Slovakia, the former Czechoslovakia's less glamourous partner, emerged dishevelled and sleepy after the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989. Although it's now holding its own in a rebuilding Eastern bloc, there's a refreshing absence of Prague-style glitz and clamour. The capital, Bratislava, is small and cheerful with a surprisingly accomplished cultural life; the High Tatras are as rugged a range as any in Eastern Europe and the peasant traditions of rural Slovakia are still evident in the villages. You'll find the Slovaks to be extremely warm, friendly people prepared to go out of their way to help you enjoy their country.
Full country name: Slovak Republic
Area: 49,036 sq km (19,124 sq mi)
Population: 5.4 million
Capital city: Bratislava (pop 452,000)
People: Slovak (85.6%), Hungarian (10.7%), Romany (1.5%), Czech (1%)
Language: Slovak, Czech & Hungarian, German
Religion: 60% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant, 4% Orthodox
Government: parliamentary democracy
Executive: President: Rudolf Schuster (SOP)
Prime Minister: Mikulás Dzurinda
GDP: US$46.3 billion
GDP per head: US$8600
Annual growth: 6%
Major industries: Metal products, electricity, gas, coke, oil, rubber products, agriculture
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany), Czech Republic, Austria, Poland
Member of EU: no
Slavic tribes occupied what is now Slovakia in the 5th century AD. In 833, the prince of Moravia captured Nitra and formed the Great Moravian Empire, which included all of present Central and West Slovakia, the Czech Republic and parts of neighbouring Poland, Hungary and Germany. The empire converted to Christianity with the arrival of the Thessaloniki brothers and missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, in 863.
In 907, the Great Moravian Empire collapsed as a result of the political intrigues of its rulers and invasion by Hungary. By 1018 the whole of Slovakia was annexed by Hungary and remained so for the next 900 years, although the Spis region of East Slovakia belonged to Poland from 1412 to 1772. After a Tatar invasion in the 13th century, the Hungarian king invited Saxon Germans to settle the depopulated north-eastern borderlands. When the Turks overran Hungary in the early 16th century, the Hungarian capital moved from Buda to Bratislava.
Only in 1686 was the Ottoman presence finally driven south of the Danube.
The formation of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1867 gave Hungary autonomy in domestic matters and a policy of enforced Magyarisation ('Hungarianisation') was instituted in Slovakia between 1868 and 1918. In 1907 Hungarian became the sole language of elementary education. As a reaction to this, Slovak intellectuals cultivated closer cultural ties with the Czechs, who were themselves dominated by the Austrians. The concept of a single Czecho-Slovakian unit was born for political purposes and, after the Austro-Hungarian defeat in WWI, Slovakia, Ruthenia, Bohemia and Moravia united as Czechoslovakia. The centralising tendencies of the sophisticated Czechs alienated many Slovaks and, after the 1938 Munich agreement that forced Czechoslovakia to cede territory to Germany, Slovakia declared its autonomy within a federal state. The day before Hitler's troops invaded Czech lands in March 1939, a clero-fascist puppet state headed by Monsignor Jozef Tiso (executed in 1947 as a war criminal) was set up, and Slovakia became a German ally.
In August 1944, Slovak partisans commenced the Slovak National Uprising which took the Germans several months to crush. In the wake of Soviet advances in early 1945, a Czechoslovak government was established at Kosice two months before the liberation of Prague. The second Czechoslovakia established after the war was to have been a federal state, but after the communist takeover in February 1948 the administration once again became centralised in Prague. Many of those who resisted the new communist dictatorship were ruthlessly eliminated by execution, torture and starvation in labour camps. Although the 1960 constitution granted Czechs and Slovaks equal rights, only the 1968 'Prague Spring' reforms introduced by Alexander Dubcek (a rehabilitated Slovak communist) implemented this concept. In August 1968, Soviet troops quashed democratic reform, and although the Czech and Slovak republics theoretically became equal partners, the real power remained in Prague.
The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia during 1989 led to a resurgence of Slovak nationalism and agitation for Slovak autonomy. After the left-leaning nationalist Vladimir Meciar was elected in June 1992, the Slovak parliament voted to declare sovereignty and the federation dissolved peacefully on 1 January 1993.
Meciar lost the prime ministership in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in March 1994 because of a failing economy and his increasingly authoritarian rule, but after general elections a few months later, he was able to form a new coalition government.
Immediately after the elections, Meciar cancelled the sale of state-owned enterprises, halted Slovakia's privatisation scheme and threatened independent radio stations and newspapers with legal action if they dared criticise the government. Not surprisingly, many Slovaks started to lose patience with Meciar's heavy-handed rule. The passing of anti-democratic laws brought criticism from various human rights organisations, European leaders and US President Clinton.
The elections of 1998 saw Meciar ousted by the reform-minded Mikulés Dzurinda, leader of the right-leaning Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). He has had a rough time as prime minister, dogged by poor economic performance, high unemployment and ethnic tensions with the country's Hungarian and Roma minorities, while trying to hold together his fragile coalition.
Nevertheless, Dzurinda has managed to put Slovakia back on track to join the rest of Europe, having opened negotiations with the EU in February 2000. Opinion polls at the time showed that 70% of Slovaks supported their country's bid to join the EU, and for the first time there was also a majority - albeit a slender one - in favour of joining NATO.
After almost 900 years of Hungarian domination, a 19th-century National Revival commenced with the creation of the Slovak literary language by the nationalist L'udovít Stúr. This enabled the emergence of a Slovak national consciousness. One of the leading artists in the revival was poet Pavol O Hviezdoslav, whose works have been translated into several languages. Slovakia's architectural wonders include the Gothic St James Church in Levoca and the magnificent Renaissance buildings in Bardejov. Traditional Slovak folk instruments include the fujara (a 2m/6.5ft-long flute), the gajdy (bagpipes) and the konkovka (a strident shepherd's flute). Folk songs helped preserve the Slovak language during Hungarian rule, and in East Slovakia ancient folk traditions still play an important part in village life.
Religion is taken pretty seriously by the folksy Slovaks. Catholics are in a majority but Protestants and Evangelicals are also numerous. In East Slovakia there are many Greek Catholics and Orthodox believers. There are only a few thousand Jews in Slovakia today: some 73,500 Slovak Jews were removed to concentration camps by the Nazi SS and the Slovak Hlinka guards. After the war most survivors left for Israel. Slovakia's Romany gypsies escaped deportation but many have left for the Czech Republic where jobs have been easier to come by.
As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, there is much prejudice against gypsies.
An aspect of Slovak nationalism is pride in the language and Slovaks can get a little hot under the collar when Slovak is given short shrift in comparison with other Slavic languages. As a visitor you won't be taken to task for mixing Czech with Slovak, but any effort to communicate in the local language will be appreciated. Although many people working in tourism have a good knowledge of English, in rural Slovakia very few people speak anything other than Slovak. German is probably the most useful non-Slavic language to know.
Slovak cuisine is basic central European fare: meat, dumplings, potatoes or rice topped with a thick sauce, and a heavily cooked vegetable or sauerkraut. Caraway seed, bacon and lots of salt are the common flavourings. Lunch is the main meal; dinner may be no more than a cold plate. Vegetarians aren't going to have a great choice - beware of apparently meatless dishes cooked in animal stock or fat and get ready for lots of fried cheese, omelettes and potatoes. Slovaks are known as wine rather than beer drinkers - the Tokaj region along the Hungarian border squeezes out a good drop.
Slovakia sits in the heart of Europe, straddling the north-western end of the Carpathian Mountains and forming a clear physical barrier between the plains of Poland to the north and Hungary to the south. The spectacular High Tatra alpine range runs along Slovakia's north-eastern border, shared with Poland. Gerlachovský (2655m/8708ft) is the highest of the mighty Tatra peaks. Although almost 80% of Slovakia is over 750m (2460ft) above sea level, the portion south of Nitra is a fertile lowland stretching down to the Danube River which forms the border with Hungary. Slovakia also shares borders with the Czech Republic in the north-west, Austria in the south-west and Ukraine in the east.
Forests, mainly beech and spruce, cover 40% of the country despite centuries of deforestation. Wildlife includes bears, wolves, lynxes, marmots, chamois, otters and mink that live in the High Tatras. The national parks outside the Tatra include most of these animals in smaller numbers. Deer, pheasants, partridges, ducks, wild geese, storks, grouse, eagles and vultures can be seen throughout the countryside. The Slovak countryside is not as badly polluted as other European countries although larger towns that have seen rapid industrialization since WWII are suffering.
The damp continental climate over most of the Slovak Republic is responsible for warm, showery summers, cold, snowy winters, and generally changeable conditions. July is the hottest month everywhere, January the coldest.
From December through February, temperatures push below freezing even in the lowlands, and are bitter in the mountains. There is no real 'dry season', and the long, sunny hot spells of summer tend to be broken by sudden, heavy thunderstorms. The driest regions are Slovakia's southern lowlands. Winter brings 40 to 100 days of snow on the ground (about 130 in the mountains), plus fog in the lowlands.
Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian, Pressburg in German) is Slovakia's largest city and has been the capital since 1969. Here the Carpathian Mountains, which begin at the Iron Gate of Romania, finally come to an end. As you arrive at the main train station, you'll see vineyards on the slopes of the Little Carpathian Mountains, where they meet the Danube River. The Austrian border is almost within sight of the city and Hungary is just 16km away. Many beautiful monuments survive in the old town to tell of its past under Hungarian rule, and Bratislava's numerous museums are surprisingly rich. Franz Lizst visited Bratislava 15 times, and the opera productions of the Slovak National Theatre rival anything in Europe. Bratislava isn't as swamped by Western tourism as are Budapest and Prague (except on weekends when the Austrians invade).
The old city and the castle are the best parts of Bratislava - the rest of the city is pretty drab. The old city is packed with museums (such as the Municipal Museum which comes complete with torture chambers and the Museum of Wine Production) and palaces (such as the Primate's Palace, where Napoleon and the Austrian Emperor Franz I signed a peace treaty in 1805, and the rococo Mirbach Palace). The castle, built above the Danube, was a frontier post of the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 5th century. Since the 9th century it has been rebuilt several times, most recently between 1953 and 1962. Climb up for the great views and to check out the very interesting Museum of Folk Music within. The Slovak National Museum and the Slovak National Gallery on the river are also worth a visit.
Hviezdoslavovo námestie (square) is a convenient orientation point, with the old town to the north, the Danube to the south, and Bratislava Castle to the west. Bratislava's main train station, Hlavná stanica, is several km north of town. Most of the cheaper hostels and mid-priced hotels are north-east of the centre. The food market in the centre of town is a good place to eat; there are ritzier restaurants in the vicinity of the castle.