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Travel Guide: The real Slovakia

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Forget Hostel - there's nothing to fear in spectacular Slovakia WORDS Steve Mckenna

City slicker
Bratislava is, unsurprisingly, the starting point for most trips to Slovakia. Sure, there are a couple of parts of the capital that can be described as tatty no-go zones, but the same can be said for every city. Bratislava's centre, however, is a beguiling mix of cobblestone alleys and squares, bustling with cafés, cocktail bars and random buildings that have a knack of capturing your attention.

The image of the city is also helped by its setting: Bratislava sits beside the yawning Danube River below a panoramic castle that lords it over the west side of town with its winding ramparts. There are a handful of cultural sights that will help you while away an afternoon or two, not least the Slovak National Museum and National Gallery, which gives you an insight into the history of this proud country (formerly Communist - and part of the old Czechoslovakia until 1993).

When you've seen enough, it's time to hit the bars. If you fancy mingling with the locals, head somewhere like the Slang Bar on the Hviezdoslavovo Námestie stretch, neck a few pilsners, then skol a shot of Boroviˇcka, Slovakia's favourite brandy-like tipple that tastes like gin. Just be careful where you end up ... There are a few decent hostels to stay in. None really have the gleaming nude-women-filled spas that feature in Hostel, but then they're not death traps either.

Into the wild
A four-hour drive (or train ride) north of Bratislava is one of the most naturally beautiful spots in this chunk of Europe: the High Tatras. Part of the Carpathian mountain range, the Tatras offer some incredible scenery, with pine forests, jagged outcrops, plunging valleys, pretty lakes and waterfalls - all combining to dispel any myths that Slovakia is an ugly country.

There are more than 400 miles of hiking trails across the Tatras, and a feast of adventure activities will also keep you buzzing. Rock climbing and mountain biking are very popular during summer while snowboarding and skiing light up the months when snow falls (usually between December and March). One idea is to pitch up in Star_ Smokovec, a modern resort town, and take advantage of its comprehensive network of tourist trails, funiculars and ski lifts. Or you could even stay in a chata (mountain hut) higher up in the Tatras.

Gothic rocks
It may be overshadowed by Bratislava, but Ko_ice is worth popping into if you're over the eastern side of Slovakia. It's the country's second city and is often said to have more character and sense of community spirit than the capital - possibly because of its relatively small population of around 240,000.

While more tourists are starting to look upon Bratislava as a long-weekend destination, Ko_ice is still considered off-the-beaten-track. This means you're likely to have its sites to yourself. Not only does it have a fine 14th-century Gothic cathedral and a maze of absorbing underground defence chambers to see, Ko_ice is also just 40 miles way from the Ukrainian border - and Eastern European gems Lviv and Kiev.

Slovakia is a country blessed with more than 100 old castles, with one or two especially worth a look; Trenˇcin, with its daunting 15th-century clifftop offering, and particularly Spi_ské Podhradie, which contains the ruins of Spi_ Castle - a treasure that dates back to 1113 and is now a World Heritage-listed zone. Nearby is the ancient town of Levoˇca, which boasts the tallest altar in the world (18.6m) in the Gothic church of St Jacob. If you're a Hostel fan and want to see where the movie was based, tough luck. Most of it was shot across the Czech Republic border in ˇCesk_ Krumlov. Go figure.