Slovakia-Zuberec-feat

Slovenia vs Slovakia: International Smackdown

Welcome to the second round of our ill-advised pursuit of comparing different countries and figuring out which is best.

Among the relatively few people who have actually heard of them, Slovenia and Slovakia are often confused for each other. Both are small, Central European, mostly landlocked countries that start with “Slov”. Neither is a well known tourist destination. Both wrestled with dictators and communist rulers after WW2 and both became independent republics in the early 90s. Both joined the EU in 2004 and both use the Euro. These are two tiny young countries, still finding their feet among their larger and more powerful neighbours.

You’d think they’d be pretty much the same. You’d be wrong.

So, to give you some idea of what to expect should you choose to visit, here are two travellers opinions, based on our limited experience, of two complicated countries.

Food

Slovenia offered some much-needed variety on the menu (after the boring Croatian cuisine), with soups, salads, and other delights making a comeback. However, we did eat the world’s worst pizza on our first night there. We saw the first ‘ethnic’ restaurants of our trip in Slovenia, too. There were Chinese and Mexican restaurants in even the smaller towns, though the one Mexican meal we had was baaad. In Ljubljana, we ate great Japanese and Indian food, which was a welcome change for our palates.

We also discovered the joys of Mercator and InterSpar, huge American-style grocery stores that stocked everything from peanut butter, to seitan, to almond milk. There were health food stores almost everywhere we went, so we began cooking our own meals as often as we could.

Bakeries were not abundant in Slovenia, and when they were available, the quality was just not great. Bread was still better than it is in the U.S. and Britain, but the sweets tended to be heavier, doughier, and undercooked.

Huge and overrated donut.

Huge and overrated donut.

There was a trend towards filling turnovers with walnut paste or poppy seed paste, which we decided made them healthy.

In Slovakia, bakeries vanished altogether. We didn’t see a single bakery until the last day we were in the country. Cafes were also pretty hard to find, but bars were a dime a dozen, and people seemed to drink in the morning as much as any other time.

There were giant Tesco stores everywhere we looked, and the bakery inside was not too shabby (for a supermarket bakery). We were also happy to see tofu available in even the tiniest grocery stores in Slovakia. In addition, they sold little tubes of soya-based pate, in about 6 different flavours, which were… weird, but did pretty well in a sandwich.

Restaurant meals mostly consisted of potato pasta with cheese sauce, pirohy filled with cheese and potato, or deep-fried slices of cheese with, you guessed it, potatoes. This was a little stodgy even for hungry cyclists, so we tended to avoid restaurants and cooked our own food. Specialty tea houses started making an appearance in the bigger towns (at least in the mountains). They all had tea menus that went on for days, and we drank some of the best spiced chai of our lives in Banska Stiavinica.

I wouldn’t say either country is a huge winner food-wise – definitely not the great sole reason to venture there.

Accommodation

In Slovenia, we found ourselves planning ahead a little more, to ensure we’d get a place for the night. Because it’s such a small country, the main cities are close together and we ended up hosteling for much of our stay. The hostels were bright, modern, and well-designed. Since we were there off-season, they were also quiet, clean, and empty.

The campgrounds we stayed in were quite basic, with rows and rows of campers and relatively little green space for tents. The facilities were also more basic, but still decent enough.

In Slovakia, we found the accommodation to be a little less ample, and therefore a little more expensive. A decent guesthouse cost around €30, and there wasn’t really anything cheaper on offer.

One of two huge rooms in our guesthouse.

One of two huge rooms in our guesthouse in Liptovsky Mikulas.

Also, considering we were in a forested outdoorsy area, we were surprised to find very few campgrounds, and none on our route. There were lots that were supposed to have been there, but had obviously ceased to exist at some point.

Slovakia seemed the perfect place for wild camping though, with lots of land that looked unowned and unused. Just beware, they do have bears there, and on our one night wild camping we had a visit from a wildcat.

People

Slovenians were open and friendly. The ones we spoke to all complained about the government (citing corruption) and the economy (blaming the government). They also were quick to point out that the standard of living in Slovenia is higher than in most of the countries that surround them. From what we saw, this appeared to be true.

Villages were better kept up, houses were larger, and people seemed to be out spending their disposable income.

In contrast, most Slovakians tended to be closed off and rarely seemed the least bit happy to see us. One day, we wandered along a fishing lake surrounded by fishermen and their families, and despite our best efforts to smile and seem friendly, not a single smile was returned.

Maybe the fish weren't biting?

Maybe the fish weren’t biting?

Many Slovakians have mastered the fine art of the disgusted sneer, which was aimed at us from time to time. We still don’t know if they were aiming their nasty looks at us, or if their faces just stayed that way.

