- Mission 1: Take a Post-communism themed tour of the city and its outskirts in a vintage Škoda with a personal guide (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Understand what led to the dissolution of former Czechoslovakia and how the two nations (Slovakia & Czechia) are divergent (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Ascend the UFO Tower to soak-in views over the Danube, as well as seeking-out some of Slovakia’s equally brutish architecture, e.g. the Slovak Radio Building (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Bring out the big guns, i.e. indulge in a spot of longarms shooting at the range (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Visit the former defensive line along the Austrian border and the original WWII bunkers (ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: The poignancy of walking the WWII defensive line on Armistice Day.
Lowlight: Asking the bartender for a traditional Slovak (not Czech) aperitif and instead receiving a shot of paint-stripper.
Feat of Architecture: The iconic Slovak Radio Building; a rusty red-coloured inverted pyramid.
Recce Fact: Slovakia has been the largest producer of automobiles per capita, since 2007; a pretty impressive vehicular output rate for a relatively small population.
Six years after first visiting Slovakia in 2012, I arrived back in the capital; delighted to see the city thriving and that they are still as fond of that peculiar stringed cheese as ever.
I don’t know why I might have expected the latter to change, but was very much looking forward to sampling it again. This time around I was eager for insights to crystallise my perceptions and satisfy curiosities, instead of just moseying along the Danube like a ship with a broken rudder.
Slovakia and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in Europe (if we discount the anomaly that is Vatican City).
Bratislava was looking rather splendid in its autumnal colours. It is situated less than an hour away from Vienna. The Hungarian and Czech border can also be reached within an hour. Because of its central location and cost-effective-highly-skilled workforce of polyglots galore, Slovakia has become an attractive foreign investment opportunity. It now hosts a plethora of major IT companies, in addition to its automobile and electronics exports market that accounts for around 80% of the country’s GDP.
If there was one goal I hoped to accomplish in Mission Slovakia, it was to gain an appreciation of how the nation defines itself and all aspects of its individuality.
I can empathise with any nation who are sick-to-the-back-teeth of failure to be acknowledged by the rest of the world; who see Slovaks as inseparable to Czechs, continue to refer to their country only in legacy terms as Czechoslovakia, or worst of all, haphazardly confuse them with Slovenia. Accounts that Slovak and Slovenian embassies meet regularly to mutually exchange incorrectly-addressed mail may be somewhat amplified, but when one considers how similar the two flags are, and is then faced with a red, white and blue-striped banner with the word “Slovensko” on it; it’s easy to understand how Slovakia can be mistaken for Slovenia for a non-Slavic language speaker.
Every nation reserves the right tell their own story and influence their identity forged in the eyes of others. Unfortunately (and just as true as life), only the ones that shout the loudest tend to be heard.
The Shaping of Two Distinct Nations (1993-present)
The manner in which Czechoslovakia was divided in 1993 was actually rather neat; with historical constituent regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia comprising the Czech Republic, and Slovakia encompassing the historical region of, well… Slovakia. Whilst they have at least as many similarities as differences, some key aspects that differentiate Slovakia and the Czechia today are namely:
- Language: although both are closely related, younger Czechs might struggle a little more with Slovak due to less frequent exposure these days. Accented letters specific to Slovak include ä, l’, ĺ, ŕ and ô;
- Population size: CZE : SVK ≈ 2:1;
- Geographic size: CZE : SVK ≈ 3:2;
- GDP: CZE : SVK > 2:1, although both are growing at a similar pace;
- Religion: with Slovakia being considerably more devout and predominantly Catholic vs. the largely atheist Czechia.
The gap is rapidly closing on many of the other original reasons for their divergence in the early nineties. For example, Slovakia’s initial resistance to privatising state-run industries, preferring to embrace and pursue socialism. As a result, in the beginning, economic progress was extremely slow for Slovakia whilst the Czech Republic went from strength-to-strength in their pursuit of a strong market economy. To its merit, Slovakia’s economy has very much been playing catch-up during the past decade.
As for the similarities? Well, they are both EU members (joining simultaneously in 2004), NATO members (Slovakia joining five years later), and are part of the Visegrád Group along with Hungary and Poland (whose primary purpose seems to be one of furthering their collective EU integration).
