leaning over the Danube River. Doubtless a watch tower to spy on river traffic, legends have cloaked it in romance - supposedly the spot where a noble lady flung herself to her death when her knightly lover was slain by her angry father’s soldiers. Beyond the Maiden Tower, the waters of the rivers flow by sleepily, as the fortress slumbers, dreaming of its rich history.

Devin Castle is well worth an hour or so exploring its expansive site

After an hour of exploration, it was time for me to move on. My short time in Slovakia was ending. My own History had been made, though. I had attained a goal I once thought unreachable: I had visited my 100th country. And just as unexplored lands beckon me to continue my voyages, the sights I did not see in Slovakia urge me to come back one day. Maybe I will return in summer’s warmth, and see even more dramatic sights in Slovakia, land of castles and history.

Maden’s Tower, a slender spire overlooking the Danube River

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:31 Archived in Slovakia

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