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The first time I saw the Spiš's Castle I must have been a little boy, too small to remember. Then when I was a bit older, during the summer school breaks I used to hitch hike around the country and went to see the castle on several occasions. Then after nineteen years of absence I have seen the castle again. One can't imagine how huge this structure is, as this is the largest Royal Gothic castle in Central Europe. Its site has been inhabited since the 5th millennium BC. Large part of the castle has been renovated and turned into a museum and the restoration continues.

Spiš ranks among the most remarkable Slovak regions. It covers the north-western part of the Eastern Slovakia Region. It abounds not only in Nature's beauties but also in the preserved medieval art-historical monuments, mostly from the Gothic period, that occupy an important place in European context. Nearly in all the villages and small towns we can find a worthy sacral or secular architecture, precious winged altars, interesting objects of arts and crafts or valuable frescos. Since the 12th century the country is dominated by the Spiš Castle, once the seat of the high-ranking Hungarian aristocratic families and custodians, the castle has been a symbol of the Spiš Region.

The Spiš castle towers on top of a limestone cliff 634 meters above the sea level. It is situated on the crossroads of medieval merchant routes connecting north with the South and east with the west Europe. The most intensive colonization took place here at the beginning of A. D. by the people of the so called Púchov culture, most probably by the Dacian, Celtic and other tribes. The castle hill, encircled by a huge walled settlement was relatively densely populated and the walled settlement most probably contained also a mint making silver coins - the so called Spiš type, found exclusively at this location. The walled settlement was once most probably the political, administrative and economic canter of East Spiš. Its walls can still be traced until now. Some residential buildings, economic objects and a huge cult building were discovered here by an archaeological survey. The life in the walled settlement by the end of the 2nd century A. D. had died out until the beginning of the Middle Ages and the settlement moved on to the neighboring hill called Dreveníik which had better natural protection.

The beginnings of the present-day castle date back to the first half of the 12th century. Here the medieval castle complex was being gradually built around the major object - a huge, round tower - the keep. In its center a big pillar was placed of 3.4 m in diameter, in which the beams dividing the tower into particular story's were built in. Compared to other such towers of that time, it excelled not only in its size but also in its architectural perfection and precise elaboration of architectural details. Next to the keep were a water reservoir, residences and economic objects, and the whole complex was encircled by a mighty fortification. However, the huge keep did not last long - it was destroyed most likely at the end of the 12th century due to the tectonic disturbance of its rocky ground.

Around the beginning of the 13th century the castle hill had been fortified anew by mighty walls. Then the so called Romanesque Palace was built here. At its ground floor it contained some economic space, at the first floor there was a Chivalry Hall, and there were some other rooms at the second floor. Next to the palace a new round tower was erected, right in the center of the ward. It had a swallow-tail-shaped attic and served mainly for safeguarding of the castle. Its shape was very similar to such towers built in Lombardy, and it is quite possible that it was built by an Italian stone-mason workshop.

In 1241, the Spiš Castle was besieged by Tartars but held. After the Tartars withdrew, the King started supporting the building of stone castles. Already as early as 1249, the Spiš Prepost was given the ground for erecting a tower and a palace on Spiš Castle. Thus the first ward was created. Within the castle compounds the Romanesque castle chapel was built. First battles for the castle took place in the 80s of the 13th century and during the battles for the Crown between Charles Robert and Wenceslas III. However, the castle, even if badly damaged, had held. For a long time its owners were the Drugets, then other feudal families. In the mid-14th century an important building activity took place in the castle the construction of the second ward - the present-day middle ward. It could be entered from the south through a cleverly constructed gate in front of which was the so called "wolf's trap." The access to the entrance gate was protected by an architecture called barbican, and a deep dry moat. Also the western entrance to the ward was protected by a structure later on rebuilt to barbican.

In 1437, after the death of the King Zigmund, new battles for the Crown began. To protect her interests, the Queen Elizabeth, opposing the Polish King Vladislaw, had hired the army of Jan Jiskra of Brandys. Though he did not succeed to capture the castle by force, in 1443, he captured it through the help of the castle's captain Baska. With Jiskra's name is associated the completion of the castle's construction to the present-day size. On the western slope first a separate small fortress was built in a shape of a round fortified keep. It was protected by a deep moat and by a cleverly constructed palisade. It was something like a seat of supreme commander in the middle of a military encampment. However, shortly afterwards all the vast encampment had been fortified through the construction of strong built ramparts, measuring 285 X 115 m. The newly built fortification exceeded by its size the whole older part of the castle, and, therefore, also a new entrance gate was constructed, heading to Spišské Podhradie village. It was defended by two huge watchtowers. After the withdrawal of Jiskra's forces, nobody else possessed such a numerous army, and, therefore, since that time the so called lower ward was used only for economic purposes.

