By Nancy Van Veen
It was stressful arriving at the hectic train station in Bratislava. No taxis were available and few people spoke English. The eventual taxi ride made it all worthwhile. The driver took delight in doubling as a tour guide, pointing out landmarks and giving insight into the Slovakian city. She enthusiastically touted Devin Castle as her favourite must-see attraction.But first, I set out to explore my temporary home: Old Town — a well-preserved medieval walled city with a wonderful European holiday ambiance. I began with a bumpy tram ride through the cobblestone streets. It’s an ideal way to relax and get oriented. Despite its small area, there’s much to see — churches, towers, museums, shops, galleries and an open square featuring gorgeous architecture, statues and fountains. Dining options are endless, with bakeries, gelato stands, outdoor cafes and bars. Many offer traditional Slovakian fare.The dominating feature of Bratislava is the picturesque castle perched high on the overlooking hill. The origins of the massive four-towered building date back to the 13th Century. The impressive grounds offer stunning views of the city and the Danube. Inside is a museum, exhibiting a detailed history of the castle and the Slovak people, from prehistory, through the Middle Ages, war and revolution to the present.
The next day, eager to explore the ruins of Devin Castle, I boarded a local bus and made the short journey to Devin. A full day is needed to appreciate this fascinating site, so rich with history and scenic beauty.Devin Castle’s first settlement dates back to the 5th century B.C. Initially a boundary fortress, it then served as a military station and trade centre. Later the Romans left their mark, as did the Great Moravian Empire. Many rulers, additions and rebuilds later, the castle finally met its demise in 1809, when Napoleon’s army blew it up. Czechoslovakia took ownership in 1939 and it was declared a national cultural monument in 1961.Entering the complex, I began the challenging ascent. My first stop was at the remains of a 4th century Christian church. Further along I had a good chuckle at the braying castle donkey and admired the pastoral view of sheep grazing on the sloping fields. Reaching the lower castle, I was intrigued to find the columns of Roman ruins. After replenishing my water bottle at the medieval well, I continued the climb to the middle and upper castles and the watchtower. These otherworldly ruins sit on a rugged cliff in the Little Carpathian Mountains, which buffer Slovakia and Austria. The panoramic vistas of the Morava and Danube Rivers here are so dizzyingly amazing I couldn’t bear to leave. After a peaceful and inspiring rest, I began the descent.Reaching the lower grounds, I took the forest path to discover the remnants of an ammunition store and gatekeeper’s house. Leaving the fortress, I browsed the vendors, sampled local wines and enjoyed a river walk around the base of the castle, watching river life flow by and craning my neck to see the lofty ruins above, which I had so reluctantly left.While exploring these ancient places, there are always epic movies playing in my mind. I see the ghostly apparitions of kings and commoners, merchants and guards dressed in period garb. I envision a fleet of fierce invaders fast approaching on the river to storm the castle. Such stories surely are written in these old stones! If these walls could talk, what tales they would tell — and wandering dreamily through this mystical place I swear I could hear them whispering to me.