Table of contents
- Language learning
- Social activities
- Slovakia beyond the capital
This page replaces and summarizes the blog-posts of my Slovakia series that I had written during my four months sabbatical in Slovakia (between February and June 2019).
In the paragraphs 2-5 I want to depict the various projects I was pursuing during that time.
Afterwards I will illustrate the capital Bratislava and in paragraph 7 further places in Slovakia.
In the first paragraph I yet want to discuss an important question: why did I choose Slovakia for a career break?
Many reasons had motivated my decision:
- first and foremost, I always wanted to learn a Slavic language fully-committed and full-time
- I was also pretty familiar with the capital Bratislava, since my former girlfriend worked in one of the city’s night-clubs, and in 2017 I visited her whenever time allowed me to do so
- in Slovakia one can do a great variety of outdoor activities (hiking in particular)
- trips to the capitals Vienna/Austria and Budapest/Hungary are not very complicated and cheap
- though a capital, living expenses are comparatively low
- and last but not least: the most significant industry in Slovakia is the automotive sector. So there was the prospect of making valuable new business-contacts as well as expanding my professional horizon about the industry
I hope this article may serve as a kind of inspiration and source of ideas for your own career-break.
2. Language learning
2.1 Language school
Unfortunately my regular language classes at the Comenius University didn’t last very long and ceased abruptly.
After two months of a scheduled five months course, I found myself as the sole remaining A1-student – the other students had chosen to take private lessons, were compelled to fly back to their home country or quit completely – which was self-evidently insufficient to keep it alive.
Hence the better part of my time in Slovakia I studied solely auto-didactic, with the help of my friend Martina, or through language exchange events (in the Nová Cvernovka cultural center or KC Dunaj, for example).
2.2 Czech and Slovak
Not surprisingly the Czech language and the Slovak language are very similar, also considering the long shared history in the state of Czechoslovakia (which lasted until 1992).
Slovak is slightly influenced by Hungarian, whereas foreign words are not as common in Czech as in Slovak (e.g. říjen – október).
The alphabet is slightly different, too. In Czech there exists for instance ř and ě (r and e with háček), which do not exist in Slovak (but in Slovak there exists the in Czech unknown ä).
Also the Slovak language doesn’t possess the seventh grammatical case, the vocative case.
On the whole, the grammar in Slovak is more regular, and in general considered easier than Czech.
But basically it is no problem for (especially elder) Czech people to understand Slovak (and vice versa), since both languages belong to the West Slavic language family.
2.3 Introductory examples
You can skip the whole paragraph 2 if you are not interested in details regarding the Slovak language.
Here are a few typical examples to get a first impression however.
The adjectives in Slovak depend on the speaker’s gender:
- (Ja) som boly lenivý (I was lazy, if the speaker is masculine gender)
- (Ja) som bola lenivá (I was lazy, if the speaker is feminine gender)
The plural forms are formulated differently dependent on the exact quantity of the item:
- Jedna hodina (one hour)
- Štyri hodiny (four hours)
- Deväť hodín (ten hours)
And in Slovak there is a sixth grammatical case, the instrumental case (the keyword here is s – with):
- Káva s mliekom (coffee with milk – mlieko)
- Čaj s cukrom (tea with sugar – cukor)
2.4 Declination and endings
Slovak is somewhat easier than Polish (another West Slavic language) where there is for example the genitive case in negation forms:
- Polish: Mam czas (I have time); Nie mam czasu (I have no time)
- Slovak: Mám čas (I have time); Nemám čas (I have no time)
Declination is an aggregate of grammatical rules for adjectives and substantives (not to confuse with conjugation for verbs1). Gender, grammatical number and grammatical case are the parameters for these rules.
1 conjugation and declination are subsumed under the term of inflection
For nouns this manifests itself in adding specific suffixes to the word (e.g. autobus – autobusov; nominative, singular – genitive, plural).
In Slovak there exist no articles (but three genders like in German)2, so you don’t have to incorporate both articles and substantives into a declination scheme.
