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Water and Bridges
Slovakia is a small central European country that became independent in 1993 following the break up of the former Czechoslovakia and was relatively little known until recently. Slovakia has borders with Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. More than 40% of its territory is covered with dense forests which are home to animals long missing from other parts of Europe.
At the foot of Slovak mountains are the vast lowlands offering an opportunity of floating down the huge Danube or other lazy rivers or maybe camping on the river banks.
Slovakia may be a small country but there are some dramatic differences between its regions, resulting from diverse geological conditions. The south which covers about one third of the overall territory is typically made up of very fertile lowland and almost no forests and enjoys a warm climate with mild winters and hot summers. Grapes, apricots, peaches, melons and other fruits needing warmth and sun are grown there.
Most of the rest of the country however is mountainous with deep forests spreading all over its northern part where cold winters and only mild summers are the norm.
It is as you move northward the mountains get bigger and it is Slovakia´s highest mountains, the High Tatras, that form one of the country´s biggest attractions, characterized by deep valleys and steep rocky peaks.
Well preserved medieval towns, idiosyncratic folk architecture, hundreds of castles and chateaux, unique wooden churches - those are all examples of the country´s rich cultural heritage recognized also by UNESCO and visited by numerous people yearly.
The capital Bratislava has charming, narrow, little streets, cozy courtyards and a historical center which is traffic free. The castle perched over the Danube is the regions landmark. Below the castle lies the Old Town dating from the 15th century where the focal point is the Main Square.
At Christmas the square is transformed into a traditional Christmas market place attracting tourists from all over Europe. A Gothic passageway leads you from the square to the beautiful courtyard of the Old Town Hall which is the venue for theater performances, converts and craftsmen’s fairs all the year round. Grassalkovich Palace is one of the largest palaces in the city and is official seat of the Slovak president.
On the outskirts of the city in the west, right on the border with Austria, the ancient Devin castle towers above the confluence of the Danube and Morava. Set in beautiful landscape this large picturesque ruin occupies a key strategic position. In the southern part of the city close to the Hungarian border stands the 18th century Rusovce Château.
Pezinok in is just 20 kms northeast of Bratislava and is one of the country’s wine making centers lying on the so-called Small Carpathian Wine Route where wine growing has been a long-established tradition. The town’s fortifications dating from the first half of the 17th century have been preserved in some places. In the center you will find typical wine-makers houses with large drive-through gates and long courtyards.
The upper part of the town is dominated by a small chateau, originally a 13th century fortress, and moving away from the center you come across the Schaubmar mill, a restored water mill nowadays housing a unique gallery of native art.
Dating from the 13th century Trnava is one of the oldest Slovak towns and has many medieval burgher houses and a variety of sacred buildings. The nearby village of Dolna Krupa is where Beethoven stayed a number of times and where he composed his Moonlight Sonata. The Smolenice chateau, at the foot of the Small Carpathians, was built in the 14th century to guard a trade route to Bohemia. All that remains of the old chateau are the fortifications and several towers, surrounded by a beautiful park which gradually merges into the forest.
Skalica was the meeting-point in the past for various cultures from the west and south and the town became one of the regions significant economic and cultural centers. It is now a well-preserved model of a historical town.
Piestany situated on the River Vah is the most famous Slovak spa town and well-known for the healing properties of its hot springs and mud. Between the towns of Piestany and Trencin are the majestic, well-preserved ruins of Beckov castle. Following restoration work the castle is once again a popular destination offering panoramic views of the Vah valley and surrounding hills.
Trencin is an important town of the Povazie region and has a magical atmosphere which you can enjoy in its enlarged central square surrounded by burgher houses, a monastery and baroque church. Another smaller square has cafes and restaurants. One of the largest castles in Slovakia was built to protect the Vah valley. Legend has it that the 80m castle well in the lower courtyard became a symbol of an everlasting love between Omar and Fatima.
