Mikulov Castle, in a wine-growing region of the Czech Republic close to Slovakia.
Photos by Jana Liptáková
There is a lot of nonsense written and spoken about the so-called 'fraternal bonds' between nations. In this region, the hypocrisy of such rhetoric was demonstrated most clearly among the post-WWII communist states. 'Fraternity' counted for very little, other than as a cynical fig-leaf of justification, when it came to the invasion, occupation and humiliation of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 by their neighbouring Soviet 'brothers'.
But insofar as nations can be brothers the Czechs and Slovaks are. In fact, it's hard to think of two other nations with such close bonds.
That's not to say that they don't bicker: more than fifteen years on, there is still some griping over the division of assets that took place when the two nations split. But given that 1993 really was a divorce, its 'velvet' sobriquet is apt. As break-ups go, this one has been remarkably amicable. After all, close linguistic relations and a shared history are no guarantee of harmony - just ask the Serbs and the Croats.
A small but vociferous group of Slovak nationalists continue to keep up a drumbeat of complaint about what they regard as Czechs' supposed lack of respect for Slovaks during the Czechoslovak periods. But among all their neighbours, it is the Czechs of whom Slovaks speak most fondly. Family ties are strong: many Slovaks have Czech relations.
In fact, the Czechs and Slovaks came together relatively late in life. Before 1918, they had lived in semi-detached units within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czech lands were once an independent kingdom; by the nineteenth century they were administered from Vienna, but enjoyed considerable autonomy, particularly in terms of the use of the Czech language. This set the Czechs apart from their neighbours across the Morava, whose use of Slovak was being made increasingly difficult by Budapest.
The two languages were - and are - very similar, and this was a major factor in creating the common community from which Czechoslovakia emerged, and which still exists, albeit informally.
There are some concerns about whether the mutual intelligibility of the two languages can be sustained. It would be a terrible shame if it were not. Slovaks and Czechs think nothing of it, but there is something rather marvellous about two nations who routinely conduct conversations in which each uses their own language, yet perfectly understands the other's.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that comprehension of Slovak among the younger generation in the Czech Republic is waning, since Czechs are no longer exposed to it as a matter of course via the media (the reverse is less true since Czech TV, films and other media are widely available in Slovakia).
But significant numbers of Slovak students still go to Czech universities to study, where they continue to use Slovak, apparently with few problems.