Furthermore, Slovakia has a reputation of being more socially conservative and traditional in contrast to Czechia. [Unofficially] it is said that Slovaks tend to be more nationalist/patriotic and some bad blood continues to exist between them and the Roma community (not that they are unique in that respect) as well as Hungarians. The EU have expressed disappointment at Slovakia’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis arguing that they have the capacity to accept many more, while Slovakia continue to challenge the quota system. Admittedly, these allegations have led to some inane racist stereotyping by Western Europe, but let us analyse it further so we can effectively put it to bed. Hungarian-Slovak resentment is by no means a view held by the majority and there is a significant overlap of well-integrated communities on the respective sides of the border, but the issue nevertheless persists, and I shall endeavour to explain some of the causes, as I perceive them.
Hungarian Slovakia – Lingering Bad Blood (pre- and post-WWI)
The territory now known as Slovakia was formerly part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and subsequently the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867 until it collapsed at the end of WWI (at which point Slovaks seized the chance to form an independent republic in alliance with their Czech brethren). During the pre-WWI era (and particularly during the 19th century) Slovaks were subjected to a hard policy of Magyarisation. Even today, many Slovaks bear longstanding resentment for some of the extreme oppressive measures taken against by the Hungarians. This is paired with anger in retaliation to Hungarian allegations that Slovakia have appropriated aspects of their culture and claimed them as their own. Accusations range from “stolen” national symbols to the Slovak National Anthem actually being based on a Hungarian folk song; ironic since the lyrics allude to the attitude of Slovaks to Hungarian domination and rising from the ashes as a free nation. Slovaks naturally take great offence to these claims and feel that it is an attack to somehow invalidate their culture entirely. On the Hungarian side, the real sticking point was the debilitating Treaty of Trianon (1920). And this was by no means the end of it; as WWII would see another tug-o-war ensue over the very same borders.
Revising post-war land borders was never straightforward nor met without disdain by those who would wake up in bed one morning to find themselves having become an ethnic minority overnight. In spite of any good intentions, it made a right Horlicks of things.
When WWI concluded, the the terms of agreement saw Hungary’s population reduced by 64% and three million ethnic Hungarians left outside of Hungary-proper, 900,000 of which were now on the newly-formed Czechoslovak side. Present animosity has been fuelled by right-wing Slovak politicians such as Ján Slota, a frequent pot-stirrer of anti-Hungarian sentiment, and through disputes such as the
Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dams project. Once again, this enmity on both sides is only present among a minority and, as expected, football stadiums are a typical arena for battle. Yet, the majority of Slovak nationals of Hungarian descent exist as seamlessly integrated citizens.
“As I was scanning this country, I was wondering how could God gave such a beautiful land to such ugly people.” What a charming fellow.Former president of the Slovak National Party, Ján Slota, 2006 (speaking of Hungary)
During WWI, embittered Slovaks were reluctantly drafted-in to fight for the Central Powers and suffered great losses on the Eastern Front. A great number of them defected and went to fight on the Russian side (hopeful for aid to escape the much-loathed foreign oppression brought about by the Austro-Hungarian empire). Proving a liability for Austria-Hungary, they were re-deployed on the Italian Front instead.
As WWI is usually where the buck stops with Reconnaissance Europe remit (and quite frankly where my capacity ceases to grasp all of the intricacies and relate them somehow to present day), I shan’t go back any further in history; other than to mention Bratislava’s most prominent landmark, that is. As Bratislava was once the capital of Royal Hungary (owed to the Ottomans and under the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy in 1536), Pressburg Castle (as it were) served as a royal castle and the seat of kings. Sure, it looks grand today, but the poor old castle has endured hard times; several anti-Habsburg uprisings and bombardment by Napoleon’s men before it was eventually destroyed in a raging fire in 1811. Its restoration began back in 1957 and was not completed until 2009.
The Republic of Czechoslovakia – First Time Around (1918-1939)
Immediately after WWI, Austria-Hungary was dissolved and the independent Republic of Czechoslovakia came to be with its new Treaty of Trianon borders soon to follow. Whilst the newly united state made progress over the next two decades, the disparity between the two main constituent nations became evident in terms of mentality and economics. Slovaks saw the more populous Czechs as largely running the show, insistent on doing things their way. The economic downturn due to the Great Depression (1930s) disenchanted Slovaks even more so, as they felt like a voiceless minority and were still economically worse-off. By the time Hitler had risen to power and on the cusp of WWII, the fruit of Slovak independence was ripe.
