Predjama: The world’s largest cave castle

(CNN) — Predjama is one of the most extraordinary castles in the world, built at the mouth of a complex of caves at the bottom of a valley in southwestern Slovenia.

Located halfway up a 400-foot (123-meter) vertical cliff, it appears in records from 1202 and is listed by Guinness World Records as the largest cave castle in the world.

With a Renaissance façade dating back to the 1580s, the word “majestic” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Still, for tour guide and historian Vojko Jurca, one of the highlights is, at first glance, a little disappointing.

“That’s it,” he said proudly, pointing to an outhouse with a sloping roof and a barricaded door.

It may sound trite, but the story behind it is not.

The story focuses on the robber Baron Erasmus von Lueg, a local Robin Hood hero who fled to the castle in the mid-1480s after killing Count Pappenheim, Field Marshal of the Habsburg Imperial Court, in a duel whose the legitimacy has been disputed.

In retaliation, a siege was ordered on Predjama by German Emperor Frederick III.

But Erasmus holds on, helped by a network of secret tunnels dug in the rock which allow him to bring food and collect rainwater.

He taunted his opponents by sending them fresh cherries brought from the Vipava Valley, 13 miles to the west, using these underground passages.

The end would come, after a year and a day, when Erasmus was betrayed by a servant.

As Jurca recounts, when Erasmus went to the outbuilding located on a third-floor terrace, the servant lit a wooden torch as a signal. Moments later, a cannonball whizzed through the air, killing Erasmus in the middle of his last saddle.

The outhouse was clearly rebuilt in the years that followed.

From Slovenia to Westeros

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Last movements: Erasmus is killed when a cannonball hits the castle’s outbuildings.

John Malathronas

The manner in which Erasmus died has not escaped the attention of ‘Game of Thrones’ fans who point to the similar and undignified end of Lord Tywin Lannister, who was shot with a crossbow while on his bathroom throne.

They also note that the last owners of Predjama, the Windisch-Grätz family, who used the castle as a hunting lodge until the end of World War II, have a wolf on their coat of arms, the seal of the noble House Stark .

It turns out that author George RR Martin visited the castle one evening in June 2011, after a book signing in Trieste.

“On the way back, we stopped at the most amazing castle, built in the mouth of a huge cave. You absolutely have to model a castle in Westeros on this one, it was full of eyes, especially at night,” he said in a blog post.

Legend and history are only part of the appeal of Predjama Castle. You really have to visit to understand how human enterprise was so organically linked to nature.

Approaching the castle from any direction, it is almost completely hidden, visible only at the last moment – when the sentries around the castle could have spotted anyone coming immediately.

Once inside, it’s obvious that safety rather than comfort was the greater concern in the Middle Ages – the castle is impregnable but the cold and damp make it almost unlivable.

Nowadays, entering the castle involves crossing a drawbridge. The original entrance was higher where you can see two weak doors. They were accessible via ladders that could be quickly removed.

Back then, visitors would first enter the courtroom, where brutal justice was served. Few of the sovereign’s subjects would be allowed further than that, unless they were unlucky.

Behind a thick wooden door, there is a torture chamber, which, uniquely, is located in a real cavernous dungeon. Favorite punishments here were the rack, on which prisoners were stretched, and the horse, a painfully pointed triangular device they were made to ride.

One of the nicest spaces follows. The dining room is isolated by walls nearly five feet thick and warmed by the small but functional kitchen, in which a crack doubles as a natural extractor hood.

You can also inspect a quirky latrine, a seat protruding above the cliff that allows gravity to do its dirty work. Erasmus allegedly used straw, dried moss, and cabbage leaves instead of toilet paper, or at least he did before he was smashed to pieces.

“Murder Holes”

The barracks of the castle is now a museum of armory.

The barracks of the castle is now a museum of armory.

John Malathronas

A climb of more stairs to the third floor reveals the gun loops, arrow slits and murder holes used to pour boiling oil or molten resin on the besiegers.

This is where the open terrace is. Here there is a view of the whole valley, as well as the most famous outbuildings in Slovenian history.

Next to it is the bedroom. It is the warmest room, because it is the only one with a fireplace. The castle keepers lived here until the 1980s.

Upstairs is an attic that served as barracks and lookout. The views over the Lokva Valley are uninterrupted and magnificent.

The barracks have been converted into an armory museum displaying medieval weapons like battle axes, halberds, crossbows and flails.

Interestingly, a passage here leads directly to the torture chamber. Presumably, anyone sleeping on duty could be dragged into it unceremoniously.

From here you can also enter the bowels of the cave, exploring until the light from the entrance diminishes to a point, allowing you to contemplate the surroundings.

The extensive limestone cave system in southern Slovenia is called karst, after the Latin name Carsus given to the plateau above Trieste.

As it was the best-known limestone terrain for centuries, the word became generic, describing any limestone terrain with cavities like Swiss cheese with holes.

Beneath the castle, a large cave stretches for 8.7 miles, second in length to the nearby Postojna complex.

There is no tourist infrastructure in this large cave, but it is possible to visit during the summer months with appropriate caving equipment, lamps and a specialized guide. It is closed in winter because a colony of Schreiber’s long-toed bats use it to mate and hibernate.

Memorial tree

The Renaissance facade of the castle dates from the 1580s.

The Renaissance facade of the castle dates from the 1580s.

JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images

Back at the castle, a one-way street leads down to the Knights’ Hall, remarkable for its Gothic niches and its ceiling painted with oxblood.

There are glimpses here and there of how the builders of the structure made effective use of their rocky situation. A small well near the exit became a kennel for hunting dogs, while a cave mouth under the castle served as stables.

Leaving the castle, guide Vojko has one more stop on his visit – a nearby village where a sick lime tree is wedged into the cemetery of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The church was consecrated around 1450 by the Bishop of Trieste, the future Pope Pius II.

“Legend has it that this lime tree was planted on Erasmus’s grave,” says Vojko.

The tree was badly damaged by a fire in 2001, but it meant so much to the villagers that forest surgeons were called in, and its trunk split open and repaired.

It still survives proudly, like Predjama Castle itself.

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