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Sauntering through Slovakia

Remember the days when Paul used to post reports here of his holidays? Yes, I miss them too. So much, in fact, that I've decided to have a natter about my escapades in central/eastern Europe (depending on your definition). So, pull up a chair, grab yourself a nice warm bowl of Halušky and enjoy.

In the last few months, I've spent a fair bit of time in Slovakia (not to be confused with Slovenia, or even Slavonia). Essentially, Slovakia is quite a new country, having been a snippet of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire until its breakup in 1918. Later in the century, it formed part of Czechoslovakia and its development was somewhat hindered under communist rule, but it broke free and achieved full independence in 1993. Since then, the country has enthusiastically pursued EU, NATO and Eurozone integration, with a stretch of economic boom-time in the 2000s.

You can see the history straight away if you arrive via Bratislava, the capital. It's a real potpourri of a city: shiny glass skyscrapers and new business developments abound, surrounding a small but quaint old town. On the other side of the Danube river sits Petrzalka, a gigantic beast of a communist-era panelak housing estate. Back in the iron curtain days, this drab Lego-set housing project was all that Austrians could see of Slovakia - hardly the best advert for communism.

Bratislava is worth visiting for a couple of nights, or perhaps a day trip from Vienna. There's not much to see outside of the old town, but there's a great opera house, plenty of places to eat and drink, and a hulking "castle" (more like a palace) on top of a nearby hill. One especially wacky remnant of the communist era is the UFO-like restaurant on top of Novy Most bridge. You can take a lift to the top and see the vastly contrasting sides of the city (and even peer over into Austria and Hungary).

Ultimately, Bratislava's extreme proximity to Vienna and its recent economic growth has made it a rather hectic, anonymous city. For the "real" Slovakia, you've got to venture into the heartland. Getting around isn't too difficult: there's one express railway line running from west to east, with various branch lines jutting off. It's not particularly fast, but the prices are brilliant, with a 6-hour journey from one end of the country to another costing just 17 euros. Slovakia is jam-packed with castles, so you can expect to see a couple on any train journey.

I stayed in a city called Banska Bystrica, which I can only describe as the Innsbruck of Slovakia: a small, colourful, attractive city nestled between mountains. Various communist era panelak blocks pepper the surroundings, as in most Slovak cities, but the centre is very attractive and well maintained. It even has an elaborate fountain that produces a water show with Strauss waltz music every evening. Banska Bystrica is a student city, and on summer evenings the broad main square is packed with outdoor eating and drinking tents, generating a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

North of the city are the Harmanec caves, an astonishing complex of underground caverns with colossal stalactites. Further north lie the Tatra mountains, a source of Slovak pride and increasingly popular hiking and skiing destination. Most of the country is hilly or mountainous - you can even come across the odd wild bear. Although I didn't venture out to the far east of the country, bordering Ukraine, I'm told that those areas are considerably poorer and the country's wealth distribution is skewed by Bratislava's extreme western location.

Travel tips-wise: most young people speak usable English, especially in the cities, but in more remote areas a phrase book is highly valuable. Slovak language materials are very rare, but a Czech guide will do (the languages are very similar, although not identical). My trusty plug adaptor for Austro-Germany didn't work - you'll need an adaptor with space for a ground pin, like this.

Anyway, I just thought I'd write all this down for intrepid travellers. In all, Slovakia is a compact and comfortable way to get a taste of eastern Europe, without going bonkers and getting lost in Belarus and stuff. You can fly to Bratislava from various places in Europe via Ryanair (watch out for British stag parties in the winter months though!), so it's very accessible.

Any questions? If so, let me know in the comments and I'll (try to) answer!

Your comments

Nice Travel log!

Nice to see photos and your description of Slovakia. I did a couple of Eastern European trips in the last 20 years (I'm from Canada so it's a little more exotic for me!) and the one thing that struck me was the friendliness of the people from this region. None of the countries seemed prosperous, but the people were always pleasant and ready to share!

thats my home town!

oj! thats my home town guys :) hope you had great time there hehe..did you drink also our traditional spirits? like "slivovica" or "borovicka"? ;)

Re: thats my home town!

kjp: awesome! Although I don't know what city you're referring to -- which one? I didn't try any spirits, but I really love a bit of Šariš... Proper beer :-)


Central Europe

Do the Slovaks not think that they are in central Europe (much like the Poles but unlike those from Slavonia)?

just like Prague?

I've been to Prague. You mentioned that it is a good taste of Central Europe, without going to Belarus. How is Bratislava different from Prague, in your opinion? Why go to Budapest or Poland or any other part of Central Europe?

For instance, Prague was very touristy, and maybe some of the other Central European capitals are more friendly. Prague felt kind of like Disneyland. Very phony. I hope I'm not offending any Czechs.

Also, I guess you want to keep your article light, but I wonder if the breakup of Czechoslovakia was engineered by NATO. I heard that NATO brought about the separation of Yugoslavia in order to make it easier for the U.S. to control it and get the oil pipeline to the Caspian Sea.

Re: just like Prague?

No idea -- never been to Prague!


I used to go to Yugoslovakia

I used to go to Yugoslovakia before the war there. I've been to Split and several other places further South - and it was beautiful! The people were friendly, the food was magnificent and the wine and local beer - ran like a tap down my throat and greatly appreciated too. I have several hand-carved bowls to remind me of my visits there. I went once since the war there and it upset me that the people I once knew there were dead in some atrocity carved out by some soldier blasting their town...One day I will go back and renew friendships with new people because we all have to live together and forget the past and look to the future - with Linux! Hugo

Why Slovakia

Hi Mike

Would be curious to know why you decided to go to Slovakia, since it is quite an unusual place to go.

The EU or Europe

The geographical boundry of Europe is the Ural mountains, ( dont get tied in EU/NATO definitions ) down to the Caucasses and to Istanbull
and most of russia feels very European ,although phesant and rural, it is only when you acctualy get to China you feel you have entered Asia although the border was many miles away

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