Towns / Cities Visited: 134
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 25,212
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,394,173
Our day began early, both because we had places to go and things to see, and also because we were sleeping on a far from comfortable mattress. Awake, albeit somewhat reluctantly, be scoffed down some breakfast, checked out, left our bags in the charge of the hostel staff. Scurrying off to the bus stop we had scoped out the day before, we arrived just in time to hop onto our required vehicle. Twenty minutes or so later and we were jumping off in the small town of Devin, which sits north-west of the capital, just beside the border to Austria.
Now, we may not have known exactly how to get to our desired destination, Devin Castle, but given that its stony silhouette looms high over the town, it wasn’t long before we weaved our way to the base of its clifftop perch. Missing the path up to the gate, we managed to find ourselves stumbling across a monument to those killed during the Soviet occupation of Slovakia, and its time behind the infamous Iron Curtain. Taking a moment to regard the memory of those lost, we retraced our steps and finally, after swimming through a sea of visitors clearly on a tour, located the entrance and purchased our tickets.
The walk up to the castle was winding, but lacked any offensive steepness, and we admired the view up to the castle, smiled at the sheep grazing lazily in the pastures, and looked with interest at the medieval stone foundations of buildings which had once graced this lower area of the castle complex, as we made our ascent.
Like many other sites across Europe, this natural vantage point has been an inhabited site since the Neolithic age, and has been home to fortifications from as far back as the Bronze and Iron Age, before being occupied by the Celts and later the Romans. Its easy to see why this spot has been so important throughout the ages, with the cliff peaking at 212 metres, and its location being beside the junction of the Danube and Morava rivers: in short its a prime place from which to lord over the surrounding areas, and control the comings and goings of those using the waterways. Although there has been forts here for millennia, the current building dates mainly from between the 13th and 15th century. It was, like so many others, passed around between different owners in the standard royalty based granting of lands and titles. Eventually, it fell into ruin when it was no longer an important defensive structure and thus paying for its upkeep was low on the list of priorities by its wealthy owners. It now sits in a state of semi-restored but empty grandeur. Its major destruction thanks mainly to retreating Napoleonic forces in 1809, who blew it up despite it not being an armed or active fortification. Lets be honest though, I think the Napoleonic forces just enjoyed blowing things up regardless of whether it was tactical or not. Still, the outline of the now stunted walls stand as a reminder of what once was, and a few of the towers cling vainly to life.
As we finally reached the castle and slipped in through the outer wall, we were delivered into the rather clean and airy inner courtyard, which fills the space between the lower castle area, and the remains of the keep on the upper peak, as well as housing the remains of the well which once provided water to those who lived here. Dotted around this space, as seems to be the fashion these days, sits a number of modern sculptures, carved rather beautifully from wood, and including a giant screw and a robot.
From here we entered an exhibit about the Slovak people, from the early days of their existence, through the attempted eradication of their culture by their Hungarian rulers, to their merger with Czechia, their being pitted against the Czechs by the Nazi’s, their abuses behind the Iron Curtain, and finally their relatively newfound freedom as they finally became their own country on January 1st, 1993. It was intriguing to see how much this nation of people have endured, and yet they have still managed to keep their own unique culture and traditions despite so much outside influence.
From here we made the trek to the upper castle, a location which offers a truly magnificent view down over the merging rivers. Now, when I said Devin lies near the border with Austria, I mean that the other side of the river…that’s Austria. Its also interesting to know that the river marked the edge of the Iron Curtain during Soviet occupation, and as such it would have been possible to view freedom from Communist rule from this very vantage point. Furthermore, even in this time the castle was open to the public, however, I imagine in an attempt to prevent people escaping to the West, the area surrounding the castle was deemed a militarized zone and was off limits. Complicated history aside, the view down over the gentle bend of the Danube, the dark waters of the Morava, and the lush forest that stretches from it in all directions, is an undeniably magnificent thing to behold.