2 there exist demonstrative pronouns ten-ta-to, but that are not articles in the narrower sense; if you count “masculine, living” as a separate gender, then there are four genders in Slovak
Here an illustration for an accusative sentence structure:
- English: I eat the fish
- German: Ich esse den Fisch (der Fisch – the fish)
- Slovak: Jem rybu (ryba – fish)
The declination of adjectives is different compared to German as well:
- English: The tree is green; A green tree; The green tree
- German: Der Baum ist grün; Ein grüner Baum; Der grüne Baum
- Slovak: Strom je zelený; Zelený strom; (Ten) zelený strom
In comparison with Polish, Slovak adapted more foreign words to their vocabulary.
- English: football, juice, november, bottle, chauffeur
- Slovak: futbal, džús, november, fľaša (German: Flasche), šofér
- Polish: piłka nożna, sok, listopad, butelka, kierowca
2.5 The grammatical aspect
Unfamiliar to English and German speakers is the existence of the grammatical aspect3 in Slavic languages.
In Slovak, any verb (with few exceptions) belongs to one specific aspect category: imperfective or perfective (nedokonavý vid alebo dokonavý vid).
In principle, there exist always two different verbs for a basically identical activity (example otvárať/otvoriť, see below).
3 this is an intricate subject, and I explain it in the following in a simplified form. If you have more interest in this, I suggest reading the corresponding wikipedia-page
For a particular action (or state), the aspect addresses time (more precisely the extension of time) and temporal course, expressed by a particular verb.
Imperfective aspect verbs describe often habitual or ongoing activities with internal structure, whereas perfective aspect verbs describe finished activities.
From this follows that a perfective aspect verb has no future form, because the present tense form is already the future form. But perfective aspect verbs can be used in the past tense, and then they have a similar meaning than imperfective aspect verbs in the past tense.
- otvárať (to open) – imperfective aspect verb (infinitive)
- otvoriť (to open) – perfective aspect verb (infinitive)
- otváram – I open (habitual activity) / I am opening (ongoing)
- budem otvárať – I will open / I will be opening
- otvorím – I will open (finished)
- som otváral – I opened / I was opening
- som otvoril – I opened (finished)
The past tense
In Slovak, the future and the past tense forms are comparatively easy to comprehend.
For the past tense you need solely one auxiliary verb – to be (byť), not like e.g. in French (in the Passé composé4) either to have (avoir) or to be (être).
4 there exist further past tense forms in French
I went away
- Slovak: (ja) som odišiel
- French: je suis parti
- Slovak: (ja) som jedol
- French: j’ai mangé
The future tense also uses solely the future form of to be (byť).
2.6 Result of my efforts
Naturally I got a “participation trophy” after my classes at the language school. On the whole I attended 57 hours.
3. Social activities
3.1 Fellow students
I got along pretty well with the fellow language students, so we went out in Staré Mesto (Old Town) a couple of times for drinking, playing table-top soccer, and discussing the question why we actually want to acquire such a difficult language like Slovak.
And of course we visited Austria’s capital Vienna (Wien), which is only one hour away from Bratislava.
Ricardo from Brazil has been living in Slovakia since 2014, was preparing for a medicine course at the university in Bratislava and aspired additionally for a Slovak citizenship.
Chris made the long journey from Canada to live with his Slovak girlfriend. Unfortunately he was permitted to stay only for one month since he is not an EU-citizen.
3.2 Nightclubs and bars
I am quite familiar with the nightlife in Bratislava, but I also tried a couple of nightclubs and bars I hadn’t been in so far.
The Subclub near the castle hill of the Bratislavský hrad, for instance.
Here they play a great variety of electronic music that makes your ears ring (I would therefore not recommend this location except you are a huge fan of “Drum and Bass”).
Worth a visit is furthermore the Masquerade club in Ventúrska street, though in the summer months you have in those kinds of locations a poor male-to-female ratio most of the time.
The bars in Pánska and Michalská street are also very good places to meet and date some of the pretty Slovak women (according to rumours).
