“WHAT on Earth are you doing in Slovakia?” was the demanding comment of an old friend on a photo I had posted on Facebook of myself having fun in the snow up in the High Tatras.
Indeed, Slovakia, let alone the capital city of Bratislava, is one not immediately on the travel bucket list of most Filipinos. Although once our gaggly group of journalists from Asia arrived at the city terminal from Budapest by train, we were immediately greeted by cheers of “Konichiwa!” by some young locals, which means there are a great number of Japanese who travel to this central European country. Chinese nationals are also a major market.
Slovakia was the second stop on our Asian media group‘s 10-day “Discover Central Europe” tour, organized by the Czech Tourism Board and its partners in Budapest, Bratislava, Krakow and Warsaw and Prague.
The county is considered among the richest in the world, and ranks high in the human development index, as its citizens are accorded free universal health care and education, and a comprehensive pension system. It also attracts a number of foreign investors because of its low wages, a well-educated work force and favorable tax rates. It’s no wonder we found a building by Amazon right in the city, and everywhere there seemed to be a number of car plants. (On a per capita basis, Slovakia produces the most number of cars in the world, with automakers, such as Volkswagen, Peugeot, Kia and Jaguar.)
Slovakia is, thus, quite the success story: After having had centrally planned policies courtesy of the Soviets, it’s now a fully market-driven economy.
Formed in 1993 after it peacefully separated from the Czech Republic, on the heels of the historic Velvet Revolution in 1989, the relatively “young” country has a tremendously rich history that is evident in its culture and cuisine, as well as its art and architecture.
At the Old Town where we did a bit of sightseeing, one of the oldest buildings we passed was the University Library, established in 1919. Still in use today, its collection has grown to about 2.52 million publications. Another interesting feature of the Old Town is the Executioner’s Alley, identified by a red masked head, a narrow passage that leads to the Executioner‘s House.
Aside from the historical buildings along the Old Town, we were fascinated by the metal art pieces erected along the sidewalks and cobbled streets. One of the most popular is of Cumil the Sewer Worker, a bronze sculpture of a man emerging from a manhole—hilarious! Apparently, the town’s fathers wanted to spruce up the once drab architecture and design fostered by the Soviets, and they chose to do this by commissioning artwork.
The night before, we checked out the Christmas Market in the main square, where stalls sold handicrafts, artisanal ceramic pieces and traditional Slovak cuisine, such as sausages, loksa, or potato pancakes with different fillings, mulled wine and the like.
Adjacent to the Christmas Market was the Franciscan Church, erected in the 13th century, and which has undergone changes in its architectural details from the Gothic style, to Renaissance, then Baroque in the 17th and 18th centuries. We had time to pray for luck as is the custom of many Filipinos visiting a new church for the first time, before its massive doors were closed for a midnight service. Another religious stop was the Saint Martin‘s Church, the largest and one of the oldest in Bratislava, constructed in the Gothic style and consecrated in 1452.
After a night and a full day in Bratislava, we motored to the High Tatras, a mountain range on the border of Slovakia and Poland. On the way, we stopped at the wooden articular church in Hronsek, an inscribed Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. Founded by Lutheran missionaries in 1726, it is shaped like a cross and continues to be in use to this day.
It was at the High Tatras where our motley group of tropical creatures experienced knee-deep snow, as we visited the Hrebienok, a key tourist and ski center above Starý Smokovec (Old Smokovec), on the southern slope of the Slavkovský Peak. Riding a cable car, we reached the Strbské Pleso, said to be the highest point in the mountain range.
Despite the freezing temperatures in the High Tatras, the area actually hosts a number of spas, fed by heated spring waters from the mountains. So even if December could be considered a low season for most European countries, the spas in High Tatras, mostly located in hotels, actually attract quite a sizeable number of visitors from neighboring countries.
WHERE TO STAY: In Bratislava we checked into the very chic Hotel Lindner, which has a walkway adjoining it to the Central Mall, popular for carrying brands not found in other establishments. On the hotel’s 13th floor is the Outlook Bar and Lounge, where we had a filling dinner.
WHERE TO EAT: Also in Bratislava we had lunch at the UFO, an observation deck shaped like, yes, a spaceship, which overlooks the Danube River. It offers gourmet specialties and amazing views of the city.
GETTING THERE: There is no direct way to go Slovakia from Manila. So it’s best to go there by train after visiting either Budapest or Prague, both of which can be reached by air from Manila via number of international carriers. The best time to visit Slovakia is between the warmer months from March to October, but if you have a thing for winter wonderlands, then check it out during winter.
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