One of the most famous chateaux in Slovakia is located in the small medieval village of Topolcianky. Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother, the Archduke Karl Ludwig, bought the chateau in 1890 and turned it into a summer residence of the Habsburg family. The Habsburgs were keen horse breeders and had a big riding school in Topolcianky where they kept a lot of rare bloodstock. After 1918 the château became state property and was used by the first Czechoslovakia president.
Nitra is the oldest Slovak town and the historical part of the towns consists of the Upper and Lower Towns with the castle on the hill being visible from afar.
Central Slovakia has ancient mining towns and you can savor the rich folklore and sample the life as it was 100 years ago. The Vah is the longest river in Slovakia and meanders through the Mala Fatra mountain range. In the west Old Castle and Strecno Castle are perched on high cliffs above the river guarding the valley. Strecno has been partly restored and is now open to the public and used by film-makers from around the world.
The Vratna valley is a popular ski resort and a chair lift operates in both summer and winter taking people up the mountain ridge. Winter attractions include dog sleigh races. Sheep graze in the meadows on the foothills of the mountains, their milk goes to make various kinds of cheese that have earned the region its good reputation throughout Slovakia. Besides the beautiful countryside the region is known for its rich folklore and traditions.
Located in the mountains between Rajecke Teplice and Bojnice, Cicmany is one of the most remarkable villages in Slovakia. Almost 140 wooden houses have been preserved in this isolated place. What makes them special is that they are all decorated with white ornaments featuring animals and plant motifs, geometric ornaments and runes. The local inhabitants believe that their magic powers could save them from the forces of nature.
Bojnice Royal Castle is said to have the ghost of Jan Palffy haunting the corridors. This is the best-preserved and most visited chateau in Slovakia situated in a park which contains other attractions. Kremnica is the smallest of the mining towns forming the so-called golden triangle, gold was the most precious metal extracted. There are a number of typical miners’ houses dating back several centuries, a castle, churches and a monastery.
The abundance of historical buildings in the town of Banska Stiavnica has earned it a place among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Formerly one of the most important mining towns, the town stretches over the steep slopes of the hills Glazenberg, Paradiesberg and Frauenberg in the Stiavnica Hills. The Klopaka Tower built by the miners in 1681, was used for calling miners to work by way of an attendant knocking on a wooden plate. Similar towers were built in most of the mining towns in the country. The ground floor was used as a prison for miners.
The Old Chateau, a fortified church later converted into a fortress, is another feature of the town. The 16th New Chateau dominates the surrounding countryside. If you want to experience for yourself what it feels like to be in a mine there are two tunnels you can enter, the Glanzenberg mine dating from 13th century leading underneath the town, or the Bartolomeji mine from 1698.
The villages surrounding Zvolen are noted for their richly decorated costumes and special musical instruments. Towering above the town of Zvolen is a 14th century chateau. Visit the square in Banska Bystrica, a lively part of the town, and one of the most beautiful in Slovakia, with many typical burgher houses well preserved to the present day. The charming character of this historical town, with a wealth of well-preserved monuments, and the beautiful national parks and numerous ski resorts, makes this an all-year round center for tourism.
Spania Dolina a former mining village and one of the most picturesque villages, lies high in the mountains at the end of a deep valley. The village used to be renowned for its lace making which has survived to the present, you can often see local women in the square making lace for the tourists.
In Central Slovakia the Velka Fatra National Park stretches from north to south. The most part is densely wooded with deep and long valleys. Due to the remoteness there is a large population of bear and lynx. The Low Tatras are a large mountain range extending across the central part of Slovakia forming a vast natural barrier around 100 km long and 20km wide stretching from east to west where they merge with other mountain ranges.
On a 120 meter rock over the River Orava in the north of Slovakia stands the Orava castle, brooding and yet majestic. Its strategic location on the main road between the Hungarian Kingdom and Poland made it one of the most important castles in the northern Slovakia region of Orava.
The Western Tatras lie in the north of Slovakia bordering the High Tatras in the east, and they form a natural barrier between Poland and Slovakia. The woods are home to bear, wolf and lynx. The Liptovska Mara reservoir is one of the most important tourist and beautiful valleys in the Western Tatras and is the center for attracting water sports enthusiasts.