3.3 Language events
As a replacement for the language course at the university I participated in language events at least twice a week.
There I met a a broad spectrum of different, interesting people and improved beside my Slovak my proficiency in English.
I found a new friend in Martina who wanted to work in Vienna and was therefore eager to learn German. So we met weekly at my apartment where she taught me a lot of Slovak grammar, and as a trade-off I provided some guidance to improve her skills in German.
3.4 Ice Hockey World Championship
The Ice Hockey World Championship in Bratislava and Košice (the second largest city in Slovakia) offered also a good opportunity to socialize and to create new contacts with locals.
Watching matches with friends suggested essentially itself, since the fanzone was very close to my apartment (Trnavské mýto).
Unfortunately the Slovak team didn’t make it to the quarter-finals. Crucial was their last minute loss against Germany (2-3).
So I did my best to give at least moral support to my Slovak friends.
Winner of the 2019 tournament was Finland, who won the Championship last time in 2011, also in Slovakia.
I love running and did it almost every day.
My habitual running lap was alongside the Danube, and then across the Starý Most back to the Bratislavský Hrad (Bratislava Castle).
The most tiring part was running up the stairs to the Castle, what I always had to endure on my sprint back to my apartment.
Acroyoga is a mix of Acrobatic, Yoga and Thai massage.
For me it was a combination of social activities, trying something new and exhausting my body.
The classes were held either in the Lotus Yoga studio in Kuzmányho street or in the workout academy in Devínska Nová Ves.
In Bratislava there are some excellent Yoga teachers. If you are interested in this mix of Yoga and acrobatic exercises, I highly recommend this activity.
4.3 The gym
Though I never was in terrible shape, there had been indeed times when I looked into the mirror and spotted two or three surplus kilos on my body (as a consequence of eating too many sweets during my working hours).
So I went daily to the “fit up” gym (Námestie SNP) to get rid of those kilos.
If you are massively overweight, losing three kilograms is easy.
If you are near your ideal weight this is very tough. You have to optimize almost everything, but most important is your diet.
I guess I was somehow successful with this project.
5.1 Low Tatras (Nízke Tatry)
The Low Tatras are the mountain range with the largest total area in Slovakia (one among several mountain ranges in Slovakia, with the High Tatras as probably the most popular destination for tourists), accessible throughout the year for hiking, skiing or other outdoor activities.
The official web presence of the national park you can find here (in Slovak): NAPANT.
Blue hiking tour
The town Liptovský Hrádok (about 7500 inhabitants) at the northern foothills of the Low Tatras was the starting point for my very first hiking trip in early April.
I had hardly more than a rough plan for this trip: hiking from Liptovský Hrádok southwards to the Čertovica mountain pass, and from there to Donovaly, which is situated in the west of the Low Tatras in the border region to the Great Fatra (Veľká Fatra).
Čertovica mountain pass
The mountain pass represents basically one stage for a more extensive hiking trip from Telgárt (east) to Donovaly (west), that should be better carried out during the summer season as I learned it the hard way.
As said, I set off in the north. On my way I made short visits in the nice small villages Malužiná, Vyšná Boca and Nižná Boca, which appeared like ghost towns on this cold April day however.
At the mountain pass on 1232 meters, I was fortunate to spend my night in the comfortable refuge Domček Horskej Služby.
The innkeeper Marek was exceedingly hospitable and pleased to share his Slovak spirits and his kettle with his only guest.
Chata generála Milana Rastislava Štefánika
Reaching the refuge Chata generála Milana Rastislava Štefánika (1740 meters AMSL) in the midst of the Low Tatras was a time consuming enterprise because of the thick layers of snow on the whole trail.
But it was all worthwhile since they provided excellent food there, very comfortable beds, plus an open fire where I could warm up my feet and dry my clothes.
During my meal I talked with the only other hiker on this day, an experienced man around my age who told me some interesting stories about the vast cave systems (jaskyňa) in the Low Tatras.
Aside from expanding my knowledge about the caves in the Tatras I made all preparations for the ascent to the near Ďumbier the following morning.
