The Empress & the Wine: Slovakia

How well do you know your neighbors? We looked into the Alpine Republic’s special relationship with each of them

Austrians know its nearby capital of Bratislava as the favorite of Empress Maria Theresia, where she was crowned Queen of Hungary in 1740 at the age of 24. They also know it as Pressburg, the Hungarians as Pozsony, and to the Slovaks, until 1990, as Prešporok. Bratislava (“brothers in glory”) was a new name for a new era.

A young country with a long history, an independent Slovakia was born just 25 years ago with the Velvet Divorce in 1992, separating the newly liberated Czechoslovakia into two republics. Outsiders wonder why; after all they speak the same language (more or less), and with a joint population of 15 million, you’d think they’d have a better chance as a team.

But you’re forgetting about the wine. While the Czechs carouse in the koliba over a frothy pint of pivo, the Slovaks are found in the vináreň sampling the latest veltlínské zelené (Grüner Veltliner) with their Austrian cousins or a fragrant frankovka modrá (Blaufränkisch) with the Hungarians. All of which is shorthand for the power of history and tradition that has divided Czechs and Slovaks for over a thousand years, since the great Magyar horsemen charged over the Carpathians in 894 to carve off Slovakia from Great Moravia.

I arrived in Bratislava in 1994, just two years after Slovak independence. It was a heady time of confusion and opportunity, as state-owned apartments were written over to tenants. The word of the day was privatization, as pitched roofs, forbidden under communism, were thrown up in the exuberance of do-it-yourself home repair. Crossing the border to Austria then was like going through the Looking Glass, the ragweed, rubble and lingering regret of the Slovak landscape transformed into the lovingly tended Marchfelder countryside.

With EU membership in 2004, that border has all but disappeared. Bratislava’s restored old city is a pleasing warren of cobbled streets and baroque charm, the clusters of retiled Slovak farms and villages now freshly painted and trailing with geraniums, again part of the same world.

Maria Theresia would surely be pleased.

Border with Austria: 105 km, bordering Lower Austria and Burgenland

Population: 5,426,000 people

Size: 49,035 km2

Trade Volume with Slovakia:

Imports from Slovakia: €3 billion

Exports to Slovakia: €2.8 billion

Balance: -€153 million

Fun fact:

Slovakia’s capital Bratislava is the only capital in the world bordering two countries (Austria and Hungary).

Click here to read up on Austria’s next neighbor.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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