England play host to Slovakia at Wembley tonight. So why not learn a little something about the visitors?
1. It’s the world’s (joint) eighth newest country
Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been two separate nations since January 1, 1993, after the Velvet Revolution was followed by the Velvet Divorce. The only newer countries are Eritrea, Palau, Timor-Leste, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and South Sudan.
2. Andy Warhol is celebrated
The pop art master’s parents came from Medzilaborce, an obscure Slovakian town. As a result, it is now the unlikely home of the world’s second-largest collection of his works (after Pittsburg).
Jonathan Knott visited for Telegraph Travel back in 2014. “A life-size statue of the diminutive Warhol (who dropped the ‘a’ – Warhola – from his Americanised surname) in front of the building, and a bus stop beside it styled as a Campbell’s soup can, mark this as the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art,” he wrote. “Warhol, who once stated, ‘I am from nowhere,’ never visited Slovakia. But his brother, John, who was vice president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York, lent his help to a group of local cultural figures who wanted to exhibit Warhol’s art, visiting Medzilaborce several times from the late Eighties onwards. The museum was finally opened in 1991 by the Slovak Ministry of Culture, and today displays 160 Warhol originals.”
Other notable people with Slovak heritage include Audrey Hepburn, Jon Bon Jovi and Angelina Jolie.
3. Its birth rate is one of the world’s lowest
Slovakian women have 1.3 children, on average, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest rates in the world (it’s 1.8 in the UK, while in Niger, which tops the ranking, it’s 7.6).
4. There are spectacular mountains
Around 80 per cent of Slovakia lies more than 800 metres above sea level, and its crowning glory is the Tatras. The highest range in the Carpathians, they form a natural border between Slovakia and Poland, are a designated Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and contain some 100 high-altitude lakes and a clutch of waterfalls. They can be explored via a network of hiking paths.
“There is a raw, magical quality to the Tatra Mountains: a sense of living folklore,” wrote Rosemary Griffith, a Telegraph Travel reader, after a visit in 2013. “The air is almost metallic in its purity, the pastures a brilliant shade of green. Houses nestle on the slopes, their red roofs steep and long to accommodate heavy snow. Wild boar, wolves and brown bears roam the forests.”
5. And some great budget skiing
“Slovakia is getting more attention as a ski destination, thanks to low prices, recent investment in resorts – and big mountains,” says Cat Weakley. “There are several small resorts, but it’s Jasná and its 49km of mostly intermediate pistes that’s the most attractive destination for international visitors.”
6. It’s home to one of Europe’s most beautiful towns
According to the fine people at the Japanese Association of Travel Agents (JATA), Vlkolinec is one of the 30 most beautiful towns in Europe.
A World Heritage Site, the small hamlet is “a remarkably intact settlement of 45 buildings with the traditional features of a central European village,” says Unesco. “It is the region’s most complete group of these kinds of traditional log houses.”
7. And six other World Heritage Sites
With seven listed attractions, Slovakia – a country of just 5.4m people – punches well above its weight in the Unesco stakes. Malaysia, Venezuela, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, each with more than 30 million residents, have fewer.
They include a collection of eight wooden churches built between the 16th and 18th centuries, and the ruins of Spiš Castle.
8. Its capital is criminally underrated
And the perfect alternative to Prague, reckons Telegraph Travel’s Gavin Haines. “Estranged from Prague during the Velvet Divorce, Bratislava has long been considered a poor relation to its more popular sibling,” he says. “There are some striking similarities between the two cities, though, not least in the grand civic architecture, cuisine and meandering River Danube, which, like the Vltava in Prague, slices the city in half. There’s a shared history too, of course, but you’ll find far fewer crowds in Bratislava.”
9. And has a gorgeous forest on its doorstep
Chris Leadbeater explains: “Bratislava stands as a protector of the tree-swathed Europe of medieval lore thanks to Bratislava Forest Park: 10 square miles of treescape on the northern flank of the city, in the foothills of the Little Carpathians range, where hiking trails meander.”
10. Getting there is easy
There are direct flight from the UK to three Slovakian cities: Bratislava (from London, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, all with Ryanair), Kosice (from London and Doncaster/Sheffield, thanks to Wizz Air), and Poprad, gateway to the Tatras and home to a vast eco-resort called AquaCity (from London, also courtesy of Wizz).
12. It has a capital of culture
Speaking of Kosice, Slovakia’s second city was European Capital of Culture in 2013, and retains some of this spirit in the sculpture and painting of the Muzeum Vojtecha Lofflera (dedicated to the prominent Slovak artist, who was born in the city in 1906). Elsewhere, St Elizabeth Cathedral is a splendid Gothic masterpiece which dates to the 14th century – while gilded Art Nouveau flourishes are to be found in the likes of the Hotel Slavia.
13. They enjoy a drink
Slovakia is one of the 10 booziest nations on the planet, according to the World Health Organisation, with the average adult consuming the equivalent of 13 litres of pure alcohol each year (Belarus, at 17.5 litres per capita, is number one).
14. Borovička is the thing to order
The country’s national drink is flavoured with juniper berries and similar to gin. The national dish, meanwhile, is bryndzové halušky, a hearty combination of potato dumplings and soft cheese.
15. Don’t go if you need beaches
Because Slovakia has none. It is one of the world’s 45 landlocked countries.
16. There are lovely hotels
Don’t let the horror movie Hostel, set in Slovakia, put you off.
17. And one eyesore
Hotel Spirit in Bratislava looks like it was heaved up by Gaudi’s less talented half-brother. Pack your sunglasses.
The Cold War-era Slovak Radio Building, an inverted pyramid, is also pretty shocking.
18. It held the record for the world’s shortest international flight
FlyNiki, based in Vienna, once claimed to run the world’s shortest international service, a 30-mile trip from the city to Bratislava. The journey took 10 minutes by air – but has been discontinued. Vienna and Bratislava are Europe’s closest capitals.
19. They invented the parachute
Step forward Štefan Banič.
20. It’s often confused with Slovenia
“The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas,” George W Bush once said. Except he’d met the Slovenian minister, not the Slovakian.
21. Tourism is on the rise
Largely overshadowed by its neighbours Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary, which each received more than 10 million tourists last year, Slovakia, which attracts around six million annual visitors, has ground to make up. But income from tourism rose by an estimated 16.9 per cent in 2016, so it’s on the right track.
22. But it could do with a new slogan
“Travel in Slovakia – good idea” is the country’s tourism slogan. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?