The prequel is innocuous enough. A sharp turning in the dozy village of Jelenec, just north-east of Nitra on the E65 (an already forgotten village on a largely forgotten road). The landscape is pretty but not dramatic (dusty farms, low but gradually rising wooded hills. Then the road, already bad, terminates near the lake of Jazero Jelenec. In itself, the water is a pleasant spot for picnicking, particularly on the grassy banks on the far side. There’s a small waterside bar. Fishermen hunch over their lines whilst cracking open bottles of Šariš. There’s even a campsite, the appropriately named Autocamping Jelenec. But the only dusty tourist sign indicating “Hrad” (castle) has not been followed up by another. You would not think that hidden up in those woods was one of this region’s most interesting and remote hikes – nor indeed one of its mightiest castles.
Continue on the road passed the campsite (two adults with a caravan will set you back 8.50 Euros for the night). The road looks like it just leads to houses but it kinks round to the left and there, a couple of hundred metres later, a drunken hand-written sign (now confirming you are, after all that, in the right place) points you to a lay-by in which you can park and, indeed, start walking. The nearest public transport to the start point (scant, in any case) terminates in Jelenec which is still a fair walk (and an uninspiring one; 3km) for day-trippers, but, go-it-alone hikers, do not despair and stay tuned for an adventurous alternative approach…
The Case of the Hidden Castle
The path winds up not steeply but nevertheless persistently from the parking spot up through woodland – a popular spot for mushroom-picking (post on Slovakia’s best mushroom-picking spots in the making). We even saw two off-duty soldiers filling a basket together. Finally the trees thin after a couple of kilometres and a path ascends a steep slope to a castle – but not the one you were expecting to find (that would be Gýmeš, remember?). No, this is Studeny Hrad – or cold castle – a broken series of rocks which form tiered ridges, leering out over the surrounding forest. It’s a superb viewpoint and – far further above, poking out of a tree-coated hill – is the actual Gýmeš – a disappointment for those who saw the “Hrad” sign and thought they’d arrived at the summit but, for adventurers, a thrilling taste of what is still to come.
The first glimpse – of the ruins peeping out of the tree canopy – hardly prepares you for how vast Gýmeš Castle is. The path skitters through more trees and then joins a wider path which you follow to the left up the wooded rise to the castle entrance. Gýmeš is one of those ruins that grows on you, quite literally. At first only the broken entranceway reveals itself but through that, you climb up to one of the still intact towers, then continue into the keep and the interior rooms. A fortified area far larger than almost all other ruins in Slovakia reveals itself: larger yet than landmark Beckov Castle near Trenčin, and yours alone for the exploring (the route up puts most off); yours, too, for free (Beckov will charge you a 3 Euro entry).
Also great about Gýmeš is how inviting it is for picnicking. It’s not just the view, nor the feeling that descends of having discovered somewhere hidden, but one of those serendipitous barbecue spots often featuring in ruined castles on Slovak hill walks – and even a small shelter in which to camp out, if you so desired. Moral of the story: come with meat to cook.
Gýmeš has an interesting history – and one in which those first impressions of a fortress a cut above the norm start to make contextual sense. It was, indeed, a big cut above the norm – even by the high standards of Slovak castles. It was part of a mighty defence system, along with six other castles in the surrounding area, which came to create a chain of bulwarks against invading Turks. The other two castles nearby in the same chain were Oponicky Hrad and the fortifications at Nitra: castles with the girth and strength to outlast the most vicious of onslaughts. In the case of Gýmeš, its builders outdid themselves. Only in the 19th century did it finally fall (although the Turks did manage to invade it in the end, after which some rebuilding was necessary in the 18th century). But in total the fortress lasted almost 600 years following its original mid-13th century construction. In the latter days, occupants found a different way to deter visitors. Newcomers were welcomed with what became known as the shovel dance: basically, being whacked with a shovel upon arrival.
Hiking On From Gýmeš…
The easiest way back to the parking place is to return the way you came. But another, more overgrown route descends steeply from the ruins (to the left of where you first entered). Recent storms have knocked a few tress down on this route, and the path has not been well maintained, but with long trousers and hiking boots it’s not too challenging a route back down to the red trail (a wide forest track, some 2km down from the castle) where turning left takes you back passed a fishing lake to the start point.
But Gýmeš, it turns out, is a stop-off on a far longer route – a trail which leads all the way to connect the other castles involved in the defence of the land against the Turks. The next leg continues (hiking time from Gýmeš = three hours and 45 minutes) to Oponicky Hrad.
Or you could continue still further. Beyond Nitra Castle, this same path extends to Hrušov (not too far away north of Topol’cianky Castle in Slovakia), Visegrad, Esztergom (both on the Danube in Hungary) and Tata (in northern Hungary west of Budapest) castles.
The castle is free to enter with no restrictions on admission…