A (Very Brief) History of Slovakia

  • The Slavic tribes settled in the territory of present-day Slovakia in the fifth century.
  •  Following the disintegration of the Great Moravian Empire at the turn of the tenth century, the Hungarians annexed the territory comprising modern Slovakia.
  • In 1918, Slovakia and the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Czech Silesia and Carpathian Ruthenia formed a common state, Czechoslovakia.
  • German intervention in Sudetenland led to  the dissolution of the country, and a separate Slovakian state, a German puppet regime.
  • After World War Two Czechoslovakia re-emerged as a communist state.
  • The end of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, in 1989, during the peaceful Velvet Revolution, was followed once again by the country’s dissolution, this time, eventually, into two successor states, Czechia and Slovakia (the Velvet Divorce).

Is Slovakia in the EU?

Slovakia has been a member of the European Union since May 1, 2004. It's part of the Eurozone (the currency is the Euro) and the Schengen Visa region. It also belongs to NATO.

Is Slovakia a Rich Country?

Slovakia is ranked as a high-income advanced economy. It has a low poverty rate in comparison to other countries, though the poor are disproportionately found in minority groups.

Is Slovakia a Safe Country to Visit?

Slovakia is said to be a safe country to visit. Violent crime is almost non-existent and crime rates are low, even by European standards. As in many cities pickpockets are definitely a problem, though again, much less so than in other European countries.

Facts and Factoids

  • The official language is Slovakian.
  • In Slovakia you get a birthday and a name day. Every day of the year is assigned one or two names to celebrate.
  • Slovakia has a lot of rivers - that means a lot of bridges. More than 10,000.
  • Slovakia has the world’s highest number of castles and chateaux per capita: 180 castles and 425 chateaux, in a country with the entire population far smaller than the city of New York.
  • Slovakia calls itself the Heart of Europe - though there's furious debate about that claim.

What to See and Do In Slovakia?

  • The terrain is primarily mountainous, with the Carpathian Mountains occupying much of the central and northern parts of the country. (skiing and hiking) and there are national parks, like the High and Low Tatras. Over half the country is covered with forest. More than six thousand caves have been discovered in Slovakia so far and there are over 1300 mineral springs.
  • The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, lies on the borders with Austria and Hungary. That makes the city the only capital in the world that borders two other independent countries.
  • Bratislava is an ideal place for a weekend break, easily combined with Austria/Vienna. I stayed in Bratislava and travelled to Vienna, for the day, on a Danube ferry. You could easily do it the other way round.
  • It was a relaxing and enjoyable break, apart from dealing with Ryanair’s rules and regulations and delayed plane. It’s the only airline that serves Bratislava from the UK - unless you count WizzAir.

On the Danube

I'm on a weekend break in Bratislava. But somehow, I’ve ended up on a trip up the Danube to Vienna. That’s what the lady on the desk suggested. It seems there isn’t much to see in the city of Bratislava. She says I can easily do that tomorrow. Bratislava at first sight seems ultra-modern, so I’m surprised to find that the boat is still being repaired and men in overalls are running around with welding irons. And then our speedy catamaran turns up and moors alongside my 'ship', which is actually just a glorified pontoon.

Once out of the urban area, and away from Bratislava Castle, an unmissable landmark dominating the city. Then more ruined castles. After all, there are more castles in Slovakia, by square metre than anywhere else in the world. The river passes through undulating wooded countryside, interspersed with the odd quarry. It’s a shame they’re not playing the Strauss waltz over the PA system. (Not for the quarries of course). And then another castle, impressive Devin, towering above a little red roofed town. It’s very pretty, despite the rain. I’m popping up on deck with my camera to brave a drenching every time I spot anything interesting from my (you have to pay extra) window seat. The waiters are getting us into the Viennese cafe spirit, bearing sachertorte and whipped cream to passengers too sensible to venture outside.

Vodafone informs me when we’ve crossed the border and we’re passing the eastern most town in Austria, Hainburg. This also has red roofed houses and a church with an onion steeple, as well as some famous walled fortifications and a crumbling castle on a mound behind it.

Danube National Park

Next, the Danube National Park and then through the Danube Canal to the city. The narrow canal stretch is a bumpy ride and we are exhorted to stay in our seats while we lurch along.

This Means Nothing To Me
Oh, Vienna

Vienna, the subject of a haunting song by Ultravox and the setting for Graham Greene's most famous spy novel The Third Man. At one point Midge Ure pretended that his lyrics were influenced by The Third Man. Later, he admitted that he made that up. The song is supposed to be about a romance in an ominous dark place, which doesn't say much for Midge Ure's view of Vienna. Billy Currie wanted to write the accompanying music to be evocative of a late nineteenth century romantic composer. According to Currie, Ure wasn't a fan of the classical romantic approach, and actually said: "This means nothing to me," So that's what he sang.

