Monday, May 19, 2014

Šomoška Castle

You might remember from my Amsterdam post that my mom is in town. This weekend we took her to meet Terezia's parents and spent a few days at their place out in the rural heart of Slovakia. There are some pretty cool things to see in the vicinity of their village (located near Lučenec, in the south central region of the country, not too far from the Hungarian border), especially in the way of castle ruins. This region of Slovakia is littered with 'em, many of which were built to defend the territory from invading Ottomans, Tartars, and even Mongols. One of those castle ruins is Šomoška, which is a little bit more intact than some of the others in the general vicinity, and we thought it'd be nice to take my mom to see it. Since the only castles we have in the US are in Disneyland, she really appreciated getting to see something more authentic.

The castle is hard to miss when driving towards it.

I had actually been to Šomoška once before back in late 2010, on my first trip to Slovakia. But at that time it was in the dead of winter, everything was covered in snow, and the castle was shrouded in a such a thick blanket of fog that you could hardly make it out unless you were up close. Of course Terezia and Tony, who'd been there before in nicer weather, were complaining about how the fog prevented me from seeing what was a stunning, panoramic view of the area below/around the castle, but it still evoked a wonderfully eerie and mysterious atmosphere. Still, I always wanted to go back to get a better sense of the surrounding area, and the intermittently rainy weather we were having this weekend behaved just long enough for us to get to see this thing in a different light.

I like how from this angle the castle bastion looks like a Lego guy with a bindi and a hat.

Šomoška Castle straddles the border of Slovakia and Hungary. The castle itself is technically on the Slovak side, but the parking lot and the adjacent Šomoška village below it are in Hungary. Trying to visit this castle before both Hungary and Slovakia joined the Schengen area must've been a slightly confusing endeavor.

In typical Slovak fashion, getting to Šomoška from the Slovak side requires that you park a few miles away from the castle and hike up the steep hill. However, from Hungary you can just drive right up to the parking lot at the base of the entrance. The hike on the Slovak side is quite lush and scenic, but it would certainly be nicer if they could provide easier access to lure more visitors from that direction. Given that this is one of the more intact castle ruins in the area, you'd think Slovakia would want to push it more, make it easier to see it. But we opted to drive in through Hungary, and that particular road takes you through the picturesque, old, charmingly ramshackle village of Somoskõújfalu, and then the smaller Šomoška village.

Like most castles in the area, Šomoška sits dramatically on the tip of a steep hill overlooking a village and a surrounding valley of forested terrain below. It was first built in the 13th century and enlarged in the 16th century. Ottomans actually occupied it for over 20 years in the late 1500s, but for most of its existence it had a string of Hungarian owners. While it managed to survive the Ottomans unscathed, it was a stupid fire in the 1800s that destroyed most of it. While today one rather striking, fat, round bastion remains, there used to be two others.

If you take a look at the stones used to make the castle you'll notice they are all shaped like little hexagonal tubes. That's because a volcanic eruption 4 million years ago shot out basaltic lava which quickly cooled and froze into these clusters of hexagonal rods that cascade down the hillside. The people who built the castle hacked away at the various cascades and outcroppings, as the hexagonal tubes made for perfect building stones. You can still see one of these rock cascades today just behind the castle and down the hill a bit. Apparently, there are only just a handful of similar frozen rock waterfalls elsewhere in Europe and the US. A little ways below the cascade is what's called the rock sea, which looks like a river of loose rocks flowing down the hill.

The frozen rock cascade.

You can tromp around the ruins and even go inside Šomoška's bastion and walk around its two levels, and peer out the windows for stellar views over the lush landscape.

Terezia standing next to what would be a killer breakfast nook.

When looking south into Hungary you can see another hill in the distance capped with yet another castle, called Salgó, named for the nearby Hungarian town of Salgótarján. I've read that the castles in the region were built just far enough apart so that they could still be seen from one another. This meant that if, say, an invading army of Ottomans were coming from the south, the southernmost castle would light up some big torches as a warning signal to the next castle up, and this would continue on up on the line so that all the castles to the north would be prepared.

You can see Salgó Castle on the hill in the center in the distance, with the village of Šomoška in the foreground.

I've never been to Salgó Castle, but back in 2010 Tony drove Terezia and I into Salgótarján, which today seems only to consist of soul-crushingly bleak, grey, brutalist communist-era apartment blocks and shops. But during communism Salgótarján was a shopping mecca for people in then Czechoslovakia, who used to cross into Hungary and go there to buy things that they couldn't find (or which were too expensive to buy) back home. In the 80s Hungary was a bit more lax about allowing western goods, so you could find a few brand name and/or better quality things there. Stuff was often cheaper, too. Once Terezia's dad managed to smuggle some tripe over the border and traded it with someone in Salgótarján for a cassette/radio boombox. I'm not sure how he got either over the border, since border security and customs were tight under communism, but it's a hilarious story.

At any rate, I think Šomoška is worth a visit. What makes the experience even more fun is that you've got to be really careful when navigating the ruins, since there are lots of loose, jagged, broken stones lying about that are easy to trip over and/or slip on, and there are very few guardrails or wooden platforms that you'd see if this castle happened to be in litigious America. So, if you visit this place, wear some good hiking shoes and be careful!

So mysterious!


  1. Nice work Jeff. I have a Slovak wife so spend a lot of time there (when we're not in England). Always find your writings illuminating (especially your Communist tour of Bratislava - amazing how many of those photos I have myself!). A fine read as always.

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks for the nice comments and thanks for reading the blog! Regarding that communist-era stuff, it's definitely fun to photograph.

  2. Hey Jeff,
    I just stumbled over your blog and I am really impressed. Great articles, fantastic pictures!
    My wife and myself are about to move to Bratislava so I was screening web for some info - your blog is definitely the place to get it. I am hunting for flats and I was wondering if you can recommend any neighborhood/area? I will come over within the next two weeks to have a look around and will start my new job by end of August... Any chance to shoot you an email/get in touch with you?

    1. Hi there! Thanks for the comments. So you're moving to Bratislava, eh? I suppose that where you want to live will depend on a slew of different factors, like whether you plan to have a car, how you prefer to get around the city, how close you want to live to your work, how much rent you want to pay, etc. My wife and I have been living in the Stare Mesto (Old Town) because we don't have a car and we like living walking distance to the grocery stores and other shops, and being close to lots of tram and bus connections. Plus, the Old Town generally looks nicer, what with the cool, older buildings. But rent is a bit higher in the center of town, though it's considerably cheaper than rent in the centers of most major European cities. Send a message to thoutah @ and I'd be happy to offer more advice.