Slovakia

slovakia2 20120322 1891003628Slovakia or Slovak Republic (Slovak: Slovensko or Slovenská republika, both names are officially recognized), is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by Austria to the west, Czech Republic to the northwest, Hungary to the south, Poland to the north and Ukraine to the east. Slovakia is a modern democratic country and is a member of the European Union.


The main reasons to visit Slovakia are its natural beauty, vivid history and great opportunities for relaxation (and due to the small size of the country, it is quite easy to combine all three). Slovakia has nine national parks, which cover a relatively big portion of the country and feature the tallest part of the Carpathian Mountain Range, the High Tatras, which offer great opportunities for mountain and winter sports as well as great vistaa. Geologically, a sizable part of Slovakia is made out of limestone, which in combination with many springs and rivers has resulted in formation of numerous caves (12 open to the public, several of which are UNESCO listed) and the beautiful rocky formations, canyons and waterfalls of the Slovak Paradise and Slovak Karst. Even outside these areas, there are some beautiful landscapes, and all of Slovakia is covered by thousands of well-marked hiking trails.


For history lovers, Slovakia has the highest number of castles and chateaux per capita in the world, ranging from simple ruins to well-preserved habitable castles with furnishings, so if you are a fan of medieval history, look no further. There are also numerous gothic and baroque cities and towns across Slovakia, including the capital. There are also well-preserved examples of wooden folk architecture, including churches made entirely out of wood and the tallest wooden altar in the world.


There are numerous mineral and thermal springs in Slovakia, and around some of these world-famous spas have been built that offer great curative therapies or just simple relaxation. You can also chill out, swim and sunbathe at the shores of several local lakes and pools or try AquaCity waterpark if you are feeling more adventurous. In particular, Bratislava boasts a lively nightlife as well and is a popular partying destination.


There are some similarities between the Czech and Slovak cultures but the two nationalities remain distinct. Slovakia was a part of the Hungarian empire for almost a millennium, and a strong Hungarian-speaking minority of 9.7% remains, concentrated mostly in southern Slovakia.


Climate


Slovakia has a temperate climate with sunny hot summers and cold, cloudy, humid and snowy winters. The climate is continental, with four seasons, and while the overall climate is mild, there is a considerable temperature difference between summer and winter months.


It is generally warmer in southern regions and the lowlands, where summer temperatures can climb above 30°C (86°F) on hotter days, and where rain is more common in winters than snow, which usually melts in a few days.


Northern, and especially mountainous regions have a colder climate, with summer temperatures not exceeding 25°C (77°F). Especially in the mountains, snow is common in winters and it can get quite cold.


If you are planning on visiting the mountains, please note that, as in any mountainous region, the weather can change dramatically in a matter of minutes and it can rain (or snow!) even in summer. Take appropriate equipment and don't underestimate the weather.


slovakia1 20120322 1091025740Holidays and Festivals


Slovakia is a predominantly Catholic Country, so major Christian holidays are observed, as well as some other holidays. Unless indicated otherwise, these days are public holidays and banks and most amenities and shops will be closed:

