Since going solo in 1993, Slovakia has sprinted to a new prosperity, finds Susan Buckland.
Dakjuen. Hello from Slovakia - not to be confused with the Balkan countries of Slovenia and Slavonia.
I'm perched on the edge of a fountain in the historic centre of Bratislava, a scene that could have been plucked from neighbouring Austria - were it not for the Slovak signage. The onion domes and elegant buildings of St Francis Square reflect the unmistakable stamp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's long dominion over Slovakia.
Thanks to the ban on motor traffic, the old heart of Bratislava beats on. The streets and squares pulse with pedestrians. They drape themselves around quirky street art for photos and throng the cafes, shops, galleries and bars that have proliferated since Slovakia shed its communist shackles in the 90s.
Slovakia has carved a determined route since splitting with Czechoslovakia in 1993. The economies of the Czech Republic and Hungary on Slovakia's borders have lagged behind that of their entrepreneurial neighbour. After joining the European Union in 2004, Slovakia introduced a flat 16 per cent tax rate to attract foreign investors. It worked. The country of 5.4 million burgeoned into central Europe's tiger economy.
The only motorised vehicle I spot in the Old Town is a small, open-air tourist bus, so I hop on and rumble off round the cobbled streets, first pausing outside St Martins Cathedral, the 15th-century church where at least eight Austro-Hungarian royals were crowned.
Commentary pipes through the bus while the driver manoeuvres into an impossibly narrow lane.
"You are now in Executioner Alley beside the executioner's house. People were executed for serious crimes, including raping a virgin."
Which leaves us pondering the punishment for rape of non-virgins.
The little bus continues past the 13th-century St Michael's Gate and important-looking houses built by Slovak aristocrats to keep up with their imperial counterparts in Vienna and Budapest. Next our driver deftly dodges the al fresco restaurant tables spilling on to the streets. Come evening, new crowds will pack the music venues, bars and eateries.
Tourists used to more nuanced cuisine than Slovakia's dumpling-dominated dishes lighten up when they discover that dining out costs less than it does in Vienna and other European capitals further west. Ambience and price tend to make up for the lack of culinary refinement in smaller restaurants. It is not difficult to find places which charge only €14 (NZ$26) for an entree, main course, bottled water and glass of wine.
A wider tour of Bratislava avoids the drab apartment blocks on the city's periphery - hangovers from the communist regime. Instead it heads for the castle on the hills rising from the Danube. A strident communist monument atop the hill features bronze figures reaching for imaginary sickles. But the austerity is softened by panoramic views of the city and river.
Large homes of wealthier inhabitants spread from Bratislava's imposing castle. Culturally, the city is no laggard either. Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven all performed here. And Bratislava's Opera House, while smaller than Vienna's, makes a grand statement. The music-loving Viennese think nothing of driving the 60km distance for an evening at the Bratislava opera.
Marrol's Boutique Hotel in the Old Town turns out to be an attractive accommodation choice. The 54-bedroom hotel, converted from the 19th-century home of a wealthy Slovak family, is close to the Slovak Philharmonic and National Gallery. Discreet service and more memorable food than the ubiquitous dumpling are all available at less than half what you would pay for the equivalent standard in Vienna.
For a different view of Slovakia, I head northeast, past vast crop fields to the forested foothills of the Carpathians. The range extends towards the Tatra mountains, where the highest peaks soar above 2600m and are snow-capped year-round. They are home to the Slovak Paradise National Park, where visitors revel in hikes with alpine views and waterfalls crashing to gorges. In the caves of the upper reaches live mountain bears. On the lower slopes are many ski resorts.
The drive from Bratislava in the southwest to a little Tatras gem called Levoca takes about five hours.
Luckily the communist railway building-binge bypassed Levoca. Like a charming outpost of the long-dead Austro Hungarian Empire, it nestles in a valley beneath a shawl of mountains. I explore the lovely old town, where tourist signs are translated into Hungarian, German and Polish. The notable absence of English suggests the Tatra region still remains out of reach of mass tourism.
Among Levoca's old buildings is the 16th-century town hall and nearby church of St James in Levoca, famous for its wooden Gothic altar created by a local artisan called Master Paul. His creation, started in 1507 and completed 10 years later, depicts the Last Supper. It is carved from lime wood, contains no nails, and is believed to be world's highest wooden altar.
The absence of McDonald's-style commercialism in the small towns in the Tatras is as refreshing as the oxygenating native pines that grow thick to the roadside. Churches, town halls and squares built centuries ago anchor community-spirited towns such as Levoca, Kezmarck, Spiska Nova Ves and Banksa Bystrica.
Kezmarck town is a national trust estate because of its many historic buildings, the most remarkable of which is the 17th-century wooden church.
Before departing the northeast, I visit Spis Castle, a short drive from Levoca and one the most impressive sights in the region.
The World Heritage-listed castle, which dates from the 12th century, occupies the top of a hill overlooking valleys that rise and fall all the way to the Tatra mountains.
On the way up to the ramparts, I pause to read a medieval guide to table manners posted outside a replica of the castle kitchen.
"Avoid arguing or whispering, always keep a clean tablecloth, don't wipe your nose into it and never spit. Don't sing too much, don't scratch your body too much and don't pick your nose."
Some things haven't changed.
Neither has the stupendous view that has rewarded centuries of climbers to the castle's highest ramparts.
I lean out one of the stone-framed windows and toss all care to the winds.
IF YOU GO
Getting to Slovakia: Air New Zealand's daily flights into London connect with flights to Bratislava or Poprad near Levoca.
Staying in Bratislava: Try Marrol's Boutique Hotel.
Distance from Bratislava to Levoca: 360km. Spis Castle is above the town of Spisske Podhradie, a short drive from Levoca.
Susan Buckland travelled to Europe with the assistance of Air New Zealand.By Susan Buckland