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).

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