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Brief History - Getting There and In - Food and Drink - Various Useful Facts

Brief History

OK, I know it's confusing, especially if you're called George W. Bush, but there are two countries in Europe, they're close to each other, one of them is called Slovakia, and one of them is called Slovenia.

Slovakia only became an independent state in 1993. Prior to that, apart from a short period as a Nazi puppet state during World War 2 it has had a long history of being part of another country, most recently as half of Czechoslovakia, but prior to that as part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all the way back to being a border province of the Roman Empire.

After the Czech Republic and Slovakia split in 1993 Slovakians fared much worse than their Czech neighbours; the economy went into free fall and things were not helped by the corrupt Government of Vladimir Meciar which led to Slovakia being ostracized by the EU.

Things are more or less back on track now; the economy is stable, Meciar has gone and apart from the odd politician occasionally coming out with an outrageously racist remark about Slovakia's Roma (gypsy) population, the political situation is relatively stable too. Slovakia became a member of the EU in 2004.

Getting There and In

You can now fly direct between the UK and Slovakia. SkyEurope is a Slovakian low-cost carrier which has a daily service between Bratislava and London Stansted, and they now also fly four times a week between Bratislava and Manchester. I recommend them very highly. Although they're low-cost they're not "no-frills"; they have a proper check-in (you get allocated a seat number rather than the RyanAir scrum for seats when the gate opens) and you get a free sandwich and soft-drinks and tea and coffee during the flight. Depending on what days you fly return tickets start from around 60, which includes all taxes which I think is excellent value for money. The flight time between London and Bratislava is just under 2 hours, and Bratislava's airport is very close to the city centre.

Other options are Austrian Airlines, who fly direct from London Gatwick to Bratislava, low-cost carrier EasyJet, who fly from London (sic) Luton, or even Air Slovakia, who fly to Birmingham.

Slovakia has another International Airport, in Kosice in the east of the country. This handles daily flights to Bratislava, Prague, and Vienna.

If none of those are helpful the next best options (from the UK at least) are to transfer in Prague (with Czech Airlines), or fly into Vienna (plenty of options from the UK) and take advantage of Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna.

If you have an aversion to flying you can get to Slovakia from the UK by coach. The journey to Bratislava (via Brussels and Vienna) takes around 24 hours, and a return will set you back just over 100 with Eurolines. From Bratislava there are onward connections to most other Slovakian towns and cities. Eurolines also have direct services from Bratislava to Prague, Venice, Stuttgart (via Munich), Dortmund (via Cologne), Paris, Zurich, Hamburg, and several daily services to Vienna.

It’s feasible to get to Slovakia from the UK by train, but not if you’re only doing it to save money. Again, the journey would be getting on for 24 hours. Slovakia has reasonable (if not especially rapid) rail links to neighbouring Austria ,Hungary, and the Czech Republic

If you want to arrive in style how about by boat? Although Slovakia in land-locked you can cruise down the Danube from Vienna or up it from Budapest

As of 1st May 2004 Slovakia is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Slovakia. At the airport or border they'll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.

Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It's always a good idea to contact the Slovak Embassy in your home country to check that you don't need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival.

Food and Drink

Traditional Slovakian food is more or less your standard central cuisine, typically involving lots of meat (usually pork) and vegetables (usually cabbage, or potatoes). Slovakia's historic ties with Hungary have left their influences; goulash is still popular in Slovakia, as is the use of paprika in Slovakian cooking. If you get bored of meat fish is also popular, usually trout (and usually served whole) but sometimes carp (generally not served whole; have you seen the size of the buggers?). Vegetarians should just about survive; most restaurants (especially in the big cities) will have at least one vegetarian option on the menu, and you no longer have any problems in finding a decent fresh salad in Slovakian restaurants.

If you don't fancy Slovak food you'll be pleased to hear that pizza and pasta places are very popular and widespread throughout Slovakia. They're nearly always cheap and often excellent too.

Outside of Bratislava you won't find too much more variety than that, apart from the odd not particularly authentic Chinese place. Bratislava is much more cosmopolitan; you'll find sushi, Indian, Lebanese, Thai, Hungarian and Irish-British restaurants, among others.

Changing the subject to booze I'll start with beer. The Slovakian brewing industry is heavily influenced by that of the neighbouring Czech Republic, and let's face it as influences go that's a pretty good one. So, Czech pilsners are the most common type of beer, brands I've tried and can recommend highly include Saris, Smadny Mnich ("Thirsty Monk"), Zlaty bazant ("Golden Pheasant"), and possibly the best of the lot, Kelt. Nearly all bars and restaurants will have at least one of these, and often more, on draft. Beer imported from the Czech Republic, usually Pilsner Urquell, is also common. Slovak and Czech beer is very cheap and you shouldn't find yourself paying more than 50 to 60p for a half litre of the stuff.

Other imported beers (commonly Heineken or Guinness) are also available, but are relatively much more expensive. Some bars also have a wider range of international bottled beers. If you want to drink like a Slovakian yuppie go for it, if you want to get pissed quickly and cheaply on high quality beer, stick with the Slovakian stuff (and as it's brewed according to the German purity laws it isn't pumped full of chemicals either, so you shouldn't get too hung-over on it either).

If you want to add a touch of sophistication to your drinking, give Slovakian wines a try. Slovakian wine is almost impossible to find outside of Slovakia but we sampled the stuff extensively while we were out and were pleasantly surprised by the quality (the price wasn't something to complain about either, at around 3 to 4 a bottle in a decent restaurant). We tended to stick with reds using the slightly spurious reasoning that it goes down better with beer. Frankovka is probably the most common variety and that seemed to go down well with just about everything we ate, but we also had a bottle of Svatovavrinecke and that was fine too. The only white wine we drank was several bottles of Tokaj. Tokaj is a very sweet, intense white wine that is normally only produced in Hungary but when the borders of Hungary and Slovakia were being drawn up after World War 1 a few small villages of the Tokaj region ended up in Slovakia and they've been there ever since so Slovakia now produces a small amount of its own Tokaj. It's quite a bit more expensive than most other Slovak wines (a result of the labourious production process), around 10 for a 50 cl bottle, but it's definitely a luxury that's worth paying for, and if you want to you it keeps for centuries.

The Tesco store in Bratislava has an extensive (and cheap) wine section, including a very wide selection of Slovak wine. There are also a couple of classy and well stocked specialist wine shops in the Old Town.

If you want to get hurrened in a hurry, try the local spirit slivovice, a suicidally strong plumb brandy. It'll burn a hole in the back of your throat and make you blind. Demanovka is a sort of herbal liqueur, similar to the Czech Becharovka (i.e. alcoholic cough medicine). Imported spirits like Scotch whiskeys, English gin, tequila, Jack Daniels, and a wide variety of vodkas are also easily obtainable. Sadly we didn't get around to buying the bottle of Tesco Saver's vodka that we saw in their shop window.

Various Useful Facts

The official language of Slovakia is Slovakian. It's extremely closely related to Czech but not quite identical; if you speak either Czech or Slovak or even just know a few phrases of one you won't have any problems making yourself understood in the other.

Some useful phrases include Dobry den ("hello"), Kolko mate rokov ("How old are you?"), Mam pohlavnu chorobu ("Pleased to meet you"), Som slobodnyl ("I'm single"), Hladam verejne zachody ("I'm looking for a public toilet"), Ja som neurobil ("I didn't do it"), mam smad ("I'm thirsty"), and osem piva, prosim ("Eight beers please").

English seems to be fairly widely spoken as a second language, at least it was in Bratislava. Every restaurant we went in had an English translation of their menu, and every restaurant or bar we tried had someone who spoke English. Given Slovakia's proximity to Austria German is the most widely spoken second language. Slovakia has a sizeable Hungarian minority, although the use of this language tends to be confined to the extreme south of the country. There's also a smaller Ukrainian minority in the east.

The currency of Slovakia is the Koruny (crown). Although it's freely convertible I wouldn't count on being able to buy or sell any in the UK. As of December 2003 there are 58 crowns to the pound (41 to the Euro), and the rate has been relatively stable for a while. We saw a few places in Bratislava that accepted Euros and in Bratislava credit cards are accepted in most shops and many restaurants. You'll find plenty of Bureaux de change in the major towns but rates and commission charges vary wildly. You'll probably get a better rate at banks but the easiest way of getting hold of your cash is from an ATM; they're pretty much everywhere in Bratislava and widespread in the rest of the country. All of them will give cash advances on credit cards, and most of them take Cirrus cards too.