Europe's Wild, Wild East

When the Cold War’s ice finally began to melt in the late 1980’s, the countries of Eastern Europe were the first to feel the thaw. In 1968 Czechoslovakia, memories of Soviet tanks crushing the Prague rebellion still burned. A mere 21 years later the Velvet Revolution of 1989 would finally cast off Czechoslovakia’s communist yoke.

By: Bob Demyan

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia When the Cold War’s ice finally began to melt in the late 1980’s, the countries of Eastern Europe were the first to feel the thaw. In 1968 Czechoslovakia, memories of Soviet tanks crushing the Prague rebellion still burned. A mere 21 years later the Velvet Revolution of 1989 would finally cast off Czechoslovakia’s communist yoke. Soon after that, the Velvet Revolution spawned the Velvet Divorce as Czechoslovakia splintered into the two countries it had really always been one the Bohemian center of Europe, the other a rugged and mountainous land where Slavic Europe begins.

During the 12 years since the Velvet Divorce, the two countries have had different trajectories. The Czech Republic has fared better economically than its cousin to the east, the Slovak Republic. In many ways, that hasn’t been such a bad thing. Thanks to its ruggedness, Slovakia was spared much of the large-scale development and exploitation that blighted a good portion of the Czech Republic.

As a result, Slovakia’s stunning natural beauty remains mostly intact. This is the wild East, blanketed in forests, mountains and some of the prettiest terrain anywhere on the continent. It quite possibly could become one of Europe’s premiere outdoor wonderlands. And it’s not only beautiful, it’s a bargain to boot.

With more than seven national parks in a country roughly the size of West Virginia, Slovakia’s compact size packs a big punch, the biggest of which is the High Tatras National Park. Rising up almost 8,000 feet from the central plains, the Tatras have long been one of the natural wonders of Central Europe.

Andy’s Land

The Tatras also mark the passage to Eastern Slovakia. This is the land of the Ruthenians, a Slavic ethnic group now spread out across Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine.

One of the most famous Ruthenians was Andy Warhol (born Andy Warhola) whose family came to America from the Eastern Slovak town of Medzilaborce. Oddly enough, after Warhol’s death, his family decided to locate a museum in his honor here. While decidedly out of place in this small orthodox town, the museum houses what is likely the most elaborate collection of Warhol memorabilia anywhere and an astonishing number of Warhol originals. It’s an unlikely experience in a more unlikely setting and a perfect way to end a visit to this wild, unspoiled corner of a crowded continent.

Accommodations

Hotels in the Tatras hint at a bygone era. The faded glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire can still be seen in many of the elegant hotels built here around the turn of the century. One of these is the Grand Hotel Praha. Built in 1903, its charm has survived two world wars and the communist era. Today, visitors can enjoy the same spectacular views of the High Tatras from their wrought-iron balconies that Bela Bartok enjoyed in his day.

Inside, the hotel is like a trip into the Gilded Age, replete with chandeliers, parlors and lounges where guests can relax in overstuffed leather chairs and enjoy a Slovak beer by a crackling fireplace.

Airy and bright, most rooms in the Praha have high brocaded ceilings and French doors leading onto small balconies with magnificent views of the surrounding peaks. All have full minibars and spacious bathrooms.

A fine restaurant serves traditional Slovak fare in a stately dining room. A hot tub, a massage room and a sauna are available on the premises.

The Praha welcomes IATA bookings and offers 10% commission. Most flights to Slovakia use Vienna’s international airport; regular shuttle buses finish the trip to Bratislava.

Rates: Suites $104 to $152; rooms $65 to $90 (buffet breakfast included).

Contact: 00421-52-4467-941-5; e-mail: grandpraha@tatry.sk.

Web site: grandhotelpraha.sk.

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