One of the best countries in the world for castle lovers to visit is Slovakia. The landscape is littered with hilltop castle ruins, many built in the 13th century to defend against devastating Mongol invasions. Devín Castle on the outskirts of Bratislava draws the most visitors, and this fortress, dramatically perched on a cliff at the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers, certainly merits exploring. But like many other castle ruins in Europe, this one has been renovated for tourism. We skipped Devín this time, opting instead to visit two ruins which remain completely unrestored and seldom seen by travelers.
Our guide first took us from Bratislava to Pajštún Castle, a 30-minute uphill hike from the parking lot through cool beech and pine forest. We were rewarded for our efforts by an exceedingly romantic complex of walls and towers rising among the trees. One wall near the entrance retained its carved stone grotesques, and in the heart of the ruins, we descended into the well-preserved former cistern. From the edges of the site, we could see miles of forested countryside dotted with occasional villages.
A short drive past fields glowing with red poppies led us to Plavecký Castle, crowning a forested ridge with commanding panoramas of the landscape. Another uphill walk revealed a more cohesive and complete set of ruins, with a clearer layout and ground plan. Initially, the walls and battlements still looked formidable, but inside the ruins the fragility of the remaining structures became apparent. Gaping holes in the walls opened to sweeping vistas of green fields punctuated by yellow patches of rapeseed flowers and red swaths of poppies.
It was particularly delightful to have both castles entirely to ourselves, with no other visitors to disturb our contemplation of the sites. They were entirely free of ticket booths, souvenir shops, guards and, indeed, guardrails. Experiencing such spectacular castle ruins in such solitude is a memory I will long treasure.