Oh and Vienna is also the capital of Austria with a long imperial legacy. It's a city of some two million inhabitants, home to a third of the country's population. Vienna's history goes back to Roman times when it was a military camp called Vindobona. It was an important trading centre in the 11th century, then the capital of the Babenberg dynasty and subsequently of the Austrian Habsburgs . It reached its peak in the 19th century as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Harry Lime's Vienna

Vienna is just as Graham Greene describes. We're still on the Danube. Harry Lime still lurks on the Ferris wheel, in the Prater Park. (It was built in 1897). But I’d forgotten (sorry Midge) how gorgeous Vienna is. And Vienna is consistently rated high on those Most Liveable City in the World lists. I was last here, on my After the Berlin Wall Came Down Tour, a very long time ago. The baroque architecture is ridiculously grandiose, but at its best in the sun (which has gratifyingly appeared).

I catch trams around the Ringstrasse. as its name suggests, it circles the historic old city. And I spend most of the day marching through elegant gardens, past ornate palaces, sparkling fountains and churches with intricate spires and patterned tiled roofs. The best roof has to be the one on the unmissable St Stephen's Cathedral. Vienna is famous for its imperial palaces, especially the Schönbrunn, on the edge of the city, in Hietzing. It was the Habsburg's summer residence (the name means beautiful spring) and has 1441 rooms to marvel at. though they won't let you see all of them. Culture abounds. Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud have all made the city their home and influenced its development. In the MuseumsQuartier district, buildings ancient and modern feature Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and other notable Austrian artists.

There's a statue of a man on horseback on nearly every square or corner. The city centre is mainly pedestrianised, the ways lined with elegant street konditorei, offering torte and strudel. Or Schnitzel restaurants. Vienna is thronging with tourists - many of them Japanese. So, I'm going into competition and trying out my selfie stick again. I'm not very successful - I've left my hands - and the stick - in the shots...

Highlights of Vienna

My revisit continues with the museum area and the Hofburg Palace (the Hapsburg winter residence and principal palace). the Spanish Riding School, round the back of the Hofburg. Here, in possibly the most famous horse training academy in the world, the famous white Lippizaner horses (they're born black, but the white grows over the black coat) perform classical dressage for tourists. Well, sometimes. Last time I was here, the horses were on their annual holiday. Every summer they are transported to paddocks elsewhere in Austria for a break. And this time, nothing is running because of Covid.

More ornamental greenery, (like the Volksgarten), linked gilded squares (look up to the pediments for the most interesting decorative features) and the parliament buildings. The other must see is the Hundertwasser House. I love his whacky glittery architecture.

Exhausted, I search for the Cafe Central, planning a return torte extravaganza. But first I get lost, as my phone dies, taking my Google map along with it. I forgot how quickly its battery charge diminishes, when it’s been plugged to a European socket and I didn’t bring my power bank. So, I happily set off in totally the wrong direction, till I’m put right by a kind woman at a bus stop. Fortunately, nearly everyone speaks some English.

The Café Central is probably the most famous of Vienna's eateries. Slap bang in the middle of Vienna, it was the haunt of Trotsky, Freud, Loos (an architect) and several writers and poets (including Polgar, Zweig and Altenberg). Apparently, Peter Altenburg always used to walk out without paying, so he's commemorated with a statue. When I eventually track the Café Central down, there’s a queue snaking down the street. I’ve no inclination to stand in that, so I sneak past the line, to take a photo of Altenburg (he’s still waiting just inside the door), for old times’ sake, and settle for tea by the river.

Bratislava, the Capital of Slovakia

So, today it really is an exploration of Bratislava and yes, the lady on the desk was right. You can see the main sights very quickly. Even the tourist board promotes it as the 72 hour city (or see it in a day). I think the 72 hours includes trips out of the city. This capital of Slovakia nestles right in the south west corner of the country, backed by the Little Carpathian Mountains (sweet name). It is very close to both Austria and Hungary and so, is the only national capital that borders two other sovereign states.

Bratislava has a long and complex history. For many centuries it was part of the Hapsburg, and Austro-Hungarian empires, known as Pressburg (Slovak name Prešporok). For some time, due to Ottoman incursions into Hungary, it was designated the capital of the Hungarian empire. but even Pressburg almost succumbed to the Turks at one point. As its relevance to the Empire diminished, Vienna and Budapest grew in importance and national Slavic movements developed. In 1919, the name Bratislava was officially adopted. However, Bratislava, amidst fierce resistance, was incorporated into Czechoslovakia. It became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic, following the Velvet Divorce from the Czech Republic, in 1993.