The Rohacska Dolina, the largest and most beautiful valley in the Western Tatras, is surrounded by dolomite peaks and provides wonderful conditions for hiking and cross-country skiing. Orava village built at the entrance to the valley holds more than 60 remarkable examples of folk architecture from all over the region.
Vlkolinec is an isolated village high up in the mountains on the edge of the Velka Fatra mountain range. This well-preserved Carpathian mountain village is located in beautiful natural scenery surrounded by high peaks and meadows and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 45 wooden houses built on steep slopes and painted in typical colors, blue, pink or white, although the village is a reserve of folk architecture it is not a museum, it is an authentic, original mountain settlement typical of Slovakia’s’ past.
Eastern Slovakia conquers the magnificent mountain peaks, cool down in the underground world of caves, and admire masterpieces of medieval architecture and the art of the builders of the unique wooden churches.
The High Tatras, a unique alpine mountain range in the north of the country on the border with Poland, are noted for their mountain huts. Part of the Carpathian chain and Slovakia’s most important tourist attraction with breathtaking scenery of glaciated valleys with raftew flora and fauna, deeps forests and valleys, home to protected species including bear, lynx and otter, chamois and marmot. In the higher region mountains eagles nest high above on inaccessible rocky peaks. The village of Zdiar has typical painted wooden houses and the inhabitants take a pride in their tradition and richly decorated costumes.
Levoca in the heart of the Spis region is the pearl of the area. Well-preserved medieval fortifications surround the town and Spis castle is one of the biggest castle complexes in central Europe and can be seen from a long distance. Covering four hectares the Spisska Nova Ves is one of the biggest towns in the Spis region. July is the best time to visit when the historical Spis market takes place.
To the east of the majestic Low Tatras mountain range lies one of the smallest protected natural areas in Slovakia, the Slovensky Raj (Slovakia Paradise) National Park, one of the most beautiful parts of the country. The trails follow mountains streams, not easy terrain for walking, and a number of ladders need to be climbed in order to negotiate the waterfalls. In many places it feels like being in a rain forest.
Close to the border with Poland, towering above the historical town of Stara Lubovna, is the 13th century castle. Pieniny has one of Slovakia’s smallest parks, the highlight of a visit is a trip down the river through the canyon on a log raft. The men wear colorful folk costumes and steer skillfully as they treat people to lots of legends on the two hour trip. After reaching the Polish border visitors can return on foot, bike or horse-drawn carriage. In the park is the Cerveny Klastor monastery and in the town of Cerveny Klastor every June is a great opportunity to observe rich folk traditions of this unique region.
Bardejoy, established on the trade route to Poland, is Slovakia’s best preserved medieval town. The town has a unique atmosphere and is surrounded by ramparts with 11 bastions and two gates built in the 14th – 16 the centuries and is preserved almost intact. The picturesque central square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the north-eastern reaches of Slovakia near the border with Poland and not far from the town of Bardejov there are a number of unique wooden churches, the oldest one is in the village of Hervartov. The small hamlets scattered over the countryside here are home to Slovakia’s Ruthenian minority, an ethnic group which belongs to the Orthodox Uniate church.
Kosice, the country’s second largest city, has palaces, cathedral, and is home to universities and colleges. Roznava, gateway to the Slovak Karst National Park is the capital of the historical Gemer region. It begun as a miners settlement and is noted for its thriving folk culture, natural beauty and precious Gothic churches.
This is a remarkable mountainous area with an abundance of castles, chateaus and unique medieval churches, making it one of the most attractive parts of Slovakia. Dominating the surrounding countryside is Krasna Horka Castle built on a steep conical hill near Roznava one of the attractions is the mummified body of Zsona Seredyi, one of the castles former owners.
Slovakia may be a small country but there are some dramatic differences between its regions, resulting from diverse geological conditions. Historic towns, mighty castles, national parks, mountains and a sparsely populated country, Slovakia is an undiscovered gem just waiting to be explored. Come and visit the main regions and see just what you can find in this beautiful country.