Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Yet another castle in Slovakia: Trenčín

We've been wanting to take a day trip to Trenčín for a couple of years now. It's another town guarded by a cool castle that straddles an impossibly high and steep rocky outcropping, which makes a dramatic impression when passing by the town on the train or in a car, as we've done a few times. Of course, we wanted to check out the center of the town itself as well, and get a feel for this small regional capital in the northwest of the country.

From Bratislava, it takes a little more than an hour to reach Trenčín by train, so it's a totally do-able day trip from the capital. It's also good as a day trip because, like many of these Slovak towns, there's not a helluva lot there to keep visitors occupied for much longer than that.

Trenčín's train station is currently undergoing a major overhaul - or I should say its platforms are. The station itself is still your typically dingy, gloomy, brown communist-era affair, with bathrooms that haven't changed since the 1960s (I really wanted to get a photo of the vintage urinals, but there were other men peeing in there, so...). The platform area was a messy construction zone, and this could perhaps explain why on this day the trains were slowing down to walking speed well before entering the station.

Trenčín's train station

From there it's a brief stroll through a slightly overgrown and run-down city park to the center of town, where you're first greeted by the grand, Art Nouveau Hotel Elizabeth at the base of the castle's rocky outcropping. The hotel is home to one of Trenčín's first written mentions - not a passing reference on some old scrap of disintegrating medieval parchment, but a Roman inscription carved directly into the side of the rock wall in 179 AD, now located behind the hotel, which tells of a victorious battle of the Roman Empire against the German Quadi tribe. To take a gander at the inscription, you can walk up to the first floor of the hotel and down the end of a hallway, where you can see it close up through a window (along with a bunch of tacky tourist tchotchkes nearby).

Getting to the castle requires trudging up several steep, picturesque, cobblestone streets and severely pockmarked concrete passageways, eventually leading you through two defensive gates before you're finally in the compound.

Trenčín's castle is Slovakia's third largest (after Spiš and Bratislava's castle). Its earliest written mention was in 1068. Yet, a rotunda discovered on the site indicates settlement possibly dating to the time of Great Moravia a few centuries earlier. The rotunda's foundations can be seen, along with the skeletal remains of a couple of folks from the period, in one of the castle's buildings.

Guided tours here aren't obligatory like they are at Orava Castle, but you still have to take one if you want to see inside all the buildings. So, we took the guided tour (in Slovak, like at Orava), which led us through a series of rooms, many of which contain painted portraits of the castle's various inhabitants, as well as some Habsburgs who ruled over the whole region for some time. The Hungarian Illeshazi family was well-represented, as they spent several generations at Trenčín. But the castle's most famous inhabitant was Matúš Čák, a Hungarian noble who, from the 1290s until his death in 1321, managed to gain control over much of what makes up today's Slovakia and turn it into his own personal fiefdom, with Trenčín as his home base. The Hungarian king was none too thrilled with this set-up, and Čák's dominion was promptly broken up after he died.

The most amusing paintings, however, are those of Leopold I of Habsburg, whose notoriously hideous countenance was reportedly the result of inbreeding. After you're shown a few portraits which definitely cannot be described as flattering, you're taken into another room with a "non-Photoshopped" (as the tour guide joked) portrait of Leopold looking impossibly ugly, complete with crossed eyes, an exaggeratedly protruding chin, and a bizarrely massive and swollen lower lip. The tour guide said the artist (wisely) kept this brutally honest portrait hidden until after the monarch died.

Other rooms feature swords, spears, helmets, and other weaponry spanning the centuries, some of which were dredged up from the Váh River close by. The oldest swords on display come from Čák's time. You've also got a bedroom, a living room, etc. The interiors are generally sparer than those at Orava; you have none of those fancifully wood-panelled rooms, for example. But the guided tour does take you through one palace which was used as a chapel, and would make for an incredibly echo-y reverb chamber.

Despite all the ancient swords, maces, and rifles on display, this communist-era rotary phone in the corner was what caught my attention.

The castle endured countless sieges by Tartars, Ottomans, and Habsburg uprisings, but was never once overtaken. When you ascend the Matúš tower, the highest building on the complex, it's easy to see why. Invaders would have to have gotten past three (and in parts four) sets of fortifications, and would have had gallons of boiling hot wax poured on them (in addition to being pelted with rotting, leftover food) if they made it through the first few. Some of the walls along the rear are as much as 20 meters high.

But as with a lot of the castles in the broader region, Trenčín's was eventually done in by a non-conflict related fire in 1790, and it sat in ruins for over a century until reconstruction efforts began in the 20th century. Some of the reconstructions during the communist era were of dubious quality. The tour guide pointed out that a large portion of one of the outer defensive walls, rebuilt in the 1950s, collapsed several years ago. The original wall withstood countless battles and remained standing for centuries, while the commie-era wall couldn't even hack it for 50 years.

The views from the castle, especially from atop the balcony of the Matúš tower, are impressively dramatic, and it's easy to see why the location would have appealed for both practical but also aesthetic reasons: it sat on a major trade route along the Váh River, and the surrounding lush, hilly terrain is both scenic and good for keeping potential invaders away.

Once back down in the center town, the first order of business was to ascend the clock tower, which overlooks two pedestrianized squares on either side of it, and also gives you the "money shot" of the whole castle complex (see first photo, at the top of the post). The square to the northeast, Mierové námestie, is the older of the two, and has a lenticular shape typical of many Slovak squares, along with the town's main cathedral. The square to the southwest, Štúrovo námestie, is lined by a more eclectic mishmash of eras and styles, from medieval to Art Nouveau to communist-era modern. The clock tower is probably one of the more spartan examples of such things in the region (or dull, if I'm not being polite; it's certainly no match for Bratislava's Michael's Gate). The small rooms of the three levels inside the tower are used to display modern art.

Near the tower is an old synagogue, which currently houses an art gallery. We missed the damn thing by two minutes after closing time. But it's nice to see that it's been repurposed into something useful, and not left to deteriorate, like the synagogues in Lučenec or Banská Štiavnica.

The synagogue

Trenčín's old town is probably not quite as architecturally ornate as some other Slovak towns, but it's still really nice. It seems to be a tad short on over-the-top, goopily ornate historical facades and there is definitely some communist-era intrusion, too. But the overall look and ambiance are still picturesque, what with the cobblestone streets and lush trees lining Mierové square. A narrow island with a lawn, trees, park benches, and a plague column adds to the setting.

Sadly, the old Prior (communist-era department stores found in many cities and towns back then, most of which have since been turned into Tescos) appears to have been razed recently!

There is no shortage of ice cream shops, cafes, and pubs in the town's center, which seems to have the effect of drawing out the locals. We also noticed that apparently every woman in this town is pregnant with a 3rd or 4th child. I reckon there's not a helluva lot to do here...

Despite being the capital of the whole Trenčín region, the city itself is not a large one. Its population is just over 60,000, and the city doesn't look especially big when seen from the castle above. The historical section, as nice as it is, is definitely on the smaller side, even when compared to smaller towns, like Levoča or Kežmarok. But as I've already mentioned, it makes for a worthwhile and totally do-able day trip, and I'm glad we are finally able to check it off our list.

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