My Slovakia, in the Heart of Europe

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Slovakia borders Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Ukraine. Although it has almost 5.5 million inhabitants and a territory of 49,035 km2, it is not even in the top 10 of most visited European countries. But after reading this article, I hope that you will consider a trip.

Geography. The landscape of Slovakia is similar to Austria’s. The most important Slovak river, the Danube, connects the capital city Bratislava with the capital cities of two neighbouring countries – Vienna in Austria and Budapest in Hungary. In fact, Bratislava and Vienna are two of the closest capitals in the world, only 60 km apart, and in the 1930’s they were connected by a city tram.

History. The first Slavs arrived here at the time of the Migration of Nations and, after decades of struggles, they succeeded in establishing the Great Moravian Empire in 833 AD, the first common state of the Slovak and Czech ancestors. After the empire's fall, Old Hungarian tribes invaded Slovakia and made it part of the Kingdom of Hungary for 1,000 years.

A crucial period in Slovak history was the 19th century. For the first time the people formulated their own political programme and in 1843, codified the rules of the Slovak language and its script under the leadership of Ľudovít Štúr.

In 1918, after the fall of Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Slovaks and the Czechs declared their wish to live together in an independent state and established the first Czecho-Slovak Republic on 28th October, 1918. After WWII, the communist party gradually seized power in the country and their communist dictatorship was overthrown only by the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The joint Czech/Slovak state then ended and the Slovak Republic was established on the 1st January 1993. Despite this split of common state, however, the relationship between the two countries remains very friendly, especially since our languages are very close.

Trade and Development. After centuries of internal struggle between the nobles and their ruler, the Hungarian state was finally consolidated. Economic growth was finally possible especially due to the thriving mining towns. Banská Štiavnica, a centre for mining science, is also home to the Mining Academy, the first technical university in the world, founded in 1762. The Kremnica Mint, the oldest continuously-operating enterprise in the world, has been making coins since 1328 and reached its highest levels of production during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa. Since we adopted the Euro in 2009, after joining the EU.

in 2004, the Kremnica Mint (together with other Central and Eastern European countries) also manufactures Slovak Euro coins. Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica are both picturesque towns that have preserved their medieval atmosphere together with the harmony of nature, which attracts many tourists.

Education and Investment. The first university of Slovakia, Academia Istropolitana, was established in 1467. Since then Universities have been established in several towns and the education system is free up to highest level. However, the economy is facing a lack of a technically educated labor force, due to the emphasis on machinery and automotive industries. After joining the EU, Slovakia attracted many foreign investors and this significantly accelerated the growth of GDP. Supported by massive economic reforms in the 1990’s, crucial investments flowed into other industries and the banking sector. This year the British car maker Jaguar Land Rover will open its manufacturing facility in Nitra, West Slovakia.

Culture and Castles. Due to its geographical position, Slovakia has always been on important trade and cultural routes in the region, and influences of Western as well as Eastern cultures or religions can be detected. Most Slovaks are Roman Catholics (62%), but tolerate other religions. In Slovakia, you can find a Northern discipline along with Southern temperament, and Western rationality with Eastern emotionality. We experience our joys, successes, disappointments and sorrows with emotions. We are sincere, friendly, open, hearty, generous, but also touchy and we differ from our neighbouring nations. But in the end, we are a country of friends.

Folk crafts, costumes, music and dances in Slovakia are passed on from one generation to another, and each valley has different cultural traditions and folklore of which Slovaks are very proud. Many folklore festivals and performances are having a renaissance. For example, a Slovak overtone flute called "fujara" and the Music of Terchova were included in UNESCO World Heritage.

The first written mention of Slovakia’s oldest castle, Devín, dates back to the year 868. Spiš Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also one of the ten largest castles in the world. Altogether, Slovakia has as many as 220 castles and castle ruins! Not enough? Then add its 425 chateaus to the mix. In the eastern part of the country, wooden churches represent specific samples of sacred architecture. Their folk builders expressed the perfect harmony of the human soul with nature, and the effort to disengage from earthly worries. Among the oldest are the Gothic wooden churches in Hervartov and Tvrdošín.

Nature. The diversity of nature in Slovakia is one of the biggest attractions. We have nine national parks with large forests full of life, crystal clear glacial lakes, deep valleys and mysterious gorges, and more than 6,200 caves and chasms. The High and Low Tatras are home to many endangered animal species such as the Tatra Chamois, which is a completely unique chamois species that evolved over thousands of years totally isolated after the end of the Ice Ages. Hiking in High Tatras you may see them climbing the high rocks with elegance and ease. Many say that the European wilderness ceased to exist centuries ago, but in the Poloniny National Park, on the triangular border with Poland and Ukraine, there is an untouched wild forest called the Wolf Mountain with trees that are more than 1,000 years old.

Our nature is amazing and beautiful, and therefore, the most favourite leisure activity of

the Slovak people is hiking or just walking in the forest. The Carpathian forests are also home to thousands of bears, increasing numbers of wolves and lynxes, beavers, wild horses and the huge, prehistoric, European bison - of which there are only 1,000 left in the world. After an exhausting trek or on hot days, people have the opportunity to take refreshment in the many mineral springs or cute Spas that are widespread throughout Slovakia. Officially there are 1,657 springs registered.

Wine Time. Traditionally Slovaks drink mostly beer and schnapps, but Slovak wine has been improving in quality since the private wineries began. There are six wine-growing regions and eight wine routes in Slovakia with the Tokaj wine being rightly referred to as the King of wines. One rarity of the Tokaj wine road is the medieval Tokaj wine cellars carved into volcanic, “tufa” rock. These cellars, some carved to a depth of 16 meters, date back to the Turkish wars and, to some extent, were built as a refuge from marauding troops.

In Slovakia, you might discover many other interesting or mysterious places, taste traditional Slovak food-dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon, or go shopping on Sundays in Bratislava’s posh shopping centres. But don’t look for the sea! You would not find the sea!

Contributed by Libusa Misikova