A Brief History of Hungary

  • The west of Hungary was formerly a part of the Roman Empire, the province of Pannonia. After its fall, the Hun tribes, invading the Carpathian Basin, gave the country their name as we know it - Hungary. Hungarian is the direct descendant of the language spoken by the Huns. It's unusual, nay unique, in that Hungarian is not related to any other major European language - except Finnish. It's believed that the Finns and Huns originated from the area - the Ural Mountains.
  • This is one of the oldest countries in the world. It was founded in 895 and the Christian Kingdom of Hungary was established in (exactly) 1000, under King Saint Stephen. He was crowned on Christmas Day and Pope Sylvester II gave him his crown, which became one of the most powerful symbols of Hungarian nationhood. It's on the coat of arms. The Árpád dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years. During this time, the kingdom expanded to the Adriatic coast and entered into union with Croatia.
  • After that, Hungary had a torrid time. It was invaded by the Mongols, lost significant territory during the Ottoman Wars and had to submit the remainder to Austrian Hapsburg rule.
  • Eventually, fortunes improved. The land lost to Turkey was restored and the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 created a joint monarchy.
  • The Habsburg monarchy was dissolved after World War I. There was a very brief Hungarian republic, then another kingdom. During this time Hungary shrunk dramatically again. In all, it lost almost two thirds of its area to neighbouring countries. What was left, came under German occupation in 1944, then under Soviet control, until the end of the war and then a communist republic, a satellite state of the USSR.
  • Hungary became an independent nation again in 1989, and joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Facts and Factoids

  • Hungarians,call themselves Magyars and the country Magyarország, ‘The Land of Magyars‘. They write their last name first and first name last. You may only give your child a government approved name. You can choose from an extensive list of names or submit a form for approval.
  • The world’s highest denomination notes ever, were issued in Hungary, with a face value of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 Hungarian pengos (one quintillion pengo).
  • The car industry generates the country's biggest income Audi Suzuki and Mercedes-Benz all have production units here. Labour is relatively cheap. Agriculture (fruit and vegetables) contributes the second largest amount. Tourism is third.
  • There are cowboys (called csikos) in Hungary. (Read more here.)
  • Hungarian inventions include the ballpoint pen (Biro was Hungarian/Argentinian), holography, the thermographic camera, digital computing the first functional helicopter and (of course). the Rubik’s cube.

Is Hungary Expensive?

I thought Hungary was supposed to be cheap. The cost of living is relatively low. Labour is not hugely well paid. The tourist areas definitely are not cheap. The funicular - a one minute journey is 11 euros. Cakes Five euros. Toilet one euro. Entry to many of the numerous museums up to €28 (converting from the local forints, though costs are often displayed in euros and even USD.) And Hungary has the highest rate of VAT in the world - 27%.

Hungarian Food and Drink

Hungary's most famous food is the meaty goulash soup - served thinner than it is in British versions, which tend to turn into stews. Other mid/eastern European favourites appear, duck, sour cherries (combined is good), dumplings, pickled cabbage, schnitzels, salamis and strudels. Until we got into Indian food, Hungarian cooking was the spiciest in Europe - this is where they grow paprika. Lots of cake and Palatschinke (like crepe suzettes with lots of walnuts doused in chocolate. And, as in the Czech Republic, plenty of chimney cakes. The chimney shapes are made of sugared dough, not cake, and filled with anything from fruit to ice cream.

The wines of Hungary are also very well known. Possibly the most famous is the red Bulls' Blood. This is what the Hungarians told the Ottoman Turks they were imbibing - with predicable consequences. Sweet, Tokay white wine was promoted by a surprised French king, Louis XIV. More recently, it's won the wine of the century award. I also mustn't forget palinka - fruit brandy.

And don't clink your beer glasses. This is what the Hapsburgs did every time they executed a Hungarian General. So, it doesn't go down well.

What to Do In Hungary?

Hungary is a small country, so it is possible to see in day trips from Budapest, if you don't want to move your base. The Great Hungarian Plain, to the south, and especially, the puszta area, to see the endemic domestic animals and the local cowboys (Csikós). Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and a tourist destination for the Hungarians. And the cities and towns along the Danube bend: Esztergom, the home of the church, in Hungary, Visegrád, for its (partially ruined) castles and pretty Szentendre, the home of Hungary's artists.

Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. There's been a lot of renovation. It is a great city and could consume several days on its own. Gorgeous architecture (the House of Nations - Hungarian Parliament is stunning and a challenge to maintain). Budapest lays claim to several 'most beautifuls', plenty of museums, edgy and cheap nightlife (Ruin Bars) and more thermal springs than anywhere else in the world.. Read about my trips here.

Budapest Revisited

I was last in Budapest just after The Wall came down. (I wrote this on Facebook and someone demanded to know where the wall in Budapest was. In case anyone is in any doubt I'm referring to the Berlin Wall.) The photos are brown scanned prints - I think four survived and have been propping this post up, so it's definitely time to revisit. This is a small country and there are plenty of tours out of Budapest. So, you can see a lot from one base. I've booked my excursions - I'm going to be a proper tourist here.

Getting to Budapest

Air Traffic Control to Manual

On days like this, I decide I’m never going to travel again. I'm on Wizz Air out of Gatwick to Budapest. I've been given dire warnings about how unreliable they are, but today, so far, the problem is not their fault. The whole of air traffic control has gone down. They're processing flight plans manually and about three planes an hour are leaving. There are 43 waiting at the gates. We're number 10.

Wizz keep sending alerts telling me the flight is delayed, whilst I'm sitting on board the plane. Naturally, they boarded us all even though they knew there were issues. The first message helpfully tells me to call the airport before I leave. Ha. As if anyone would answer the phone anyway. My flight is supposed to leave at 13.00. The second message arrives at 3pm and tells me the flight has been delayed until 2pm. The next message, at 4 pm, tells me it’s been delayed until three. You get the picture.

Meanwhile, the national news helpfully talks about 12 hour delays and massive cancellations all week. The captain tells us that the crews' duty time is up at 16.20. It’s now half past four. We still don't know what's happening, though we've been given a bottle of water and a mini tub of Pringles.

Home and Back Again

And fine, we all have to disembark. No instructions. Nothing.

Once through passport control, I go to the check-in desk to ask for information. The flight has been rescheduled for 6 a.m. next day they tell me. Go home. Wait for information. What about a hotel? There are so many people delayed they won't be able to provide accommodation. Make your own arrangements and claim.

I take the train back to Brighton. When I arrive, I get an email from Wizz Air, saying the flight has been rescheduled to 4 pm. It's 5.30pm. Then another email saying it’s been rescheduled, to 6 a.m. tomorrow (confirming what check in told me a while ago). And then a message asking if I would like a hotel. I'm too shattered to deal with that. (With hindsight it might have been better to accept and go back to the airport). But I'm heading home. Except there's no taxis.

Not so Wizzy

More taxi fun and games, trying to track down someone willing to do a next morning 3.15 am pick up. Eventually, to bed at nine, ready to get up very early. It's difficult to sleep, when there’s so much that's unsettled though. I check my phone at 1 a.m. Wizz Air have rescheduled to 9 a.m. With trepidation, I phone the taxi company, and to my relie,f they're able to reschedule my pick up. More time to sleep. Except I can't.

Back at Gatwick, at 7 a.m. Mine is the only flight still showing on the board from yesterday. Presumably, the others all went or were cancelled. My boarding pass won't let me through, into security. The scanner knows it's seen it before. But the ladies on duty sort me out. Gate info at 8.15 the board says. Though presumably it's the same gate as yesterday. There's been no crew to move it. So I'm waiting with bated breath, to see if we actually go. Though I've had a reverse invoice from Wizz which is a little perturbing. Why are they refunding me the flight if it's still going ?

The airport is full of grumpy delayed passengers. Even the water fountain doesn't work. And yes, it is the same gate. But in their wisdom, they are reseating everyone on the plane. Rescanning boarding passes and passports. Despite having charged everyone to choose where to sit and for leg room seats. There's only one, very stressed guy, on the gate entry system. Everyone, including me, is angry that we haven't got the seats we paid for. I don’t understand the logic. Same plane. Same passengers. So things move exceeding slow. It's now 8.35. There's no way we are taking off at nine.