An Independent Slovak Republic & Nazi Puppet State (1939)
Since I will be reporting on Mission Czechia at some point in the near future, I shall try to maintain focus on Slovakia itself to avoid duplication and will skim over the Czech Crisis of 1938 and Sudetenland. So what were the conditions that led to Slovakia proclaiming itself as an independent state under the pro-fascist leader Jozef Tiso?
From the outset of Nazi ascension to power in 1933, Hungary had been whispering in Hitler’s ear that in order to redraw the borders of Central Europe more favourably, Czechoslovakia was a “cancer tumour” that needed to be cut out.Miklós Horthy (1936)
Hitler was thoroughly convinced, and by 1938 with fascist Italy and the recently Anschlussed-Austria on board, the Munich Agreement annexed regions collectively known as Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, and the First Vienna Diktat once again expanded Hungary; essentially undoing the condemning Treaty of Trianon that Hungary so hatefully resented. The intention was for all of this to be achieved without violence, but of course it was met with some resistance. Ultimately, the Treaty of Paris (1947) would later undo such efforts, reverting Hungary back to its pre-1939 state.
The clock was ticking and the Axis Powers were closing in on Slovakia. With the odds very much stacked against them and having been forced to acquiesce so much already, then-prime minister of the autonomous Slovak region went off to Berlin to meet with Hitler. What he wanted to achieve was independence for Slovakia and guarantee that its people would be safeguarded, regardless of any other Axis plans for Central Europe. As to what would become of the rest of Czechoslovakia was not of his primary concern. He had so long been pushing for an authoritarian, one-party, independent Slovak nation. As the result of these discussions, an independent Slovak Republic was declared within days, as a protectorate of Nazi Germany.
The newly independent Slovakia was merely a Nazi puppet state. Yet it seemed like a better alternative than the threat of Poland and Hungary being let in like a pack of hungry dogs to devour what was left of it.
WWII Bunkers and the Defensive Line – The First Czechoslovak Republic Fortification System (1938)
In spite of the terms of the Treaty of Peace with Austria (1919) clearly stating that “The Czecho-Slovak State undertakes not to erect any military works in that portion of its territory which lies on the right bank of the Danube to the south of Pressburg” (Article 56), the Czechoslovak government were well-aware of the events described above which would likely ensue and began building strategic fortifications from as early as 1934. They had hoped to be able to hold off any neighboring invasions until help arrived; help which never really came. At least, not at the time nor in the manner in which they had envisioned.
The first line of heavy fortifications are still standing today in Petržalka, Bratislava. By 1938, they were fully-equipped and manned by over 1,500 military personnel. There are 15 heavy-duty bunkers, named B-S-1 to B-S-15 (which now house a number of museums), as well as a number of smaller pill-box types. The most interesting one I noticed was one made to resemble a tank.
It was very moving walking around the forest amid the bunkers and barbed wire on Armistice Day; the day WWI hostilities officially ceased. I wasn’t quite sure if it was technically fitting to wear my Royal British Legion poppy, given that we were initially on the opposing side, but I doubt anyone thinks that way these days.
We had stopped the Škoda on the roadside close to the largest of the fortifications, Bunker B-S-8. Our guide took out a hipflask and two shot glasses, and poured us a measure of tatratea (herbal liqueur). He didn’t seem too worried that the police were standing just 50m away making vehicle checks. The area was a hive of activity, with the army setting up a stage to host a veteran’s event and the occasional jogger passing through. On display were also some original signposts laden with bullet holes and military vehicles.
This border zone was not only militarily active during WWII, but also formed an edge of the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War, when further fortifications were added (1950-1989). A tribute stands in memory of one tragic story of an 18 year old (Hartmut Tautz) from East Germany who was killed while trying to cross over the border into Austria. Attempting to escape from compulsory military service, one night he cut a hole in the wire fence at Petržalka and began running for freedom across the field towards Austria. Two border guards released dogs on him and he sustained horrific injuries [WARNING: graphic images], bleeding profusely from his head. The story goes that he did not die immediately, but as a result of medical negligence during the hours that followed. No one was ever criminally charged or held accountable for the tragic incident. It is said that approximately 600 people were killed on the Czechoslovak-border between 1948 and 1989; many of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jozef Tiso – From Priest to Holocaust Collaborator
And so Czechoslovakia had dissolved and the Slovak government under President Jozef Tiso professed loyalty to Hitler. Was Jozef Tiso a national hero or a traitor? The former Catholic priest would eventually be trialled and hanged for treason in 1947.
