Slovakia: the country that made one-half of Czechoslovakia, and the one that many people get confused with Slovenia (which is the next country on my list). Home to castles and folk stories, I always think of Slovakia as one of those lesser traveled European secrets, offering the same spectacular mountain views as Switzerland, exceptional food and drink as Germany, and historic architecture as Italy or England -- but for a fraction of the cost.
The name Slovakia is stemmed from the Czech word Slováky and was first mentioned during the 15th century. It went by a few different names, but it all generally referred to it being the land of the Slovaks, even though for much of its early existence, it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. But it was quite diverse at that time, and perhaps they were just giving some homage to the people there.
Slovakia is located in Central Europe. It’s surrounded by Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, Hungary to the south, and Austria and Czechia (formerly Czech Republic) to the west. The Carpathian Mountains run across the northern part of the country and are most noted for the high Tatra mountain range as well as the Fatra mountain range. The Tatras are one of the most visited areas in Slovakia and form the border between it and Poland. Because of this mountainous region, Slovakia is also dotted with tons of caves, rivers, and lakes. Plenty of places to dump a body. (Just kidding, of course.) It also has four distinct seasons, and the temperature extremes really depend on your relation to the mountains.
The earliest evidence for people living in this area dates back to 270,000 BC. During the Bronze Age, the people figured out how to utilize copper as a way to create tools and weapons and jewelry, making them very prosperous at that time. Several different groups came to chill for a while: the Celts, then the Romans, the Huns, the Avars, and finally Slavic tribes. A few of these Slavic tribes got together and formed the Great Moravian Empire. During this time, Christianity became the thing, and the Byzantine Empire sent Saints Cyril and Methodius to help translate religious text into the Slavic language for them, thus coming up with Old Church Slavonic. Of course, like a bunch of siblings, the fighting didn’t stop. This time it was the Magyar and Bulgarian tribes. And by the 10th century, they were included as part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and they would stay “Hungarian” until the end of WWI. During this period, the Ottoman Empire expanded into the area, and Bratislava became the capital of Hungary for a while. The Reformation took place, and many Slovaks became Lutherans. Things changed in 1918, and they were now part of the newly created Czechoslovakia that formed after break-up of Austria-Hungary. Nazi Germany annexed off part of Slovakia, which became the Slovak Republic, the first Slovak state in history. Germany used it as a place to hold death camps and forced labor camps for nearly 75,000 Jews. The Soviets and Romanians liberated it in 1945, and many changes took place in the years after WWII. In 1948, Czechoslovakia came under the influence of communism, which lasted until 1993 when the Velvet Revolution dissolved it. Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004.
Located on the west side of the country on both the River Danube (yes, like “The Blue Danube” by Johann Stauss II) and River Morava, it’s the only national capital to border near two other countries: Austria and Hungary in this case. While it was known by many different names throughout its history, its name as we know it is stemmed from the misreading of Braslav as Bratislav when Pavel Jozef Safáik, poet and literary historian, was taking a look at medieval sources. Today, the city is a mixture of old and new: modern architecture with ancient towers in between. There are several castles still standing (and some not so much) and other popular tourist spots. It’s also the center for everything from government offices and commerce to transportation to education, the arts, and sports.
With a focus on car manufacturing and electrical engineering, Slovakia has a high-income economy. Its economy is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and was ranked as one of the richest countries in the world in 2017 (39th out of 187 countries ranked). Unemployment is now at the lowest it’s ever been. For those who love architecture and outdoor sports like skiing and hiking, tourism is dependent on you; the country sees over 5 million visitors every year, mostly from nearby countries. Slovakia also has a prolific scientific community, cultivating scientists who have been in on the ground floor of many scientific endeavors.
The majority of Slovakians are Christian. About three-quarters of the population follow the Catholic Church (by far, the largest denomination), Slovak Greek Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, Orthodox Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Almost a quarter of the people doesn’t follow any particular religion, are not religious at all, or follows other religions (mainly Islam, even though it remains to be the only EU member that doesn’t have a single mosque in its country).
The official language of Slovakia is Slovak, part of the Slavic language family. In the southern regions, Hungarian is also widely spoken, and Rusyn in parts of the northeast. Understandably, the most common foreign language is Czech. One of the things I didn’t know was that even though Czech and Slovak are closely related (and in some dialects, intelligible), Czech Sign Language and Slovak Sign Language are not.
In looking around the Internet, I came across something that said that members of the Slovak and Slovenian embassies meet once a month to exchange wrongly sent mail from people who got the two countries mixed up. I was shocked. However, upon further research, I found that’s not entirely true. They do meet monthly, but not to exchange mail. At least, not really (I bet they kept all the good coupons, though). Google, people. If a story sounds sensational or crazy, Google it. Gooooooooogle it.
Up next: art and literature