Remember the days when Paul used to post reports here of his holidays? Yes, I miss them too. So much, in fact, that I've decided to have a natter about my escapades in central/eastern Europe (depending on your definition). So, pull up a chair, grab yourself a nice warm bowl of Halušky and enjoy.
In the last few months, I've spent a fair bit of time in Slovakia (not to be confused with Slovenia, or even Slavonia). Essentially, Slovakia is quite a new country, having been a snippet of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire until its breakup in 1918. Later in the century, it formed part of Czechoslovakia and its development was somewhat hindered under communist rule, but it broke free and achieved full independence in 1993. Since then, the country has enthusiastically pursued EU, NATO and Eurozone integration, with a stretch of economic boom-time in the 2000s.
You can see the history straight away if you arrive via Bratislava, the capital. It's a real potpourri of a city: shiny glass skyscrapers and new business developments abound, surrounding a small but quaint old town. On the other side of the Danube river sits Petrzalka, a gigantic beast of a communist-era panelak housing estate. Back in the iron curtain days, this drab Lego-set housing project was all that Austrians could see of Slovakia - hardly the best advert for communism.
Bratislava is worth visiting for a couple of nights, or perhaps a day trip from Vienna. There's not much to see outside of the old town, but there's a great opera house, plenty of places to eat and drink, and a hulking "castle" (more like a palace) on top of a nearby hill. One especially wacky remnant of the communist era is the UFO-like restaurant on top of Novy Most bridge. You can take a lift to the top and see the vastly contrasting sides of the city (and even peer over into Austria and Hungary).
Ultimately, Bratislava's extreme proximity to Vienna and its recent economic growth has made it a rather hectic, anonymous city. For the "real" Slovakia, you've got to venture into the heartland. Getting around isn't too difficult: there's one express railway line running from west to east, with various branch lines jutting off. It's not particularly fast, but the prices are brilliant, with a 6-hour journey from one end of the country to another costing just 17 euros. Slovakia is jam-packed with castles, so you can expect to see a couple on any train journey.
I stayed in a city called Banska Bystrica, which I can only describe as the Innsbruck of Slovakia: a small, colourful, attractive city nestled between mountains. Various communist era panelak blocks pepper the surroundings, as in most Slovak cities, but the centre is very attractive and well maintained. It even has an elaborate fountain that produces a water show with Strauss waltz music every evening. Banska Bystrica is a student city, and on summer evenings the broad main square is packed with outdoor eating and drinking tents, generating a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
North of the city are the Harmanec caves, an astonishing complex of underground caverns with colossal stalactites. Further north lie the Tatra mountains, a source of Slovak pride and increasingly popular hiking and skiing destination. Most of the country is hilly or mountainous - you can even come across the odd wild bear. Although I didn't venture out to the far east of the country, bordering Ukraine, I'm told that those areas are considerably poorer and the country's wealth distribution is skewed by Bratislava's extreme western location.
Travel tips-wise: most young people speak usable English, especially in the cities, but in more remote areas a phrase book is highly valuable. Slovak language materials are very rare, but a Czech guide will do (the languages are very similar, although not identical). My trusty plug adaptor for Austro-Germany didn't work - you'll need an adaptor with space for a ground pin, like this.
Anyway, I just thought I'd write all this down for intrepid travellers. In all, Slovakia is a compact and comfortable way to get a taste of eastern Europe, without going bonkers and getting lost in Belarus and stuff. You can fly to Bratislava from various places in Europe via Ryanair (watch out for British stag parties in the winter months though!), so it's very accessible.
Any questions? If so, let me know in the comments and I'll (try to) answer!