Czechoslovakia is no more. As of 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate countries, with separate languages, separate currencies and so on. Calling a Slovak a Czech is like calling a Scot an Englishman - it will win you no friends whatsoever.
While dutifully visiting Bratislava's little-known Archaeological Museum, I came across a much more interesting and startling museum which goes under the rather negative title of Mzeum Mimoeurpskych Kultr (Museum of non-European Culture). Of all the unlikely places to find a museum of African sculpture, this has got to be one of them. The range and quality is staggering, from traditional masks and fetishes from the Congo to modern Zimbabwean stone sculpture. What's more, the labelling is in English (as well as Slovak), and groovy African music plays in the background.
Slavonice, a tiny, beautifully preserved Renaissance town by the Czech/ Austrian border, used to lie within the steely embrace of the Iron Curtain which literally wrapped itself round the place. The town still receives a fraction of the visitors who pour through neighbouring Telc, yet Slavonice has perhaps the most remarkable single attraction in the entire region, a secret Lutheran prayer room, which miraculously survived the Counter Reformation intact. The friendly Italian owner will gladly show you the unique 16th-century wall paintings of the apocalypse: personal favourites include the depiction of the devil as a crocodile wearing the papal crown and the horse-riding whore of Babylon.
The town of Jihlava, where Gustav Mahler spent his childhood, has one of the largest, most beautifully preserved squares in Moravia, lined with colourful Baroque and Renaissance houses. There's just one, tiny little detail that jars slightly: the mud-brown supermarket which the Communists decided to erect in the middle of the square, in place of a cluster of medieval houses.
In the good old, bad old days of Communism, western tourists were a rare sight, and driving around in a car with British plates was like arriving in an intergalactic spaceship. Even driving a Renault 4, I had to peel the kids off my parked car every time I returned to it. So I wasn't that surprised when, driving one day in deepest Slovakia, the driver behind started flashing his lights at me. Eventually, I realised he wanted me to pull over. After the usual greetings, he asked me if I was from London, and if so, did I know a Slovak friend of his who lived there called Miroslav Hruby? I don't know if he realised quite how unlikely this was, especially as I had to admit that I did. He was the partner of my sister's best friend. Small world, eh?
It has to be said that a lot of Czech and Slovak hotels are overpriced, considering the antiquity of the amenities and the level of service. New, privately run pensions are often a much better bet, and they don't come much better than Hotel Club in the Slovak town of Kezmarok. Taste was one of the first casualties of the Communist period, but Hotel Club manages to walk the thin line between folksy furnishings and kitsch, has an excellent restaurant and does a great buffet breakfast.
Medzilaborce, a one-street town in the far north-eastern corner of Slovakia, saw very few tourists until the opening of a museum dedicated to Andy Warhol in the early 1990s. Warhol's family were Rusyns or Ruthenians who emigrated from around here after the First World War. The museum, with two giant Campbell soup cans standing guard outside, has got to be one of the most surreal sights in the whole country.
Czech Airlines, British Airways and British Midland all have daily flights from London to Prague. Discounted fares should bring the price down to around pounds 150 return or less if you're lucky. There are no direct flights from Britain to the Slovak capital, Bratislava, since most people fly to nearby Vienna instead. British Airways, Austrian Airlines and Lauda Air all have regular flights from London to Vienna, and prices are sometimes a bit cheaper than to Prague.
Where to stay
Hotel Club, ulica MUDR Alexandra, Kezmarok (00 421 9684051), costs around pounds 20 for a double room.
What to see
Mzeum Mimoeurpskych Kultr (Museum of non- European Culture), Zizkova, Bratislava, is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-5pm.
The secret Lutheran prayer room, Horn nmest 517, Slavonice is open daily, 9am-7pm or dusk.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm.Reuse content