So what was it that drove this theologian to collaborate with the Nazis and play a role in heinous crimes of the Jewish Holocaust and Romani genocide?
Circulating theories include a) He saw an opportunity to further his own political agenda/career and realise his dream of a totalitarian regime; b) Hitler’s offer of guaranteed Slovak independence as a Nazi protectorate was too good to refuse and a win-win; c) There really was no alternative to prevent the Wehrmacht landing on their doorstep along with fears that Hitler would simply carve up Slovakia and hand it over to Hungary and Poland. Many argue in his defence that despite his personal anti-Semetic views, he did try to negotiate with Berlin to halt or postpone many of the deportations. However it is said that he later backtracked and privately expressed regret at not getting rid of the Jewish problem for ‘sabotaging the economy’ and for their role in the anti-fascist Slovak Uprising in 1944 in anticipation of the arrival of Soviet troops, at which point Tiso fled into exile. His remaining apologists of today refer nostalgically to a time of affluence and prosperity under his government, and many feel that any crimes against human rights of which he had direct involvement amid the war should be judged within “a specific WWII context”.
Slovak Uprising and the Birth of a New Communist Era (1944-1945)
By 1944, Germany was on the losing side of the war and the Red Army, having covered substantial ground, approached Slovakia. Slovaks saw an opportunity to revolt and rise up against the Nazi regime, now that help was close by. Getting into bed with the Axis Powers had not delivered on the promise of independence in true essence, except in name only.
The first attempt at uprising in Banska Bystrica was quashed. But later, Slovak military and partisans were aided by dozens of other nations aid from the Soviet Union, to the US and the UK. The common goal of the uprising was to oust Tiso and his government as an expression of anti-Nazi sentiment. However, the democratic resistance and communist partisans would have different ideas about long-term ambitions. Slovak ultrationalists, however, did not support the uprising, arguing that it was a pro-Stalinist move to once again reinstate Czechoslovakia and cede Slovakia’s independent powers.
The Battle of Budapest in late 1944 saw Romanian and Soviet forces oust the Germans from south. The Red Army gradually swept across the largely devastated Slovakia in the name of liberation after all was said and done, as WWII drew to a close. The Slavín Monument and cemetery in Bratislava was unveiled in 1960 in tribute to the Soviet troops who perished in the events of 1945 whilst liberating Slovakia from Nazi occupation. It was designed in the bold and prominent Stalinist architectural style, with the statues personified in typical socialist realism.
Whichever mixed feelings the Soviet memorial may evoke, the Russian names embossed on the tombstones serve as a stark reminder of young conscripted soldiers so far from home, dying in a battle that was not for their own homeland.
No doubt they would have wanted nothing more than to turn around and run home to their families but feared the consequences. Just like the German soldiers, they can hardly all be held to account for the conduct of their nations and countrymen, can they?
Life under Communism (1945-1993)
From a Slovak perspective, the events which unfolded post-WWII were as follows. Czechoslovakia was reinstated which diluted the influence of the prevailing Slovak Democratic Party and led to the establishment of a communist government and Soviet satellite state in 1946; complete with Stalinist style ruling, party purges and other usual symptoms.
Skip forward forty years which can be loosely summarised as an initially typical strict communist regime (becoming the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1960), interrupted by attempted liberalisation (the Prague Spring of 1968) that was crushed by invading Warsaw Pact forces upon the invitation of labelled-traitor Vasil Biľak, followed by an era of normalisation and acceptance. Slovakia had come to embrace communism and some would speak of that era with nostalgia, and of prosperity.
The Czechs did not share that same warm, fuzzy feeling about socialism to the same extent and began to raise serious questions around their human rights. All in the garden was not rosy; trigger – the Velvet Revolution (1988).