Budapest or Bust

9 55. The plane is still only half full. A Hungarian guy, seated in front of me, is offering advice about Budapest.

'Don't get a taxi. They will rip you off. Check out the restaurants online. They will rip you off as soon as they hear your accent. So will the shopkeepers. Watch out for pickpockets on the buses'.

Do I really want to go after all? Too late to get off now. The plane pushes off at 10.30. It's a third empty. Confusion reigns. My boarding pass, the new one, says 13.00 departure. Apparently, some people have been told to go away and check in again at 10, for this flight. Needless to say, there isn't another plane today.

Budapest, Capital of Hungary

And, I'm finally in Budapest. My minder does at least help me buy an airport bus ticket, so I'm not tempted to get a taxi. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, straddles the River Danube, which flows south, at this point. (The Danube, one of the most fascinating of rivers, is 2,880 kilometres long and traverses 10 countries.) The nineteenth-century (newly restored) Chain Bridge connects the hilly old town of Buda with completely flat, modern  Pest.

Budapest dates back to the Celts, who lived on what is now Gelert Hill, to the west of the Danube. Today, it holds the Citadella and has great views over Pest. The Romans came next. Ruins by the river, under bridges (spa baths) and up on top, testify to the fortress and town of Aquincum, from about AD 100. Then, they moved Aquincum out to the plains, as capital of what was called Pannonia Inferior. Surely, enough to give you an inferiority complex. Especially, as in later times, under the Habsburgs, the city, Buda (intermittently the capital over the years), was very much ignored, in favour of Vienna and Bratislava.

Budapest's fortunes improved after uprisings against the Austrians and renegotiated treaties, alongside an incentivised tax scheme. (Yes, even in those days).Today's city, Budapest was formed, in 1873, with the merger of three cities: Buda, Óbuda (old Buda - so old, old town) and Pest. Until World War I, Budapest was able to rival and even outshine Vienna. Most of its grandest architecture dates from this Belle Epoque. Today, it's very much A Tale of Two Cities:

Buda

And indeed, Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. The main sights in the extensive Buda Castle grounds (a World Heritage Site, since 1987) are accessed by the Castle Hill Funicular, from the riverbank. Though there are steps if you're feeling fit and/or don't want to pay. And extensive is the word. But maybe half of the buildings are parcelled up. Major renovations are underway and cranes proliferate.

I'm happy to see that the main palace, on the southern tip, is mostly intact. No one seems sure whether to call it a castle or a palace, and there have been several incarnations over the years. However, this area has been home to the Hungarian kings, since 1265. The first home probably was a castle. The structure on show today is in theory, an immense Baroque palace, dating from the mid eighteenth century. But, like most of Budapest, it emerged from World War II in ruins and has been 'rebuilt in a simplified Stalinist Baroque style'. So, this grandeur is simple? It's now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Historical Museum, statues, fountains and coffee shops.

The area around the castle/palace is known as Várnegyed (Castle Quarter). Here, to the north, I'm wandering (once I'm through the fenced off building site) past a medley of medieval, Baroque, and neoclassical palaces, churches, public buildings, and monuments. Winding cobbled streets with immaculate pastel coloured houses, shops and restaurants. Now it seems, I'm back in Vienna. Alongside, tantalising glimpses of glowing tiles, from under canvas. Especially notable, the so called Buda Tower, though it's actually the only remaining part of the Church of Mary Magdalene. Most of the ministries are still under wraps, but the imposing National Archives (another slightly elusive patterned roof) is unclothed. Next to that, there's the Vienna Gate, one of the medieval entrances. You could spend days up here, if you went in all the publicly accessible buildings.

And, thankfully, also visible, towards the centre, is the the iconic thirteenth century St Matthias Church, with its diamond patterned, multihued towers and roof, in Trinity Square. It has been heavily restored, in a style described as 'florid' on the world wide web.

In my opinion, the crenelations and turrets of the Disneylandesque Fisherman's Bastion are worthy of more criticism. But they serve up spectacular views, down across the Danube, to Pest.

