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

Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
Review: Wembley Stadium ***
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
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
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

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

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice