SLOVAKIA: Didn't keep us long.

Click on images to enlarge them.


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Prejudice disclosure: Wheezy was born in Prague, parents fled when the kid was three; Czech (and Slovak) language skills are pathetic but one can fumble through.

Some Slovaks have sufficient English, German, Russian – so one can communicate there.

Even in the Communist 1980's Czechoslovakia was relatively 'happening'; other East Europeans were not allowed to travel here, because they might get jealous – in short, other places were worse, even though it was bad enough here. I visited a few times on business and pleasure during that era, it was bad enough.

Communism naturally did adverse things to the work ethic: 'We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us' was the not-so-funny Czech joke of the time. The ethic still lingers but diminishes with time.

These landlocked countries – then one as Czechoslovakia prior to the 'velvet separation' on Jan 1, 1993 – did very well between the world wars; it was among the top 10-15 economies of the world in sheer size, highly industrialized, with GDP per capita in the top six, even with a miniscule land (smaller than Scotland or S. Carolina) and very small population.

The differences between Slovakia and Czech Republic are obvious to the traveler; it is not the same language albeit similar; culturally also not the same.

Slovakia's GDP per capita (PPP = Purchasing Power adjusted) was $18,700 in 2008 [source link] – about 25% lower than Czech Republic's $23,700; 3% behind Hungary's $19,300.

Among other former Soviet Bloc neighbors, Slovakia's per-person productivity is beating Poland's $15,500 by 20%; Russia's $14,200 by 32%; Bulgaria's $11,300 and Romania's $10,700 by 65%-75%. So within that struggling-to-catch-up 'hood it's not doing so badly.

Compare these numbers with France, Spain or Italy in the $32,000 range.

That said, Slovakia has a small population of only 4.5 million – not much greater than Toronto and immediate environs. (Czech Republic is closer to 10.3 million.) Slovakia is a physically tiny land too, about twice the size of USA's State of New Hampshire.

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Travels: After a short hop from Vienna, we rode pretty much all of Slovakia's capital city Bratislava [map link], which to us, fits into the 'may as well skip it' category. It's my second visit, my then-client, the brilliant Orford String Quartet did the Bratislava Festival 25 years ago and I went along; thus it's my second disappointment in 25 years. Some lovely old buildings, but every European city has an abundance thereof – we found not much that's architecturally special to see unless there is a cultural event you want to catch.

Here's our route [map link]: Moved on to Trencin, stayed in Pension Artur which is not recommended due to its dirtiness. This old university town has nothing memorable that we noticed; another drive-through town.

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Then two nights in charming Kezmarok [map route link]: It's a cute well-kept old town, nice walking districts, the nicest small city we saw in Slovakia.

But – unfortunately almost everything was closed for a national holiday, in the peak of a short tourist season when they badly need money – very strange priorities. Everything was closed, many hotels included – in summer? OK, whatever.

We found one restaurant that did serve us, albeit with a doing-us-a-favor attitude; however they had wireless web access on the patio, which justified spending a few hours drinking coffee, emailing and making new tourist friends. Finding internet access in Slovakia was a catch-as-can challenge – none in the local hotel and few internet caf├ęs that we could find.

A revealing tip-of-iceberg memory: In Kezmarok there is a historic all-wooden church Dreveny Kostol [link] that was built by the then-persecuted Lutherans without a single metal nail – they used some wooden pegs apparently. And stucco.

Kezmarok all-wood Church.

We went, we tried – however the cranky babushka-hag that ran it literally shoved us out along with a bunch of other wannabe tourists, slammed the door officiously at 11:59 sharp; that was after being closed for an hour before while we waited outside with a bunch of Austrians. Why? Because La Babushka wanted to go for her two-hour lunch, after doing heaven-knows-what during the previous hour when we couldn't get in.

To hell with the paying customers, it’s about 'me and my lunch.' In a tourist-oriented Church yet, perhaps the town's main attraction. We saw the Dreveny Kostol for about 10 seconds by sticking our head through the door, that was it. Simply idiotic management and staff attitude.

Ditto the young woman who ran the lunch wagon across the street – yes the lunch wagon; she closed at 12:02 noon for two hours for her lunch (her watch must be slow), told us 'come later' in Slovak as she slid the window shut in our faces, after we begging with clasped hands for an off-the-shelf sandwich. Dumb-lazy business, me-first arrogance which we found quite consistent in the area. It would have taken her perhaps two minutes to politely hand us a pre-made sandwich and make a buck on us ... but she cared less.

