Slovakia – The Lesser Carpathians

To tell this story properly, I really have to go back to the day before yesterday and my less-than-commodious night on Vienna Station. It wasn’t that bad. I got some sleep in the warm and, when I and the remaining miscellaneous denizens were ejected into the street in the early hours for the regular two hour closure, at least I had some entertainment. I watched a couple of chaps with a cherry-picker painstakingly assemble an unprepossessing 20 foot conical structure made from what looked a bit like industrial scaffolding and then festoon it with streamers of plain white lights. If that’s what passes for Christmas cheer in these parts then you can keep it. When I got back into the station a bit later, teams of youngsters were pushing each other around in supermarket trolleys in order to similarly bedeck the escalators and shopfronts. I was more than relieved to get the 0515h out of there for the one hour journey to Bratislava, where I had managed to book two nights at the “Hostel Blues”.

God, I must have been tired by the time I found it: I walked back and forth in front of the entrance several times despite it being painted blue and decorated with musical notes. It was much too early to book in, of course, but the 24-hour staff allowed me to freshen up, make a hot drink and dump my luggage before directing me to the tram stop so that I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back up the hill to the station. My plan was to while away the morning with a visit to the little known Cachtice Castle, home of the infamous Hungarian murderess, Elizabeth Bathory. My research had told me that it was only one hour out of the city and I hoped to get there and back in time to return for an decent afternoon’s sleep.

Now, the chap at the information desk seemed to understand what I was asking about and wrote down some detailed train times to a little speck of a town called Sastin Straze. I dutifully boarded the train out into “Slovakia proper”, that is to say the part of the country that isn’t Bratislava (aka Viennese tourists’ convenient out-of-town lunching spot). I passed through some grim Soviet era suburbs and back into the 1950s. The stations were mere halts and the country villages functional but undecorated. If I was expecting picturesque peasant life of the sort encountered in Northern Romania, I was sadly disappointed. Everyone seemed to be wearing old anoraks of faded Navy blue, grey or black and those younger women who had made a bit of an effort had all dyed the roots of their hair to a darker shade.

When we came to change from the main line to a local train, a sprinkling of passenger got down onto the tracks and crossed to the single carriage that stood waiting on the other side. In a few moments we had reached my designated stop, a deserted little station serving a an even smaller town about which obvious two blindingly obvious facts clamoured for my attention. One: there were definitely no mountains or even hills hereabouts so what could possibly have happened to the picturesque castle ruins I had come here especially to see? Two: the skyline of this flat little town was dominated by one of the largest Baroque churches I have ever seen outside of a capital city. I decided to investigate further and found that the interior was lavishly decorated with cherubs and floral garlands because the Basilica of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary is an extremely important pilgrimage site for the Marian cult of Christianity. In fact, Slovakia has even more such shrines than Portugal (despite the latter being able to boast the apparition of Fatima0 and their continued popularity attests to how superficial was the irreligious veneer of Communism in this region and how easily it could be shrugged off.

After a good long rest and a shameless clean up of the of all the “free food” left in the hostel by a large departing group of youngsters, I set off the following morning for my commute into Vienna. If you have a continuous rail ticket this is not a bad idea, the ease of navigation and the general cost of living being much simpler in Bratislava. Nonetheless, the city’s public transport defeated me when I returned that evening by a different train (Bratislava Petrezalka is on the other bank of the Danube) and I was so footsore by this time I indulged myself with a taxi ride across the UFO Bridge (real name – Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising). Actually, a better understanding of the tram system would have done the journey for 70 cents but I will know better next time.

So this morning I rose early and, armed with the knowledge that the Slovakian word for castle is “hrad” not “schloss” and that Cachtice is pronounced “shashteech”, I set off to chance my third free tram ride up to Bratislava Halvana Stanica. Well, it’s not my fault no one has emptied the coin machines, I’m just a stupid foreigner after all! I checked my baggage and took an express out through some much prettier, hilly and forested countryside to Novo Mesto where I changed to another of the single carriage tenders which travel up and down the picturesque valleys linking the tiny villages of the lesser Carpathians.

Within a few minutes I was at Cachtice, alighting with the few other passengers and, there being no signposts or staff at the tiny station, I followed across the tracks and down a little alleyway past the cemetery in what seemed to be the direction of the main centre of population hereabouts. Eventually, after having passed a few disinterested sheep and a couple of backyards replete with chickens and bee hives, I found my way to what appeared to be a town square where a large wooden statue of the aforementioned “Countess of Blood” attired in modest Medieval dress, stood in front of the Christmas tree. Nearby the Bathory Pizza Restaurant told me I had indeed found the right place and a helpful “Hrad” sign pointed up the hill.

I set off for the climb, heartened by the fact that the finger-post said “2 kilometres” and not the more daunting “4.5 miles” shown on my mobile phone. There was a single track road for most of the way and a sprinkling of cars passed me before stopping at the only parking place, half way up. It seems that I wasn’t the only one on a mission today. I took my time and enjoyed some ravishingly beautiful views of the the hills covered in the russets and golds of their late Autumn foliage. This was definitely worth coming out of the city for. At the top I found the anticipated photogenic castle ruins but much more of a surprise was the welcome. As befits the final residence of one of the world’s most infamous torturers, I was forced to enjoy such privations as can only be rarely encountered by even the most dedicated travellers. The little information centre was still prettily decked out for Halloween with pumpkins, home-made bunting and children’s paintings while visitors were forced to sit in comfy armchairs and partake of a delicious cup of mulled wine. Yes, of course there was a cute little dog asleep on one of the cushions.

Categories: Europe

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