Two Letters

Chalk and cheese - the only similarity is the first two letters. The words Slovakia and Slovenia are the same in all but two letters, and yet we found the difference between the two countries far greater than chalk and cheese, and if you read my positive appraisal of Slovenia, that doesn’t bode well for my impressions of Slovakia, so this post may be a little more succinct than usual …

We found the capital Bratislava had very little to recommend a visit, the “Blue Church” in the Hungarian style being about the only thing that was of much interest to us.

We then took a train to Zilina in the north of the country. This simple trip on the much touted Slovak Rail (ZSSK) was seemingly straight forward - until we got on the train that is. Then we discovered that to actually get a seat you have to pay an extra euro for a reservation, or like us and many others we saw, you have to stand for the two and a half hour journey. Nothing mentioned by the ticket clerk and even an expat Slovak we met on the train was caught out the same way.

Zilina was even less interesting than Bratislava and after a quiet few days spent organising other things, we hopped on another train (with seat reservation) to Poprad, where we had a hire car booked for a week, and drove to Oravsky Podzamok, which has a castle. Not much else. The castle wasn’t particularly exciting either but I suppose it had a certain grandeur within its setting.

Next stop, a few interminable days later, was Kezmarok and its “wooden church” which failed completely to live up to the propaganda. The castle there was also uninspiring and the accommodation we stayed in was about the only thing we really appreciated.

While we still had the car we also spent a few days (too many) in Zdiar in Belianske Tatry, the supposed “Jewel of Slovakia”, which was more like fake costume jewellery as far as we were concerned. Not actually horrible and parts of the landscape were nice enough, but certainly no jewel. The High Tatras mountains, which sounded so impressive on paper also turned out to be another disappointment for us, so we returned the car and having planned to hop on another train filled with standing passengers to our next destination, Splisske Podhradie, we were informed that the train no longer stops there and we would have to catch a bus instead. Good ol’ Slovak Rail again.

Splisske Podhradie is also known for its castle which, at least this time, helped to redeem Slovakia ever so slightly. It’s a “proper” castle from the 12th century situated on a hill overlooking the town which also has a cathedral, several churches and a few chapels, none of which were significantly different to the many we had already seen.

Another bus ride a few days later and we were in Kosice to the east and the second largest city in Slovakia, which we were hoping was worth a look. As it turned out, it was the saving grace, left until last. More cosmopolitan for us than Bratislava, and much better looking, I still felt it had a deeply conservative streak. It has a very nice historical centre and lots of green spaces. We enjoyed our short time there more than anywhere else in Slovakia.

We did have a few pleasant encounters with Slovak people, but on the whole we just failed to connect with the food, the people, the landscape or the culture in general. So for us it looks like Slovakia is the new Georgia. (This and any other observations or comments that I may make are of course my personal impressions from a relatively brief time spent in any particular country and should be taken as such - i.e. opinion based on my personal experience ;-)

From Kosice our final ZSSK train (only 10 minutes late leaving and relatively painless) took us to Budapest in Hungary where we spent some time recuperating. In the two cities of Buda and Pest on opposite sides of the Danube we only had time to do a quick walking tour of some of the main attractions so that I could at least put up a few postcards here. Compared to Bratislava, bigger and busier Budapest is a much more sophisticated and happening city with everything you would expect in a modernised old capital. When it comes down to it though, even with all the famous sites and tourist attractions, it’s just another bustling city, and although two days weren’t nearly enough to do it justice, it was an unplanned stop along the way to greener pastures via one last (overnight!) train to Brasov, Romania. Thankfully most of the train journeys are now behind us - and they seemed so pleasant and promising when we started out in Slovenia …

So now we have a nice long stay in Transylvania which has been one of our much anticipated and planned destinations all along. I’m sure I’ll have more to say in a few weeks.

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