A lunch wagon closed for a two-hour lunch? Whew. That's not playing serious catch-up folks.

That's precisely what it was like during the Communist era in much of Czechoslovakia and elsewhere; customer service and attitude were pathetic unless you slipped the desired provider some 'motivational money.' It may take a generation or two for the attitude to change but in retrospect after touring a few ex-Communist places on this trip, Slovakia is not a culture of motivated hustle nearly as much as the Czech Republic for example.

We found a quite decent hotel in Kezmarok for one night, Penzion Hidalgo [link] with a very nice hostess and staff, but unfortunately had to find another because they were fully booked the second night.

Then we found, via the Tourist Office, Private Rooms Gardos [link] which we highly recommend you avoid, a badly-run rip-off. You get a room in the suburbs, that's it: Forget TV, internet or food for sale – just a bare-bones room with bed. The landlady's aforementioned attitude is thrown in gratis.

We might have spent another day had we found decent (open) accommodations, but given the general vibe, we walked and drove around, then just skipped town.

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Slovakia was definitely losing the popularity – and getting money from us – contest with this highly-inclined-to-be-sympathetic Czech-Canuck and his partner.

Indeed, we cut our expected Slovakia time down by almost a week, no point in staying longer. Billions are lost there in 'go-away' tourism is my guess.

But I’ll say this much in its favor: Slovakia is quite inexpensive by Europe standards, perhaps being 50%-75% of the price next door is probably the main attraction for many tourists. That, plus evidently decent skiing in winter, or mountain hiking in season – again versus prices in the quite superior Alps.

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We rode the Tatras for a day and covered most of them, a nice range of small mountains in the north, but not much to do unless you are hikers.

Nice riding, decent twisty roads, ski towns, forests – but for those who have toured much of the world, there are far better to see. The Slovaks need to try far harder if they wish to compete for foreign tourism.

The roads are not fab, often lack maintenance – although they are very drivable with light traffic.

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Our last night in Slovakia was Tvrdosin [route map link.] Not a memorable town, just a nice well-priced Hotel Rohac [link] to sleep in, then outa there.

Roads as I said are good except [route map link] for one scary ten-kilometer stretch heading to Czech Republic. We admittedly tried to stay off the beaten path, but this was on the printed map as a 'road', which it is not; rather a treacherous gravel-mud-rutted lumber track, with trees laying across it, suitable perhaps for the big trucks that use it, but simply impassible for normal cars. We managed to weave our way through it, having the advantage of being able to dodge between trees fallen across the road and deep ruts.

It was scenically beautiful however, stunning in parts; nice mountain views and completely natural forest. We stopped for a picnic lunch in the middle of nowhere, without encountering anything human for hours.

As challenging a drive as it was, it was also one of the highlights of the last three months.

Funny how things work out – easy is often un-memorable. We loved that lousy road in hindsight, once we got through it. Another good time on a bike.

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Happy memorable encounter: On the last morning towards the end of the winding Tatras, we met a half dozen super-friendly Slovak bikers at a gas station, spent a nice hour making friends and even trading passengers with one muscular Ducati-riding hot-dogger.

To show us what he and his ride were was made of, he took off like a rocket with Thao aboard while his Slovak girlfriend and I rode behind – he lost us immediately at 150 kph = 90 mph on twisty dangerous roads, crossing countless solid double lines to pass cars.

Everyone lived to retell it, Thao was given a new experience, and we think back fondly of the fun, genuinely-friendly bunch.

Slovak & Canadian bikers. Photos by Janulka.
Ducati & Thao take off with Wing & his girlfriend aboard.
He left us in his dust, within seconds.

Maybe we should have stuck around for a day, hung out with them and visited their nearby hometown, but we moved on; regrettably so, because we might have had a different Slovak experience.

One of them Janulka, speaks excellent English (teaches it in fact) and we still exchanged emails months later. Good guys/gals. Regret we could not report more positively on our tourism experience with their country because this group was the shining bright spot of the week. These are the kind of folks who'll do the national catch-up.

But it was on to the Czech Republic for us ...


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