Pest

My recollection of Pest is of intimidating grey buildings, with dubious looking restaurants, every one of of them serving goulash soup. I'm not sure why I didn't notice the French style boulevards and huge basilicas. The buildings have been beautifully restored and it's now all very grand.

There are shopping galleries, a dedicated Fashion Street, numerous squares with statues and fountains (and a Ferris wheel in one), tree lined parks. Further out, huge stadia and brickwork chimneys. There are still a smattering of cranes.

And there are still plenty of sombrely brutalist soviet era apartments, both in the middle of town and further out. What used to be called the Jewish Quarter (now District VII) is more as I remember Budapest. It's still grey, but now it has edge and is vibrant, hip. Tourist or Party Central. There's the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, orange and gold, with its twin towers and cemetery. More cafes and bars and street food, than you can throw a stick at.

Ruin Bars

And the Ruin Bars. As the name suggests, they emerged in derelict buildings - the ultimate in upcycling and a place to buy a cheap drink. The oldest, largest and most famous is Szimpla Kert. This one is a veritable labyrinth. You just wander in and out of all the fabulously themed and garishly lit nooks and crannies and choose the bar you like the look of. Plenty of cocktails.

New York Café

Whilst I'm looking for Szimpla Kert, I chat to two Americans, who tell me that the New York Café is the place to go. That's on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, so it's up next. It turns out that the New York Café boasts that it's the most beautiful café in the world. As always, it depends on your taste. It's certainly magnificent. Opulent. Restored Italian renaissance, every inch gilded or covered with frescoes.

Sadly, the toilets aren't as entrancing. There are only two and one is out of order. Service is hard to come by, as is the change when you've finally got the bill and paid. The food - cakes and Hungarian stalwarts is fairly pricey and just about acceptable in quality. But it's historical and apparently, where Budapest meets for coffee (and always has done.) Somehow, I've managed to escape having to queue. (You can pay 5 Euros to skip the line.) But perhaps early evening isn't coffee time.

The New York Café is not the only most beautiful thing in the world that Budapest boasts. Apart from this, and the Parliament building (see below), there's the most beautiful McDonald's at Nyugati Station, in a building designed by Eiffel, and the most beautiful book store. Budapest is rife with these and their gorgeously adorned reading rooms. There's a cluster of modern bookshops, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, (Budapest is still keen to indulge in and promote culture), as I head down towards Váci Utca. This is the famous pedestrianised shopping street, which wanders parallel to the river. It's home to all the usual chain stores and cafes and more.

As if that wasn't enough, Budapest has the highest number of thermal springs in the world. Seventy million litres of naturally heated water rise to the earth’s surface daily.

The House of Nations, The Parliament of Hungary

The Hungarian Parliament Building, The Országház or “House of Nations”, with its 365 neo Gothic spires and huge burgundy dome, is stunning. This is the world’s third largest parliamentary building, the tallest building in the capital city, and the largest building in Hungary. It was designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl, for a competition, and opened in 1902. Sadly, the architect first went blind and then died, before it was finished. Wikipedia thinks it took about 100,000 people, 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilogrammes of gold to complete.

Inside, are ' lavish and sumptuous interiors, imposing staircases (over 21 kilometres of them), massive frescos, recounting the history of the country, and 88 statues of prominent Hungarian rulers'. You can do tours. The most precious exhibit is the Holy Crown of Hungary, (St Stephen's Crown),as seen in the coat of arms of Hungary. It's been has been displayed in the central hall since 2000. It was smuggled out by the Americans, during World War II, and taken to Fort Knox for 'safekeeping' from the Germans and Soviets.

Constructions consumed many millions and upkeep consumes even more. Due to its extensive surface and detailed handiwork, the building is almost always under renovation. The façade is made of soft limestone, which is in frequent need of cleaning, possible only with extensive scaffolding. It's gradually being replaced, with harder, more durable limestone.

Up and Down the Danube from Budapest

Up river, from the House of Nations, yet more monuments and public buildings. The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial movingly commemorates the Jews, who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia, during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes (which were valuable and could be resold), and were shot at the edge of the river, so that their bodies fell into the water and were carried away Beyond that Margaret Island dividing the Danube.

