Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mini Slovak road trip, Part 3: Orava Castle

Go a few meters in any direction in Slovakia and you'll likely walk into a castle or the ruins of one. The country is littered with these things, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and states of reconstruction or ruin. We've already visited several of them, but the one that always captivated me the most from seeing it in photos is Orava Castle. Its cluster of Gothic buildings are huddled atop a massive, fang-like outcropping of rock that thrusts dramatically into the sky from its base alongside the Orava River. Of all the damn castles in this country, this is the one I'd always been willing to go out of my way to see.

Like the other places we explored this week, Orava is yet another corner of Slovakia that I'd never been to. It's a historical region in the north-central part of the country, which lies west of the High Tatras and north of tough industrial town Ružomberok.

To get there, we took highway 50 northwest to Zvolen, where we then turned north onto the R1 freeway, which took us through Banská Bystrica. The R1 fizzles out once you're past Banská Bystrica and turns into the winding, sometimes steep and slightly mountainous highway 59, which at times reminded me a bit of highway 17 through California's Santa Cruz Mountains. You've got lots of dense evergreen forests, cool rocky formations and walls, and small, rust-colored villages tucked away in the narrow valleys and crevices of the dramatically hilly landscape.

Highway 59 takes you through Donovaly, a popular ski resort town dotted with hotels that look like big chalets, and ski lifts. The highway gradually descends through a narrow valley and eventually deposits you in Ružomberok, a gritty industrial town that has absolutely nothing going for it as far as tourists should be concerned. Ružomberok straddles the Váh River and is home to a few sprawling factory complexes that flank the city center. I have yet to hear anyone utter a positive word about Ružomberok, and among expats who know the country it usually comes up in conversation only when joking about places you'd never want to visit. Terezia says that even the name in Slovak sounds like kind of a rough and tumble place. Ironically, Ružomberok's natural setting is quite attractive given that it was plunked down in a valley surrounded on nearly all sides by massive, steep, densely forested hills.

At any rate, from there you continue north on 59 for about 30 minutes, passing a few interesting curiosities along the way, like the cool Likava castle ruin, until you reach the village of Oravský Podzámok, which of course is home to Orava Castle. The first glimpse of the castle when it comes into view from the road makes for some seriously high drama. Few castles look this cool and imposing, and evoke such a compelling atmosphere. From the ground it just seems to soar into the sky.

We actually passed the blink-and-you'll-miss-it turnoff for Oravský Podzámok and had to get off the highway at the next village down, Dolný Lehota. But that worked out as it allowed us to approach the castle from the rear as well, which gave us more awesome photo shots, as this thing looks insanely cool from just about every angle.

The castle as seen from the rear (north). Yours truly unknowingly ambled into a thick shrub of stinging nettles while getting this shot. My shins burned like mad for the next half hour.

We parked at the foot of the castle hill, ate at a small, passable pizza joint across the street, then bought tickets for the 2:00 tour. Sadly, the castle's chapel was closed that day because someone was getting married in it (what nerve!), but seeing the chapel costs a few extra euros anyhow, so screw it. What did kind of irk me, though, was how they charge an extra €3 if you want to take photos. This silly form of extremely mild highway robbery is actually common in central Europe. The main cathedral in Krakow, Poland, for example, has the same policy. On one hand, yes, it's only a measly €3, but they're clearly trying to milk every last dime out of the tourists, and they're punishing people for taking photos simply because they can.

Trudging up the steep path to the entrance.

I should mention that, generally, I HATE guided tours. I would much rather walk through a place at my own pace and read information from placards posted on walls. But if you want to see the inside of most non-ruinous castles in Slovakia, you have to endure a guided tour. Since an English tour wasn't offered until 3:00, we opted for one in Slovak at 2:00, and Terezia did a great job of giving me brief Cliff's Notes translations of whatever I couldn't understand. The tour guide was an extremely knowledgable girl in her early 20s who had the unenviable task of quickly herding our large group from room to room so as not to cause a back-up for the tour group just behind us.