  • Slovak Republic Day - 1st January - Conveniently, Czechoslovakia split into two on the 1st of January, so New Year's Day is a national holiday. It is traditionally celebrated by sleeping until midday.
  • Ephiphany - 6th of January - Celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings into Betlehem. Shops and banks are closed.
  • Mardi Gras period ('Fasiangy') - this is not a national holiday, but rather a festival season. Some villages will hold a traditional market with food and drinks offered, and there might be a march through the city in masks, and numerous balls, dances and carnivals are held. Starts on 6th January and lasts till Ash Wednesday (February or March).
  • Easter - March/April, dates depend on the lunar calendar. Good Friday and Easter Monday are both national holidays. There is a number of different traditions relating to Easter. The traditional food served includes eggs and special Easter Ham, with bread and horseradish.
  • Religious people will go to mass, and it might be the only time when its likely to see people in traditional clothing in some villages, but this is increasingly less common. Everyone will be dressed up, however.
  • International Labour Day - 1 May - This is celebrated by not working.
  • Day of Victory over Fascism - 8 May - Celebration of the end of WWII in Europe.
  • St. Cyril and Methodius Day - 5 July - arrival of the first Christian missionaries to Slovakia
  • Slovak National Uprising Memorial Day - 29 August - Holiday to commemorate uprising against Nazis during WWII.
  • Constitution Day - 1 September - Children love this one as school starts one day later.
  • Day of Blessed Virgin Mary - 15 September - A patron saint of Slovakia.
  • All Saints Day - 1 November - This is a day to remember those that have passed away. Halloween is not celebrated in Slovakia, and this is quite a serious religious holiday. All shops are closed and many people will go to the cemeteries to light a candle for their loved ones.
  • Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day - 17 November - Commemorates student demonstration that brought about the end of Communism.
  • Christmas - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (24-26 of December) are national holidays. In Slovakia, Christmas is mainly celebrated during Christmas Eve, when a traditional family dinner is held, after which presents are opened. As Christmas Eve is meant to be a fast in Christian Calendar, no meat is eaten that day. The traditional dinner starts with a thin wafer, eaten with garlic (for health) and honey (for happiness and properity). This is followed by a soup (either mushroom or cabbage soup), and a main of fried carp and special potato salad. Many varieties of Christmas cakes (e.g gingerbread) are also eaten. Traditions differ, however.
  • Silvester - 31 December - New Year's Eve is not a national holiday, but is widely celebrated, mostly by partying. At midnight, people toast the New Year with a glass of champagne. Many cities will have a firework display to celebrate New Year. Fireworks and drunk people abound.

slovakia3 20120322 1252258209Cities

  • Bratislava — capital and the largest city of Slovakia with a beautifully restored historical centre full of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, houses and palaces, cobblestone streets, fountains, pleasant cafes and lively and cosmopolitan atmosphere
  • Banská Bystrica — was one of the most important mining towns of Hungarian part of Austro-Hungarian Empire; beautiful restored square, many churches, castles and museums and memorial of the Slovak National Uprising
  • Košice — metropolis of the east, second biggest city of the country with the easternmost situated Gothic Cathedral in the World, the oldest European coat of arms, a great historical city centre with the Cathedral Complex, numerous churches, palaces and interesting museums.
  • Poprad — the entryway into High Tatras
  • Prešov — the best example of renaissance architecture in Slovakia, numerous churches and nearby lying Solivar which is one of the most interesting salt mine museum in Europe
  • Rajecké Teplice — very peaceful spa town surrounded by magnificent Mala Fatra National Park
  • Trenčín — one of the most beautiful Slovak towns with a castle lying above the city overlooking the historical centre and the river Váh
  • Trnava — the oldest Slovak town with the highest number of churches (12) and well preserved baroque architecture
  • Žilina — Fourth biggest city with a well preserved historical city centre influenced by German architecture and unique museum of the tinker´s culture located at the Budatín castle
  • Kráľovský Chlmec — Small city in the heart of Medzibodrožie. Kráľovský Chlmec is the most populated settlement of the area. The number of inhabitants is over eight thousand and lies at the foot of a former volcano.