Although there is very little left of the castle which once sat here, the lower vaults are still standing, and once you clamber down the rather precarious original stone steps into them, you find yourself surrounded by a collection of artifacts discovered in and around the castle during its restoration. From fossils and stunning carved stonework; to millennia old coins, weapons, and tools; it was wonderful to be able to see a tiny snippet of the history of this place, especially when so much of the physical structure no longer exists.
The sun was high in the sky by the time we made the journey back to Bratislava, and made the trek back up to Bratislava castle. With the exterior already visited the previous day, we wasted no time with it and headed straight in, purchasing our tickets for the interior and jumping straight in.
Seemingly like every lofty hill in Europe, the one upon which this castle sits has been inhabited for millennia. In fact, there is evidence that people have settled this hill since as far back as 3500 BCE. The first stone castle was constructed here in the 10th century, and was an important residence of the Hungarian monarchy which ruled this land for centuries. So important, in fact, that from 1552 and 1784 it was where the Hungarian crown jewels were kept and protected. It was changed and converted architecturally many times, including a renaissance conversion in the 1500s and a baroque conversion on the 1600’s. By the end of the 18th century the castle had lost its importance, as royal rule of Hungary moved to Buda, the crown jewels moved to the Hofburg in Vienna, and the castle was assigned as military barracks. In the following 150 years the castle fell into ruin, and was almost completely demolished at a number of points during the war years at the beginning of the 20th century. Restoration to bring it back to its baroque glory days began in 1957, and although Communist rule made this process slow and difficult, it now stands as a castle once more, even if its ancient foundations are, for the most part, masked by modern facings.
Entering the first of many exhibits housed within its walls, we wandered through the displays explaining the exhaustive efforts put into the restorations. From here we decided to work from the bottom up and headed to the basement to see the exhibition on the Celts who once occupied these lands in the centuries before Christ. Pottery, tools, weapons, coins, replica huts, and even skeletons, remind us of how long and complex the history of this site really is.
Moving up to the ground floor, and seemingly some 1500 or so years into the future, we wandered up the restored grand staircase. Crisp white walls, lush red carpet, and an inordinate amount of gilding made it feel as though one of the Habsburgs would descend at any second. At the top of the stairs, sit a series of rooms restored in a similarly gaudy fashion, before you ascend once more to another exhibit, one featuring the works of a local Slovak painter.
Next up was a fascinating exhibition of advertising from Pre-World War II Slovakia, including some replica shop fronts. Although the majority was written in Slovakian, there were still plenty of familiar brands, from Singer sewing machines, to Maggi stock powder, and from Goodyear tyres, to Ovalmaltine malt powder. There’s something nostalgic about vintage advertisements, and it harks back to what we all like to think of as ‘a simpler time’; although I’m sure the Slovak people found it anything but simple to be in the middle of war-torn Europe at the beginning of the 20th. century.
Onwards we headed, up to the top of Crown Tower, the oldest of all of the towers at the castle. Although its windows are small, and a little grimy, they offer a spectacular view across the castle rooftop to the city beyond, and also out across the Danube and a picture perfect shot of the UFO observation deck.
Back down the tower, found us wandering through a fascinating look at the history of the Slovak people told through the medium of historic artifacts, and luckily for us, including labels in English.
Within the tower also sits a rather unassuming and incredibly steep and narrow staircase. If you are brave enough to descend the distance of it, as we were, you are delivered to the tiny room which used to house the Hungarian crown jewels, and now holds a replica of the crown. It was about half of the way back up that it become obvious why they chose this place: seriously, its hard work traversing the stairs, and there is barely enough room to swing your arms, let alone a sword to fend off the guards.
The final exhibit we ducked into on the way out was a collection of silverware from the centuries: a collection which would easily garner jealousy from any wealthy family in the last 1000 years. I’ll be honest, I do not envy whichever poor soul has the tedious task of polishing it all, that’s for sure.
We had finally come to the end of our Slovakian exploration, but we took the time to stop in and grab a traditional Pozsonyi Kifli, a crescent shaped Slovakian pastry filled with poppy seeds and walnut. We also fitted in an ice cream because, well, who doesn’t have time for ice cream. That being said, I did have to scramble back and get my partner a second one when his scoop managed to escape the cone and I found him staring at it on the ground despondently. Crisis averted, we weaved our way back through the old town, collected our bags, and trundled to the train station.