It took two more years of protests and negotiations for the Soviets to withdraw and a further two years for the Czech Republic and Slovakia to finally go their separate ways in 1993. Whilst the Velvet Divorce went ahead peacefully, ordinary people on both sides of the division were not unanimously in favour of it, and many felt that the real dispute was purely between politicians (especially Prime Ministers Mečiar and Klaus), but there you have it. The period which followed under leadership of the autocratic Vladimír Mečiar was a controversial one, with shady privatisation, the use of the state secret service to keep political competition at bay and the seeking of closer ties to Russia – despite a charismatic disposition.
Remnants of the Glory Years
Many remnants of Slovakia’s glorious years throughout the 70s and 80s are evident today in and around Bratislava. From architectural masterpieces such as the Slovak Radio Building or UFO Bridge & Tower, to cultivated farmlands and once-thriving industrial areas.
We visited one former tyre factory near Kopčianska Street (of the company Matador) that isn’t entirely abandoned but is being partially utilised for the plastics recycling business. A serious fire broke out at the factory in 2013 when a nearby transformer station caught fire and exploded. Beside the factory stands a looming industrial chimney, that most likely has not been functioning for some time. Such derelict industrial areas in Bratislava are slowly disappearing to make way for futuristic developments. For example, Sky Park is under construction now in 2019, and fortunately aims to preserve a decommissioned heating plant as a national cultural site. Ambitious plans for the Eurovea project included a 168m skyscraper; still under dispute at the time of writing as it allegedly exceeds the permissible height aligned with the city’s masterplan.
Slovakia can still very much be described as having an industrial economy (exporting automobiles, heavy machinery, nuclear equipment and metals/minerals/refined oils/fuel), yet it is declining proportionately to pave the way for an expanding services industry.
Anyone who knows me at all will be aware of my love for ugly buildings. The Slovak Radio Building 100% classifies as “ugly” and discordant, with a face only a Slovak architect could love.
The Slovak Radio Building is the only one of its kind and was constructed between the 1960s and the 1980s (18 years is an exceedingly long time, but not atypical). Of course, it is not the only inverted pyramid building in the world (the Hanoi Museum is one other example of a plethora of them). Yet there are two distinct characteristics that set this one apart: acoustics and it’s base-to-ceiling area ratio that gives the illusion that it balancing practically on its apex. In an interview, one employee joked that her tall colleague felt that if he stood in the corner, the building would surely topple! It is as interesting inside as out, and showcases an original-style broadcasting room as it was decades ago in the lobby/reception area, where the public can enter for a mosey around. It also hosts a concert hall, frequented by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
When I think of Slovakia, I instantly picture the Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) and the silhouette of its iconic UFO Tower. The bridge itself is somewhat of a record-breaker, entitled the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. After ascending in an extraordinary elevator that travels up and down at an angle, visitors are rewarded with spectacular views over the Danube. High on the hill is the grand castle, and below is the Old City and botels lined up along the river’s edge.
The district of Petržalka is the most interesting one for socialist architecture, characterised by vast residential estates of multi-coloured prefabricated concrete buildings from the 1970s; said to be the biggest of its kind in Eastern Europe. These buildings are known locally as paneláky and many are still in good nick today and are home to over 100,000 residents (nearly a quarter of the city’s population). Despite being coined “the Bronx of Bratislava” and a notorious crime hotspot, locals now consider it much more civil. Residents enjoy a good standard of life in the borough, whilst many comparable housing estates throughout Eastern Europe have become ghettos, in contrast.
Cats Among the Pigeons (Corruption & Mafia Connections)
The good news for Slovakia is that it can no longer be cited as “the second most corrupt country in Europe”. According to Transparency International.
In fact, it is not even close compared with the Balkans and much of Eastern Europe. Official corruption index rankings from 2017 for EU countries only see Slovakia placed in a not-entirely-dishonourable sixth place, in line with Italy.
Yet, there is seldom ever smoke without fire. Despite having come a long way both prior to and since joining the EU in 2004, the EU has been accused of looking the other way once-too-often when it comes to Slovakia’s human rights actions, flagrant lobbying practices, misuse of EU subsidies, corruption, fraud and organised crime levels, which have failed to be rooted-out.
I am not a fan of making sweeping generalisations and throwing accusations around willy-nilly, so let’s get specific and look at a shocking and game-changing event that shook the nation in 2018, that somehow featured only as a minor news story in international media channels.
