Prior to 1993, Slovakia, along with the Czech Republic, formed Czechoslovakia. Slovakia's tourism industry is nowhere near as developed as the Czech's and indeed it is regarded as the poor cousin in the relationship.
A lot of people will probably have the impression of Slovakia being a dirty industrial country, and to a certain extent that can be true, with some industries spewing out noxious fumes relentlessly. But times are changing in Slovakia. With their efforts to enter the EU, a lot of the industries have modernised, and are receiving a lot of international help to do so.
Communications can be a bit of a problem, as English is not widely spoken and hands up how many readers are conversant in Slovak? Thought so. A basic knowledge of German should be enough to get by.
Most people visiting Slovakia would be going to Bratislava, but of course there is a lot more to the country than just its capital. In the north and East near the Polish border there is a great deal of rugged beauty, with the Tatra mountains, also called the Vysoké Tatry or High Tatras. In an very small area (100sq miles or so) there are over 100 glacial lakes, 30 valleys and over 370 miles of hiking trails which take you through a lot of the valleys and over many peaks.
** One thing you need to watch out for is the risk of Tick-borne Encephalitis, especially in the wooded parts of the valleys. Also, due to their altitude, snow often falls as early as September and as late as May. Therefore the best months for hiking are June through August. In winter the Tatras become ski resorts, with Stary Smokovec, being the most popular destination.
After our visit to Auschwitz we crossed the border from Poland on small country road and our first experience of Slovakia was driving through a small, rural village. It was time for the dairy cows to return from the pastures, so it took a little time to pass through. Every so often the herder would stop, open a garden gate, and deposit 1 or 2 cows to their respective homes. It was like the bovine version of a school bus.
After a while driving on rural roads we made it onto an excellent motorway and were soon in our destination, the town of Strbske Pleso in the Tatra Mountains.
STREBSKE PLESOS was founded as a hiking centre in 1872 and at 1335m above sea level, is the highest settlement in the High Tatras. It sits around the second largest lake on the Slovak side of the High Tatras.
It is well connected to transport links, and is a good starting point for excursions and day-trips in the mountains and is also a well-known skiing centre.
There isn't an awful lot to do here in the way of shopping and entertainment, but all the towns and villages in the area are linked with an electric tramway/railway and most tourist facilities are concentrated in the largest town, Stary Smokovec. Our hotel was about 10 miles from here.
Having said that, don't think for a minute that Stary Smokvec is some sort of 5th Avenue. After all, this used to be behind the 'iron curtain', and it shows. Not that it isn't very pretty, it's more in the prices. There is not all that much to buy, which is a shame, because it is SO cheap. I mean REALLY cheap. We had to constantly check if we were working out the exchange rate correctly and not missing a decimal point somewhere.
Our intention was to do some serious hiking, but the weather was not exactly conducive to this. A lot of the time there was torrential rain and hailstorms, and we were not equipped for that. Besides, if I want to walk around mountains and get a severe soaking, I only have to travel an hour or so from my house. We had to make do with a few strolls round the immediate area.
We did a bit of driving around and visited the regional capital, Poprad. This is the biggest city in the area but there is not a lot to do. The medieval centre was well preserved with some lovely buildings and lots of pavement cafes but the shopping left a lot to be desired. They had all the basics but not a lot in the way of luxury type items or arts & crafts etc. - everything so cheap but nothing to buy! You could sense this was not a overly wealthy country.
Most of the population lived in the vast suburbs of grey, communist-era, concrete tower blocks. Very depressing.
All in all, our visit to the Tatras was a bit of a wash out. Literally. We still enjoyed ourselves, but as the whole purpose was to 'climb every mountain', it was a little disappointing.
The rest of Slavakia was a blur - viewed as it was from the windows of our car as we sped along the motorway towards Hungary. But that's another story....