Having learnt our lesson, we had booked seats in the first class section, and were soon settling comfortably into our seats for our journey across the border into Hungary. All was going well, that is until our train arrived at our station five minutes ahead of schedule, with no announcement over the speakers. Spotting the station name out the window, we scrambled to collect our suitcases and backpacks, running down the aisle to the door. Panicking when the door didn’t open at first press, I mashed the button like a seven year old playing video games until, by some miracle, it decided to release us. I got off well and good, but by the time my partner was leaping off, the train was already pulling away from the platform.
It was a close call, but we’d managed it with all of our belongings still in our possession, albeit a little shaken by the events. With the sun already tucked below the horizon, we wandered through the dark towards the river, for we were not yet at our destination, Visegrád, which sat glinting across the water. Now, in this part of the world, finding directions to where you want to go can be a struggle, even for Google, and thus we went with the tried and true method of ‘look for people loitering near something that looks like a dock’ in order to locate where we should catch the ferry from.
Our wild method worked, and we were soon bundling on to a rather weathered looking vessel and sitting down. As the ticket man reached us though, and showed us the price on a notepad when he realised we didn’t speak Hungarian, we froze in our second wave of panic in the past half hour. In our flustered state after essentially diving off a moving train, we had completely forgot to stop at an ATM and take out Hungarian Forints. This was the only country we were visiting on this leg that didn’t accept Euros, and yet here we were with nothing but the almost unanimous continental currency.
Looking absolutely mortified, we were faced with the very real possibility that we would have to alight the boat, find money, and wait another hour in the dark for the next ferry. As the rest of the local passengers watched on, a man to our right, who by the looks of him was a tradesman on his way home, began speaking with the ticket man in Hungarian. Although we had absolutely no clue what was being said, his body language made it quite clear it was along the lines of ‘Seriously, it’s like $2 a ticket, can’t you just let them cross?’. Obviously the ticket man was just doing his job, and shrugged with the pained look of ‘Well if it was up to me I would, but its not’. Some more dialogue was exchanged, the man paid his fare, and the ticket man nodded at us and smiled. Still confused about what was happening, a man across from us, who spoke a tiny bit of broken English told us it was okay, then using Google translate showed us his phone. It simply said ‘The Saviour has paid your way’. To this day I’m still unsure as to whether he meant the tradesman was our saviour and had paid for our tickets, or whether it was a more abstract religious statement about God. Either way, as the ferry pulled out onto the water, we mouthed a quiet thank you to all involved, and sat quietly, trying to calm our shocked nerves.
As we tumbled out on the other side, the tradesman had disappeared before we had a chance to thank him properly, and as we walked up towards the road, the ticket man ran after us to hand my partner his sunglasses that he’d dropped. Trying to pull ourselves back together we made the long and rough walk down the roadside to find our hotel. We arrived, exhausted and hungry, dumped our bags in our room. Famished, we took the advice of the receptionist and wandered into the town of Visegrád, via an ATM, to grab a bite to eat at a pizza place, along with a well needed nip of whatever local alcohol we pointed at on the menu.
Eventually, we made it back to the hotel and collapsed, rather thankfully, into bed. As I relived the dramas of the evening, I was overwhelmed with an enormous sense of gratitude towards our saviour on the ferry. They say you learn something new every day, and this is often true tenfold whilst travelling. So what life lesson had I been bestowed by the events of today? That there is few things scarier than having your fate decided by others, in a language you do not understand, when you have no recourse to personally respond on your own behalf. As poignant as this lesson was, the resolution of the ‘Great Hungarian Ferry Debacle’ reinforced another lesson I had already learnt on my travels; that despite the media showing us everything to the opposite, for the most part at least, people are inherently good. We have found, time and time again, that people will try and help when and where they can, even when life’s barriers sit between us. You do not need to speak the same language, share the same culture, or believe in the same things, to help others. Kindness is a universal language; compassion is weaved into every culture; and if you believe in nothing else in this world, believe in the power of empathy.