Having said that, we also met a few really nice people who genuinely seemed to love the places they were living and the lives they were leading in Slovakia. There is a healthy middle class but we also saw a lot of areas that looked very poor and people who seemed to be struggling. This may account for the unfriendly, unhappy atmosphere in some of the areas we visited.

Tourism

In small-town Slovenia, we discovered an odd trend. There were public works going on everywhere. High streets were getting facelifts and town squares were being remodelled. But, there didn’t seem to be any tourists or any locals around to take advantage of the new facilities. In one town we visited we were told that the high street renovation had been going on for two years, and that a lot of the businesses had left because of the disruption! Oops.

Most foreigners don’t really know anything about Slovenia, so the places we went, with the exception of Postonja caves, seemed more set up for locals than tourists, and we felt like we got to experience the “real” country.

Queueing to get in to Postonja Caves.

Queueing to get in to Postonja Caves.

In the cities, almost everyone we encountered spoke at least a little English, but outside of cities, German was the most common second language. We felt like we ended up learning more German than Slovene before we left.

Slovakia’s tourist infrastructure, at least in the part we visited, was even less developed. There wasn’t even a “Welcome to Slovakia” sign when we crossed the border. Many hotels and restaurants that had existed were now closed down, or at least closed for the summer. The great exception is for ski tourism, which looks to be well served in the areas we rode through. So, if you’re there in winter, you’ll probably find lots of options. For us, it was sometimes impossible to even find an open cafe, let alone a place to stay.

English is spoken widely enough that it was never a problem asking for what we needed, or finding things, but it was rare to meet someone in the countryside who spoke enough English to carry on a conversation with us.

Roads

In Slovenia, the roads were comparable to Italy. That is, not very good. On the other hand, the cars were the nicests (and least smelly) we’ve seen in Europe so far. Go figure.

Most of the roads we took were pretty devoid of traffic, so we found the riding to be easy. In busier places, there were almost always bike paths painted on the wide, smooth sidewalks. The network of bike paths in Ljubljana was amazing, and took us everywhere we need to go in and out of the city.

We did end up on a few busy roads with very narrow shoulders. At these times, cars and trucks tended to give us a wide berth, but sometimes they forgot to give any space to oncoming vehicles. A few times I thought we were going to cause a head-on collision between the cars passing us and those coming in the other direction.

Slovenia is famously supposed to be very flat, but on the western side of the country, we encountered lots of steep hills.

Slovakian roads were in great condition for the most part and almost all empty. I don’t remember a single uncomfortable or crowded road during our entire stay.

Another empty Slovakian road.

Another empty Slovakian road.

Slovakia also has a huge mountain range running right down the middle of it, so on a bike this makes for some challenging climbs. We love the mountains though, and there’s great satisfaction in speeding down an empty well-paved road after a morning of hard uphill work.

And The Winner Is…

These are two very different countries, despite their shared geography and similar histories. Overall, we enjoyed our time in Slovenia more, but the riding in Slovakia was some of the best and most beautiful we’ve done (even with all the rain).

The finally tally? At least until we visit Bratislava, Slovenia wins because Ljubljana is one of the best cities we’ve ever visited!  

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5 Comments

  1. maya mendoza says:

    I had a guest from Slovenia who invited me to come to her house. She was couchsurfing and I liked her a lot. I don’t bike (horrors) but I do walk and like your blog anyway. I will pick Slovenia too

  2. Ann says:

    Good post, but I found quite a few hiccups.
    Slovenia is an emerging culinary destination, so you must have been really out of luck to not like the food there. Their traditional food is delicious and they have plenty of top restaurants. The country is also famous for having better pizzas and ice cream than Italy. Bakeries are plentiful, to the point there’s a bakery on almost every corner. Truth is that most of them are owned by Albanians and therefore quality and variety is not very good.
    “Slovenia is famously supposed to be very flat,…” hmm really? Slovenia is a mountainous Alpine country, famous for it’s mountains and green rolling hills. The only flat part of the country is on the east side, by the Hungarian border, so where did you get that information from? It certainly is more mountainous than Slovakia.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Ann,

      Thanks for your comments. Always great to hear from someone who knows more about a certain location than we do.

      As always, this post is based on our experience of the country, which was limited to the places we travelled, and not the country as a whole.

      We had great food in Ljubljana, but we also had some of the worst food of our entire trip in other areas of the country. Being vegetarians, we do not partake of the culinary landscape as a whole. As for a bakery on every corner – I guess we must have been going to the wrong corners!

      Among cycle tourists, Slovenia is praised for its flat landscape and easy riding. As you say, we did not find it to be so, since rolling hills make for the most difficult kind of cycling. East of Ljubljana, things started to flatten out considerably.

  3. Diane says:

    Great post Jane. Very informative and interesting. Thanks.