Levoca: The Accommodation Situation:
At 11:30pm on Friday the 3rd, standing before the blackened door of a dark guesthouse on a darkened street in a dead town, I rang the door bell and cautiously waited for an answer. I had just rolled in to Levoca on the last night bus from a nearby city, Prievidza, and was desperate for any kind of lodging that could be offered for less than the arm and leg charged by most standard hotels. I waited there in silence for about a minute, until some windows to the left of me slowly creaked open and a disoriented, bald man stuck his chrome dome out of the house and gave me an inquisitive ‘dobry viecor’ (good evening). I put on my best smile and gentlest voice to coo a horrendously broken request, in a Polish-Slovak mix that was insulting for both of us to hear, for one room please. The man looked me up and down, nodded his head, and gave a promising ‘moment’. A few seconds later, the lights went on, the front door opened and I stepped inside to find a smiling woman in a purple bathrobe standing beside the man. “Good evening! Would you like a room?” she offered, and relief washed over my tired bones. The woman turned out to be an excellent English speaker and an utterly polite host, who saw me to a spacious and cheap room upstairs and let me snooze away in peace.
Spis Castle, Home of Legends and an Especially Good Audioguide Tour:
I awoke the next day with a sense of purpose that would lead to an incredible amount of sightseeing within the Levoca area. Out of all the places I could see in Slovakia, it was this region that I had made my trip for: a place so stuffed with romantic scenery and mighty bastions of feudal power that a siren call of attraction had floated through my brain from the instant I saw my first photo of it. The main draw of the area was Spis Castle, whose location on a spectacular karst hill is enough to ignite sword-and-sorcery fantasies in the mind of a bewitched observer.
After enjoying a smooth cup of white hot chocolate in Levoca, I took a bus to the town that cowers at the feet of the fortress, known as Spisske Podhradie. There, following a delicious lunchtime meal of Slovakian meat dumplings in sour cream, I made my way past the charmingly-dilapidated homes of gypsies and local Slovaks toward the looming white hunk of stone above. The climb was a bit of a heavy breather, but going past the enchanting fields of yellow rapeseed and verdant grasses was a nice distraction. I finally clambered up through the remains of an 18th-century parapet into the main gate after 30 minutes or so, and suddenly went from isolation to small crowds. It was clear that the castle was a popular choice with local tourists; nearby to the East there’s a parking lot with a gentle climb to the castle, which many take rather than the peasant’s trek from the western side, and families were coming up and down the path on their enjoyable Saturday out. Nevertheless I got a hold of an audio guide and had a remarkably pleasant wander round the bleached walls of the roofless castle, just taking my time and getting the most out of the excellent guide and its collection of apocryphal tales about the castle’s princesses and kings. In a nutshell, Spis was desired by many and held for long by few. Its Romanesque palace and gothic apartments housed dozens of noble lines over the centuries and its walls defended them well, until intrigue or political strife turned the tables and a new owner took over. This all continued until the early Modern Age when the landed gentry felt more comfortable in country manors, instead of walking their keisters up a steep limestone precipice just to go home every day. So the castle fell into ruin and eventually was accidentally torched in the 1780s. Today, the grandeur of the interior may be gone, but the sense of power you get looking over everything is still breath-taking.
In the summer, there are packs of roving medieval entertainers who hold comedy shows, swordfighting demonstrations, and musical performances at various locations in the castle for the pleasure of guests. Like with Bojnice Castle, I’m quite sure that bored-ass local youth swell the ranks of these troupes and they all seem to have a smashing time doing it.
Nostalgic Spisske Kapitula and Levoca’s Sights:
Once I had taken one too many photos and climbed enough steps, I sauntered back down the green slope to Spisske Podhradie to see the walled bishopric known to locals as ‘Spisske Kapitula’. This place, rarely a tourist destination on many people’s maps, is a little diamond in the rough for its isolation and uniqueness. The complex is a still-active ecclesiastical Catholic site that boasts a decaying cathedral and a curtain wall to protect it. Both of these things give Spisske Kapitula an older vibe, like it’s trapped in time somewhere around 200 years ago, and the languid pace of life in the neighborhood is quite pleasant. I was let into the cathedral, totally alone except for the doorwoman, and got to see a freaking legitimate medieval library with its own enormous book of Gregorian chants. That was definitely worthwhile, as you rarely get to see so many rare books together in one spot!
That evening, I caught the local bus back to Levoca just to stroll around the UNESCO World Heritage-certified town center, but it was unfortunately under the attack of full-swing renovation when I was there. I snuck into the Renaissance-era town center through an unclosed back door and was caught, although it was closing anyway, and then putzed around taking photos here and there of the walls and other landmarks. For dinner, the options seemed somewhat limited around the thinned-out town square but I managed to find a traditional place simply called ‘Slovakian Food’ that was nearly perfect. Part of the clientele was some big Slovak family filled with wailing grannies, singing out-of-tune folk songs that bounced around the wooden walls, and I loved it. The cheesy chicken I had was bomb and I felt fully satiated by the time I needed to get moving to the bus station.
Though spending less than 24 hours in the city, I can assure any traveler through central Slovakia that Levoca and Spis Castle are excellent choices for anyone looking for charm and history. At the very least, every traveler to Slovakia should get the experience of hiking up to the rugged heights of Spis Castle on a warm summer day. If the natural views don’t astound you as they are, throw in some imaginary dragons and armies of bloodthirsty invaders and that should do the trick!