Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hiking to Pajštún Castle

I wasn't kidding in my Orava Castle post when I said that Slovakia has more castles and castle ruins than you can shake a stick at. In the wider Bratislava region alone I can think of 7-8 off the top of my head, and there are probably more that I'm forgetting. For a while now I've been wanting to check out Pajštún, a Medieval castle ruin set deep in the forest of the Small Carpathian hills just north of Bratislava. It's perched high above the small village of Borinka, atop a big limestone outcropping on a steep hill, overlooking the surrounding forests and the Zahorie region below.

Pajštún isn't like the Devin Castle ruin with a big parking lot at the base of its hill and a steady stream of tour buses. It's pretty remote, and the only way (that we were aware of) to reach it is to hike through the woods and plow straight up the side of a steep hill. This hill feels nearly vertical at times, and it's probably not a good hike for the easily winded. For the route we went, there's no switchback trail to make it easier - for over half a mile you just trudge straight up.

(However, we did see A LOT of families with little kids up at the castle, and we discovered that there is supposedly a road you can drive at least part way up the northwest side of the hill that leads to some parking. You still have to walk some distance, but I'm not sure how long or steep the path is. I can't imagine many of the 6-and-under kids we saw there walking up the trail we took without putting up a fight.)

There are seemingly hundreds of castle ruins in Slovakia like Pajštún, but it does have a few nifty details that make it stand out from some of its peers.

Firstly, the castle is known for its cluster of gargoyle waterspouts, which have these unique and menacingly grotesque faces on the ends of them. Of course gargoyles always have creepy faces, but I've never seen any with visages quite like these. According to the info board these ghoulish faces could once be seen leering at you from all around the castle, but now only a group of five of them remains, plus at least one other just a little to the left of them. There's another one that has fallen and has been left on the ground below the others, which you can see up close.

When tromping around the complex we were struck by how Pajštún was actually a fairly decent-sized and sophisticated structure, which is all the more impressive given how the place is fairly remote and sits on such a perilously steep hill (steeper - and further uphill from the village below - than even Orava or Trenčín). Hauling anything up to this castle must've been a colossal pain in the ass.

Pajštún was built in the 13th century as part of a line of defensive Medieval fortresses along the Small Carpathians that served as a warning system against invasions. In the mid-18th century the castle was struck by lightning and severely damaged by the resulting fire. In 1809 Napoleon bombed the snots out of what was left, even though at that point the castle had zero importance or strategic advantage. What a dick!

This is how Pajštún looked before it was decimated by bad weather and Napoleon's army.

The narrow paths around the base and edges of the castle are covered in loose rocks, shards of castle stones, and big protruding tree roots - definitely not a place for the clumsy or trip-prone (not sure how I managed to get through there without incident). It's difficult to step back and get a good look at the front of the castle without running the risk of tumbling backwards down an extremely steep slope that's covered in a cascade of more loose rocks and broken bits of stone.

The vegetation around and within the castle is so overgrown that in some places it partially obscures the structure. It occurred to me that the best times to visit Pajštún are probably late fall, winter, and very early spring when there are no leaves on the trees, which would allow for clearer views of what's left of the castle's walls.

Views of the surrounding landscape from the castle are awesome. You can't see Bratislava, but you can see Kamzík, Devínska Nová Ves, Stupava and the other villages below, and the vast expanse of flat countryside to the north of the Small Carpathians, which makes up the Zahorie region.

At the top in what is roughly the center of the complex is a dish-shaped grassy area with plenty of shade (and sun) and space for lounging. When we were there about 15-20 other people were scattered around, having picnics or just lying in the shade or the sun. The area was also dotted with several makeshift stone fire pits, a few of which had fires going with people grilling sausages over them.

The fact that Pajštún is kind of remote and it takes a bit of work to reach it makes it all the more appealing. In the Bay Area, where I'm from, there may be a slew of beautiful hiking trails, but none of them lead to Medieval castle ruins.

Furthermore, I love how if this thing were in the US and open to the public, it would be buried under a network of secure walkways and platforms with railings and fences and warning signs everywhere. But here in Slovakia, none of the high, deadly drops are fenced or roped off, and you can walk around the whole place completely at your own risk, free of the crap that would clutter it up in ever litigious America.

Getting there from downtown

We caught the number 37 bus from the depot under the SNP Bridge to Záhorská Bystrica, which was the end of the line (though some 37s go to the next village, Marianka). Záhorská Bystrica is about four miles away from the castle if you take the most direct route on foot. There are other buses that will take you to Borinka, the village just below the castle, but those involve more complicated routes with transfers, so we chose to take a longer hike from Záhorská Bystrica instead.

There are markings for the path to Pajštún all the way from Záhorská Bystrica in the form of little red and white stripes painted on lamp posts, fence posts and trees. The problem is that you really have to keep your eyes peeled for these red and white markings. Quite often you'll come to a fork in the road where there is no signpost or anything indicating which way to go, so you just have to carefully scan the surroundings for the red/white marking, which is usually placed a little ways down the path that you want. Not the most intuitive system, but it got us there, so it seems to work.

From Záhorská Bystrica you make your way to the next village, Marianka, which is a popular catholic pilgrimage sight. You can see a lot of elderly people milling about there who are presumably on their way to (or from) the pilgrimage area for its alleged healing powers.

Once you're through Marianka, you get to a trail that leads you through a forest to Borinka. You pass through quaint Borinka and hook up with another trail and forest, which is where the actual path to the castle starts.

At certain points along the path you can see the castle peeking out over the trees. The trail meanders along, gradually ascending until you come to a small clearing where the steep uphill workout begins.

The whole walk from the Záhorská Bystrica bus stop to the castle is about 4 miles - a scenic and totally do-able hike.

One thing we noticed is that there is clearly a lot of money in all three of these villages. I got the impression that these were some of Bratislava's more affluent suburbs, what with all the sleek,  modern and big (by Slovak standards) houses everywhere. And we saw more than a few early middle-aged guys wearing pastel polo shirts with popped collars speeding through the narrow, winding lanes like assholes in their Mercedes SUVs and Land Rovers. One such asshole, when careening around a blind, narrow curve, chose to honk his horn several times rather than slow down.

On the way back we were able to catch the 37 bus in Marianka, so we didn't have to walk all the way back to Záhorská Bystrica. We had 25 minutes to kill in Marianka, however, so we stopped at this extremely old-school communist-era pub across the street from the bus stop for some beer. Inside, the shiny all-black furnishings with rounded edges screamed 1984, while the little weather-beaten chairs on the patio in front had clearly been there since the early days of 'normalization'.

I mentioned that these villages seem affluent, but Marianka really appears to be raking in a lot of dough. The main bus stop was obviously recently redone and is easily the nicest and most modern bus stop I've seen in any village or town outside Bratislava. The sidewalk was made with shiny new cobblestones, the bus shelter is a sleek, modern glass and steel contraption, and the benches are all spotless and gleaming. This is a far cry from the usual beat-up shack slapped together with sheets of corrugated steel on a badly pitted and weed-strewn sidewalk that typically serves as a bus stop in villages or towns this size.

At any rate, we both really dug the hike and the castle, and we honestly don't understand what took us so long to finally get around to making the trek.

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