Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
July 6, 2010
Sometimes it seems as if every hilltop in Slovakia – every big rock – has a castle on top of it. On river bends, in the middle of fertile farm lands, in obscure corners of the foothills of the Tatra Mountains – everywhere. Castles.
Abandoned castles, almost all of them. Some are built on foundations a thousand years old. Most are in ruins.
Driving along the Danube or the River Vah, we could look up and see those ruins on hilltop after hilltop.
Hiking in the Tatras (part of the Carpathians, for those of you who enjoy a little Dracula tingle), we ventured off the trail on a faint path that led to an enormous rock where once there had been a fortress.
It was really just a rock, a big rock, but still just a rock. But someone had built a fortress there.
Now there was almost nothing left, not enough even to be called a ruin. After the fortress was abandoned, centuries ago, the stones were carried off to build houses in a village far below or hauled uphill for a watchtower on the mountaintop.
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We drove, on another afternoon, to a small village and then hiked a mile or so up to the ruins of Cachtice Castle, once home to the mad Countess Bathory, known as the Female Dracula (those tingles just keep coming). The ruins, looking out over miles of fertile countryside, seem impressive enough, until you see drawings of the truly imposing castle that once hunkered there, a symbol of wealth, strength, authority and, in the case of the Blood Countess (tingle), insanity. Now all gone. Long gone.
So many castles for such a small country. But it’s a small country with a lot of history. Here in Central Europe, through the ages, countries have been created and dissolved, sliced and carved, conquered, lost, reconquered and relinquished.
For a thousand years, the land now called Slovakia was part of Hungary. It was a borderland, buffeted time and again by invasions from the east. Here, the Hungarians battled the Mongol Horde, led by Ogedi Khan, son of Genghis Khan. Then, two centuries later, this was the land where the Habsburgs fought the invading Ottoman armies. (And I can’t resist noting that after the Hungarian defeat in the Battle of Mohacs, one part of the Kingdom of Hungary was sliced off and became … Transylvania. More tingles!)
So building forts on top of big rocks and hills made a lot of sense. They needed forts to repel invaders and, during times of relative peace, to protect trade routes and collect a little gold from those who wanted to pass in peace.
But still, from this calm spot, looking back over the centuries, it is hard not to consider it all a part of the eternal game of King of the Hill.
You know the game. The rules are pretty much the same, whether it’s kids on a playground or warriors in the ancient world: You climb to the top of something high, proclaim you’re King of the Hill and dare anyone to knock you off.
It’s just the stakes that change.
For kids it’s bragging rights and maybe bloody knees and scraped elbows. And it’s all over when mom calls you for dinner. For warriors it’s kingdoms and treasure – and lives. And it never ends.
But, for all the victories, all the treasure, all the lives, now we see only ruins.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” tells of a shattered statue, standing alone in a vast desert. The poem quotes the inscription on the base: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” And then it concludes, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The castles were impressive. The price was high. But now? Indeed, “colossal wreck” is exactly right. Look and despair.
Do we learn? Does anyone learn? Of course not.
After the collapse of the Soviet Empire (that was one very big King knocked off its very big Hill), the country of Czechoslovakia regained its freedom in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and established a democratic government.
Then, just a few years later, the newly freed country went through the Velvet Divorce as Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Why? Well, you can find lots of explanations. One guidebook I glanced at seemed to put a lot of the blame on a fight over a proposal to add a hyphen and change the country’s name to Czecho-Slovakia. Somehow that didn’t seem like a great reason to divide a country.
But in a conversation with a Slovak guide we heard a very different – and much more likely – version.
“It was all politicians. They want more power,” he said. “We never had election. They never care what we want.”
In fact, in a poll just months before the “divorce” became final Czechs and Slovaks all said they wanted to remain a single, united country – by a margin of roughly 2-to-1.
The people did not want the divorce, but the politicians insisted.
They wanted their own countries to rule.
They wanted to be King of the Hill. No matter how small the hill might be.
And, please, ignore all those ruins.
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