Other destinations

  • Vysoké Tatry
  • Slovak Paradise National Park — Slovenský Raj consists of deep ravines and canyons created by the water cascading in waterfalls through the limestone.
  • High Tatras — is the biggest national park in Slovakia and a centre winter sports and hiking.
  • Vlkolínec — UNESCO heritage list village, preserving the character of a traditional Carpathian village.
  • Spissky Hrad — one of the biggest castles in Europe, UNESCO listed.
  • Nizke Tatry — Low Tatras National Park.
  • Slovak Karst
  • Levoca — magnificent medieval pearl of the Spis region surrounded by town walls with a unique renaissance town hall, burger´s houses, numerous churches and St. James Cathedral where the biggest gothic wooden altar of the world is situated.
  • Bojnice — the most visited castle in Slovakia, almost intact with beautifully preserved interiors.
  • Piešťany — the most famous spa town in Slovakia.
  • Bardejov — is a spa town in North-Eastern Slovakia that exhibits numerous cultural monuments in its completely intact medieval town center and is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
  • Vlkolínec, a hamlet high in the mountains, where time stopped in the 19th century.
  • Countless wooden churches in northern and north-eastern Slovakia.
  • Medieval mining towns of Kremnica and Banská Štiavnica.
  • Ochtinska aragonite cave - truly unique and one of the few such caves open to the public in the world, aragonite is a needle-like crystal that forms flower-like patterns on the walls.
  • Ochtinska Aragonite Cave
  • Slovak Paradise National Park - smaller mountain range famous beautiful canyons and ravines with many waterfalls and rocky formations created by the streams you can hike along.
  • High Tatras - a mountain range featuring a variety of terrain and beautiful vistas offers great opportunities for hiking and winter sports.

slovakia4 20120322 1785650943Language


The official and most widely-spoken language is Slovak. Slovaks are very proud of their language, and thus, even in Bratislava you will not find many signs written in English (outside of the main tourist areas). Also, most older people except some in Bratislava are unable to converse in English, but most of them knows Russian; most young people speak at least some English, as it has been taught in most schools since 1990. Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible, yet distinctive languages (at first, one might think they are dialects of each other).


Slovak is written using the same Roman characters that English uses (with some added accents or diacritics), so Western travellers won't have any trouble reading signs and maps. While some words are tongue twisters, the knowledge of the alphabet including the letters with diacritics will go a long way as Slovaks pronounce every letter of a word with accent always on the first syllable (but it may be on second syllable in some dialects in east).


Since the territory of Slovakia was under Hungarian influence for centuries, there is a significant Hungarian-speaking minority of 9.7%. Most of the Hungarians live in southern regions of the country and some of them speak no Slovak. Other Slovaks however normally do not speak or understand the Hungarian language.


While you can make do with English and German in Bratislava, in smaller towns and villages your only chance is trying to approach younger people that speak some English. Older residents may know some German. People born between 1935 and 1980 will have learned Russian in school, though few Slovaks will appreciate being spoken to in Russian as this language has some negative connotations due to the Communist era. Due to the significant tourism growth in the North and the East of Slovakia, English is becoming more widely used and you may try Polish. Other Slavic languages, especially Russian, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovene may also work. In the east Rusyn, a Ukrainian dialect close to Polish is spoken. It is also intelligible with Russian to some extent. Attempts to speak Slovak will be very appreciated.


Currency


Slovakia has the euro (EUR, €) as its currency. Therewith, Slovakia belongs to the 23 European countries that use the common European money.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse as well as all bills look the same throughout the eurozone. Nonetheless, every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
Automatic teller machines (ATM, "bankomat" in Slovak, pl. "bankomaty") are widely available in Slovakia except in smaller villages, and obtaining money there should not present a problem. In most of small villages you can gain money at local postal offices (cashback). Credit cards and debit cards such as Visa, Mastercard, Visa Electron, Cirrus Maestro are widely accepted both in shops and restaurants in bigger cities.


Do


Visit the nearest chateau/castle - many are hundreds of years old, some preserved in a habitable state with period furnishings and many guided tours are offered.


Go hiking - the entire Slovakia (except flatlands) is covered with hundreds of miles of extremely well-marked hiking trails, that especially in the national parks lead though gorgeous landscapes.


Visit one of the traditional wooden churches, they're unique to the region. These might not be readily accessible without a car, however.