The castle basically consists of a series of ascending levels. You climb countless sets of stairs that take you to courtyards which lead to different buildings with yet more stairs leading to more courtyards, all of which gradually takes you pretty darn close to the top of the whole complex. The tour has you climbing more than 600 steps, right up to (but not into) the highest point, and the views of the surrounding countryside and village below are impressively dizzying.

A castle first appeared on this site in the 1200s, and the place had more or less achieved its current form by the 1600s. The guide said the castle took a serious beating in several sieges over the years, but none inflicted nearly as much damage as a stupid, careless fire in the 1800s. It's amazing just how many castles suffered a similar fate - they all seem to have been extremely fire-prone. Something like a third of the castle was damaged in the fire, mostly the upper levels, but it was faithfully reconstructed, and honestly, if you didn't know about the fire you'd be none the wiser, as the only thing that doesn't look centuries old is the shingled roofing.

One room houses painted portraits of the castle's various owners, and you can immediately spot the names of some of the familiar Hungarian families who made their mark all over this country. For example, the Thurzo family took over Orava in the 16th century. Their level of power and cultural influence has been compared to the Medicis, and at some point they were big cheeses everywhere from Krakow to Levoca to Zvolen and beyond. The castle underwent a flurry of reconstructions and additions under their watch. The seemingly omnipresent Palffys occupied the place in the 1800s, by which point the importance of the castle and the surrounding area had waned. In 1868 the castle was turned into a museum, making it one of the oldest museums in Slovakia. Today it's one of Slovakia's most visited historical landmarks.

This is an original wooden ceiling that wasn't torched in the fire.
The torture room

The dining room. The backs of the chairs were detachable so that you could more easily extricate drunken, passed-out men from them and carry them away.

The castle's more livable rooms were decked out in richly detailed wood paneling from floor to ceiling, complete with period furniture, while the more functional rooms retained their stone/plaster walls and a fittingly dank, musty smell. Most of the rooms replicate medieval castle life - you've got living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, weapons rooms, etc. But in the upper levels they have a natural history exhibit on the local flora and fauna, and on the top floors is a display on archaeological findings in the area, as well as some photos showing early renovation work on the castle from the 1800-1900s.

Of course, Orava is also famous for its appearance in the classic 1922 film Nosferatu. It was used to stand in for the Transylvanian castle for all the exterior shots, and honestly, they couldn't have found a more suitably sinister castle. There's a wax model of Count Orlok, the creepy vampire himself, looming in a doorway off one of the courtyards.

The whole tour took a whopping two hours, and was interspersed by a couple of mercifully short comedic dramas done in the courtyards by actors decked out in period medieval garb. One involved a couple of bumbling soldiers whose silly squabbling was interrupted by the wife of one of them, who challenged one to a sword fight with her enormous wooden cooking spoon and quickly subdued and disarmed him.

After the tour we had some good ice cream from a stand at the foot of the hill (the apricot flavor tasted potently fresh and amazing), before walking around the area a bit to get some more dramatic shots of the castle from ground level.

From this angle, the rear of the castle looks as if it's sitting atop the trees.

The drive back

We initially weren't sure if we'd spend the night somewhere or just head back home that evening, but it was early enough that we decided on the latter. Rather than go back the way we came, we opted for a different, slightly longer route that involved taking the D1 freeway east from Ružomberok through Liptovský Mikuláš, then heading south on the winding highway 72, another scenic, mountainous road, which takes you through Brezno, then further south through Hriňová (where Terezia grew up), before connecting with the highway to Podrečany.

This all seemed simple enough on paper, but Slovakia's heinously bad road signage nearly thwarted us again!

Part of the High Tatras, as seen from the D1 near Liptovský Hrádok.

