Mountains, castles, clean air and long views.
Should you go? Definitely.
When we set out on our adventure last year we didn’t expect to spend two months in this little country, but despite the unfortunate circumstances that kept us here it has been marvellous and I reckon we’ll be back for more.
Slovakia is clean, affordable and camper friendly.
It’s a gentle introduction to the former Eastern Bloc countries that shouldn’t scare anyone with an open mind and an excitement for new cultures.
There’s almost always a mountain in view. The High Tatras have many peaks above 2500m but that’s not where it ends. Near the Tatras is Slovak Raj with some challenging via ferrata, in the east are the Carpathians, there are the Stazovske mountains, the Vihorlat and plenty more.
Hiking is a national sport and trails are well marked. Distances are measured in expected time rather than kms. There’s a good outdoor shop or twenty in every decent town where the prices are similar to the UK.
The practical bits.
We have crossed into Slovakia from Poland, Austria and Hungary. Each offers a different experience and each time the excitement of crossing a border isn’t diminished by the ease of Schengen.
From Poland the Tatra Mountain border is a beautiful thing, just the little square Slovakia sign on the side of a mountain road and a little hut where guards once sheltered. The relief is instant. People drive with a degree of respect for each other here, and the roads are much better. We came back to the first town of Tatranska Lomnica time after time.
Likewise from Hungary you immediately feel that you’re in a better off, more sophisticated country with dramatically improved road surfaces.
From Austria it’s akin to a relaxing of the rules. Austria is beautiful, immaculate, and possibly even more ordered than Germany. Slovakia won’t come as a shock after Austria, it’s similar, but less so on most scales, less steep, less high, less ordered and a whole lot less expensive.
Camper stops are plentiful. We mainly used the Park4Night app to find places, then came upon a few others on our way.
Wild camping is apparently allowed outside of the national parks.
That said, the national park car parks usually have a few vans in them.
Treat places with respect and you should be OK. Locals are very respectful of their environment and there is less rubbish here than any other eastern European country we’ve been to.
We’ve stopped in towns, ski resorts, national parks and a couple of campsites.
We’ve had the police drive by and check us out, but they haven’t asked us to move.
Getting water and emptying the loo isn’t easy here. There is a fair smattering of portaloos (Dixie loos) and these can solve the emptying question.
Occasionally you’ll see a roadside water pump – they’re always painted blue. Fuel stations are the other option for topping up the water tank.
The campsites we used were been basic, but happy places, and always under 20 euros a night.
Roads and driving.
If you come to Slovakia from Poland, Hungary or Ukraine the roads will seem like the best you have ever driven on. They’re usually well surfaced, and pretty straight (as if made by a neighbour’s tanks in the not too distant past).
Like a lot of countries the 50kph limit in towns is not signposted, but is enforced by regular speed checks. You’d best remember to slow down.
It’s easier to abide by the limit here as most people do take it easy through towns, rather than hassling the good driver who does.
Driving is rarely scary, even in the cities, but when you get close to the borders things change noticeably, especially near Poland.
Indicator bulbs must be really expensive as people rarely use them, that makes roundabouts a bit more of a gamble.
The vignette for using the motorways is 15 euros for a month – you don’t get a sticker, it’s fully electronic. Buy yours at the border, or a fuel station.
We have been stopped more times here than in any other country, but then we’ve spent more time here too.
The police stop van conversions to ensure you’re in the correct van category on your V5. Your registration documents should refer to you as N1. Without that you need a road toll electronic tracker.
Although the police are a bit gruff they have always been straight and not tried to extract a fine for dubious reasons.
Fuel (including lpg) is as available as it is in England, and a lot cheaper. At the time of writing a litre of diesel in the UK is around £1.30 and here it’s about £1.10. The great thing is that motorway fuel is a similar price to anywhere else, no 20% loading like at home.
Cost of living.
For a country with the highest OECD growth in recent years the cost of living is still good. Fuel, groceries, food and drink out are all cheap for us, and housing is very cheap. It shows that accommodation providers (it’s generally only a bit cheaper than the UK) are doing very well indeed.
VanLife is easy here, there are Lidl’s everywhere, and a good few large Tesco stores for a different shop with some familiar Tesco branded products. Shopping local isn’t as easy – there are Potravinys everywhere (convenience stores) but they don’t tend to be as well stocked as a Coop in the UK. Roadside stalls are rare. The veg man comes to the villages, but you have to know when.
What should you see?