In 1460, the castle was again taken over by the King. However, shortly afterwards, the King donated it definitely to the Zápolský brothers - Stefan and Imrich. Though the Zápolský family owned several other castles, they considered the Spiš Castle as their seat, and they ordered to build chapels-mausoleums in its vicinity (Spišský Štvrtok and Spišská Kapitula). They devoted great efforts also to the further building a rebuilding of the castle as such. First of all the old Romanesque Palace was rebuilt a redecorated in Gothic style. Nearby they had erected a new chapel and around it several residential buildings. The most important among them were two palaces adjacent to the chapel and a garden house set in the garden. At that time also the old Romanesque tower was reconstructed and some new storeys were added on top of it. Thus the castle was given an appearance of a strong Gothic castle-fortress. However, in its architecture strong Renaissance components began to appear. Here also the Jan Zápolský, the last pre-Habsburg Hungarian king was born. Since he lost his battle for the Crown to Ferdinand Habsburg, the castle went back to the hands of the sovereign, and in that connection, in 1528, it was once again besieged.

After Zápolský, the castle went to the hands of a wealthy aristocratic family Thurzo. Since the members of this family knew the life in the neighboring European countries, they had reconstructed the castle in Renaissance spirit. At the same time they kept promoting the castle to the most modem stronghold using the most recent military technique that had reflected mostly in the building of loopholes for the guns and the building of bastions. They cancelled the entrance to the castle through the old Romanesque gate, and erected a new gate high above the rock, accessible only through a complicated wooden bridge construction. On the remains of the old residential tower they made a new water reservoir, using the old grounds. They adapted also several other residential and economic buildings of the castle, all in Renaissance spirit.

In 1636, the Thurzo family had died out on the spear-side, and the castle was captured and later on taken over by the Csáky family. At the beginning of the 1660's, Štefan Csáky made an extensive reconstruction of the castle. Until that time, its residential houses were separate buildings. Csáky let to unify them with a storied arcade corridor leading far behind the chapel up to the Romanesque Palace. In that connection it was necessary to replace many windows and portals. Between the chapel and the tower a fenced garden was created. In the chapel a smaller family tomb was built. Then also the buildings of the eastern wing of the upper castle had been connected by a single portal. Several other buildings were then constructed and also other wards, so that the Csáky's castle was given basically the present-day appearance. The entrance to the castle was protected by a palisade consisting of pillars made of stone, with wooden logs placed between them. In fact, the castle at that time began to lose its military function, and in the 18th century the Csáky's began gradually to abandon it moving to the more comfortable manor houses built near by the castle, and some of them on their more distant feuds (Bijacovce, Hodkovce, Kluknov, etc.).

The castle witnessed its last military event in 1710, when, after the capitulation of Rákoci forces, the castle was taken over by imperial army. Shortly after, it had burned out, and only a small garrison remained there, which, after a fire in 1780 had also left. Since that time the castle became neglected and was gradually changing into a ruin. The Csaky family owned it until 1945, when it was expropriated and went to the hands of the state. In 1961, the castle was declared a National Cultural Monument, and the efforts for its rescue started. Systematic archaeological and architectonic surveys of the castle began in 1969 and lasted 10 years. Conservation works followed, making it, part by part, accessible to the public.

After preservation, the castle serves as a museum, and, at the same time, as an exhibited item. The large lower ward has been opened to the visitors who can learn about the history of this part of the castle, admire the preserved ramparts, towers, barbican, the small Jiskra's fortress, but also the ancient objects from the turn of our millennium. In the upper castle, the chapel is opened to the public, housing a small museum with collections concerning the castle and its environs, then an interesting collection of arms and armors and an exposition of medieval justice - placed in the rooms of the old chapel. There is a magnificent view from the castle to its surroundings. To the North there is an archaeological site Nemešany-Zálužany, where the landlord's farm buildings from the 13th -15th centuries have been discovered. In the castle's vicinity is a travertine hill Sivá Brada with a chapel on top of it and a source of mineral water. The locality is a State Nature's Reserve.




Published in the Slovak Heritage Live newsletter Volume 3, No. 4, Winter 1995
Copyright © Vladimir Linder 1995 
3804 Yale Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5C 1P6
The above article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, or redistributed by any means including electronic, without the express written permission of Vladimir Linder. All rights reserved.