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General

Although Slovak history is one of immense Magyar cultural repression, the country emerged from more than a millennium of Hungarian serfdom with its language and identity largely intact. Uniting with the Czechs after World War I was primarily a matter of convenience, thereby thwarting Hungarian plans to retain control. However, Slovakia was definitely the 'junior partner' throughout the 20th century and the country achieved independence in 1993. Modernisation fell well behind that of the Czech Republic and the country is only now opening up to tourism. Despite decades of Communism, Catholicism is almost as strong here as it is in Poland, and many rural communities resisted collectivisation almost completely.

Other than the Alps, the Slovakia offers what may be Europe's most exciting landscape - from the Danube plain to towering mountain peaks and quiet valleys, glacial lakes with crystal-clear waters, over 1300 mineral and thermal springs and extensive cave systems. There are seven national parks and 16 protected landscape areas, featuring well-preserved natural environments, the unique Carpathian landscape and remnants of the original virgin forests. Forests cover two-thirds of the country, the rest is agricultural land.

Bratislava

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is the country's political, economic and cultural centre. Located on the River Danube (Dunaj), the city is not, however, another fairytale city like Prague and far more buildings have been destroyed since the last war than were bombed during it. Known for centuries in the German-speaking world as Pressburg and in the Hungarian as Pozsony, it was the Hungarian capital from the Battle of Mohác (1526) until the Turks were finally driven from the Hungarian plains. Until 1918 the city was largely Hungarian, German and Jewish, rather than Slavic, and it was only renamed Bratislava - after the last leader of the Moravian Empire - after World War I.

Matthias Corvinus established the first Hungarian university, the Academia Istropolitana, in 1465; however it constantly lost ground to those in Kraków, Prague and Vienna and closed in 1490. The centre of the Old Town (Stavé Mesto) is compact with much that is worth seeing near the Old Town Square; Trinity Church is noted for its magnificent trompe l'oeil frescos and the nearby Corpus Christi Church (kaplnka Bozieho tela) is now a museum packed with icons, jewellery and other aspects of ecclesiastical wealth. The Town Hall (Stará radnica) is a delightful mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and 19th century styles, and the nearby Jesuit Church and the wonderful stucco decor of the Mirbach Palace are major tourist sites. The 15th century hrad (Bratislava Castle), on the hill above the city, was burnt down by its own drunken soldiers in 1811; recently restored, it houses half of the Slovak National Museum, but visitors' time is better spent with the wonderful views across the Danube plain. The Slovak National Gallery on the waterfront houses Bratislava's most important art. The only other important site near the waterfront is Ödön Lechner's Modr´y kostolic (Little Blue Church), an Art Nouveau masterpiece dedicated to Bratislava's one important saint, Elizabeth, born in 1207. The controversial Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) with its single support column dominates the area; views from the restaurant at the top are superb. Between the Old Town Square and the Bridge is the graceful boulevard, Hviezdoslavolo námestie; at the eastern end are the great late-19th-century Slovak National Theatre and the more Sessionist Reduta Theatre.


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