The banks of the river are lined with modern expensive hotels. The Intercontinental, the ugly Sofitel (quite rightly being demolished). My hotel nestles in the next street back. The cleverly named D8 (say it Date) is trendily modern, with iron frames and denim pockets on the bedhead. Yellow pegs, to hang up guides and the hairdryer bag. There's a nice little bar, where the friendly man knows how to make a decent cocktail. Sadly, however, the mattress offers no support whatsoever and the polyester in the pillows has disintegrated. I'm exhausted, from all my walking, but it's impossible to sleep well.

The Danube Bend

I'm sort of replicating a trip I made last time I was here. That time, I did the Danube Bend (it's a huge loop), by boat, the whole way to Esztergom and back. Today, I'm going by coach and coming back on the boat.

There's plenty of traffic leaving Budapest. The motorways (the M roads, like at home) are in reasonably good condition and free flowing. The E roads are patchy and deteriorating at the edges. (Also like home then.) There are hoardings advertising every European/Western brand here: Tesco, Auchan, Aldi, Lidl, KFC, McDonald's.

Slovakia

We start by driving into Slovakia, the town of Sturovo, for a view of Esztergom Cathedral, from across a dull and brooding Danube. (Strauss would be very upset). Lengthy cruise ships sit on the water beneath. There's even a Happy Train, taking tourists over the bridge. They don’t seem to be complying.

Esztergom

The city of Esztergom, today, is known for being home to a very large Suzuki factory. My guide says the name means 'eastern border', but that doesn't make any sense at all. It's in the north. And this explanation doesn't feature on Wikipedia, which seems uncertain as to etymology. Historically, it was the capital of Hungary, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. It's where the first king, Saint Stephen, was born.

The basilica is the seat of the Catholic Church of Hungary, and the largest church and tallest building in the country. This neo-classical building  was preceded by several other churches, the earliest of which was the first cathedral in Hungary. This version was begun in 1856 and opened in 1886. Liszt composed a mass specially. It is stately, rather than beautiful, possessing  three impressive domes, with an  altarpiece reputed to be the largest painting in the world,  on a single piece of canvas.

Once back at the huge basilica, it's clear the restoration gang have arrived before me. Much of it is undercover. The nave is busy with workers and resounds with the thump of metal tools. The statues and altar reliquary and tombs are shrouded in plastic. I haven't got much to add to the photos I don’t have from my last visit. My memories of that relate much more to the treasury. Case after case of orbs, gowns and crowns.

Visegrád

We're lunching at a 'panoramic view' restaurant at Visegrád. The view in question is of the ruined old castle on top of the hill. At least it would be, but we've been seated in the middle of the restaurant, and there isn't a hope of any panorama. When I scramble out on to the terrace, I can make out the remains of the Early Renaissance summer palace and medieval citadel of King Matthias Corvinus.

Then, there's a heated debate with the guide. I have this old photo (see below) that I'm sure I took here. She insists I didn't. Google confirms I'm right. This is what the lower castle, the Salomon Tower, looked like, after the wall came down.

Szentendre

Szentendre is the ultimate tourist village. Cobbles, quaint churches, shops, cafes and galleries with bobbing umbrellas and giant lampshades. Where there are tourists, there must be museums. At one end of the village, there's a marzipan shop and museum, with models made out of the sweet stuff. At the other end, there's a retro museum, whichthat takes me nicely back to my childhood and beyond. Relics of life behind the Iron Curtain. Toys, electric appliances, a whole kitchen, bikes and cars. Including Trabants, like the ones I saw on my first visit. And a pink sports car. Time to do my Lady Penelope impression. Barbie would love it.

The boat trip back to Budapest takes one hour and that's plenty. There's very little to see until we reach the city, and it's exceedingly chilly, on the water.

Puszta

Today, it's out onto the Puszta, a grassland area, mainly around the River Tisza, on the Great Hungarian Plain. It is very, very flat and sandy. I suppose it's the smaller equivalent of the Argentinian pampas, as it's famous for ranching. Though animal husbandry has been in decline for many years - there's been bad soil erosion due to overgrazing. Instead, the sunny plains are increasingly used to grow vines and the fruit and vegetables which both support the population and are exported. It's also home to the paprika red pepper. The fields are surrounded with acacia trees, planted as their lengthy and convoluted root systems hold the sandy soil in place. They also make good honey.

