Slovakia – Mountains, Monuments and Motors

Cars Culture

A hidden gem?

Slovakia is a remarkable country, and I have been privileged to visit it several times.

Located in Central Europe, it is a nation packed with resplendent cities and grandiose castles. It also happens to be home to Kia Motors Slovakia (KMS), which is based in Zilina.

The Slovak plant has been Kia’s manufacturing centre in Europe for over a decade. It was this state-of-the-art factory that brought me to Slovakia in the first place. You see, my line of work is freelance motoring journalism, and apart from driving different cars, my job can take me around the world.

The latest reason for visiting Slovakia was to test drive the new Ceed. Kia employs around 3,800 people at Zilina; its production lines, having already built 1.27 million Ceeds, are now making the third generation of the model.

Regarding interior quality, the Mk3 Ceed has reached the heights of the VW Golf. In many ways, it’s also worthy enough to contend with the likes of Ford’s Focus and Mercedes-Benz’s A-Class.

Assessing the new five-door hatchback enabled me to investigate Slovakia some more, and chat with colleagues along the way. One young journalist told me he’d struggled to locate the country on a map before flying out with Kia, so it was a pleasure to extol the virtues of it to him.

If truth be told, I’ve often found that Slovakia goes unnoticed by tourists. It really shouldn’t though – and here’s why:

The nation is more serene than the bordering Czech Republic but just as fine in architectural splendour. Slovakia also has a mountain region to challenge the Alps, yet it is less expensive than its other neighbour, Austria.

One of my favourite places is Bratislava. It has transformed since becoming the capital in 1993, and it’s one of the most fascinating border municipalities in Europe.

Whether you’re meandering through the pathways of the Old Town observing the intricate facades of the historic residences, or discovering the splendid Bratislava Castle, the city never disappoints.

There are lots of appealing museums, delightful churches and palaces to explore, with St. Michael’s Gate, the best-preserved part of Bratislava’s former fortification system, another of its highlights.

Just 30 minutes from the centre of the city, you’ll also come across what remains of Devín Castle. The ancient stronghold’s museum reveals its unsettled history and the castle offers breath-taking views of the landscape below.

While Bratislava has the buzz of a capital, life in Košice, the second largest city in the country, is more chilled.

A chocolate-box Central European settlement, its exquisiteness lies in the majesty of St. Elisabeth Cathedral, the stateliness of the Neo-Baroque State Theatre and the cosiness of its small coffee shops.

Housing more historical monuments than anywhere else in the country, Košice is one of Slovakia’s clear high points.

Once done with Košice, Bojnice should be on your list of places to visit. One of the earliest spa towns in the country, it’s best known for its resplendent citadel.

With its superb blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Romantic architecture, and pretty towers, Bojnice Castle would be a picture-perfect setting for any storybook or fantasy film.

Mesmerising to look at outside and in, it’s, justifiably, the most popular tourist spot in the land and a remarkable attraction to explore.

With its stately halls, such as the sumptuous Golden Hall, and its museum, which explains the 12th-century castle’s history, there’s a lot to keep sightseers absorbed.

The fortress has also become a sweet-spot for Instagrammers, due to seemingly infinite photograph and video opportunities.

If you need some fresh air, then the High Tatras mountain range is the place to head after drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of Slovakia’s towns and cities. Its ice-capped peaks, ski resorts and pistes are a real match for the Alps, so winter sports fanatics will be right at home.

Hikers and wildlife lovers will adore the High Tatras mountain region, too. There are many trails to walk and lots of opportunities for bird-watching and spotting bears. You can even book on an adventure tour offering anything from rafting and husky dog sledging to paragliding.

So, I’m happy I became a motoring journalist because, yes, cars are exciting, but the places you get to drive them add so much more to the experience. Kia has helped me become a big fan of Slovakia, and I’d advise anyone to visit.

As for the new Ceed, Kia should be proud. The 1.4-litre T-GDi ‘3’spec did a splendid job of transporting me around. Kia thinks this petrol variant will be the most popular-selling model in the UK, and it’s understandable why. The car is quick, straightforward to drive and quiet, too. What’s more, at £22,605 and with a seven-year warranty, it’s excellent value for money – just like Slovakia is a great value travel destination.