Ďumbier and Chopok
Ďumbier (2043 meters AMSL) is the highest, Chopok (2025 meters AMSL) is the third highest peak in the Low Tatras (the second highest is Štiavnica). These two peaks are very close to each other, so one can easily manage to climb both in one day.
The pictures might give an impression about the weather conditions in March and April. It was snowy, extremely windy, the sight was only fifty meters or thereabouts, and I sunk deeply into the soft snow with every step.
So climbing the peaks itself was not easy at all.
Fortunately I was able to do it, thanks to a pair of borrowed crampons (which belonged to the innkeeper from the Čertovica mountain pass) and much willpower though I was eventually compelled to quit the tour and descend the mountain ridge towards Liptovský Mikuláš instead of sticking to my original plan of a several days tour.
Green hiking tour
I made my next hike in mid May. This time I set off in Liptovský Mikuláš, a popular tourist destination in the Low Tatras with 30.000 inhabitants.
From Liptovský Mikuláš one can ascend Poludnica (1540 meters AMSL) in about three hours. The tour starts in ľanovo actually, three kilometers southwards the train station where there is a blue-marked path to the peak.
The mountain itself is named after a Slavic mythical character.
In the west of Liptovský Mikuláš the Liptovská Mara, a well-known barrier lake, is situated.
From the peak one has a breathtaking view onto the valley and the barrier lake.
Orange hiking tour
In 1944, heavy fighting took place in the vicinity of Ružomberok, a medium sized city (27.000 inhabitants) situated in the border region of Great Fatra and Low Tatras.
Particularly grim was the fighting between the Wehrmacht and the Slovak resistance around Ostré, a mountain about five kilometers southwards the city.
A small monument on the summit commemorates these historic battles.
5.2 Little Carpathians (Malé Karpaty)
The Little Carpathians are a mountain range that extends over one hundred kilometers from Bratislava to Nové Mesto nad Váhom5.
5 the Little Carpathians are part of the Carpathian Mountains, a mountain massif that extends primarily over Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia in Southeast Europe
You will find no high elevations in this area (the highest mountain is the Záruby with about 770 meters AMSL), so this mountain range is a good destination for a hiking or biking day-trip with your family.
I hiked from Bratislava Železná studienka northwards to Svätý Jur, which took me about five hours, including breaks.
You have seldom good observation points like on the following two pictures because you are in dense forest most of the time.
Svätý Jur is a rather small town with 5000 inhabitants. Similar to Pezinok, it has a long winemaking tradition, and one can spot vineyards on almost every elevation.
Bratislava (German: Pressburg) is the capital of Slovakia with about 430.000 inhabitants, situated at the Danube (Slovak: Dunaj, German: Donau) very close to the Hungarian and Austrian border.
In the following paragraphs I want to illustrate a selection of the most important sights of the city that had been my residence for over four months.
Here you can find a tourist map with the exact location of those sights.
6.1 Bratislavský hrad (Bratislava Castle)
The Bratislava Castle built upon a rocky hill in proximity to the Most SNP (see below) dominates the skyline of the capital.
It is the most popular sight in Bratislava, and due to its exposed location even visible from Austria.
The Castle, which has a history of over one thousand years, was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1811. It remained in a ruinous state for 150 years until it was eventually rebuilt in the late 1960s.
The Bratislavský hrad, which is depicted on the Slovak 10-, 20- and 50- euro cent coins, houses a museum this day.
6.2 Slavín monument and military cemetery
The memorial monument was built after the 2nd World War to commemorate and honor the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Slovakia.
On the military cemetery the remains of almost 7000 soldiers are buried.
I spotted runners near Slavín occasionally, and it is basically a good idea to make one’s exercises around this place since the monument is built on a steep hill.
6.3 Hrad Devín
In the north-west of Bratislava, in proximity to the Austrian border and the junction of the rivers Morava and Danube (in the Devín- and adjoining the yet to present Devínska Nová Ves borough) the remains of the Devín Castle (Burg Theben) dominate the surroundings.
