#A lively culture
Slovakia is one of the youngest countries in Europe, emerging from its Soviet period in 1989 and separated from the Czech Republic since 1993. Today Slovakia is a country in full transition, which navigates between modernity and tradition.While the Soviet past is gradually erasing itself from the mentalities that confidently enter the market economy, the legacy of this period is still visible in the presence of colossal buildings. Society has adapted to a new social and economic model and there are few nostalgic for the communist period. However, having been integrated for 1,000 years into the Kingdom of Hungary and attached to Czechoslovakia for most of the 20th century, Slovaks have always succeeded in transmitting their cultural heritage and defending their national identity.Since their entry into the European Union in 2004, everything has been evolving very quickly in Slovakia, the Western development model is on the move, and if growth was the watchword, the 2008 crisis has also affected the country, which is slowly recovering.However, despite its assets, the country remains strangely neglected by tourists. A small paradise of unknown nature, Slovakia will undoubtedly delight you. One piece of advice, hurry up and discover this country before we spread the word...
A mosaic population :
With a population of around 5,445,000 inhabitants and a density of 111 inhabitants/km², Slovakia ranks among the smallest European nations, 22nd in the EU. The two most populous urban centres are Bratislava and Koice, the capital with more than 420,000 inhabitants, and Koice, 238,000. The other cities in the country are medium-sized or small. Among the 5 most important are Preov, Nitra, ilina, Banska Bystrica and Trnava with similar populations around 80 000 inhabitants. A country where the movement and erasure of borders has always been the rule, there are many minorities who make up an ethnic mosaic that carries wealth but also tensions: Hungarians, Roma, Czechs, Ruthenians and Ukrainians complete the landscape that many think is very homogeneous.
A land of adventure and discovery
Despite its small size, Slovakia, which is a three-quarters mountainous country, has a great diversity of natural resources. Slovaks are fully aware of this and live in harmony with nature. Many of them have a mountain chalet inherited from the Soviet period. They escape on weekends, often with friends, to get some fresh air and enjoy the splendours of their forests and mountains. Slovaks maintain and preserve their nature with the greatest care: a multitude of well-marked trails and quality facilities offer you the opportunity to access caves of aragonite or ice, unique on this continent, streams arranged for rafting descents, or mountain slopes where skiers meet in winter and hikers in summer.The Tatras are one of the most exceptional mountain ranges in Europe with their impressive peaks. The Slovak Paradise National Park is a true preserved natural paradise and the Slovak Karst, a geological curiosity carved out of deep and splendid caves, will delight experienced speleologists.The fauna and flora are simply dazzling and preserved. Forests cover 36% of the country's total area and are home to most of the 40,000 species of animals recorded in Slovakia. Among the most exceptional that can be found: the lynx, the moose, the chamois, the wolf and also, with luck or misfortune, the famous brown bear.A rich architectural heritage Proud of its rich historical heritage, Slovakia offers travellers more than 100 castles and twice as many mansions belonging to the aristocracy. The first buildings date back to the 9th century, and in the 10th century, they were often stone castles that became widespread between the 11th and 13th centuries, like the one in Spi, now in ruins. These constructions correspond to the desire to protect against the Mongolian and Tartar invasions of this troubled period. Many fortresses were erected by the Hungarian aristocracy in strategic or hard-to-reach places on the borders of the kingdom. Orava Castle is a perfect example. The free cities, which flourished thanks to trade, also acquired fortified castles, such as Zvolen and Banská Bystrica, where only the barbican is still visible. From the 15th century onwards, significant architectural changes in the Gothic and Renaissance styles were made to improve the comfort of daily life in these secure buildings. Today, many of these castles are open to visitors, whether they have been perfectly preserved or fallen into ruins.Slovak sacred architecture is symbolized by wooden churches. Built from the end of the 17th century, they follow a law promulgated by Leopold I in the middle of the reform period, which stipulated that these buildings should be built in less than a year, without nails, outside the village, and without a bell tower. They can be visited and masses are still said there today. They are mainly found in the eastern part of the country. Slovakia is a country of great religious fervour, with magnificent churches. From the Gothic cathedral of St. Elizabeth of Koice to the blue church of Bratislava, built in the early 20th century in the Art Nouveau style, seven centuries of religious history follow one another to the delight of architecture lovers. Slovakia also has many synagogues and Protestant temples, some of which were built at the beginning of the Reformation. One of the most beautiful examples is Kemarok, with the 16th century wooden articulated church. Some of these buildings have lost their sacred function and house cultural centres or simple shops, such as Trstená, a city in the Orava Valley.Popular architecture is represented by open-air museums that bring together in one place the typical one-storey houses, built of wood from the different regions of Slovakia. Visits to these museums are often accompanied by folklore activities. But many villages still have very well maintained examples of vernacular architecture. To discover Slovakia's wealth, it is therefore necessary to go beyond Bratislava or the larger urban centres, which are very often marked by the socialist and functional style of buildings with large, imposing and grey shapes such as building bars or other administrative buildings.
The omnipresence of the thermal baths
Slovakia may be one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it offers an impressive number of thermal springs with various therapeutic properties. Quality treatments are offered to spa users with baths and massages at much more competitive prices than in France. Thermal baths are found throughout the territory but the choice is greater in mountain areas. There's nothing more enjoyable to relax after a day of hiking or spending on the ski slopes!The city of Tren?in is home to the largest thermal baths in the country, you will be welcomed in real 19th century palaces by a team of professionals. Art Deco pools are real little jewels. At Pie?any, you can find the most famous thermal baths with their waters above 67°C, once frequented by Hungarian army soldiers wounded during the Second World War. Today, they welcome more than 35,000 people taking the waters each year. Bardejovské Kúpele is also known historically as its thermal baths were frequented by Tsar Alexander or Sissi. They also have the advantage of being located in the heart of a forest, the ideal place to rest!
The appeal of winter sports
Slovakia is crossed by the Carpathians, a mountainous range that extends over various massifs, over 4/5 of its territory. Around Bratislava, the Little Carpathians offer a landscape of hills and forests. To the northwest stretch the Malá and Ve?ká Fatras, the small and large Fatras. These two chains are parallel to each other and their landscapes are marked by steep valleys, canyons and breathtaking cliffs. To the north run the high Tatras on the Polish border, 35 km long for this massif nicknamed "the small Alps", dominated by Mount Gerlach (Gerlachovský tít) which rises to 2,654 m. To the south, the low Tatras face them with their long and wide wooded slopes. Each massif is covered by several ski areas. The infrastructure, of varying quality depending on the age of the resorts, offers the possibility of skiing at much more attractive prices than in France. Small and medium-sized ski resorts and ski areas, open from December to April, are a delight for all skiers.The most important resort in Slovakia is the Jasná estate in the Demänoská Dolina valley, located in the lower Tatras. In the upper Tatras, the ski resort of trbské Pleso hosted the World Ski Jumping Championships from 1980 to 1987. More intimate, Zuberec, on the western side, and diar, on the eastern side of the high Tatras, are pretty villages where Slovak folklore is still very much alive and where it is possible to find accommodation in traditional wooden houses. However, the ski areas are smaller and even quite old.
© Dominique Auzias & Jean-Paul Labourdette