People don’t go to Slovakia. Well, if they do they only see Bratislava and underestimate an intriguing country.
Once upon a time Slovakia and the Czech Republic were united as Czechoslovakia. In the tumult of the late 1980s and early 1990s the country tore itself apart and the Czechs waved goodbye to the Slovaks, who they often regarded as backwards in technological and cultural terms.
In fact the Czechs gained most of the heavy industry and threw themselves into a post-Soviet era with aplomb whilst Slovakia has had to basically start from scratch and still battles against old Soviet hierarchies and power struggles. Corruption remains a problem in local government with dodgy-dealings rife in land deals, while journalists who manage to implicate high-flying politicians are regularly silenced with empty government probes and ‘lost’ evidence.
Life after Communism
Slovakia has problems with its governance but the Slovaks are an intensely proud people for good reason. They have a hell of a lot to show off in their little country and if you take the time to look past the capital, Bratislava, you will find something very rewarding.
Liptov is the name of a region in the centre-north of Slovakia focussed around the town of Mikuláš. It is about 4 hours’ east, by train, from the capital, about an hour west by car from Poprad airport, and about 3 hours’ drive south from Krakow. Based from Liptovský Mikuláš you can get to grips with Slovak culture by exploring many cultural and natural sites in the region.
The capital of Liptov region
Mikuláš itself is a relatively quiet town in summer, when the nearby Tatras ski season can’t supply the usual influx of visitors. The town square is really pleasant with some attractive fountains and a church. There are a lot of restaurants and bars in the surrounding streets, as well as a large Soviet-era supermarket that’s a fascinating place to explore in its own right. The bars range from tiny cafe-type establishments to pretty well hidden pubs playing a great selection of contemporary and classic rock. A number of small art galleries fuel something of an artistic undercurrent to the whole town. The brilliant photographer Martin Martinček is a local hero of Liptov and his exhibitions can often be found in Mikuláš. Peter and Pavol Hochschorner, the renowned Olympic kayak twins train around here too. Or so I’m told. I suspect a great number of Slovaks lay claim to them… Small film festivals take place in the main square and bring sparks of vibrancy to what is usually serene. The mountains frame the town and you can cross the rail lines into flower-studded meadows providing a stunning vista towards Poland.
Crumbly castles and fascinating museums
Liptovský Hrádok is a village close to Mikuláš and most famed for its castle, but the museum is a pretty brilliant and surprisingly large introduction to folk art and craft in the region. Unfortunately almost every one of my photographs from in here came out really badly, for some unknown reason, but take my word that it is worth going. Plus you’ll probably be the only person in the whole place! The castle hosts a restaurant and only retains some of the air of being a castle at all so as such it’s not the greatest of Slovak examples of fortification. Apparently there are much better specimens in the east of the country.
The peaks of Slovakia
The Tatras mountains are high and impressive and the winding roads pass through endless conifer forests, though at the time I visited a huge storm had devastated the slopes. Štrbské pleso is a beautiful lake high in the mountains that, in April at least, experiences a lull in tourism that makes it fairly deserted and eerily quiet. The lake freezes over entirely and a slow walk around it leaves you gasping for Halušky at the nearby restaurant. It’s one of the many delicious foods you’ll find all over Slovakia and a personal favourite of mine. It’s salty, fatty, stodgy, and brilliant! Perfect if you wanted to expand your exploration of the Tatras to include close encounters with bears that roam throughout the range…
The piques of Slovak cuisine
Slovak food in general is just unmissable. Vyprážaný syr, or breadcrumbed fried smoked cheese to the uninitiated, is divine. Bryndza is a creamy sheep’s cheese a bit like extra-salty feta. It’s used as the sauce for halušky along with fried lumps of slanina which is a type of salted pork fat. My LORD my mouth is watering as I type. I’m really quite upset. Various stuffed dumplings, pierogi, accompany many meals and again are fantabulously tasty. Although I haven’t tried making any of these recipes yet (having only discovered this site today) I would recommend http://www.slovakcooking.com as the recipe brochure they produce looks damn close to everything I ate out there! I tried to make my own halušky and it wasn’t great but I’ll be sure to try a few of these soon. I’ve fried cheese before at least so I can claim to have tried a bit to recreate Slovak cuisine at home. At worse I just send messages to Kristina’s dad to get him to bring over ingredients when he comes to visit from Slovakia!
Traditional folk villages
I really enjoyed a visit to the Pribylina open-air museum of Liptov, a place showcasing the traditional buildings and crafts of the region. A walk around this village really does send you back in time. The churches, houses, stables, school, and shop are all interesting and actually quite astonishing. There is a great attention to detail on display here, the people who run it clearly care a lot for the visitor experience. Fowl flutter between the structures and goats sleep in hay in the stables. I made friends with a pony who seemed to take a great liking to me too.
If you go down to the woods today
Half of my wife’s family are from Mikuláš so I was lucky enough to have been shown all of these places by people who know them well, by car as public transport is lacking, but yet another highlight was the family cabin in the woods. Isolated and pretty much perfect, it even has an ice-cold stream running beside it and bears have been known to pass by in winter months when food at higher altitude is more scarce.
We trundled around Liptov each day, uncovering quaint villages full of carved totem poles, stunning wooden churches (Svätý Kríž), pretty mountain rivers, and the amazing Demänovská Cave of Liberty (which I also have no flippin’ photos of!?). These caves go on forever and, as ever with popular cave systems the world over, they are atmospherically lit. We saw a lot, but there is definitely a LOT more to see. It’s a pretty undiscovered part of Europe, in terms of the mainstream backpacking circuit, but I just hope that a few more people can take the time to veer away from Bratislava, if only for a few days.