See a cave - caves are interspersed around Slovakia and as many are open to general public they are some of the most accessible in the world. Many are UNESCO listed, including Dobsinska Ice Cave (in Slovak Paradise), and Ochrinska Aragonite Cave, Domica, Jasovska Cave and Gombasek Cave (all in Slovak Karst)


Visit a local festival - in the early spring 'Fasiangy' (Mardi Gras) is celebrated, especially in the countryside, and in early autumn the end of the harvest period is celebrated in wine-producing regions. The part of the centre of the town will be closed and a traditional market available, mostly with local produce and handicrafts for sale and plenty to eat and drink. In bigger cities, similar Christmas markets open in December/around Christmas.


Ski and snowboard in the mountains, especially High Tatras and Low Tatras. Smaller ranges are also very suitable for cross-country skiing


Navigate down the rivers Váh or Dunajec on a raft through picturesque gorges. For a more gentle ride, raft down the Small Danube.


If you're into railway history or would like to spend a day romantically, Slovakia offers a number of phased-out railway tracks, which were once used for transporting wood, but now transport only tourists in cosy steam trains through forests and valleys. The best-preserved of them all is ČHŽ near the town of Brezno.


slovakia5 20120322 1317780957Relax


Slovakia offers many excellent spas and water parks. If you enjoy stinking mud and are willing to pay for it, the best, most famous (and most expensive) spa is located in Piešťany. Important spas are also in Trenčianske Teplice, Rajecké Teplice, Bardejov, Dudince and Podhájska.


If it's too boring for you and you'd welcome some water slides and fun, try water parks in Bešeňová, Liptovský Mikuláš, Poprad, Turčianske Teplice, Oravice, Senec. Significantly cheaper are classical open-air pools, some of the best are in Veľký Meder and Štúrovo.


Respect


Slovaks are friendly and peaceful people living in a free democratic state. There is not a single issue that would provoke hostility or real trouble. Usually the worst thing that could happen is that you would be thought a bit boorish and the history explained to you over another beer. However, it pays to be respectful and sensitive when discussing certain topics.


Remember that Slovakia is a separate nation that has been independent since 1993 when Czechoslovakia split into the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. It is also a 'young nation', as for most of its history it was a part of other multinational states such as Austria-Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Therefore, some people may be sensitive when it comes to nationality issues. There is no hostility or resentment when it comes to the Velvet divorce that split Czechoslovakia, and the two nations remain very amicable. Do not refer to Slovakia as a part of another state and you should be fine.


Slovakia's position during WWII was quite complex, and this topic is best avoided when speaking to nationalists. Similarly, the decades of Communism left its mark on the country and this can be a sensitive topic. Slovakia, while formerly a part of the Soviet bloc, has never been a part of the USSR or the Russian Empire. Please remember this.


Out of the more current issues, the relations with the Roma/Gypsy minority are sometimes strained and people may hold strong views on the subject. Do not venture into a debate unless you are intimately acquainted with the problem.


Slovaks are quite hospitable, and if they invite you into their home, expect to be well looked after and offered a variety of food and drinks. If you are invited in for lunch, expect a 2-3 course meal just as for dinner, as lunch is traditionally the main meal of the day. It is considered polite to bring a small gift for the host, such as a bottle of wine or good spirit, a box of chocolates, or a small bouquet of flowers. Never money.


Most people do not use their outdoor shoes inside for hygienic reasons, so take your shoes off in the hallway when entering somebody's home. Don't worry, they will find you a spare pair of slippers to keep your feet warm.


When dining in a restaurant with the host's family, it is customary for them to pick the bill. This might not happen, but don't be surprised if they do.
When being introduced to or meeting someone, even of the opposite sex, and even for the first time, it is not uncommon to kiss each other on the cheek once or twice (depending on the region) instead of shaking hands. It is not common between two males, but is quite normal for women. Do not be alarmed, and remember that this is not a sexual gesture.

Based on the Wikitravel article on Slovakia.