With a population of two million and only a small spec of land east of northern Italy, Slovenia was a well-kept secret off the beaten path of European travelers for many years. Though it’s still a bit off-radar today, visitors now go for Slovenia’s mysterious caves, deep blue lakes, incredible Alpine views, and Venetian-inflected arch bridges. Perhaps more than anything else, however, visitors are also impossibly drawn to Slovenia’s staggering list of foreboding castles that seem plucked from the imagination of a medieval fantasy writer. If you’re considering some of the best European destinations to go castle-spotting, here are three reasons to put Slovenia in the running.
The Gothic fortress built into the caves near Postojna was already old and mysterious by the time Erazem of Predjama came into his inheritance near the end of the 15th century. The son of the Trieste (Italy) governor, Erazem was a brash knight well-known for having a defiant streak, which eventually led him into an altercation that would change the fate of the iconic castle in the southwest of modern-day Slovenia. After killing a high-ranking commander in the Imperial army, and a relative of Emperor Frederik III no less, Erazem fled to his ancestral home of Predjama Castle and buckled down for potential conflict.
But what no one outside of Predjama Castle knew was that the original builders had a clever secret. Not only was the castle built right into jagged grey-back cliffs, providing more than 180 degrees of natural protection, it also had a hidden entrance to a cave system and about 14 kilometers of impossibly cool secret passages. When the Holy Roman Emperor sent in a portion of the Austrian army to take down Erazem—partially because he was also a notorious robber baron—a siege of Predjama was completely ineffective, as the castle walls held in the front while Erazem smuggled in drinking water and food in through the back.
After more than a year-long siege, led by the new governor of Trieste, Predjama Castle gained the reputation of being impregnable. Although a fitting part of the castle’s mythic image, the siege did ultimately break through when—according to legend—one of Erazem’s men mutinied and caused the knight’s death. When Frederik’s army was done with it in 1484, Predjama Castle’s Gothic era was finished and it was promptly rebuilt in the decades that followed, though an earthquake destroyed the second version. Finally, the third attempt proved to be the charm, as a Renaissance-styled reconstruction was finished in 1570 and proved to be up to the test of time.
Today, visitors come to gaze at the white walls that look like a painting pressed against the dark stone cliffs towering behind it, and marvel at the many rooms built right into the stone. Inside, visitors inspect a series of medieval recreations, including eerie dungeons, war-staging rooms complete with ancient weaponry, and entrances that have holes designed for dumping boiling oil on trespassers. Though most of the caves aren’t available to the public, you can still check out the secret passage and a portion of the tunnel system that Erazem used to defy an emperor more than 500 years ago.
With an international airport, major rail line, and a litany of great attractions throughout the city and neighboring area, Ljubljana is an easy focal point for any Slovenian holiday. It also has one of the coolest castles in the country looking down over the cityscape, the same as it has since the early 12th century at the latest. Although it was occupied long before that, likely dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages, it was a wooden fortress for centuries as the fledgling town of Ljubljana rose to prominence in the late Middle Ages.
That’s when its history gets hectic and interesting. Looking to prepare for the likely invasion of the Turks, the Habsburg family turned it into a powerful military fortress in the 15th century, making it the perfect protector of Ljubljana given its place high above the city. Though successful in warding off foreign invaders, the castle would have no shortage of drama in the centuries that followed the fortification, including a major earthquake in 1515 to go with several serious peasant revolts.
Although it was also abandoned by the Habsburgs in the 18th century, it has remained a centerpiece of the city throughout a series of different eras. It has been a military hospital, military barracks, a prison, and a home for the displaced before finally becoming a national icon in the middle of the 20th century when Mayor Ivan Hribar led a major renovation that brought it into the modern age.
These days, visitors come to tour the fascinating buildings that make up the castle while delving deeply into Slovenian history. You can get to it by foot, but you can also catch a short train ride (funicular) directly from Krek Square to the top of the castle any time of the year. Once there, you can easily spend an afternoon drifting through the medieval fortress complete with a tremendous courtyard and the lavish interior of St. George’s Chapel. With its longstanding regional prominence and unique history, Ljubljana is as much a spot of intrigue as it is an ideal place for sightseers.
No one actually knows when Bled Castle was built or who built it, shrouding the ancient fortress above Lake Bled with mystique to go along with its obvious beauty and stunning vantage point. Nestled into the Julian Alps, Bled Castle is a marvel that has stood guard over the Bled region since long before German King Henry II gifted it to the Bishop of Brixen in 1011, the first actual record of the castle. Though it was so remote that the bishop hardly went to his estate, or possibly never went at all, the castle would slowly emerge from obscurity to become a symbol of Slovenian ingenuity and beauty.
Another Slovenian fortress that blends right into its magnificent setting, Bled Castle is built into the rock about 130 meters above the crystal blue waters of Lake Bled, with a wide Romanesque tower standing as the castle’s oldest and most iconic feature. Passed down through the nobility over the centuries, Bled Castle was even owned by Napoleon for a brief period of time after he became the French Emperor in 1804, though the estate eventually fell back into local hands and has been an estate of prestige ever since.
Not long after Slovene lands were briefly annexed to Axis powers in WWII, Bled Castle ended up having one of its most dramatic moments when a sprawling fire broke out and damaged the roof and some rooms. With peace in Europe and the entire region recalibrating after the war’s devastation, it turned out to be the perfect time for the major renovations the ancient fortress required. With a string of updates in the 1950s, another era was embedded into the diverse framework of the castle, which boasts a Gothic chapel and medieval classics like a drawbridge and moat in addition to its famous Romanesque tower. Although it’s not known as a military stronghold like the country’s other important castles, Bled Castle is a priceless national treasure sure to live up to the expectations of castle seekers—not to mention a window into one of the most beautiful views in Europe.