Once a refuge for members of the Hungarian and Austrian nobility, it became military obsolete in the course of the 16th and 17th century, and was eventually blown up by French soldiers during the Coalition Wars at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Devínska Kobyla (Sandberg) three kilometers northwards of Devín offers a breathtaking view to the ruins of the fortress, the cliff where it is built upon, and the two rivers.
The Devínska Kobyla belongs to the Little Carpathians mountain range.
6.4 Michalská brána and former city fortification
Bratislava was once protected by fortified walls and an attached fortification system, akin to other European cities of importance in the medieval age.
Most of the medieval defense system was razed however at the end of the 18th century, as now military obsolete.
Solely the Michalská brána (Michael’s Gate) in Michalská street and a few segments of the wall have survived to this day.
Alongside the south front of the St Martin’s Cathedral runs the Panska street. In this street the Vydrická brána, another razed city-gate, was located.
There were two further major city-gates which did not survive: the Rybárska brána (located in the street of the same name), and the Laurinská brána (located in Laurinská street).
6.5 St Martin’s Cathedral
The Roman Catholic St Martin’s Cathedral (named after Martin of Tours), built in the 15th century, is the biggest and best-known sacral edifice in the city.
The Cathedral played an important role in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary, of which Bratislava (the Hungarian name is Pozsony) was an integral part of for many centuries.
It is located very close to the Most SNP, and due to the proximity to the bridge and the vibrations caused by the heavy traffic, the structure of the church is (slowly but steadily) deteriorating.
6.6 Most SNP
The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (Most Slovenského národného povstania) is the most eye-catching and the best known among the five Danube bridges in Bratislava.
The “nový most” (new bridge) was built in 1972 (as the second Danube bridge in Bratislava), and is named after the National Uprising in 1944 against the German armed forces.
In the nicknamed “UFO” at the top end of the two structural elements a restaurant can be found, and from the observation deck one has a great panorama view onto the entire city.
6.7 Starý Most (Old Bridge)
The Old Bridge was the very first across the Danube in Bratislava. It connects like the other four Danube bridges the boroughs Petržalka and Staré Mesto.
Originally erected at the end of the 19th century, it was entirely reconstructed in 2016 because of the bridge’s deteriorating state.
Since then, it can solely be used by pedestrians, cyclists, and the Električka (tramway).
6.8 Stará radnica (Old Town Hall)
The Old Town Hall, which houses the City Museum today, is situated in the immediate center of Bratislava.
The Old Town Hall had been erected in the 14th century and served its purpose until the 19th century.
The tower is accessible, and part of the City Museum where the history of Bratislava is depicted.
If you have some morbid sense of humor, I can recommend the exhibition about medieval torture instruments in the cellar of the museum.
6.9 Grassalkovich Palace
The Grassalkovich Palace (Grasalkovičov palác) in Staré Mesto is the residence of the president of Slovakia.
Built in the 18th century, this building was in the subsequent decades one main scenery for upper-class events in Bratislava, before it became eventually the office for political leaders after the 1st World War.
6.10 Budova Slovenského rozhlasu
An eye-catching example of architecture from the communist era is the Slovak Radio Building in Staré Mesto, completed in 1983.
It resembles an inverted pyramid and is considered as one of the ugliest buildings in the world.
The borough of Petržalka (German: Engerau) represents a southern district of Bratislava, with the Danube as northern and eastern border.
This part of the city changed hands many times in the course of the 20th century.
Belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary for centuries, it became a part of the new Czechoslovakian state in 1920 after the 1st World War.
One year before the outbreak of the 2nd World War (Münchner Abkommen), and then until 1945 it was annexed by the German Empire.
After the 2nd World War it was part of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR), and belongs to Slovakia since the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
“Paneláky” deriving from the socialistic era are the most salient feature of the 21st century Petržalka, and that also implies plenty of comparatively cheap living space for new inhabitants.
One quarter of the population of Bratislava has its homes in Petržalka.
