Nitra is the oldest city in Slovakia and boasts some of the nation’s most important events. Once seat of the Great Moravian Empire, it was in Nitra that the brother Saints Cyril and Methodius established their bishopric and brought Christianity to the Western Slavs. It was their belief that everyone had the right to read and learn from the Bible, so they began to consolidate the many Slavic dialects of the region into a written language. This was the birth of the Cyrillic alphabet, an adapted version of which is still used in some Slavic languages like Russian. Old Slavonic became the foundation of Slavic Christianity, but also a catalyst of strife.

Long before the Protestant Reformation, the Church criticized Cyril and Methodius for giving liturgy in a language other than Latin. The debate lasted a long time, but eventually the Pope authorized Slavic liturgy—for the time being. Cyril died not long after and Methodius returned to the Slavic lands to continue his work.

The main church in Nitra sits on a fortified hill, within the castle walls. The St. Emmeram’s Cathedral is visible throughout the city and the countryside beyond. It is one of Slovakia’s most iconic sights and an absolutely gorgeous castle. I journeyed through Nitra’s Old Town, to the base of the hill, then walked its perimeter. I knew I was headed away from the main gate, but I wanted see the area surrounding the fortress’s base. I strolled through extensive parks, past a hockey stadium and to a small steel gate leading into the dense forest on the opposite side of the castle. I pushed through and began trekking up crumbling and muddied stone stairs. More and more of the battlements came into view as the trees between me and the castle lessened and I enjoyed a feeling that (despite living in Europe for a year now) still makes me giddy.

I was walking beneath a castle.

Fortresses have stood here for over a thousand years and I was just about to casually enter. How often had I dreamed of such a thing? Reading books, watching documentaries and TV shows. I lived for the historic romance of Europe and Nitra did not disappoint.

A small iron gate creaked open and I steeped into the courtyard outside the castle’s main gate. From the overgrowth behind me, I had emerged into a place of orderly elegance. I crossed the bridge and entered the gate beneath flags flying atop the ramparts, before the pristine tower of St. Emmeram’s Cathedral. The spaces inside the castle walls were rather tightly packed by the church, offices and a couple different museums. I visited all that I could, learning about the history of Nitra and even getting to see some artifacts from the time of Cyril and Methodius, including letters, coins and a few precious religious heirlooms.

The inside of the cathedral was truly grand. All was dark when I entered but even the back-light from the stained glass windows was enough to reveal the space’s beauty. I was disappointed, however, since the illumination was bad for photos and the only way to get the lights on was a machine that took 50 cent coins, of which I had none. I lingered in the church for a while though, reading educational boards and enjoying the atmospheric sound of Gregorian chants playing in the background.

A woman came in and began to tour the area on her own. To my great fortune, she promptly inserted a coin into the machine and brought the lights on! The alter piece came to life. Vibrant colors erupted from had only previously been shadows. It is silly, but I felt a little ashamed of so clearly taking advantage of her coin as I began snapping away. I made sure to say a polite goodbye to her as I exited the cathedral.

Nitra was one of the first cities in Slovakia that I learned about. I would love to one day see all the rest that it has to offer; I had little time there that day and spent all of it inside the city’s gorgeous castle. When I return to Slovakia, I will make a point to visit this historic city once more.