As a traveller, what would spring to mind when you hear of a country that shares a border with Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine? One of the most naturally spectacular destinations any one could ever find themselves in, right?
That is Slovakia for you. The small country of about five million fairly diverse inhabitants is, in a word, epic.
It has some of the most broad, sprawling mountains you’ll ever see, and the Tatras Mountains in particular are quickly gaining reputation as a top global ski destination. The north is characterised by high mountains, the centre by low. The west is known for its hills, while the south holds the Danube basin.
Once part of a larger entity known as Czechoslovakia, Slovakia became independent in 1993 in what famously became known as the Velvet Divorce (due to its peaceful nature). Still though, it finds most of the headlines being drunk up by its one-time sibling, the Czech Republic.
Even Bratislava, the capital, finds it hard matching her hot sister, Prague. But she has a gripping allure of her own, and many find her enchanting Vienna-like aura featuring grand Central European architecture too much to resist. Never mind the countless attractions she boasts – gorgeous churches stretching back to the 15th century, a bunch of impressive, sometimes eccentric, museums, and innumerable cafes constricted in the cobbled streets.
Then again, she was the Hungarian capital for close to 300 hundred years.
The charms of the capital notwithstanding, Slovakia’s natural beauty is surreal: unimaginable, unspoiled, uncrowded. And with a little bit of everything – rolling hills and lowland meadows, snowcapped peaks, sprawling alpine forests, meandering rivers and beautiful lakes, canyons and caves (numbering over 6,000), clifftop castles, and close to a dozen national parks. Save for a coast.
She’s landlocked you see, and this is perhaps why she makes up for this one deficiency in other wonderful ways. Like her striking terrain, for one. She’s not one for show, like the beach-types. For she’s humble – and naturally so. She has a creative side to her; very enthusiastic about art and music. Hip hop even – who would have guessed!
All this combined makes her a darling of many a different traveller: from the skier to the businessman; history enthusiast to backpacker. It’s easy to fall in love.
She’s irresistible, Slovakia. Or as they say around there, neodolatel’ny’.
Climate and Best Time to Visit
This Central European state lies in a moderate zone and experiences a continental climate with four distinct seasons.
Average daily temperature in Bratislava is 21 degrees Celsius in summer, falling to -2 degrees Celsius during the winter months. January is the coldest, with July and August being the hottest months.
The highest peaks are snowcapped for almost a third of the year – 130 days give or take.
What to do in Slovakia
With such a rich diversity of attractions, the trick to enjoying Slovakia is to get a little taste of everything. Unless, of course, you’re going to be in town for some time. Or in a best-case scenario, find yourself posted there.
Here then, are some of the highlights to look out for for those of us who don’t have the luxury of an extended stay.
If possible, your first stop should be in Bratislava as it gives an introductory feeling on not just what to expect, but also what the country is about. Plus, it serves as a great launch base.
The crowning city of Hungarian kings with its cobbled streets is a marvel. Make sure to try out its chic coffeehouses and awesome underground bars.
It is also home to a host of attractions, one of the most popular being the Bratislava Castle that is perched above the Old Town (see what views you find up there).
The Tatras Mountains
The Tatras Mountains form the border between Slovakia and Poland and are the tallest range in the Carpathian Mountains, with 25 peaks rising above 2,500m above sea level.
There are other attractions within this attraction. This is home to the best ski slopes in Slovakia (which says a lot) as well as some of the most beautiful spas in town. If you are the romantic kind, a visit to Popradske pleso, or Zelene pleso – billed as one of the most beautiful and romantic places in the country – would be worth it.
Dating back from at least the 13th century, this is Slovakia’s largest castle and one of the biggest in Central Europe. Enjoy a tour through an authentic medieval dungeon, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and armoury.
It was one of the most important castles in medieval Europe and although many parts stand in ruins, the summit makes for stunning views. Its history is documented in a small museum inside.
It never feels complete visiting a country and being only to the capital. Sample Slovakia’s second biggest city resting on the banks of the Hornad River.
It’s home to numerous museums, galleries, theatres and universities, and of course, one of the most well preserved historical town centres in Slovakia which has led many to christen it the most beautiful city in the country.
Bardejov is an old town square that’s probably the best you’ll visit in this medieval wonderland. It’s on the UNESCO Heritage List and you’ll seldom witness such a mouth-gaping marriage of Gothic and Renaissance styles anywhere.
Slovak Karst (and Domica Cave)
Slovak Karst is one of only two natural attractions in the country on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
With over 700 caves, it is also home to some of the best caves you’ll come across in the country. Domica Cave is one of them – the biggest cave in Slovakia. Other highlights here include Jasov Cave, Zadielska Valley, Krasna Horka Castle and Manor House in Betliar.
Chances are you’ve seen a photo of Cicmany if you’ve seen a postcard or brochure of Slovakia.
It’s a traditional village dotted with dark log homes decked with white geometric patterns. Majority of the houses are residences, but Radenov House is a museum.
The long narrow settlement has a restaurant, pension and gift shop.
Church of St Jacob
If its history dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries won’t stun you, then the soaring arches, rare furnishings and precious art of the Church of St Jacob will. The spindles-and-spires church is home to the country’s tallest altar.
The road to Vratna Valley is one of the most rewarding rides you’ll ever experience. Running through the Mala Fatra National Park past picnic sites, it weaves its way south from Terchova up through the crags of Tiesnavy Gorge, all the while guaranteeing scenic stops.
What to eat and drink
Slovak cuisine traces its roots to the old Slovak era, although it’s been greatly influenced by its neighbours, more specifically, Hungary, Germany and Austria. The beauty of it is that it’s never constant across the land, but rather, the style of cooking varies from one region to the next.
Regardless, you’ll likely spot some constant items all through, with beef, pork and poultry making a case for the most popular meats, with roasting and smoking common preparation methods. Bread is a staple here, appearing on most breakfasts, lunch (with soup – usually a main dish with multiple varieties to it), and sometimes the evening meal.
Slovaks love their veggies too (cabbage especially), and boiling or stewing them is a common preparation method, with fruit such as plums, apples, apricots, cherries and peaches being served as a side dish. Dairy is also cherished, with cheese (from cows and sheep) topping the list. Bryndza (a tangy sheep’s cheese) is especially a must-try.
Other dishes you should make a point of sampling include brynzove halusky – the national dish, mainly small potato dumplings in a sauce made with bryndza, topped with bacon (a common feature); sulance – potato dough turnovers packed with plum jam; jaternica – made from rice and, well, pig’s blood; polievka – soup infused with sauerkraut and garlic; and of course, cabbage leaves! – usually stuffed with minced meat and served with a milky sauce.
As for the drinks, don’t leave without trying the Slivovica (a popular plum brandy), or if your tastes lean more towards the gin side of things, the juniper berry-flavoured Borovicka will just do. Remember to fetch a couple of bottles to take back home.
You can gain entry into Slovakia either by air, rail, or road.
Distances are not too large so it’s always better to make use of the excellent bus and rail network when moving around. However, there are still domestic flights available if you want, mostly run by Czech Airlines.
The road network between any major two routes are equipped with emergency telephones every half a mile or so, with all roads standardised as motorways and in tip-top condition.
Buses tend to be more expensive than trains, so something you should keep in mind.
Cruises are also available via the Danube River which serves as the main artery for ship transport.
Above all, Slovakia is one of the best value travel destinations in Europe; not bland, but full of character. It’s just one of those destinations that linger long in the memory – in a wonderful typa way.