‘Have you heard of Spiš Castle?’
‘It’s where they filmed Dragonheart!’
‘I’m on my way.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.