Mist-swathed mountains on one side and picturesque lakes on the other. How can one go wrong with such accoutrements? Add to it quaint villages, medieval towns, craggy peaks, exotic castles and I soon realise that Slovakia is all about experiencing an idyllic world where pristine nature dominates the larger geographical narrative.
In this small-big country (carved out of erstwhile Czechoslovakia as recently as 1993 after the twosome’s famed “velvet divorce”), it is said you can hike beside a waterfall-filled gorge one day and gawp at nail less wooden churches in a village museum the next.
I did both. Beginning my ambitious sojourn from the northern most tip of the country (where Slovakia’s borders hug Poland), I travelled south to the capital city of Bratislava. At five million, Slovakia’s population compares with that of Indian cities like Chennai and Kolkata, or less than half of Delhi’s. The meagre numbers, I’m told, are a direct result of the Slovaks’ mass migration to the US in the 19thCentury in search of better economic opportunities.
Be that as it may, I was happier plumping for the less publicised charms of this scarcely populated Central European country than its more famous (albeit crowded) neighbours. Slovakia’s embrace of the broad sweep of history is also remarkable, peppered as it is with the highest number of castles and chateaux per capita in the world.
Bratislava may not boast of the geographical expanse of other bigger European capitals nor the urban oomph of its neighbours (Prague, Vienna), but it’s every bit as engaging. Think cobblestoned roads, pedestrian plazas, picture-book 18th-century rococo buildings, atmospheric street cafés... Slovakia’s largest city also boasts of a beautifully restored historical centre full of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, houses and palaces, fountains and a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Downtown Bratislava especially, has a pronounced vibrancy. It is also hugely strollable, with labyrinthine pedestrian alleys and old world boutiques adding heft to its character. Talented street performers at every other corner up the town’s entertainment quotient further.
If you’d like your adrenaline spiked even more, make the climb up to the spunky Bratislava castle located amidst sinuous hills. Not only is the monument a visual treat (complete with gloomy dungeons that seem to leap straight out of a Harry Potter flick), but also because the journey to the 19th century monument will take you through an antithetical landscape — the rich old-town architecture and Spartan communist-era buildings. En route, you’ll also get to cross New Bridge, a unique construction that straddles the Danube River. In use since 1972, the bridge has also been conferred ‘The building of the 20th century’ award by the United Nations.
However, our guide Donna, a tall and strapping Slovak woman, has other plans. She’s keen on giving us a high-octane introduction to her country. Ergo, we’re shepherded straight to Dunajec River, a tributary of Vistula river, for a rafting expedition!
“The Dunejec cuts through the Tatra mountain range, creating a canyon and a natural border between Slovakia and Poland,” Donna informs us. The epic mountains are divided into the high and low Tatras, she adds, with the former located to the south.
Our adventure begins at Pieniny National Park, located on the banks of the glistening Dunajec. Amidst palpable excitement, we board a wobbly but capacious wooden raft, big enough to accommodate all 12 of us. Our costumed boatmen are kitted out in their traditionalGoral tribal outfits with royal blue jackets and embroidered hats.
The ride begins and I soak in the wondrous nature around me — chortling river, thickets of greenery, dewy flora and an orange marmalade sky. The boatmen regale us with interesting mythical tales about the region. Slovak jokes too, are thrown in for good measure along the 9 km boat ride.
As the raft negotiates the river’s twists and turns, we are prodded to sing Bollywood songs! (Such is the pervasive influence of the Indian film industry!) And so we skim the waterbody, laughing, joking and singing...
Theflora and faunaalong the riverside is eclectic. And exotic. Over 40,000 species of animals inhabit the Tatra forests, we’re told, including brown bear, wild wolf, forest wild pig and deer. The higher Tatras are home to birds of prey such as the rock eagle,falcon, mouser and hawk.
The Alps-esque mountains are also a popular ski destination during winters, when the snow-sheathed region becomes a huge magnet for sports buffs. We pass by many ski pads with people poised on them to do their jumps. I capture a few flying mid-air or positioned at the pad’s edge on my camera.
Geologically, a sizable part of Slovakia, we’re told, is made out of limestone, which in synergy with its sundry springs and rivers has resulted in the formation of some stunning landscapes, exotic caves and beautiful rocky formations. The country is also rich inhealing mineral waters; more than 1,200 springs of mineral waters are located here, creating a thriving ecosystem for recreationalspas.
The boat trip is followed by a quintessentially Slovak meal. No ordinary dining experience this, by the way. We’re transported to the venue in horse carriages, no less (a common mode of conveyance here) after a whirl around town. A neon-bathed town below and a star-sequined sky above. What could be better? The experience becomes more intense after a sudden cloudburst, sending us scurrying for cover into the restaurant.
The traditional Slovak eatery is done up in warm woody tones. The abundant use of wood in its innards is unsurprising, considering we’re smack dab in the middle of forests where local folk artists have been expressing their creativity through wood for centuries.
As we enter, a band of local musicians is playing mellifluous tunes. As the dinner service gains momentum, the musicians warm up to us. We challenge them to reproduce a few Bollywood ditties. And much to our amazement (the linguistic barrier notwithstanding), the talented trio does a near-perfect rendition of all the requested numbers!
Though not many local eateries serve up Slovak cuisine in Bratislava (Chinese, Hungarian and Continental being the more popular options), I did get to sample a smattering of local delicacies. The country’s national dish — the exotic halusky(small dumplings with sheep’s cheese topped off with pieces of meat), for instance, is a must try. Ditto, its famed potent garlic soup.
The Slovak white wine, schnitzels, goulash, Bratislava's reputed junk food — arichman— a big bread roll stuffed with meat, cabbage, cheese meat and mayonnaise and Treska (a cold salad made of codfish with mayonnaise, onions and carrots) are the other items that embellish Slovakia’s gastronomic tapestry.
On warmer days — when the sun’s glorious rays are spreading quicksilver everywhere — Bratislava’s local cafes offer al fresco seating in the streets. Grab a chair and you could partake of a moving theatre whose frames change by the minute — passersby walking, boutiques with breathtaking shop displays, punters tucking into beautiful food and chatting animatedly. And whilst you’re at it, why not spear into the delectable haluska, reach out for a glass of slivovica (firewater-like plum brandy) and raise a toast to beauteous Bratislava?
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