Spiš Castle, Slovakia – where they filmed Dragonheart. 1

‘Have you heard of Spiš Castle?’


‘It’s where they filmed Dragonheart!’

‘I’m on my way.’

Spišské Podhradie

Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Before I had even stepped down from the bus I had spotted Spiš Castle (pronounced Spish Castle). It looms over the town of Spišské Podhradie, in Eastern Slovakia, like an ancient watchtower.

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Eastern Slovakia is an oddly untouristed part of Europe. Just over the border to the north, in the southern reaches of Poland – less than 150 km away as the crow flies – lies Kraków, which swarms with tourists. Kraków is a tourist Mecca; you can’t move for all the tourists – this is literally the case, at times, inside Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory (now a historical museum) and inside some of the more popular sections of Auschwitz. But here, at Spiš Castle, which I might add is a UNESCO listed World Heritage site, and one of the largest castles in Europe, it is eerily quiet, and utterly devoid of tourists.

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

From the bus stop I walk alone through the empty streets of Spišské Podhradie. I walk alone through the dusty, empty car park. I walk alone along the informal path that leads tourists from the car park, past the lower ramparts, and up to the castle entrance.

Goat track leading to Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

A narrow passageway brings me to the decaying barbican. I pass through, and find a small ticket booth pushed up against one of the grand stone walls. The ticket booth is closed, empty. I look around. I yell out hello. Nothing.

I continue into the keep. A door opens in one of the demountable buildings that huddle against an inner wall. A woman steps out, blows into her cupped hands to warm them.

‘Hello? Dobrý deň?’

The woman looks up, startled.

‘I’m trying to buy a ticket.’

‘Oh,’ the woman mouths.

‘Can I buy a ticket? To enter?’ I point to the inner wall of the castle, the one towering over us.

Inner wall of Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I get a smile, the professional sort. The woman’s hands drop to her side. ‘Yes, yes, come with me.’ She walks swiftly towards the ticket booth, feet crunching on gravel, steam blowing from her mouth, not looking back.

We return to the ticket booth, a key is produced, the pad lock removed, a ticket sold.

It’s the first week of May in 2015. Spiš Castle opened its door for the summer tourist season over a week ago. I’m the only one that seems to have gotten the message.

Spiš Castle

Inside Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I love this castle. It’s the castle envisioned by every child that ever read a fantasy novel. Built into the hillside, such that at times it is difficult to tell which bits are mountain and which bits are castle; sets of crooked, winding stairs leading to inner sanctum after inner sanctum, ever twisting and turning, ever climbing, dark windows looking down at you from above, perpetually vulnerable to attack by arrow fire.

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Spiš Castle, by which I mean the ruined structure I am climbing through today, was built in the 12th Century. It origins, the first fortifications built on this rocky outcrop – a small hill fort – date back 2,000 years, to a time when Celtic tribes roamed the lands.

View from top of Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

From the uppermost turret I have a view over the lower ramparts, over fields yellowed by the long winter, over Spišské Podhradie, over boundless pastureland, over forest, to the mighty High Tatras mountain range.

Lower ramparts, Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Looking down at the lower fortifications, at the ramparts, at the bastions. I find it is hard to make sense of this castle. Which bit is habitable? None of it looks particularly comfortable to live in. It’s just fortified walls, battlements, and grassed baileys. An incongruous circular marking in the grassed section of the lowest bailey denotes the location of an early Celtic structure.

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I descend to the lower bailey, to the Celtic foundations. Here, running from me, scurrying this way and that through the grass, are small yellowy-brown ground mammals. A sign pinned to the rampart wall tells me they are called spermophiles. A type of ground squirrel.

Spermophile, Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White


Does that mean they are sperm lovers?

No, sperm is Latin for seed. These furry creatures, the sole residents of this decaying medieval fortress, are lovers of seeds.

Spermophile, Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I came for dragons, but had to make do with spermophiles.

But look deep, deep, deep into that black, beady eye. There lies a bottomless well of hatred, and fury. The next movie set in Spiš Castle might not feature dragons, but rather a dark-hearted, sinister monster of another kind; a cave-dwelling, fearsome, Sean-Connery-voiced spermophile.

Practical Information on reaching Spiš Castle:

Spiš Castle is an easy day trip from the town of Poprad – there are semi-regular public buses plying the route. You can make a stop at the old medieval town of Levoča on the way back to fill out your day.

Read more on Spiš Castle in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on Slovakia:

Bojnice Castle – medieval castle with a Romantic skin

Trenčín – defender of the White Carpathians

Bratislava – worth a visit?

Posts on Central Europe:


Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany – it’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in the flesh


Vaduz, Liechtenstein – worth a visit?


A winter hike to Morskie Oko, Poland

Zakopane, Poland – what to do if snowed in for three days

My favourite castles:

The Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia

Babak Castle, Iran – windswept mountaintop stronghold of Azeri rebel leader

Kumamoto Castle, Japan

Kronborg Castle, Denmark – the house of Hamlet

Bahla Fort, Oman – labyrinthine 13th Century mud-brick castle

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One thought on “Spiš Castle, Slovakia – where they filmed Dragonheart.

  • Karen White

    What an utterly, beautiful castle. Yes, I think I would love to go there as well. How amazing to be there by yourself.