20 June 2011

Castle Hunting: Spišský Hrad

Rebecca remarked, when we first caught sight of Spiš Castle (Spišský Hrad, in Slovak), that this must be the most amazing castle that nobody's ever heard of. During that first glimpse, we felt a kind of awe. This is the kind of fortress that seems only to exist in the imagination or in tourist towns - turning off the car's engine and stepping out into the field, we felt almost alone with this medieval apparition. A tractor grunted its way across the field in front of us. cutting hay, but otherwise the hilltop seemed constituted only of ancient rock thrust up into the wind. This is the Slovak backcountry, and Spiš Castle rises in a lonely, limestone vision.
As we got a little closer, hiking up from a lonesome parking lot far below the walls, signs of modern life began to emerge. A group of paragliders circled above the hilltop and a second (closer, much more convenient) parking lot was bustling with cars. Spiš is famous within Slovakia, and it doesn't want for attention from Slovak daytrippers. From across the valley the endless walls had seemed deserted, but this was a trick of the distance.
From a nearby hilltop, we took advantage of the great light and blue skies. The breeze had attracted winged visitors to the high ground, and we watched as a few paragliders launched from nearby. A sidenote: I was intensely jealous of these guys. What fun it must be to fly like that.
Spiš is a ruin. In 1780, a huge fire destroyed all the wooden elements of the buildings, which had already been mostly deserted by the owners. Much of the stone components were damaged further by scavenging locals, who were looking for building material. The early-13th century stone tower at the center of the complex is one of the few remaining parts of Spiš in good shape - remarkable because of its age and its height. The tower was built to replace an earlier keep, built sometime in the 12th century, which was toppled by an earthquake. It was one of the first stone defensive buildings in the region, and an unsuccessful Tatar attack in 1241 - during which the tower was held easily by its defenders - helped popularize the masonry (as opposed to wood) trend. The walls are especially thick for such a short and narrow structure, and they seem a little primitive when compared with later designs. Still, it's remained intact for eight hundred years, which many newer, more advanced towers weren't able to do.
The fortification stood at a major crossroads between two trading routes, and the hill upon which Spiš stands has been settled since the 5th millennium BC, with rudimentary fortresses occupying the point for the past four thousand years. At the beginning of the middle ages, the Celtic and Dacian tribes that controlled the region had a stronghold here where they produced unique silver coinage that became the dominant hard currency of Slovak lands. Later, the kings of Hungary began building here, and created a monumental, defended residential outpost. The genesis of the surviving castle was centered around a Romanesque stone palace, accompanied by the original tower and a network of supporting walls and gates. Additions and flanking walls sprouted outward from this point as time went on and the site grew in importance. By the beginning of the 15th century, it was already one of the largest fortresses in Europe.
Constant construction and ambition ultimately proved a detriment, however. A long, lower extension was added to the upper castle in the 1440's so that a larger army could be garrisoned at Spiš. Two towers and a round keep were built, and the defensive focus shifted away from the high structures to the lower, more vulnerable walls. The advent of gunpowder weapons also complicated this addition, because the gunning vantage points of the high walls were so distant from the outer defenses that it made it impossible to fire in that direction without damaging the castle. New batteries were added below, but what was once an asset to the defenders became a liability, with nearly a kilometer of exposed battlements.
Partly because of this over-extension, the castle didn't fare very well in the centuries after, being taken and retaken by various forces until the region became more stable in the 18th century. As Slovakia became more peaceful, Spiš was also turned into more of a residential structure, with an architectural consolidation of the disparate upper buildings in a late renaissance, Italianate style. Interestingly, most of that renovation has been completely stripped away. The stones that were used for the more modern project were better-quarried and more valuable, so they were the first to be looted from the ruin. What remains is mostly older and more original.
At this point, Spiš is almost more impressive from afar, when the immensity of the thing can really be appreciated and one can imagine it more complete. Walking around the actual grounds, the walls seem more decayed than whole. From afar the outline is evocative enough to make you gasp. It looks, in its tumbledown way, better than a lot of rebuilt or well-kept castles and the white walls catch the light in a striking, romantic way.

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