In the summer of 2003, I seized the chance of a personalized invite to Bratislava. Upon arriving at the city's train station from Budapest, I was collected by Tómaš, a Slovakian I had met in Vancouver, who was then toiling as a tech wizard for Orange telecom. On this piping hot day, Tómaš and his high-IQ biologist wife Katrina drove us in a smart new Skoda (the famous Czech car) to an ice cold crystal lake on Bratislava's outskirts. Here, amongst the tolerance of naked or non-naked bathers, we could happily cool ourselves off before proceeding to eat a Slovakian staple, apricot jam-filled dumplings, that were prepared by his mother,.
Bratislava's old town is itself very small and picturesque, saturated with narrow winding cobblestone streets, all gradually leading uphill to Bratislava castle that is situated at the top of the hill overlooking the Danube. A merrily drunken Tómaš took me there at daybreak to peer at the city's magnificent panorama while garbling dimwitted philosophical utterances concerning life's meaning.
Because Bratislava is a mere half-hour train ride from Vienna and a few hours from Budapest, the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire's influence is reflected through the architecture and general feel of the place. In nice weather, during the day many of the cafés in romantic twisting alleyways of the city's tiny historic old town are packed; at night, even more so. Be sure to linger carelessly here and take in the cheap tall vats of fine beer, and seep yourself in Slovakia's rich folklore, the nation's greatest champion. For folklore junkies, attend the Východná Folklore festival 32 km west of Poprad. In recent years, I have focused my travel on eastern Europe. For the average budget-minded traveler, the east provides far better value for your money than Western Europe. With many eastern European countries joining the European Union, prices are gradually increasing, so the time to come here is now.
Tómaš guided me to Devin castle, an old ruin situated outside the city. It is positioned on a hilltop right by the river Danube; on the other side of the Danube was Austria. Tómaš explained how the Slovakian side was heavily barricaded during the cold war when this was still Czechoslovakia.
Today this isolationism is a dinosaur. Slovakia has made itself an attractive location for Japanese automotive plants and outsourcing. In an intriguing twist, Slovakia is now
eclipsing its close western neighbor with whom it was once united: the Czech republic. For the first decade after the end of the Cold War, the Czech Republic's economy was among the fastest growing in Europe's eastern block. Slovakia lagged far behind. Now there is a reversal of this scenario, much to Slovakia's pride and joy.
Part of this economic fine-tuning naturally includes tourism. Not unlike Slovakia's neighboring nations of Poland, Czech, Austria, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary, it is keen to glean capitol off its natural heritage. Slovakia is landlocked, yet can boast a mountain range, the High Tatras, where skiing is possible, and cheap. Hiking and idle gallivanting in Slovakia's abundant forests and mountains is highly popular amongst the native populace, indicating a longstanding deep respect and love for its wilderness, home to brown bears, lynxes and wolves.
Ever since Czechoslovakia broke off into Czechia and Slovakia on January 1st 1993, there has been endless debate about the differences between the two. The most obvious difference is the language. While Slovakian and Czech are not identical, they are most certainly distant relatives to each other. The difference is in fact very slight and often is likened to that of Danish and Swedish; the two sides can understand each other.
Culturally, the two have much in common, and both certainly love ice hockey, a national obsession here as much if not more so than in Canada. Tómaš, who now works and lives in Prague, told me that Czechs are known to be cheerful, hedonistic and reckless with their money while their Slovakian counterparts are said to be stingy and gloomy. Another difference is that apparently Czechs are beer drinkers while Slovaks lean more towards spirits. Admittedly, contentions of these kinds can also become arbitrary, and I for one did not note any striking differences between the two nations.
On my final night on the Danube River, I was fortunate enough to be welcomed on a boat party. Sitting deck side with wine glass in hand overlooking the nocturnal moon glow while chatting with kindhearted Slovakian womenfolk, I paused to revel at the serendipity. This will be the highlight of my Bratislava memory.
Sights to see in Slovakia:
Bratislava Castle: Don't miss it. It sits on a hilltop overlooking the Danube and the city.
Devin Castle: 9km west of Bratislava, tel. 65 73 01 05, bus number 29.
Východná Folklore Festival: 32 km west of Poprad, late June/early July. There are also many other music folk festivals throughout Slovakia from June through to October.
Skiing: Malá Fatra and Vysoké Tatry in northern Slovakia along the border with Poland
Museum of folk music: At the north end of Bratislava castle.
Lake 'Nové Kosariská:' Near the village of Dunajská Lúzná, 15km southeast of Bratislava