Along the route from Friuli to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, at the end of a picturesque rural valley, awaits one of Slovenia’s iconic monuments, the Predjama Castle. It looks so romantic, a fairy-tale castle spilling out of a cliff face. Its reality is a bit less romantic.

From signs in the castle:

Predjama Castle owes its name (“Predjama”: literally, “in front of the cave”) and its most recognizable feature to its position. It stands in a cave halfway up a 127-meter cliff and is one of the very few surviving “castle caves” in the Alpine foothills. It is certainly the best preserved, and as such offers us valuable information about building methods and the whys and wherefores of castle-building in the Middle Ages. Because access was difficult, it offered all the security that was necessary — which in those days was the only important thing.

Its building was not dictated by comfort or luxury. Damp, cold and draughts formed part of everyday life in the castle. The small, unglazed windows let little light into the interior, but all of this was outbalanced by the security offered by the cliff behind the castle and the cave, which apart from anything else offered a secret exit to freedom. All this is contained in the legend of the robber baron Erazem, who resisted a siege here for more than a year, and as well as a romantic story of courage left us an insight in to the prudence and foresight of the medieval builders.

The first origins of the castle date far back in the past. There is no doubt that some elements are from the 12th century, although it may be that part of the castle is even older. The castle was given its present appearance in 1583 when Count Ivan Kobenzl added the entrance tower and thus enlarged the castle to its current dimensions. 

Along with your ticket of admission, you receive an audio guide to help explore the castle and the cave behind it. The exterior of the castle looks well composed, like a building set in front of the stone cliff. But inside you see — and feel — how the builders grafted the protective castle onto the existing rock. All the descriptions of the cold and damp of the interior make sense: the walls of many rooms and passages are the raw rock. Into one rock face, the builders carved a channel to catch and evacuate the cold drips of the cave above.

Today, the view from the castle is very pleasant. Red-roofed buildings scatter along the slopes of the valley.

But in the Middle Ages, this view was all about defense. From the upper level, sentries kept watch over the valley. Attackers had no choice but to approach in plain view. 

The armory room contains equipment from many medieval time periods. Imagine the knights and soldiers who defended this castle. Romantic? Not really. Brutal? Yes.

Another example of brutality is the torture chamber. Gotta have a torture chamber.

In feudal times, security could be more precious than gold. Life inside the fortress was safe, but not luxurious. A judge kept order in a courtroom with a door that opened onto a sheer drop-off, convenient for instantly carrying out the death penalty. Unluckier lawbreakers endured the torture chamber, which could be viewed from the clergyman’s chamber above. By contrast, the ruling family could attend services in the chapel, through a window in the rock, from the comfort of their heated bedroom. Knights kept their fighting equipment at the ready. (source)

Behind and above the constructed castle, you find the opening of a large cave system. This castle wouldn’t have developed here without the defensive shelter of this cave. Secret passages in the cave system lead to hidden exits atop the cliff; these were essential for bringing in supplies in times of siege. Over the ages, the inhabitants built a rainwater and cave-water catchment system; this provided a safe source of drinking water that couldn’t be poisoned by attackers. Imagine needing to retreat into what feels like a fast trip back to neolithic times.

Predjama Castle comes with a fascinating and tragic legend: the Legend of Erazem.

It starts with a rebellious knight and robber baron who fancied himself a Slovenian Robin Hood, named Erazem Lueger. Erazem got himself in a spot of trouble with the Habsburgs of Austria when he killed the commander of their Imperial army. Fleeing the Habsburgs’ wrath, Erazem installed himself in his family’s impregnable castle. The Hapsburgs thought they could easily starve out the castle occupants. To their astonishment, Erazem withstood the imperial siege for one year.

During the siege, the cave network and tunnels allowed Erazem to smuggle food and supplies in from surrounding areas, unbeknownst to his captors. He also used it as an escape route to continue his plundering ways. 

There are some colorful tales associated with the siege. In one, Erazem would taunt his adversaries by pelting them with fresh cherries. In another, to mock them even further, and perhaps because he knew they were hungry, he sent out a whole roasted pig.

Erazem’s story doesn’t end well though. Eventually, he was betrayed by one of his servants and had an ignominious end. The servant sent a signal when Erazem went to the castle outhouse. The toilet was in an easily targeted area on the outside of the castle. One cannon ball later, Erazem died Tywin Lannister style. (source)

The day of our visit was overcast and cool. The trees and hills were still green, but the air smelled of autumn. Throughout our trip so far, we joked together about our insistence that it just wasn’t time yet for the end of summer and the onslaught of winter. As attractive as autumn foliage can be, it’s really a cruel trick before the cold and dark of winter. Along our path back to our car, this collection of firewood and pumpkins smacked us in the face. Harder to deny the season now.

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