Castles of Slovenia

Crowns above the city

Bled Castle. Photo: Rožle Bregar

Slovenia is truly a fairy-tale country. Its landscape is dotted with castles, manor houses and fortresses that conceal stirring stories of the past behind their walls. Some castles have been renovated and converted into museums, hotels and venues for events, and many sit proudly on hilltops and offer breath-taking views.

The castles in present-day Slovenia were built in various periods of the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance and baroque periods, although the first traces of castle-building date from antiquity. From the tenth century onwards, several hundred castles, manor houses and great country mansions were built in the land, which, though small, was a strategically important territory. Taking into account all existing structures, from those that have been renovated to those that lie in ruins, there are estimated to have been around 900 castle-type buildings in Slovenia over the past centuries. Castles were built on clifftops and hilltops – wherever access was only possible from one side, which in those times made them easy to defend. From the sixteenth century onwards, manor houses and country mansions began to be built in lowland areas, while magnificent palaces began to appear in towns. All are evidence of our rich history, although this was often unkind to such buildings, since many have fallen into ruin or disappeared without trace. Well-planned and well-constructed castles, on the other hand, withstood even the largest peasant revolts and enemy attacks. Many places around Slovenia are famous precisely because of their wonderful castles, today lovingly restored and a source of pride for the entire country.

Some notable castles

Ljubljana Castle , a powerful medieval fortress, dominates the skyline of Slovenia’s capital city and offers an unforgettable panoramic view of its surroundings into the far distance. It is constantly surprising us with new experiences. This year, for example, an exhibition entitled Plečnik above the City  has opened at the castle to honour the memory of Ljubljana’s most famous architect. This exhibition of Jože Plečnik’s plans for the Castle Hill, both realised and unrealised, remains on view until 1 October 2017.

Ljubljana Castle. Photo: Arne Hodalič

Bled Castle  stands on a steep cliff above Lake Bled . The image of this castle above the lake, with its romantic little island and church, is a classic view of Bled that is instantly recognisable both at home and around the world. Based on written sources, Bled Castle is the oldest in Slovenia, being first recorded in 1011. Notable features – in addition to the spectacular view – include the castle forge, print-works, Knights’ Hall and castle chapel. Many prominent world leaders and politicians have visited Bled Castle and enjoyed the unique view over the beautiful surroundings. Bled is also the venue for many traditional annual events, such as Medieval Days , a summer cultural programme held at the castle, the Bled Festival  and the Okarina Festival  (dedicated to folk and world music).

Predjama Castle  is something unique among Slovenia’s castles: carved into a cliff and connected to the passages of a cave that lies behind and beneath it, it was built almost 800 years ago. It is the largest cave castle in the world, and has been officially recognised as such by Guinness World Records. The most famous inhabitant of the castle was the rebellious knight Erasmus of Predjama. According to legend, Erasmus defied the imperial army for more than a year. The besieging army tried to starve him out and thus crush his resistance, but thanks to a secret passage through the cave behind the castle he was never short of fresh food. Today the castle is said to be haunted by his ghost. 

Celje Castle , which stands on a hill above Celje, is the largest medieval castle in Slovenia and was once the home of the Counts of Cilli (or Celje). The latter were the most important ruling dynasty to have their home and dynastic seat within the territory of present-day Slovenia. The castle offers magnificent views, while visitors also enjoy exploring the walls and other remains of this once mighty structure that altogether cover an astonishing 5,500 m². The best-known story connected to Celje Castle is that of the forbidden love of Frederick II of Celje for Veronica of Desenice, a noblewoman of a lower rank. The principal opponent of their relationship was Frederick’s father, Hermann II of Celje, who had his son locked up in a tower, where he remained for more than four years. Since that time the tower has been known as Frederick’s Tower. Veronica was accused of having seduced the man through witchcraft, and thus occured the first known witch trial to take place within the territory that today falls within the borders of Slovenia. 

