On January 1, 1993, Slovakia – which was once joined with the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia – became an independent nation, for the second time in its history. (The first time was in March 1939, when Slovakia broke away from its Czech partners and became an ally of Nazi Germany. That independence came to an end after World War II when Czechoslovakia was reassembled.)
Prior to the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovakia had been part of the Hapsburg (and later Austria-Hungary) Empire. Throughout much of this time it was dominated by Hungary and attempts were even made to "Magyarize" the Slovaks by suppressing their native culture and language and requiring the use of Hungarian in the schools and for all official purposes. Today, the tables are somewhat turned. In southeastern Slovakia in particular, there is a sizable Hungarian minority that found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders that were drawn after World War I. There have even been some efforts to make Hungarian a second official language in certain regions of the country, though the majority Slovaks have, not surprisingly, resisted this movement.
Today, the influences of the Hapsburg and Austria-Hungary years are still plain to see, even in eastern Slovakia. Many churches and other historic buildings are built with an ornate style that would be readily familiar to one who has been to Prague or Budapest.
Since the 1993 "Velvet Divorce" that separated Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Slovakia has been somewhat slower than its former partner to shake off the hangover left by the Communist days and adapt to its new, free market environment. In addition, some areas of Slovakia suffer from excess pollution, a heritage of the Soviet-dominated years of building heavy industry without regard for the environment. Nevertheless, great strides have begun to be made and Slovakia, along with nine other countries, was admitted to the European Union in 2004. It is scheduled to join in the common currency (the euro) in 2009.
Slovakia's tourism industry is also developing rapidly and it is easy to see why: there is both natural beauty – particularly in the High Tatras – and areas of historic interest, such as Košice and Levoča (and, I presume, Bratislava as well, though I have not been there). The photos above offer some highlights of the areas I have visited. For more detail, visit one of the other pages listed in the dropdown list below.