Though it's hard to credit for a country which actually prohibits the registration of right-hand drive vehicles*, Slovaks originally drove on the left-hand side of the road. In fact, they were still doing so within living memory. Czechoslovakia inherited the sinister habits of the Austro-Hungarian Empire upon its creation in 1918 and seemed loth to change: despite half-hearted promises to do so, it wasn't until German occupation of the Czech lands in 1939 that they finally switched over.
Slovakia actually began the process in 1938, but appears to have adopted a rather relaxed approach since some areas were reportedly still driving on the left as late as 1941 (which must have made for amusing cross-country driving experiences). Experience in modern-day Slovakia suggests that some drivers have yet to fully buy in to the change.
Slovaks, in common with the citizens of many otherwise-civilised nations, have an occasional and unfortunate tendency to undergo Jekyll-and-Hyde-style transformation when placed behind the wheel. It would be a pity if their recklessness were to spoil your day, so here are a few (stereo)types to watch out for:
- The Škoda 105-driving rustic: frequently observed sporting a slightly-soiled trilby. Will rarely exceed 40km/h (though his home-welded trailer might). Not a direct threat to you, though that truck slewing into your path as it attempts to pass him on a blind corner will be.
- Miro Fandango: all you'll see is the flash of go-faster stripes on his ageing BMW or over-adorned Škoda Octavia as he weaves in and out (but mostly out) of the traffic behind you before attempting an overtaking manoeuvre of heroic yet catastrophic ambition as his elaborately-made up companion all the while maintains an expression of impassioned indifference. Miro will typically be observed wearing shades, gripping the top of the steering wheel with one hand and sat in a curious position: tilted slightly towards the centre of the car, as if unsure of his exact road position, while at the same time slightly hunched, as if ready to dodge the next bullet. Gangsta-rappers have a lot to answer for, even here.
Taking a wide line: sometimes the centre of the road is the safest place to be.
Photos by James Thomson
- Vladimír the ‘businessman’: legacy ‘profits’ from a canny ‘privatisation’ ‘deal’ in the 1990s have equipped Vlado with a new Porsche Cayenne, or similarly overpowered set of German wheels (Audi A8s are another favourite), and the delusion that all the world is his autobahn. Failure to excuse yourself from the fast lane of the highway in a suitably prompt and deferential fashion as he approaches at warp speed will result in Vlado furiously flashing his headlights, then proceeding to tailgate you microns from your rear bumper.
The highway system has improved a lot in recent years. Billiard-table smooth multi-lane asphalt now extends almost all the way to Žilina and, if the government's promises are to be believed, will reach Košice some time soon. Don't forget to buy a highway sticker for your windscreen if you intend to use it. However, turn off the highway and the asphalt and road signs sometimes struggle to keep up. In cities, the odd, small sign pointing to your destination will occasionally appear in some improbable place or at an obscure junction, the lonely-looking pole to which it is attached leaning at a crazy angle.
For some strange reason, signs pointing to the 'Centrum' frequently appear just after you have passed the turn-off to which they refer. Take a deep breath and enjoy the view as you orbit the town in question. Žilina earns full marks in this respect for its impressively large and apparently pointless system of looping concrete flyovers with which you can amuse yourself while waiting for a likely-looking junction to appear.
The open road, near Muránska planina in Banská Bystrica Region.
Photos by James Thomson
Don't be fooled by the white-striped pedestrian crossings painted on the roads in every town and city: they are largely decorative. The idea that cars should give way at such crossings seems rarely to occur either to drivers or to pedestrians (to test this, if you are driving a car, stop at one and watch the cautious expressions of disbelief among those waiting to cross; they will step gingerly into your path only after friendly smiles and exhortations on your part demonstrate that you are an eccentric foreigner, and hence less likely to mow them down).
On a serious note, if you are a pedestrian or are with children in towns, be aware that urban speed limits are often surprisingly high (until recently, 60 kilometres per hour (km/h), though this was recently lowered to 50km/h). Given the tendency to speed, this means cars and vans often barrel along city streets at closer to 70 or 80km/h (about 50 miles per hour). No matter how crazy this seems (and is), remember to keep young children on a tight leash if you are anywhere near a road.
*Don't panic if you're bringing a car from Britain or Ireland (or Cyprus or Malta): foreign-registered right-hand drive cars are allowed.