6.12 Devínska Nová Ves
In the north-western Devínska Nová Ves borough the car manufacturer Volkswagen has its large production facilities (the cars which were produced here are the Audi Q7 and Q8, the VW Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne).
This borough has around 16.000 inhabitants, and here some of my Yoga-classes took place (see above).
7. Slovakia beyond the capital
In the following paragraphs I want to illustrate towns and places I visited during my stay in Slovakia (in addition to the already described places in the Low Tatras).
Over the south-west of Slovakia extends the Danubian Lowland, where also runs the long border to Hungary.
In this border area, situated at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Váh, you will find the city of Komárno with 35.000 inhabitants.
Noteworthy sights in Komárno are the large fortification structure not far off from the town center, the Danube museum, and the Danube itself.
Due to the closeness to Hungary, and the belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary for centuries, Komárno is one center of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
Here, the Hungarian language is more present in everyday life than Slovak.
The Hungarian language
I don’t want to focus on Hungarian too much because I have very little knowledge about that language, and also very little ambition to acquire it.
But I can elaborate one of the many peculiarities I’ve recently learned: words can contain a great deal of syllables.
The reason for this is that Hungarian words are compound words, comprising a word-base, and several slots for prefixes and suffixes (affixes).
Let me give you an example: űrhajós means astronaut in Hungarian.
űr is the base and means room. hajó means boat. s is a descriptive suffix. These (in this case three) components create eventually a word like astronaut.
When you face Slovak directly with Hungarian, the difference in word-length and structure is very obvious.
Pezinok (20 kilometers north-east of Bratislava) is a town in the Little Carpathian Mountains, which is also a famous winegrowing area6. You can buy wine almost at every corner in this city with its some 20.000 inhabitants.
6 the most important of a total of six winegrowing areas in Slovakia
German settlers played a significant role in the history of Slovakia and in the region of Pezinok (the German name of the town is Boesing) where they were mainly employed in the lumber industry or in the mining sector.
Worth a visit is the Small Carpathian Museum, where there is an exhibition about Slovak wines on the ground floor, and where one can take a look at ancient barrels and a collection of archaic winegrower’s equipment in a disused wine cellar.
7.3 Banská Bystrica
Banská Bystrica is an old mining town and the most important city in Central Slovakia (Banskobystrický kraj). My friend Martina considers the city even as the most beautiful in Slovakia.
The town and the encircling mountain ranges were the main theater for military operations during the Slovak National Uprising at the end of 1944 (one encounters the acronym SNP – Slovenské Národné Povstanie almost everywhere in Slovakia).
Monuments and an architectural striking museum are dedicated to this historic event.
The town was originally founded by German settlers in the 13th century, in an era when mining (primarily copper, but gold and silver as well) was the most important industry in this region and specific engineering knowledge was in high demand.
Trnava is a medium-sized city with 70.000 inhabitants about fifty kilometers north-east of Bratislava.
The city possesses a considerable amount of ecclesiastical buildings within the city walls because it was the Christian center of the Kingdom of Hungary for a long time.
Trnava escaped devastation during the 2nd World War, so fortunately no rebuild measures were necessary.
Noteworthy (among many other sights) is the City Tower, the Square of the Holy Trinity and the Saint Nicolas’ Church close to the well-preserved city wall.
I hope you enjoyed this long article about my sabbatical in Eastern Europe.
In retrospect it was a pretty successful period.
Not only my Slovak skills improved significantly (which was not such a big deal since I started on square one), but I made dozens of new friends and acquaintances in Slovakia.
Lucia, for example, who worked in a bookshop in Banská Bystrica. This very pleasant young girl gave me many valuable insider-tips for hikes in the Tatra mountains.
Renaud, a neighbor who became later my best buddy, was a priceless help as I locked myself out of my apartment on a cold February night.
Or Natalia from one of the language regular’s tables, a polyglot who speaks ten (perhaps more?) languages fluently and who became almost my girlfriend.
Slovakia is my second home now. And I can’t wait to get back to this country as soon as possible.
Featured image: Low Tatras