On today's coach the guide is called, appropriately, Attila. and for some reason, nearly all the passengers are Italian.

Kecskemét

First stop, is the town of Kecskemét . Its name means "goat district" and it's famous for its Art Nouveau ( Hungarian Art Nouveau is known as Cifrapalota). Kecskemét was virtually destroyed by Habsburg hordes in the eighteenth century. They set the town alight. but it survived and continued to make its fortune by keeping livestock and trading with animals. Wine and apricot brandy came next, especially after the vine-pest destroyed most of the vineyards in the hilly regions.

Wealth brought redevelopment and the Art Nouveau buildings, surrounding Kecskemét's main square. Today, the town is another car industry hub and thriving. It's home to Mercedes-Benz and Daimler as well as several other manufacturing plants. Unemployment is very low -3%.

I'm off to tour the buildings, of course. They're undoubtedly pretty. Art Nouveau is one of my favourite architectural styles. There are plenty of scarlet shields, depicting upright goats, paying homage to the town's name. Shops with decorated façades and facias, all down the main street, in keeping with the theme. Churches, palaces, schools and colleges. A domed and imposing, but repurposed, synagogue. (The Jews in Kecskemét were rounded up and treated with exceptional brutality, even for the Hungarian SS. Seventy of them committed suicide, by taking poison. Those remaining were sent to Auschwitz and only a small proportion returned.) Today, this is the technology centre.

The pièce de résistance is the Town Hall, another amazing and massively complicated turn of the century 'triumph', with another tiled roof. You can hear its main bells from 10 kilometres away, I'm told. But they only ring once a year. The lesser bells ring the hour, and at noon, there are string of bells, above the entrance, which supposedly play melodies, such as those composed by local man, Zoltán Kodály. (His school is here.)

In practice, the various clocks on the surrounding churches all take it in turn to ring in 12 o'clock. depending on how slow the time piece is running. and at about ten past twelve music emanates from the town hall. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but those bells are not moving. There's a central monument here, with a fountain. The local children have discovered it's a very good slide.

The Csárda of Hungary

Then we're off to a local ranch or csárda. Another lunch of 'typical' poorly cooked goulash soup and fried meat with chips. The flan for dessert isn't bad though. It's sprinkled with (a tiny amount) of brandy and lit. Attila says it's Hungarian crepe suzette, but it's more like crème caramel.

Then, a touristy horse cart ride out 'into the plain'. There's nothing to see, and we basically just circumnavigate the farm buildings. At least I get to sit up front and flourish the driver's whip. He's very gentle with it, just tickling the beasts' backs. There's a variety of equines here, in the stables and on parade. Most of the ranches are also stud farms. We are introduced to a Lipizzaner stallion who, we're told, has had 32 girlfriends, this year. The local horses are the shining chestnutty nonius breed.

There's also a farm zoo, with more domestic breeds. including the huge horned Hungarian Grey cattle, Mangalitsa woolly pigs, donkeys, mules and Racka sheep with curious unicorn like horns (except they have two of them.)

The finale is a very very touristy horse show. It derives from the traditions of the csikós, royal blue costumed herdsmen, who round up a herd of 'wild horses', drive the cattle and horses in various carts, do dressage, persuade their steeds to lie down and perform other contortions and ride bareback. The star performer works with five horses at once, straddling the two at the rear. Throughout they whirl whips just above the animals' heads, creating a constant cracking sound. I'm glad I'm not one of the poor horses.

The audience are invited to whip an empty bottle off a post and win some wine. A few succeed. I think the farm can afford it. It's capacity is huge; there are tables in every corner. And souvenir stalls. A whip is 50 euros. It must be a gold mine.

Hungarian Ending

And now, very sadly, this visit to Hungary has come to an end. It's been cruelly reduced. I can't see Lake Balaton, as planned. Maybe next time. I've had a lovely time. And, to my knowledge, no-one has even attempted to rip me off.

Read more about Hungary here.

On my first trip, next stop, on the train, Prague, via Vienna.

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.

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