Slovakia may be many things – beautiful, steeped in history, a keen favourite of travellers in the know – but one thing it isn’t is Slovenia. There’s a definite cultural and geographical distinction between the two countries but such distinctions have, in the past, caught out both Silvio Berlusconi and George W Bush. The former declared at a news conference in Rome in December 2003 that he was “very happy to be here with the prime minister of Slovakia,” (he wasn’t; he was there with the prime minister of Slovenia) and the latter told a Slovak reporter in 1999 that “the only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned firsthand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas. I had a great meeting with him. It’s an exciting country.” Not for the first time the former president was wrong; he hadn’t met the foreign minister of Slovakia, but in fact the then prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Drnovsek.
In a roundabout way however, George W Bush was right: Slovakia is indeed an exciting country. Bordered by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Ukraine, Slovakia nestles at the very heart of central Europe. It’s managed to emerge successfully from its downtrodden communist-era funk into a dynamic, attractive and, yes, exciting, country. Since the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 (so peaceful in fact that it’s often referred to as The Velvet Divorce), the country has gone from strength to strength. Unemployment has been falling, privatisation is rampant and the economy is one of the fastest growing in the EU and OECD with a strong emphasis on car manufacturing, engineering, chemicals, oil refining and plastics (it produces more ice hockey pucks than any other country on the planet).
It fits the very definition of a tiger economy and this reporter isn’t the first (nor, surely, the last) to dub it “The Tatra Tiger”. The place – particularly the capital, Bratislava – is buzzing with investment. The willingness to become fully integrated into the EU – it joined in 2004 and adopted the Euro on 1st January earlier this year – suggests that its position in a powerful, forward thinking Europe has been cemented.
It isn’t difficult to see why the tourist industry in Slovakia is blossoming. The majority of visitors come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany -though the steady trickle of Brits is becoming steadier – and they come for the appealing mixture of the very old and the very new. Despite only becoming an independent democracy 15 or so years ago, there are settlements in the country dating back nearly 23,000 years and Slovakia is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, both natural (caves) and cultural (castles and villages). So far, it has managed to resist the increasing homogenisation of the world and is pleasingly free of McDonald’s-style commercialism. Long may that trend continue.
Throughout the country there’s plenty to do. Cycling is popular all over, Piestany on the Vah river is renowned for its spas and the Low and High Tatras in the north are becoming increasingly popular with skiers and hikers, yet the majority of first-time visitors head for the charming, hip and laid back capital, Bratislava. In many ways Bratislava mirrors it’s more well-known counterpart Prague. Both have had chequered histories and undergone a number of dramatic changes. Both are a treat to look at and are crammed with historic buildings and cobbled streets. Both have an abundance of good quality hotels, decent restaurants and cool bars and clubs serving fiery spirits and quality beers. So far however, the rowdy stag parties that swan into Prague, smash the place up, then swan out again, have been mercifully absent from Bratislava.
Absent too, are the hordes of gawping tourists. The atmosphere, particularly in the pedestrian friendly old town is pleasantly relaxed and attending cultural events and concerts, even in the height of the season, shouldn’t pose a problem. In the old town you can shop for traditional Slovakian craft and bohemian crystal, buy an ice cream (it’s excellent) and check into one of the many near-perfect hotels (both the Arcadia and Michalska Brana are well recommended). The more adventurous among you may also want to check out the UFO bar, a disc-shaped building sitting 85m up the Novy Most Bridge overlooking the Danube. From up here you can get marvellous views of the city as well as the Danube. Remember: “If the Danube looks blue to you, then you must be in love.” Remember also, if it looks as if there are two Danubes, then you’ve probably had too much to drink.
Not that there’s a shortage of bars in Bratislava. There are around 60,000 students in the city and this helps the heady, vibrant atmosphere in the evenings. You could do a lot worse than to step into hip new bar and restaurant camouflage or the equally hip Primi, built into the courtyard by the cities medieval city walls. In this reporter’s opinion, a good place to eat is Malecon – a Cuban inspired, pistachio coloured restaurant which oozes character and a steamy atmosphere. And you can do so inexpensively: although Bratislava is a fair bit pricier than the rest of the country, it’s still fairly cheap by western standards. Not that Bratislava is all about eating and drinking. There are huge hunks of gothic architecture to admire (although if you look a bit further to the south of the river, you’ll be confronted by huge chunks of gritty, post-war tower blocks) and a terrific overview of the city can be had by taking the sightseeing tram. It might be worth getting a Bratislava City Card, which gives discounts on transport, museums and restaurants.
A few miles west of the city centre lies Devin castle. The castle is well worth a visit with astonishing views and was the seat of the Great Moravian Empire and a strategic post during the Turkish wars. For those fond of wine, the wine villages to the north of Bratislava in the Small Carpathian Mountains promise an interesting, if a little convivial afternoon.
