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Czech mate

Slovakia's attractions may be unpronounceable, but there are enough of them to give the nation's more tourist-oriented neighbour a run for its money. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

 

Google the words "underrated" and "Slovakia" and you'll be confronted with more than two million results. Quite a number refer to Eurovision song contest entries and television shows but it's fair to say that the central European state is not living up to its tourism potential.

Despite its status as an independent republic, since the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia suffers from something of an identity crisis. A similarly named country three hours south is partly to blame.

"Plenty of mail for Slovenia comes here," a post office clerk explains. "People don't seem to realise that we're different countries. Perhaps that's where all my birthday cards ended up this year."

One of Europe's newest capitals, Bratislava is a cultural gem struggling to hold its own in a region of magnificent cities. Overshadowed by Prague, Vienna and Budapest, Bratislava welcomes its share of dazed day-trippers who hop off Danube river cruisers, all trying to remember where they are and which currency to use.

The "Little Big City" has more than enough to keep the most energetic sightseer occupied. Places of interest are all within walking distance, which is just as well because public transport is less than user-friendly.

There is a bewildering array of prepaid-zone and transit tickets, based on the number of minutes you spend aboard. Taxi drivers do well out of tour-ists in Bratislava.

Getting around is further complicated by the fact Slovak place names often lack the vowels necessary to make them pronounceable. Letters that rarely see the light of day in English appear with tongue-tying frequency. Rumour has it that in Slovak scrabble, a Z is worth one point and an E is worth 10.

Bratislava's old town is straight out of a fairy tale. Spellbound sightseers lose themselves amid medieval buildings that include a 14th-century city hall, a cathedral and palaces. Even the fountain in the main square is more than 400 years old.

Camera-toting tourists congregate at the Presidential Palace, where guards go through a cheesy high-stepping change of personnel on the hour. The smartly dressed sentries mysteriously disappear at 5pm, however: a security oversight that has yet to be exploited by international terrorists.

Perched on a rocky hill overlooking the strategically important River Danube, Bratislava Castle has protected townspeople from marauding hordes since AD907. Nowadays, it's a popular spot in which to have wedding photos taken.

A few kilometres outside the city, past rows of dreary Soviet-era housing blocks, lies a military stronghold that has played a far more recent role in geopolitical conflict. The windswept ramparts of Devin Castle are just across the Danube from Austria and until the fall of communism in 1989, the fortification was heavily guarded to discourage Slovaks from attempting to escape to the West.

After a four-day historical and cultural onslaught, it's time for me to escape to the east. European railway stations offer a whiff of adventure and possibility. From Bratislava, trains depart for Athens, Belgrade, Istanbul and Moscow - from where masochists could continue all the way to Hung Hom station.

I opt for a three-hour journey to Poprad, gateway to the Tatras, which form the western extremity of the Carpathian mountain range. The 750-square-kilometre Tatra National Park is one of the few remaining places in Europe where it's possible to come face to face with a wild bear.

My fellow passengers snooze through sublime scenery while I search my smartphone for somewhere to stay. Online discussions and YouTube clips direct me to Ždiar, an idyllic-looking mountain village that Michael Palin chose as his only Slovakian stopover in the BBC travel series New Europe. The clincher is a menacing-looking squiggle atop the first letter that brings to mind spy novels and cold war intrigue.

The train ride has triggered a yearning for the inter-railing days of my youth and this prevailing air of nostalgia has me checking in at the Ginger Monkey - my first backpacker's hostel for 20 years. It's a convivial place with a friendly group of travellers who lounge on the patio drinking endless cups of tea while making vague promises to head into the hills "in a day or two".

Lars from Denmark has the grizzled look of a mountaineer and spends long hours gazing silently into the snow-capped distance. There's a trio of British language teachers based in Budapest and a Hongkonger, Bonnie from Mid-Levels, who speaks better English than all of us.

No one else is keen to stray too far from the patio or the kettle so I decide to hike alone. Encouragingly, hostel manager Dan thinks my chances of bumping into a bear are slim to non-existent.

"Free accommodation for a week if you see one," he calls out. "I'll need proof though. A photo or a wound will do."

After a precautionary check of my clothing for traces of honey from breakfast, I set off across emerald meadows feeling like an extra in The Sound of Music. Slovakia is one of the most densely forested nations in Europe and it takes all morning to get up above the tree line.

The views are spectacular and improve with each switchback. Serrated granite peaks rear up against a cobalt sky revealing pristine lakes and the air tastes like champagne. Plans to hike to the Polish border are foiled however when threatening rain clouds appear from nowhere. I scurry back down the slippery trail to Ždiar - and arrive just in time for a party.

Slovakia are about to play the Czech Republic in the Ice Hockey World Championship semi-final and a stream of villagers in blue and white shirts are heading for Vlado's Pizzeria. There isn't time to brush up on rules and tactics so it seems best to join the regulars and hostellers by downing shot after shot of borovièka, the national firewater.

Victory over Canada in the quarter-finals a few days earlier brought Bratislava to a standstill and we watch as the underdogs repeat the feat against their bigger, wealthier neighbours. Pandemonium ensues.

"No one expected us to win today, not even me," Vlado shouts above the din.

Chalk another one up for under-rated Slovakia.

 

Getting there: Aeroflot www.aeroflot.ru/cms/en flies from Hong Kong to Moscow, from where UTair Aviation www.utair.ru/en operates flights to Bratislava.

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