When you're on the stretch of the northern D1 freeway between Liptovský Mikuláš and Poprad, the only direct route south toward Brezno (and to Detva or Lučenec, etc. beyond that) is highway 72. Yet, at no point anywhere on the D1 did we see any signs for highway 72 or Brezno. There was a sign for the town of Liptovský Hrádok, which is where you get off the D1 to get to 72 if you're heading east, but as Liptovský Hrádok was listed at the bottom on the sign below the names of several other towns and roads that were in the complete opposite direction of where we wanted to go, we missed the turnoff (and I only noticed that we needed to get off there to reach 72 in the first place from looking closely at the map).

We managed to turn around several kilometers up the D1 and got off at the Liptovský Hrádok exit, only to find that once in the town, there were again ZERO signs for highway 72 or Brezno. As a result, we went in the wrong direction at the town's first major intersection, and went down the road for several kilometers before realizing it was looping us back around to the D1! We turned around and wound up taking another wrong turn into the fascinatingly ramshackle little side village of Liptovská Porúbka, before quickly realizing that was getting us nowhere fast. (Our map of Slovakia just didn't quite have the level of detail to help us navigate Liptovský Hrádok to get to 72).

We then went back to that first major intersection where we made that initial wrong turn, and this time turned left. Mind you there were still no signs for highway 72 or Brezno. This road did get us to highway 72 after several kilometers, though there was still no sign or any indication that this was the road to Brezno, the first town of any consequence on that route! There was, however, a sign at this intersection for a village just before Brezno, called Podbrezova, which is much, much smaller and far less significant than Brezno. Curiously, there were actually several signs for Podbrezova along the way, but we saw absolutely no signs for Brezno until a turnoff about 4-5 kilometers away from the place.

So, I have to emphasize here that Podbrezova is a village with about 4,000 people, while Brezno is a full-fledged town with a population of over 21,000. Podbrezova is a speck on the map listed in small font, while more substantial Brezno is written in larger, bold-faced type. So why in the hell are there all these freaking signs for Podbrezova and NONE for Brezno?!

Of course, now that we know the way, it's actually dead simple. But when you're navigating an area you've never been to before and there are absolutely no helpful signs to speak of and your map doesn't have enough detail of the smaller towns, finding your way can be incredibly tricky.

I'd like to get all the people responsible for Slovakia's road signage together in a room and have them summarily shot, and then replace them with counterparts from the US. This totally non-intuitive and nonsensical approach to road signage is for the birds.

Finally on the right road!

At any rate, driving through Brezno was a quasi-interesting experience. Its center has a few clusters of mildly attractive historical buildings, as well as a nice, shady main square with the obligatory Habsburg-yellow single-steepled church, and this weird old tower across the street from it.

A lot of locals were out strolling the center in the warm summer evening air, but it was especially interesting to see the large number of Roma who were out and about. Just based on this one drive-through, I'd have to say this was the most Roma we've ever seen walking around/hanging out in an urban area amid the white folks, outside of maybe Košice. When entering Brezno from the north, you actually pass a couple of densely populated, ramshackle Roma settlements. Creepy far-right extremist Marian Kotleba, who became the governor of the Banská Bystrica region in fall 2013, won big in Brezno on a campaign of hostile anti-Roma rhetoric, and it makes me wonder how high tensions are running there between the Roma community and the white people. It also makes me wonder about the allegations of people bribing Roma to vote for Kotleba that were reported in areas with high concentrations of Roma, where Kotleba performed suspiciously well.

But Brezno has nothing of any real value to travelers; it's just a remote country town you pass through while en route to more interesting places.

After Brezno you go through a few other tiny villages before you descend into Hriňová, which despite also having nothing of any real interest for travelers, is special to me because that's where Terezia grew up!

Anyhow, I'm overjoyed that we finally made it to Orava after all this time and after all my pining over photos of the damn thing. It lives up to the hype, and despite the dreadfully epic guided tour, it was worth the trip. And of course, I'm always happy just to explore new (to me) territory in this country that I've been calling home for nearly three years.

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