These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Meet the neighbours: Austria

By James Thomson

    Schloss Hof, an Austrian stately home open to the public, just over the border from Slovakia.
 Schloss Hof, an Austrian stately home open to the public, just over the border from Slovakia.
 Photos by Jana Liptáková

For two countries that are so physically close, Slovakia and Austria have an oddly distant relationship.

Their two capitals may be just an hour's drive apart but history has conspired to consign them - until very recently - to different worlds.

During the Middle Ages, Slovakia fell within Hungary's orbit. Even after the Hungarian and Austrian royal houses merged in the sixteenth century, modern-day Slovakia continued to come under Hungarian and not Austrian administration.

During the twentieth century, despite a celebrated tramcar connection between Vienna and Bratislava (it terminated near the Hotel Carlton), Austria's international relations with Czechoslovakia were conducted via Prague.

During the wartime period that Slovakia was briefly independent Austria was not (having been absorbed into Nazi Germany in the Anschluss of 1938), and Bratislava dealt with - or rather, received its orders from - Berlin.

With Nazi Germany's defeat and the reconstitution of Czechoslovakia in 1945 the situation reversed itself again.

Then as Czechoslovakia proceeded to fall within Moscow's post-war orbit Austria somehow escaped it. Even when the Iron Curtain finally came down in 1989, Slovakia had become a federal republic but not yet an independent state.

Relations with the newly independent state after 1993 remained awkward over issues like Slovakia's nuclear power stations, to which Austria objected - and continues to object - prompted by its strong anti-nuclear lobby and concerns about the safety of its neighbour's Soviet-designed reactors.

Nevertheless, Austrian investors and visitors have long been an important source of income for Slovakia, and Slovaks an important source of labour and skills for the Austrian economy. Many Slovak families - especially in Bratislava and the west of the country - relied on income earned in Austria to maintain their standards of living during the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.

Despite this, Austria continues to maintain some of the restrictions on the free movement of labour for citizens of the 'new' EU member states - Slovakia included - which most of the rest of the union's members have erased. In terms of bureaucracy, it's still easier for the average Slovak to go and look for work in Dublin, say, than it is for him or her to go and do the same in Vienna.

Even tourist travel is occasionally disrupted. An incident at the border in March 2009, during which everyone on a newly inaugurated city bus line from Bratislava to Hainburg, the nearest town in Austria, was hauled off the admittedly overcrowded bus and subjected to ID checks by Austrian border police, helped rekindle unhappy memories of earlier border delays. Things calmed down, but only after the matter had escalated to ministerial level.

Other intergovernmental relations are generally good and travel between the two countries is normally smooth. In fact, as Slovak roads and other public infrastructure have improved, the superficial differences between the two countries have become gradually fewer in recent years.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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