Like Castles? Go To Slovenia

castles, LjubljanaThe little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.

No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”

Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.

For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.

Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.

%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.

One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.

Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.

Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.

This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.

Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap in Slovenia You Really Must See!

Sandal Castle, Yorkshire, to host medieval battle on New Year’s Eve

castle, Sandal Castle, Yorkshire
A castle in Yorkshire will be the scene of a reenactment of one of England’s most important battles.

The Battle of Wakefield, fought on December 30, 1460, will be reenacted by the Frei Compagnie. Members of the group will not only be fighting it out medieval style, but will also be displaying medieval arts and crafts and talking about life in the 15th century.

Sandal Castle has an intriguing history. The first castle here was built in the early 12th century in the Norman motte-and-bailey style. An artificial hill had the main house on top, surrounded by a wooden palisade. A larger enclosure and other buildings on level ground were also surrounded by a palisade and the entire thing was further protected by an encircling ditch. These castles were quick, cheap, and easy to make and were one of the ways the new Norman rulers of England suppressed the rebellious Anglo-Saxons. Like many motte-and-bailey castles, the wooden walls of Sandal Castle were later replaced with stone.

The castle’s main claim to fame came during the War of the Roses, when Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, made a bid for the throne. He gathered a great deal of support and fought the armies of Queen Margaret and King Henry VI. In 1460 Richard was at Sandal Castle with an army of a few thousand men when his enemies showed up with a much larger force. Richard’s army was beaten and he was beheaded. The House of York continued to fight, but it was the beginning of the end.

While the original battle was on December 30, the reenactment will be on New Year’s Eve from 1-3pm. For more on Yorkshire’s sights, check out our series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

castle, Sandal Castle, Yorkshire