Castles, caves and more camping

Our next day trip was to the town of Levoca nestled in the hills of eastern Slovakia. It is a Unesco world heritage sight thanks to its large town square, old buildings and huge basilica. To be honest we were a little disappointed as a walk around the old town and town walls took about 45 minutes. The only sight really worth seeing is the cathedral with the tall wooden altar, all handcrafted by master woodcarvers and then gilded. With its 18m height it is the tallest gothic altar in the world. Thankfully, the lack of things to do in Levoca meant we had plenty of time to visit Spiss castle. Spiss castle is ‘the castle that was never conquered’ and sits on top of a rocky hill overlooking a large valley. It began as a fortress but was slowly transformed into a grand palace complete with chapel and lookout tower, before being burnt down to a ruin. We took advantage of the free audio guide and really enjoyed listening to the legends associated with Spiss and the area whilst walking through the castle and admiring the views. We even saw bambi and his mum from the castle walls.

The basilica minor in Levoca
Ted and Matthias at Spiss castle

From Spiss our route took us back towards the South-West of the paradis national park. We set off quite early to make it to the Dobsinska ice cave ahead of the rush. Dobsinska is a special cave, notably one of very few European caves outside of the alps to have a temperature low enough to contain ice all year round. The tour costs €8 for a 30 minute guided walk from the cave mouth and through the ice itself. The walk ways are anchored into the ice and there were lots of lights along the path and on the ice. The best part was an icy tunnel through which we descended to a lower level. Our only niggle was the lighting was often so close to the ice that it was melting it, making us worry about its future a little. The cave was still great to see but 30 minutes looking at ice is certainly enough. We found it quite strange to resurface and be hit by a wall of hot steamy air.

The underground ice of Dobsinska

Our second stop on our caving day was the Ochtinska aragonite cave. Aragonite is a form of calcite which forms only in the presence of certain minerals (strontium, manganese and iron) and very slow flowing water, which evaporates rather than dripping. The crystals which form start as glittery dust and over hundreds of thousands of years grow to kidney forms, semi helical spirals or needle like shapes. Ochtinska is a cave formed of blue and white marble with clay and limestone crevases which seems to be perfect for the aragonite to grow. The marble itself is beautiful with washed out holes and swirling patterns. The aragonite formations look like corals growing from the ceiling; from bright white to brown in colour. Everywhere you look there are amazing aragonites, some of which have been named after things such as mice, hearts and ghosts. The 30 minute tour was well worth the €6 and it felt as though the staff were really interested in protecting the aragonites and helping visitors enjoy them too. We really recommend seeing Ochtinska cave as it was much more impressive than the ice cave or indeed the photos we saw of the other caves in the area. The only exception we might make is the Domica cave with its underground river, but it’s currently closed due to a lack of water so we didn’t visit it; hopefully we can go on a different undergound boat ride soon.

Coral-shaped aragonite structures

Slovakia on the whole appeared a little worse for wear. We kept coming across disused buildings or businesses that appeared to have gone under. After our experience wild camping we decided the next night we should stick to campsites. But when we turned up at our intended campsite we found the gates locked and no one there. Another car stopped by us and told us there were no other campsites, but that there was a lake just up the road about twenty minutes away. We decided to go in that direction knowing that there was at least one campsite beyond the lake. The only road to the lake quickly deteriorated and became a glorified farm track, that had been made into a patchwork of different tarmac. On a flat straight road this might have been ok, but up the 18% gradient and around hairpin bends it was a rough and slow ride. We made it to the lake at Uhorna but sadly there wasn’t much to be said for camping opportunities other than a shady car park. We continued on to the next campsite we had found online which thankfully was open!  We were welcomed by the owner Janna with a lovely cold beer and a wealth of information about the local area. The campsite was actually an orchard at the back of their home and bed and breakfast, complete with barbeque area, games area and a swimming pool. Taking in the beautiful setting we decided to stay for an extra day to make the most of a little rest and the swimming pool, even if it was swimming while watching a thunderstorm roll in.

Refreshed from our day off we had one last place to visit in Slovakia. The second largest city of Kosice located in the east of the country. We only had a short drive from the campsite to the city but we did notice the slum like buildings along the road and the tower block which appeared to have been taken over by Roma. We definitely wondered how welcome they are in Slovakia as they often seemed to be hanging about towns, obviously unemployed and in varying degrees of poverty. That said there didn’t seem to be any problems between different groups of people. Kosice however, was a little different to the countryside. The buildings were grand and decorated and it felt lively with a good bar/cafe culture. We wandered around the centre and had a look at the largest Slovakian and most eastern gothic cathedral in Europe. It seemed a nice place to go for a weekend of relaxing in a city but there wasn’t really lots to see. That said we spent a couple of hours wandering and shopping with a quick cafe stop, before we set off to Hungary.

Kosice cathedral

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