A cold wind was already blowing when we arrived in Levoča, a medieval, fortified town that became part of the UNESCO Heritage List in June, 2009. Spiš county was our final stop in far eastern Slovakia and we were eager to take a walk-about through Levoča’s historical sites before the day was through. A hideous, dark cloud was building in the distance and rolling out in our direction, so made haste like soldiers on a mission.
“Winter is coming…” I whispered to Ashleigh with a sidelong glance as another gust of cold air spewed icy needles into our faces.
A diamond in the crown of Spiš (SPISH), the ancient town of Levoča (LE-VO-CHA) is bordered by hills to the north, which are part of the Carpathian Heights, and the snowy peaks of the High Tatras to the west. Upon entering the city gates you find yourself surrounded by well-preserved, medieval buildings and many other architectural wonders that, miraculously, still stand today.
The 14th century town walls are almost completely intact (which is a miracle in itself), consisting of six bastions and three gateways: Kosicka, Polska and Menhardska. Within the centre of Levoča stands a magnificent town hall, built in the 15th century with a beautifully decorated façade, an attached bell tower, and the “cage of shame,” where many criminals would spend their days getting publicly humiliated. The massive, 14th century Church of Saint James dominates the main square and contains some of the country’s most priceless works of art, such as the highest Gothic altar in Europe: an exquisitely carved wooden shrine adorned with gold.
As much as we enjoyed wandering around Levoča and studying its medieval architecture, I was far more interested in the next village over, Spisske Podhradie, where we would find the monumental Spiš Castle. When we arrived in the tiny village at the base of castle hill, the hand of God slapped us with an all-powerful snowstorm that blanketed the world in white. We blindly wandered the streets of Podhradie, which now resembled an unfinished painting on a bleached canvas, until we found a trail head labelled “Spišský hrad”. Despite the fierceness of the blizzard we were determined to conquer the castle somewhere beyond the wall of falling snow, on top of the highest hill, and take at least one damned picture. As we trudged further up the steep incline, the castle slowly materialized out of the gale until we clearly beheld its gargantuan structure, resting like a jagged crown on top the travertine hill.
Considered to be the largest castle in central Europe, Spiš dominates the landscape on top its limestone hill and can be spotted for miles. This imposing, defensive acropolis was once the seat of Hungarian kings as well as a cultural, economic, and administrative centre of the Spiš region. Although the stone construction of this 13th century castle remains intact, in 1780 everything organic was burnt to the ground, including the roof and all of its lovely furnishings. Nobody truly knows what started the fire, but a few theories include lighting strikes or an volatile moonshine operation. One more probable explanation is that when the wealthy Csáky family abandoned the fort for more liveable standards, they set fire to Spiš castle in order to save on property taxes (without a roof it can’t be taxed). These days Spiš castle is Slovakia’s #1 tourist attraction, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and a popular filming location for epic, sword battling movies like Dragonheart and The Last Legion.
As if it was an act of magic or fate, when we finally made it to the front gates of Spiš Castle, the snowstorm stopped as suddenly as it had begun and the sky began to clear. We went into a photo-snapping frenzy with the awe-inspiring fortress stretching before us and amazing views of the Spiš basin far below us. It was a perfect ending to our Slovakian tour, which had brought us to some unexpected places with wonderful people, climaxing with an exciting snow-storm, and finishing with a priceless moment of peace and a sense of achievement. The sometimes forgotten country of Slovakia (no longer “Czechoslovakia”, people!) contains marvellous sights and architectural wonders left over from the ages, attractions beyond the capital of Bratislava that are worth discovering on your own. For us, however, it was nearly time to leave the Slovakia and the Schengen zone, delving further eastbound on board a train to the Ukraine.