Celje Castle. Photo: Matjaž Jambriško

Maribor Castle stands in the old town centre. It was built between 1478 and 1483 on the orders of Emperor Frederick III in order to fortify the north-eastern section of the city walls. The present castle is a mixture of architectural styles, reflecting the different periods of its construction. The most important room in the castle is the formal Knights’ Hall, which is decorated with frescoes by members of the Quadri family and Lorenzo Laurigo. The oval ceiling contains the scene of a cavalry battle between the Christian and Ottoman armies, painted in 1763 by Johann Gebler of Graz.   

Podsreda Castle  is one of the few well-preserved cultural monuments from the Romanesque period, and undoubtedly the most important in Slovenia. It was built in the first half of the twelfth century, and its medieval core survives practically whole, making it notable even at the European level. Visitors to the castle can also view an exhibition dedicated to the celebrated mathematician Jurij Vega. 

Podsreda Castle. Photo: Jošt Gantar

Mokrice Castle  was first noted in written sources in 1444, although the essential features of the present Renaissance castle date from the sixteenth century. The castle’s history is marked by finds from the period of the Roman Empire, when a road ran from here towards Byzantium, and other finds from the time of the Ottoman incursions. One legend connected with Mokrice Castle tells of Countess Barbara, who was unlucky in love. Widowed at a tender age, she fell in love with a nobleman who was a great traveller and, having set off on a journey, did not return. For many years the Countess waited for him, until at last, one spring morning, her heart broke. In sorrow, she climbed to the top of the tower and threw herself into the void. According to legend, although she died her heart remained alive, and is still at Mokrice today. Every year on 4 December, the Feast of St Barbara, a cannonball rolls three times round the castle courtyard, impelled by the ghost of the unfortunate Barbara. Today Mokrice Castle is an exclusive hotel and serves as a venue for ceremonial events, conferences and other meetings, and gala receptions.

Trees and duck ponds form the wonderful backdrop to Snežnik Castle , whose origins date back at least to the thirteenth century. It is one of the two castles in Slovenia that can boast the original interiors of its last princely owners. Inside, visitors can see the reception rooms, the bedrooms of members of the household, the guest bedrooms, two dining rooms, the theatre, the private drawing room, the library, the servants’ quarters and the cellar – all with their original furnishings and fittings. The Egyptian room is an interesting curiosity. Besides original furniture, works of art, books, tiled stoves, light fixtures, carpets and a wealth of useful and decorative objects, the castle contains a fine collection of hunting trophies from the time of its last owners.

Snežnik Castle. Photo: RRA Zeleni Kras d.o.o. archives

One of the oldest and best-preserved castles in Slovenia is Strmol Castle . Its interiors mainly date from the baroque and Biedermeier periods. The castle contains a rich collection of works of art and objects of great value, that are still on view today. The castle was fully restored between 2010 and 2012 in order to conserve its cultural heritage. Strmol Castle is now a hotel that offers a unique experience to its guests and serves as a magnificent setting for business meetings and private functions.

Strmol Castle. Photo: Strmol Castle archives

Imposing Ptuj Castle  stands on a hill above the town of Ptuj, and is built on the remains of a Roman temple. Owing to its strategic position, the castle played a very important role in the Middle Ages. For centuries, the mighty fortification protected the settlement below it, while today its picturesque beauty attracts many visitors. In the seventeenth century the castle gained state rooms with rich stuccowork decoration. Today these are used to house museum material.

The origins of Brežice Castle  date back to the year 1241, when Brežice was first mentioned in written sources. The castle is decorated with remarkable paintings, which experts have described as a “first-rate baroque gallery” and a “little encyclopaedia of ancient mythology”. Today the castle is home to the Posavje Museum, consisting of numerous collections. The winemakers Vino Brežice have been maintaining and carefully tending their noblest and most precious wines in the cellars of Brežice Castle since 1946. The castle cellar, carved into the living rock and walled with stone and brick, is the only cellar of its kind in Slovenia. The castle hosts numerous events, including the concerts of the Brežice Festival.

Brežice Castle. Photo: Iztok Medja

Text by Danila Golob