Monday, September 25, 2006

Slovakia ? What's that..?

About time for a bit of orientation for those (like GW Bush) new to the country. I've been busy reeling off names of places that you need to be able to pinpoint. Of course for the sterile facts you can visit the ubiquitous CIA Fact Book although what use they think it is to anyone outside of New Hampshire to state that Slovakia is comparatively roughly twice the size of New Hampshire is anybody's guess. There are of course lots of other resources which you'll discover with Google, but personally I find sites with some interactivity (forums etc) to be the best, and is one of the good ones. For Slovak news in English check out the Slovak Spectator.

Map of Slovakia
The capital Bratislava sits on the Danube only +/- 40km from Vienna, so I think it's time we called this country 'Central Europe' rather than Eastern. Southern Slovakia below and east of Bratislava towards Hungary is rather flat and fertile, and is famous for the production of Tokay wine (commonly known as Hungarian, but Slovaks also have production). However, most of the rest of Slovakia is a country of hills, mountains, castles, lakes and forests with all the outdoor activities you can think of. This, along with the ever-warm welcome, is what draws me back to the the country and inspired me to buy my holiday home there. Orava Castle - Oravsky Hrad

Western Slovakia - Trnava, Piestany, Nitra and Trencin areas may already be known to you for their famous spas. The Germans (no pun intended) and also arabs from the middle east have been coming here for years and may well not have shared their secret with the west. The coutryside here is typically rolling (but high) hills and valleys and the climate is typically continental - hard winters and hot summers. High Tatras seen from hotel room

Heading further north the hills become mountains and the climate changes accordingly. The Mala Fatra and Tatra National Parks and the Orava region are stunning for their natural scenery and also offer some of the best skiing in this part of Europe. Unfortunately during the communist era from 1946 to 1989, all this was largely closed to westerners, but Slovakia's neighbours - Czechs, Poles and Hungarians are all too aware of what is here and still represent the majority of foreign visitors. Basically, the mountains 'cap' the country running along the Polish border in the North.

High Tatras at the top - bring a jumper! The East of the country is full of contrasts. It boasts some of the most spectacular castles in the
country and some of the biggest and most beautiful lakes. This region is also home to some very well preserved city centres, namely in Kosice, Bardejov and Kezmarok. However, it also hosts a big US Steel plant and other heavy industries, and the Roma gypsy population is
higher here than in western Slovakia. This end of Slovakia is less well known to foreign tourists mainly because of the distance and lack of direct highway, but with EU money starting to flow for infrastructure projects this is all set to change.

A quick note on the communist architectural (?) legacy and what to expect. First impressions of most towns and cities look something like this only smaller - Petrzalka in Bratislava.Petrzalka -a suburb of Bratislava- in all its splendour In the 1950s and 60s, in an effort to provide housing for all without breaking the bank, the communists erected thousands of these prefabricated appartment blocks all over the country. So while they might look rough, don't make the error of associating them with the crime and deprivation that exists in western cities in similar housing projects. Normal families live in these monsters and the surrounding areas are normally totally safe and secure. My guess is that they also won't survive another 20 years as personal wealth and aspirations grow and people start to want more privacy and space. The bright side though is that once past them and into the old centre of most towns, the original flavour of the country reappears.Rafting in the Tatras
And finally, just to put things in perspective for people, a quick look at accessibility. The best way to see this beautiful country is by car if possible, so that means either fly to Bratislava (plenty of links with Sky Europe, Ryanair or even Slovak Airlines for those of us unlucky enough not to have a low-cost carrier service) and hire a car, or for a proper summer holiday - drive.
As an example for those who already drive to France, Brussels to Nice is 1,200km whereas Brussels to Myjava is 1,190. And for UK readers, Calais to Myjava is 1,385km while Calais to Nice is 1,230 - so not far off, and no French highway tolls (a vignette in 'requested' in Slovakia for highways).


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