Exploring Bratislava - A Compact Vienna

Bratislava is a more compact version of Vienna. It has a central historic centre that’s pedestrianised and lined with bustling cafes, and an outer ring served by trams. There are onion steepled churches galore, a string of bars (several stag parties looking worse for wear) plenty of fountains and bronze statues and a plethora of pastel coloured baroque houses and shops. There’s even a blue and white church that looks just like a huge iced cake.

Prices are modest and most of what is on offer seems modern and up to date - except for the public toilets. Some of the clothes and stationery on offer are a little shoddy. But then the offerings, at times, at home are too. Bratislava (the city rather then the country) is known for having a very high standard of living.

A Panorama City Tour of Bratislava

After I’ve walked as far as my legs will allow (I’m stiff from yesterday’s exertions), I take a ‘Panorama City tour’ on a scarlet mini bus. Here, I pal up with Terence, an affable student lawyer from Chicago, who's working in Prague. This works very well, as it takes me to the sights and viewpoints that are out of Bratislava centre. Most notably the World War II Soviet Slavin monument (great views over the city and castle).

Bratislava Castle

And then Bratislava Castle itself. Due to its strategic location, above the river, there has been a castle here for thousands of years. This stone fortress was begun in the tenth century, having been expanded over the years. Today, it houses the National Museum and is sometimes used for formal state occasions. It’s pouring with rain by now, so I run round the maze like gardens and back to the bus.

Houdini Restaurant

There's a tasting menu at the Houdini restaurant, next to my hotel, in the evening. Five courses with an Austro-Hungarian flavour and some liquid carbon dioxide wafting around. The raspberry and chocolate dessert is the best.

Read more about Slovakia here.

Read more about Austria here.

A (Very Brief) History of Austria

  • Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Hapsburgs from the thirteenth century.
  • Then the Austrian Empire remained within the German Confederation until the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. This resulted in Prussia expelling Austria from the Confederation.
  • Instead, Austria entered into a dual monarchy with Hungary: the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • When this empire collapsed, after the end of World War I, in 1918, Austria was reduced to its current frontiers, taking on the name The Republic of German-Austria. However, union with Germany and the chosen country name were vetoed by the Allies at the Treaty of Versailles. The consequence was the First Austrian Republic (1919-1933). Adolf Hitler (who was born in Austria) annexed Austria to Germany, for the duration of World War II.
  • Ten years after the Second World War, Austria again became an independent country, as the Second Austrian Republic.

Is Austria in the EU?

  • Austria became a member of the European Union in 1995 and adopted the Euro as currency in 2002.
  • Austria is not a member of NATO - after the world wars, Austria signed up to a position of permanent neutrality.

Is Austria a Rich Country?

  • This is a developed economy and the country is one of the fourteen richest in the world in terms of GDP. The poverty rate is low, at 4%.

Is Austria a Safe Place to Visit?

  • Austria has a low rate of violent crime, but petty theft is on the increase. As with anywhere - be careful.

Facts and Factoids

  • The name Austria derives from a Germanic word ‘austro’, meaning ‘east’. It's German name is Österreich.
  • Austria is landlocked and bordered by 8 countries, Germany and the Czech Republic to the north, Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Hungary and Slovakia to the east.
  • Austria has a population of nearly 9 million people. Almost one third of the population lives in the capital, Vienna.
  • While German is the country's official language, many Austrians communicate informally in a variety of Bavarian dialects
  • Postcards were invented in Austria.
  • Austria only seems to have one nickname. The country and especially, capital, Vienna, is renowned for its musical composers. From the mid eighteenth century, to 1820, it became ‘The Musical Centre of Europe’. The three great composers of the Viennese school were Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Franz Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Liszt, Schoenberg and the three Strausses, followed on.

What to See and Do in Austria?

  • Austria is known for its mountain railways and trains - 62% of Austria is covered by mountains. It is therefore great for outdoor activities and especially winter sports. Skiing is the national sport. I wrote about a ski trip to St Anton in the Vorarlberg.
  • The River Danube flows for about 350 kilometres from west to east through the northern part of the country, adding to its allure and taking tourists to the capital, the beautiful eastern city of Vienna
  • Salzburg is another lovely city, well worth a visit, with its UNESCO designation and Mozart associations. Not to mention the Sound of Music. The Salzkammergut region has amazing scenery and beautiful Baroque architecture. There is also a history of salt production from prehistoric times, with an underground salt lake and the Dachstein Caves, one of Europe's most impressive cavern networks. In places these are up to 1,174 metres deep.
  • Almost anywhere in Austria is going to appeal, but the other area worth a special mention is Innsbruck. Yet another gorgeous city at the heart of the Tirol and of the winter sports area.

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