Folk Arts & Architecture
Traditional folk arts – from music to architecture – are widely celebrated across the country, and they're easy to access at concerts, fairs and a growing spread of arts and crafts sellers.
Attending a summer folk festival immerses you in the sights, sounds and tastes that have characterised Slovak villages over the past centuries: colourful embroidered dress, upbeat music played on traditional instruments, smoky klobasa (sausage) and beer. One of the biggest is Východná Folk Festival in the small namesake village 30km west of Poprad.
The most typical traditional Slovak folk instrument is the fujara (a 2m-long flute); there's a sizeable collection of them in Banská Bystrica's Folk Music Museum. Today you're likely to see a folk troupe accompanied by fiddle, bass, clarinet and sometimes trumpet or accordion. National folk companies like Lúčnica (www.lucnica.sk) and SĽUK (Slovak People's Artistic Collective; www.sluk.sk) perform countrywide (and beyond). Each region has its own melodies and costumes. There's variety even between neighbouring villages, though isolated spots such as Ždiar have been able to develop especially distinctive styles.
Folk architecture and art can be admired year-round at a skanzen – an open-air museum filled with wooden cottages and churches, many of them dissembled in their original locations and painstakingly rebuilt. The houses are fully furnished in traditional style and frequent activities, especially around holidays, focus on folk music and handicrafts like weaving, wood-carving and cheese-making. The largest is the Museum of the Slovak Village near Martin, representing several regions. Bardejovské Kúpele's Museum of Folk Architecture has good examples of the nailless wooden churches for which the area is known, though it's no substitute for a road trip to visit such churches, many of which are still scattered across the peaceful eastern Slovak countryside. Religious art is a long tradition; see traditional carved icons at Bardejov's Šariš Museum and the East Slovak Museum in Košice.
Classical Music Composers
Slovakia is proud of its classical-music pedigree, having played host to numerous world-renowned composers. A young Franz Liszt performed in the De Pauli Palace in old-town Bratislava (now the university library) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then a child prodigy, also wowed the city with a performance at Pálffy Palace. Ludwig van Beethoven played in Hlohovec, northeast of Bratislava, and even dedicated a sonata (Piano Sonata 24, Opus 78) to Thérèse von Brunswick, member of one of the most influential city families at that time. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók also lived for a time in Bratislava.
A largely hilly, forested country, landlocked Slovakia sits at the heart of Europe (indeed Krahule, west of Banska Bystricá, is one of several claimants to the title of 'geographical centre of Europe'). It straddles the northwestern end of the Carpathian Mountains, and has stupendous scenery, so it's not surprising most Slovaks spend their weekends outdoors. There are nine national parks, more than a dozen other protected landscape areas, and the country is laced with hiking trails. Roughly 40% of the land is forest, with a similar proportion given over to agricultural use.
Not to be missed is High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) National Park, protecting a mountain range that rises seemingly out of nowhere. The tallest peak, Gerlachovský štít, reaches an impressive 2654m. Then there are the lesser pine-clad ridges of Malá Fatra National Park, and Slovenský Raj National Park, where ladders and chain-assists make narrow gorges accessible.
In the mountainous north, the Tatras form a natural border with Poland. By contrast southwestern Slovakia is a fertile lowland hugging the Danube River, which forms part of the border with Hungary.
The People of Slovakia
In general, Slovak culture is rooted in strong family ties and a deep sense of folk traditions. Since the country's independence in 1993, the younger generation has a spring in its step, and increasing numbers are lured by the prospect of foreign travel and working abroad. Older generations sometimes exhibit reserve, though it usually dissolves into friendliness (especially when liquor flows). Likewise, the service industry extends warmth in major cities but elsewhere it may be more functional than friendly.
Faith remains a core value: Roman Catholics form the majority (about 62%), with around 9% of the population Protestant. East Slovakia has many Greek Catholic and Orthodox believers.
The country does not have an especially broad ethnic mix: more than 80% of the population is Slovak, 9% Hungarian and 2% Roma. Some studies estimate the Roma population, most of which is based in Eastern Slovakia, to be higher.
The Roma are viewed with suspicion – at best – by many Slovaks. Roma people are more likely to be unemployed than their Slovak neighbours and are disproportionately poorer. Their comparative lack of opportunity is the result of successive pre-WWII laws restricting Roma liberties. Nazi-orchestrated persecution and genocide followed; then, under communism, a policy of assimilation attempted to quash expressions of Roma language and culture. Improving their lot remains low on the political agenda and many Roma live fairly segregated lives in overcrowded, under-maintained buildings, where opportunities for education or employment are slim. The largest such community is Luník IX in Košice. The country's only museum of Roma culture can be found in Martin's Museum of the Slovak Village; it's a worthwhile detour.
An Ice-Hockey Obsession
Slovakia's national men's ice-hockey team is usually ranked in the world's top 10 by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Not bad, considering the team was only created when Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993. Slovakia now has more than 100 ice-hockey clubs and local club rivalries are heated. The most popular teams are HC Slovan in Bratislava (playing in the Kontinental Hockey League since 2012) and HC Košice in Košice. These teams' two stadiums co-hosted the IIHF world championships in 2011. Puck-pushing season is September to May, when games seem to be on TVs everywhere. Learn more on www.hockeyslovakia.sk.