Most business meeting will be conducted in the capital. Broadly speaking, business practice and etiquette is a cross between Western Europe and the US, and Eastern Europe and Russia. Generally German is more widely understood than English – the Czech Republic is Slovakia’s main trading partner and other main partners include Austria, Germany and Russia – though at the top companies there will often be English speakers and/or interpreters present. Business meetings tend to start with polite conversation and often a toast of Slivovica (plum brandy) or Borovicka (similar to gin) before getting down to business matters. Titles and positions are very highly regarded in Slovakia and are commonly used when addressing someone and often appear on business cards (i.e. “Ing” for engineer).
Heading out of Bratislava is Piestany, a small (30,000 residents) spa town 75km north-east of the capital. The good news is that you don’t have to be infirm to enjoy the facilities here, but if you are, then you’re in good hands. The spa treats 40,000 patients each year, 60 percent of whom are foreigners, mostly from Germany, the Czech Republic and Israel. The thermal springs and curative mud are used in the treatment of rheumatic and arthritic diseases but are also used by those seeking a more general sense of well being. The spa aside, Piestany has plenty to offer the visitor, from beautiful parks, a summer music festival, decent shopping and, presumably for many, a less than therapeutic casino.
Dotted throughout Slovakia are a number of picturesque, unspoilt historical towns and villages, many of which have been afforded UNESCO World Heritage site status. To list and describe them all here would be an exercise in futility, but special mentions must go Kezmarok, Levola, Bardejov, Banska Stiavnica and Vlkolinec, the latter three all being recognised by UNESCO. All the above are peppered with crumbling houses and set in creamy countryside but perhaps the most interesting is Vlkolinec, the only inhabited village in Slovakia completely untouched by modern development. Consisting of 45 log houses from the 16-19th centuries, Vlkolinec was judged the best-preserved group of traditional housing in the entire Carpathian area (an area comprising Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia).
It’s often been said that without the mountains, Slovakia would be a very different country. Whether fact or myth, it’s believed that the mountain ranges punctuating the north of the country have served as protective barriers against modernisation and have facilitated the preservation of the identity and traditions of the country. Less romantically, and more bluntly, they’re also splendid – and splendidly cheap – places to ski. Hungarians, Germans and Austrians have been heading to the high and low Tatras for years and more recently those from further afield have been casting their beady eyes at the charming villages, ever-improving infrastructure and brilliantly priced ski holidays. Like most of Slovakia, the easy-on-the-eye resorts are likely to stay that way: although there have been significant improvements in facilities, development has not been rampant. The pick of the bunch is Jasna in the Low Tatras, considered the biggest and best resort to ski in Slovakia. Peaks of over 2000 metres, 50p pints and a snappy nightlife in nearby Liptovsky Mikulas have done little to dent Jasna’s reputation. The Low Tatras are also home to Slovakia’s remaining bears, wolves and lynx and has five underground caves, including an ice cave.
Getting to and from Slovakia isn’t exactly difficult, but it isn’t as well connected as some European cities. Somewhat predictably there are a number of low cost carries periodically flying in and out of Bratislava and the most comprehensive airline with 22 connections is Sky Europe. Most of the flights are into Bratislava’s Stefanika Airport though another option is to fly into the better served Vienna International Airport, some 6o kilometres from Bratislava. US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand most European passport holders don’t need a visa to enter the country and can stay for up to 90 days.
Like most best kept secrets, Slovakia won’t remain so for too much longer, though if the mountains continue to protect its rich identity and heritage and the people continue to resist the uniformity sweeping the world then a few more visitors shouldn’t cause too much of a problem. Just don’t go calling it Slovenia.
When to go
Almost poetically, Slovakia boasts four traditional, distinct seasons. The ski season lasts from late December to early March though well into spring is an ideal time to visit the Low and High Tatras with their breathtaking views and rare as hen’s teeth wildlife (bears, wolves and the like). Summers can sometimes be warm, sometimes sweltering, and play host to a number of festivals. Among the best are the Vychodna folk festival in July and the Pohoda Music Festival during the same month when Trencin attracts some of the best alternative and independent bands in the world.
Facts for the visitor
Outside of the main tourist areas English isn’t widely understood and even in them you’re better off knowing a few words of German. A smattering of Slovak, then, will come in handy. Ahoj (hello), Dovidenia (goodbye), Dakujem (thank you) and Este pivo prosím (another beer please) should be enough to get you started.
As of 1 January 2009 Slovakia adopted the Euro. It’s one hour ahead of GMT, has a population of 5.4 million and is reckoned to be home to some of the most beautiful women on the planet.