The Slovak people took to the streets in February 2018 in unprecedented numbers (unseen since the anti-Communist rallies in 1989) following the shooting of a young journalist, Jan Kuciak and his partner. Why was this young man murdered? He was investigating links between tax fraud, the Italian mafia faction Ndrangheta, and high profile businessmen and politicians. It remains unclear exactly who had ordered his murder, although a number or arrests have been made. What was the outcome? Under the spotlight of public pressure and scrutiny at alleged involvement and mafia-ties, Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned along with his cabinet. The people were fed-up of shady leadership, and doubted that any form of independent investigation would ensue. In fact, if you believe in uncanny coincidences, here’s a corker; around the same time that news of Jan’s death was emerging, a serious fire simultaneously broke out in the tax authority offices of Kosice. As to whether or not this tragedy and major shake-up has really changed things at all, it’s still too early to conclude.
To Russia With Love – A Pro-Russian Sentiment?
While ostensibly it is true that many Slovaks are not aware of any perceived gravity towards Russia at a state level, others have admitted that their people and government do not subscribe to the same levels of intolerance towards Russia as their other EU counterparts (including Czechia). Officially, they are grouped among Europe’s “friendly pragmatists” with respect to Russia, as opposed to staunch supporters. We aren’t merely referring to a few pensioners of the former communist era bellowing at their televisions in unison with Russia Today broadcasts. No, the relationship is more of an economic one. However, for every recent article I have come across that suggests warming relations between Slovakia and Russia, I have also found a counter-claiming article that states reasons why Slovakia is distancing itself from Moscow. How so?
- Trade ties: Although Russia is a minor buyer of Slovak exports, they do purchase large quantities of automobiles and machinery, whilst the major imports from Russia are fuel and energy. The Slovak refinery company Slovnaft refines six million tonnes of crude oil annually and turns it into various fuels and petrochemical products.
- Energy sources: In 2017, 98% of Slovakia’s crude oil and 87% of its natural gas imports were coming from Russia. Moreover, Slovakia’s four nuclear reactors depend on Russian-sourced uranium supplies. Interestingly, the pipeline which stretches from Eastern Russia to Slovakia (before branching-off into Czechia and Hungary) is named the Druzhba Pipeline (or Friendship Pipeline…aww).
- Politics: Slovakia’s current coalition government is not devoid of communists, nor is it uncommon for prominent politicians to appeal for a softer stance towards Russia or remain neutral in certain contentious political matters. For example, Slovakia chose not to show solidarity with the UK by expelling any Russian diplomats after the Salisbury attack of 2018; as 25 other European states did. However, they did expel a Russian diplomat for espionage later in the year.
- Defence matters: Slovakia still operate Russian-built MiG 29 fighter jets which were upgraded in 2008. However, they have decided to sever their ties and to replace them with F-16s from the US (to be delivered in 2022). Having recently boosted their defence expenditure and agreed to collaborate with Czechia to pool resources, it is believed that this move was a cautionary one in response to Russia’s recent activity in Ukraine.
- Tourism: Whilst Russian tourists are important for Slovakia’s tourism industry; the tourist industry as a whole is not so important, accounting for less than 3% of its GDP.
Evidently, Slovakia is first and foremost an EU member. And although they may argue for certain concessions when it comes to penalising Russia, for example in reducing the extent of sanctions, it is likely only done in a move to protect themselves.
Oh, and don’t forget to pop into the KGB Bar in Bratislava; full of Soviet kitsch. I was slightly devastated it was closed on the last day when I attempted to visit.
Our communist-tour guide (not a “communist” tour guide; at least I don’t suppose he was…) collected us from our hotel in a magnificent teal-green chariot; a rear-engined 1979 Škoda 105L. I’m really not sure how these cars are legitimately passing annual vehicle inspections tests in any EU country; where they fail every engine that whistles even a semitone out of tune. I would love nothing more than to drive a vintage Lada around the streets of Belfast, but sadly I don’t think the MOT tester would be susceptible to my charms/bribes.
Today, Slovakia produces more than a million cars annually and the automotive industry is the largest contributor to the country’s GDP of all industries. Yet, Škoda, Tatra, Avia, Karosa, Jawa and ČZ all produced Czechoslovak vehicles in what is now Czechia; not Slovakia. Although Slovakia did produce some of the later Škoda models in their Bratislava Automotive Works (BAZ) and Trnava Automotive Works (TAZ) plants. Today, Slovakia is producing cars for the Volkswagen Group, Peugeot/Citroen and Kia, with Jaguar Land Rover soon to be added to the list.
Food of Slovakia
As it was November, there was a quaint little festive market in the Old City next to St. Martin’s Cathedral offering cups of mulled wine to warm cold hands, not to mention miscellaneous greasy, fried patties. I recall my own amazement upon first visiting the capital, at how this population maintained such slender physiques when all that seemed to be on the menu was fatty meat, cheese and starch. Definitely not a diet for health-conscious tourists, but luckily I am never on a diet when on a mission. That would be foolish.
Bryndzove halusky (or dumplings with special sheep cheese and fried bacon) is possibly my very favourite decadent local dish. On this occasion I was disappointed, as the entire dish was swimming in bacon drippings. I most certainly did not enjoy the greasy residue on my lips for the rest of the evening like some sort of carnivore’s Vaseline. As far as I am aware, this is a dish particular to Slovakia, whereas schnitzels, goulash, duck and potato pancakes, bean/cabbage soup, and bread dumplings are common to several countries in Eastern Europe. So too, is the string-cheese I was greatly anticipating (korbáčik). I think I just like the novelty of it being plaited more than anything else.
Many snacks and beverages found in Czech Republic and Slovakia today are people’s old favourites from communist times that are still in demand, and hence, still in production. Eastern and Central Europeans love their wafers, and I doubt even the modern recipes have changed much since communism. Controversial opinion; but I prefer eastern style hotdogs to western ones because they are closed at one end and form a little ketchup sump to avoid the mess. Thus, they are eaten vertically instead of horizontally and this makes a lot of sense. When it comes to drinks, Kofola is very much still the rival of Coca-Cola (originally sold in 1960s Czechoslovakia’s). I was amazed to find more variations than ever; and now fortunately a diet version too. To me it is not so cola-like but more fruity. Vinea is another (grape) drink from the 1970s that is still widely available. Speaking of grape drinks; although one may tend to associate Slovakia with beer (Czechia still dominates that market, besides Zlaty Bazant) and spirits that could strip paint (pálenka), it is actually a lesser known producer of very pleasant wines (e.g. from the Tokaj region). And good gracious, the wines are as cheap-as-chips. In fact, I think I may have found a suitable future retirement hobby…
Tržnica is an old indoor farmer’s market in Bratislava, where locals queue-up to purchase fresh pastries, cheese, cold meats and fruit & veg. But the best feature were the small units selling local wine for as little as €0.35.
By midday, pensioners had congregated to this popular hangout to enjoy a cheap and cheerful afternoon of inebriation, and no doubt pick up a cabbage on their way out the door. Capital idea.
Sounds of Slovakia
As with much of the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, pop music emerged somewhat later than in the West. One Slovak pop band that I have a penchant for is Desmod, who have been going since 1996. “Zhorí všetko čo mám” is quite a dark-themed love song, but features heavily on my personal playlist.
And now for a much lighter-hearted song (and video); Richard Müller‘s hit, “Po schodoch (Up the stairs)“ is a comical account of typical life inside one of Slovakia’s paneláky and stories about the people who live there. The song begins, “The elevator is out of order again, so to conquer 13 floors the only option left is to go by foot. There is something rattling on the staircase and the neon lights are not working everywhere. Good that I am not afraid of the dark..!“. A bit like a socialist version of Madness’ “Our House“, perhaps?
Mission Slovakia Summary
Mission Slovakia was drawing to a close, but not before a spot of long arms shooting down at the Hunter Club.
One of the things that I love the most about Eastern Europe is its more laid-back approach in many respects, i.e. trusting ordinary enough folk enough to let them loose with loaded weapons in dedicated facilities and not wrapping their nation in cotton-wool.
As is so often the case, it is professed that Slovaks from other regions of the country are not fond of the capital. But I like it very much; I suspect even more than I will like Prague (as all I can picture in my mind is a city overcome with tourists and stag parties, all for the draw of cheap beer and fair maidens); but that has yet to be determined. I do love it when I can prove myself wrong in a positive sense. Satisfied that I have now been further enlightened as to the key differences between the two states born out of former Czechoslovakia, I suspect that I personally would feel rather more at home in the less touristic, more religious, socially conservative Slovakia with its communist architecture and salty string-cheese, but bring on Mission Czechia…