We missed the capital this time, but years ago when we went to Bratislava it felt young, exciting and it the midst of rapid change. I’d like to go again when we don’t have Polly or the van with us.
I’ve already mentioned several. The Carpathians are the furthest away and the most empty, much of it covered in ancient beech forest.
We went to Cicmany and Vlkolnick. Both are quaint and both still real villages rather than theme parks.
There are loads of them in various states of dilapidation, or undergoing recent repair. Spis is the best known and deserves a visit. The tower is a difficult climb but worth the effort.
These are in the east. Not worth the drive just to see them, but good to combine with the Carpathians and the Soviet border memorials.
There must have been a grant to fund UNESCO listing bids as there are loads of sites. The tourist office will have a simple map of the collection.
This is an outdoor lover’s dream. Its biggest attraction is its countryside. Expect views that stretch for miles, challenging hikes, and climbing too if that’s your bag.
This is a country with low population density (a quarter of the UK’s), and plentiful forests. There’s so much space for creatures and they thrive. There are big mammals including bears, lynx and wolves but we haven’t seen any yet (although I’ve heard wolves). We’ve seen many deer, birds of prey, a couple of beaver and lots of snakes, lizards and other creepy crawlies.
Despite all that, we have seen very few mosquitos in Slovakia. Can it be that they respect international borders? There are thousands in Hungary where I’m writing now.
Walking through towns in some countries can be spoilt by the number of big scary dogs shouting about how hard they are. In Slovakia folk seem to take tiny little scraps of dog fur into town, and have an Alsatian chained up at home. They’re not too annoying and there are very few roaming free.
Taking your own dog is easy, and our Polly had excellent vet care when she needed it.
It was only when I saw some lads skinning up in Hungary that I realised that we didn’t see any evidence of drug use, not even a whiff of weed. Other than my mates from the ZZTop story we hardly saw anyone drunk either, and that’s despite the very cheap alcohol.
What’s not to love?
Hey. It can’t all be brilliant. Is it?
Well, it’s pretty damn good. Searching for downsides feels a bit pedantic, but here’s what I could drag up.
People are generally great wherever we go.
Here it feels safe pretty much everywhere.
But blimey, a lot of folk are so grumpy, or at least outwardly show no happiness.
There have been restaurants where Minty has come back to me to say “You’ll have to talk to her” after Minty’s best charm offensive has failed to even pucker a lip, or get the waitress off the phone. There have been places where people have brought me exactly what I asked for, but with such sangfroid that has left me wondering how I caused offense.
Out on the trails and paths people are generally friendly.
But in a serving situation they’re often pretty awful. It’s not you. It’s usual.
If it’s grilled meat and pig fat that you love then you’ll be fine.
Other than meat, lots of meat, the national dishes seem to be halusky (a small gnocchi with a sheep cheese sauce) and lots and lots of ice cream.
The counterpoint to this is that drink is available anywhere (even in a sweet shop), it’s good, and it’s ridiculously cheap. Last night our beers were 1 euro each, and large shots of lethal spirits (we abstained) just half that price.
There are also very good alcohol free beers. The youth have taken to them big time, much in the way that young drink so called energy drinks at home.
Thankfully our first Roma experience was unexpected, exciting, and good. We stumbled upon a village and were beset by happy (if barely clothed) kids.
Their villages are scruffy, unfinished, always have street fires burning, and are malodourous. Their children are barely clothed, and generally barefooted, good looking and fearless.
If we’d first seen them working the streets in the second city of Kosice (as we did yesterday) then we’d probably have been far more wary, but as it was, the village we walked through above Dol’any was a happy place.
They’re certainly a friendly bunch. Be on your guard and you should be OK.
Would I live here?
We stop at many places that have me looking longingly into the estate agents’ windows. This isn’t one of them. I think that’s just because the culture divide and difficult language could take more effort than I’d want to offer.
That said I’d take an assignment here at the drop of a hat.
A couple of treat nights at The Grand Hotel Praha.
The Slovenski Raj national park.
The High Tatras.
Communal hot spring bathing in a pond.
The intensity of the stares in places where few tourists have passed before. Don’t be out in the countryside after dark – the need to defend their patch still runs deep and you’ll immediately arise suspicion.
Slovakia – the vital statistics.
Area: 48,088km2 (England 130,395 km2)
Population: 5,451,025 (England 56,670)
Population density: 113 per km2 (England 407 per km2)
Kms of motorway: around 600kms (England 3,497kms)
Capital: Bratislava, pop 424,428.
All stops are written up on the map in the Our Travels section.