MANY people would be reluctant, at the present time, to visit the countries that border Ukraine.
But for anyone, like me, who is more interested in exploring lesser-known corners of Europe, rather than the obvious sights, here is my reflection on two trips I took to Slovakia in 2017.
A large rectangular castle stands proudly above Bratislava, overlooking the Old Town and the Danube. This rocky outcrop has been fortified for over 2,000 years; but the current castle only began to take on its present form in the 1500s. Its renovation after a fire 200 years ago is almost complete.
Five kilometers away, at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers which form the current Slovak/Austrian border, stand the remains of Devin Castle. This one has an equally long history, until it was destroyed by Napoleon in 1809. Wherever you go Slovakia, you are never far from a castle.
Slovakia only became an independent country in 1993. For nearly a thousand years it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when it collapsed at the end of World War I, it was somewhat arbitrarily associated with the Czech Republic to form Czechoslovakia.
Like most of Eastern Europe, it was dominated by the Soviet Union after World War II. But soon after that too fell apart in 1991, the two halves of Czechoslovakia amicably parted ways. With a population of just over five million, it is also bordered by Poland, Austria, Hungary and Ukraine (from which it has recently taken in more than 300,000 refugees).
The capital, Bratislava, is relatively small compared to neighboring cities such as Vienna, Prague and Budapest; and lack of size. But in addition to the two castles, there is an old town worth exploring. Uncrowded pedestrianized cobbled streets, cafes and craft beer bars abound, amid attractive Central European architecture. Or you can visit what remains of the Jewish quarter, much of which was demolished when the new bridge and road was built in the 1960s. The distinctively shaped tripod that supports the main road bridge over the Danube includes a lift to a rooftop restaurant and viewing gallery, offering spectacular views of the city and beyond, into Hungary and Austria. You can get a 24-hour ticket covering the city’s buses and trams, to help you get around.
But Slovakia’s main pleasures lie in the countryside. The plains around the capital soon give way to hills and woods. A journey east, by road or rail, will take you to lovely and picturesque towns; largely unchanged for centuries. The fortified old town of Trnava is just 45 minutes from Bratislava; with a large public square, quiet alleys and countless churches.
Further afield you can find gems like Banska Bistryca, again with a huge central square, and plenty of bars and restaurants hidden in the ground floor archways between the buildings.
Or Banska Stiavnica, an unspoiled medieval town built on a series of dizzying slopes formed by a collapsed volcano, and with its own castle built during the Ottoman advance towards Vienna in 1683.
You will find many castles. Some will be just old ruins, remnants of the many wars that have raged on this land. Oravsky is perhaps the most spectacular and dramatic. Dating from the 13th century, it is perched on top of a huge rocky outcrop. Despite numerous attempts, it was never taken by any invading army; although it suffered a major fire in 1800.
It has served as the setting for several Gothic-style films, including the iconic Nosferatu. Well worth a visit inside – English-speaking guides are available – although the higher parts are no longer safe for visitors.
Then there is the huge Trencin Castle, which grows organically from the center of town. Another castle offering tours is Bojnice; although this was built as a lavish country residence for the once-dominant Palffy family, rather than for military defence.
The further east you go, the less populated the land, the more attractive the landscape and the more the Tatra Mountains loom, defining the border with Poland. Forty percent of Slovakia is forest, where apparently bears and lynx still roam.
Slovakia is not so much a traditional holiday destination as an interesting place for travelers who like to get off the beaten track. It hasn’t been overrun with tourists yet, so hotel accommodation and cost of living can be half of what it is further west. And you can use it as a base for day trips to Vienna (just an hour by regular train); or even Budapest (under three hours) for the larger city experience.
I made two four-night visits to Slovakia in May and July 2017. In May I spent two nights in Bratislava, then rented a car and spent one night in Banska Bistrica and one in Trnava; returning to several castles. In July, we spent four nights in Bratislava, but with one day in Vienna and a second in Trnava; traveling to both by train.