Make merry with the gypsies

Slovakia's image as the Czechs' poor neighbour is unjust, says Sonia Purnell. It's rich in many ways

When the Czech and Slovak republics split almost a decade ago, most people – including the Czechs and Slovaks – thought the eastern end got the raw deal. After all, the Czech Republic got Prague, that world-class Bohemian jewel of a city, as well as the money-spinning Skoda car factories and the glass industry. But Slovakia's slow progress out of the Communist years and the remarkably low profile of its tourist possibilities has an upside. It has retained an innocence which the Czechs, with their aspirations to join the west European rich club, are rapidly losing.

When the Czech and Slovak republics split almost a decade ago, most people – including the Czechs and Slovaks – thought the eastern end got the raw deal. After all, the Czech Republic got Prague, that world-class Bohemian jewel of a city, as well as the money-spinning Skoda car factories and the glass industry. But Slovakia's slow progress out of the Communist years and the remarkably low profile of its tourist possibilities has an upside. It has retained an innocence which the Czechs, with their aspirations to join the west European rich club, are rapidly losing.

Slovakia is a picturesque country of unspoilt countryside and is at least a decade behind its former partner in developing tourism. It is very, very cheap to visit. Dinner for four, including drinks, can cost as little as £4. A round in a bar will rarely come to more than £1. And a two-hour taxi journey to the airport will set you back less than a tenner. In summer, Slovakia enjoys a climate benign enough for peppers, grapes and aubergines to thrive and it has dozens of unexplored, well-preserved historic towns and villages that would be seized on by tourist agencies almost anywhere else in Europe.

It is true that most towns, such as exquisite medieval Bardejov, close to the Polish border, are marred by outer rings of joyless Stalinist apartment blocks that most urban Slovaks still call home. But in the centre of Bardejov is a large, handsomely restored, cobbled square with 15th-century merchant houses decorated with hand-painted frescoes and scrolls. Towering over them is the renowned Gothic church of St Aegidius, restored with money from the United Nations because of its historically unique collection of 11 highly elaborate altars.

A ban on cars entering the centre – almost universal in old Slovakian towns – gives the square, Namestie Radnice, a peaceful air during the heat of the day. Even on hot summer evenings when bars spill on to the street, the noise of Slovaks drinking – at 25p a glass – is muted. Only in the drinking cellars hidden from the untutored eye (shop and bar signs are so subtle as to be largely invisible – no plastic fascia boards here) does the merry-making get a little more raucous.

But every summer Bardejov's square comes into its own as a dramatic backdrop to the annual gypsy fair, or jarmok. Over three days, thousands flock to the town to ride on the big-wheels, roller coasters and carousels at the fun-fair. They also drink, dance at the rock concerts and eat industrial quantities of Slovak smoked sausage called klobasa, a huge, tasty and fatty affair, the prospect of which would give any cardiologist a heart attack. Hundreds of brightly coloured stalls set up impromptu barbecues and serve the sausages by the score on gingham-covered tables. Slovaks, who seemingly never tire of these cholesterol tubes, sate their thirst with huge quantities of beer, entertained by the gypsy musicians who wander through the crowds exchanging friendly insults with the locals. While Slovaks are unremittingly hostile to gypsies the rest of the year, the sound of the gypsy violin heralds a temporary truce. If you want the true Mittel Europa experience, this is it.

During the day, the crowds comb the bric-a-brac stalls, which sell anything from counterfeit Nike sports clothes to honey cakes shaped into hearts, pierced and threaded with ribbons. A particular bargain are the gypsy straw or wooden toys, beautifully and imaginatively crafted yet costing a couple of pounds each. A wooden snail and crocodile, both with moving parts, have been given the ultimate road-test by my two boys, aged one and four, yet both toys have stayed in one piece and retained the affections of their owners. Only lack of space in my luggage prevented me from buying up the enticing, soft, white woollen rugs hand-made and sold by old women from the villages for a few pounds. But a friend bought a beautiful wooden bracelet for just £2, identical to one she had seen in a London market the week before at five times the price.

Many local people left with bags stuffed with booty that was cheap even by their standards. The visiting Poles, who cross the border in droves for the fair, were apparently most interested in the beer. Even for them, the stuff is dirt cheap and a weekend in Slovakia spent in an agreeable stupor is a regular jaunt. Otherwise, foreigners are still so rare that my two blond sons, my husband and I drew stares wherever we went. Until I visited Slovakia, only two and a half hours from London, I had no idea how strikingly English my appearance must be. Few Slovaks speak English, but after their initial shock most were only too eager to communicate, however possible.

With tourism at its embryonic stage, foreigners are still rare and the welcome is warm. But if you don't like sausage or beer prepare for a limited diet – fruit and vegetables are rarely on offer despite growing in abundance – and the rough wine only gets drinkable after about the third glass. For a week, it's survivable. Any longer and scurvy beckons.

Getting there

Flights to Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, tend to be expensive. It is better to fly to Vienna and cross the border by car or bus if visiting western Slovakia. Austrian Airlines (0845 601 0948; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) is offering return fares for £130 from Heathrow and £184 return from Manchester. Bus travel and petrol are very cheap within Slovakia.

There are few holiday companies specialising in Slovakia, try Tatratour (00 421 2 5292 7965) in Bratislava or visit www.exploringslovakia.co.uk for tips.

Further information

For more information about Slovakia contact the Czech and Slovak Tourist Centre (020-7794 3263; www.czechtravel.co.uk).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform