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The republic of Slovakia (Slovensko) - independent since 1993 - consists of the long, narrow strip of land which stretches from the fertile plains of the Danube basin up to the peaks of the High Tatras - perhaps Europe's most exhilarating mountain range outside of the Alps. The country's numerous mountains have long formed barriers to industrialization and modernization, and parts of the country remain surprisingly rural and unspoilt, some to the point of neglect.

There was only one independent Slovak state before 1993, when the country operated as a German protectorate during World War II - a period which remains a blot on the nation's history . Before 1918, current-day Slovakia was known as the region of Upper Hungary and lay under Magyar rule for roughly a millennium; Bratislava even became the Hungarian capital when the rest of Hungary was occupied by the Turks. However, in 1918, the Slovaks threw their lot in with their Slav neighbours, the Czechs, forming Czechoslovakia. This lasted 75 years until the country's "velvet divorce" took place in 1993. Although many Slovaks were ready to go it alone, it has to be said that others had major reservations about this, and none was given the chance to decide in a referendum. Political corruption, nationalism and slow-moving reforms put off overseas investors until a change of government in 1998, since when the country's economic prospects under Prime Minister Dzurinda have brightened and firm steps towards joining the European Union have begun.

For the first-time visitor, perhaps the most striking cultural difference from the Czechs is the Slovak attitude to religion. Catholicism is much stronger here than in the Czech Republic, and the churches are often full to overflowing on Sundays. The republic also has a much more diverse population, with over half a million ethnic Hungarians in the south, as well as thousands of Romanies (gypsies), who live a fairly miserable existence throughout the country, and several thousand Ruthenians (Rusyns) in the east. Bratislava , the capital, is potentially disappointing, especially for those who arrive expecting a Slovak Prague. Taken on its own terms, however, the city is a rewarding, lively place with a compact old town. Poprad provides the transport hub for the High Tatras , the most spectacular of Slovakia's many mountain ranges, and is also the starting point for exploring the intriguing medieval towns of the Spis region, east Slovakia's architectural high point. Further east still, Presov is the cultural centre of the Ruthenian minority, while Kosice , Slovakia's vibrant second city, boasts a fine Gothic cathedral, ethnic diversity and a lively independence from much of the rest of Slovakia.

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