Reliving History at Red Stone Castle

In authentic attire, jousters, fencers, and noblemen and ladies of court re-enact to trials of old

News | Ivan Zich | July / August 2012

Scenes from Central Europe's medieval past are recreated at Rotenstein (Photo: Ivan Zich)

When I first visited Red Stone Castle (Rotenstein) as a child in 1993, it was a ruin. There is no other word for it. Haunting walls of crumbling buildings, the ancient, time-washed skeletons of a lost world reached empty-handed into a vast sky, as if pleading for a kind of deliverance. There were almost no roads, just beaten tracks. The forest was slowly taking the castle courtyards back. The only sign of a civilisation was a small museum in the squalid fortress walls.

When I returned 10 years later, as a historical fencer at one of the first medieval festivals, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Where once there were walls fallen in disrepair, and towers chipped and cracked from decades of neglect, now there was a magnificent palace prepared for visitors and fortifications proudly standing on guard for all comers.

Today, Red Stone Castle (known as Červený Kameň) is one of the most beautiful castles in Slovakia, just above the village Častá, 35km northeast of Bratislava. Begun about 1240, Czech Queen Konstancia built Rotenstein on a vast tract of land she had inherited from her father, King Bela III of Hungary. Along with the emerging city of Trnava, the castle was at the center of early manufacture, trade, and crafts, as Germans came there to settle following the Tartar invasion of 1241.

Over the years, it passed through many hands until the German merchant Anton Fugger developed a highly successful wine business on the hillsides below the castle, making the Rotenstein label famous across Europe.


It’s all about the wine

"The wine had a very good reputation, even abroad," said Lukáč. "It was served to Erasmus of Rotterdam during his visit to Augsburg in 1537."

But we’re getting ahead of our story: It was nearly two centuries earlier that the armies of Hungarian nobleman, Lord Wolfhurt, marched on walls of Rotenstein, "bringing fire and sword to the villages, abducting the Lady Mikča, and laying siege to the castle."

And it is these dramatic events that were re-enacted this year on 26-27 May in the annual Festival of Swordfight, Music, Dance and Craft Rotenstein 1390, filling the airwith shouts and clashing blades and the pounding hooves of horses in battle. Far more than elsewhere, here the entire lower courtyard of the Red Stone Castle was restaged, an authentic recreation of the dark days when the army of Lord Wolfhurt besieged the castle. Battle by day and battle by night, cannon and sword, banners and breast plates and princely pavilions, and fires burning against the dark sky.

The programme began at 10:00 with the defilé of the fencers and groups. I had arrived at 8:00, dressed as a Slavic noble of the Hungarian Kingdom, and joined the other fencers. It was a motley crew, not just warriors, but also jesters and courtesans, a few prisoners in irons and an unruly band of musketeers returning from the wine cellar, rosy-faced and spoiling for a fight. "There are 14 groups," explained organiser Bystrík Holeček, shouting over the din. Holeček is also head of the Company of Trnavian Mercenaries and had counted over 200 fencers from across Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The scene was remarkable: white canvas tents with curtains pulled away to reveal a leather worker or ironmonger, a bunkhouse or a bakery. I stopped in the kitchen, where rations were being set out on wooden cutting boards and pewter plates. The smell of the fresh baked bread filled the air.

Few spices were available in medieval times. Salt had long been a dietary staple since the Romans first shipped it down the Danube from Salzburg to Vindobona, now Vienna. However, it was unlikely that much would have reached the armed camp at Rotenstein, and I imagined the soldiers downing another tasteless meal. But perhaps their spirits would have been improved by a chalice of Trnavian mead, legendary in the whole of Europe.

On the practice grounds, arrows were flying overhead, as visitors tried their hand at longbows axes, javelins or knives. The most popular activity was cutting the bottles with razor-sharp swords. I left with more respect for Robin Hood.

I wandered back toward the entrance, where the festival market was a bustle of activity. Here craftsmen from all over Central Europe had goods on offer: medieval weapons, toys, everything that can be made of leather and metal, as well as a variety of food and drinks, especially those including mead. Beside the stalls were workshops, one a smithy, where a bearded man hunched over an anvil, pounding out a horseshoe. Another, a woodcarver, whittled down a block of hard maple into a statue of Slavic thunder god, Perún. Almost every child had a wooden sword.

It was nearing noon, as the archers assembled under the wooden palisade at the end of the courtyard, and the cannoneers rolled their armory into position. The first assault began with a cannon salve and spray of arrows. Knights and foot soldiers charged forward, brandishing their swords, felling bodies left and right. Fighting was fierce and not all injuries were staged; shields were broken and attackers almost brought down the wooden palisade.

The onlookers were impressed.


Touring after the castle

What now? The Red Stone Castle is a magical place, whose location was picked by fairies, at least the legends says so. The best way to see everything what this old fortress has to offer is to go on both exhibition tours.

Our host led us through the family apartments, a preserved pharmacy, Pálfi’s library and the Knight’s Hall, as well as the Sala Terrena, considered one of the most beautiful baroque halls in Central Europe, designed by the Italian master Carpoforo Tencala.

Our favourite was the display of historical weapons on the walls of the Knight’s Hall. Then we headed for the castle gardens, and a well-deserved picnic, complete with wine from the castle cellars, surely one of the European wonders. Rebuilt by the Fugger family in the 16th century, they are 70 m long, 9 m high: the biggest in Central Europe. We never got to the falconry centre nearby, the largest in Slovakia. Maybe next time.


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