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: Poland

By James Thomson

    The mountains of southern Poland, near Zakopane.
 The mountains of southern Poland, near Zakopane.
 Photos by James Thomson

If Slovakia's relations with Austria or Hungary can sometimes seem rather prickly, they are at least conspicuous. Those with its big northern neighbour Poland, by contrast, verge on the invisible.

This, on the face of it, is remarkable. Poland, in terms of both population and geography is Slovakia' second-biggest neighbour. It is, by some margin, the largest neighbouring economy. The two countries, while not exactly sharing a language, can more or less understand each other's Slavic tongues.

One only has to watch the trucks constantly thundering across the border in northern Orava, or over the Dukla Pass in the east, to appreciate the amount of goods being moved between the two countries, even if a large portion of it is in transit to destinations elsewhere.

But for most Slovaks Poland means shopping, if it means anything at all. Trips to the large markets of southern Poland were a common experience in the 1990s, and enjoyed a renaissance during early 2009 as the zloty’s declining value sucked in Slovak consumers, now brandishing euros, once again.

But if you ask ‘What does Poland mean to you?’, many Slovaks will shrug their shoulders. The ambivalence has a lot to do with shared experience - or rather a lack of it.

Poland and Slovakia, separated by the long arc of the Carpathians, have led separate existences for most of their histories.

Poland and Czechoslovakia had a series of small but unpleasant border disputes during the inter-war period. Poland seized some bits of northern Slovakia during the dismemberment of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1938; newly independent Slovakia repaid the favour by helping Germany to invade its neighbour in September 1939.

But the disputes were formally settled in the 1950s and there is no lingering sense of anomie.

Poland's wartime experience was considerably more traumatic than Slovakia's and its relationships with Germany and Russia were - and remain - more important.

One thing Slovaks and Poles do share is a similar cuisine. The noble cabbage figures prominently on menus in both places. The Polish national dish, pierogi (a kind of ravioli-like pasta filled with almost anything, but most commonly cheese, meat or mushrooms), is also typical for some regions of northern Slovakia, where it is known as bryndzové pirohy, filled with potatoes and bryndza (sheep's cheese).

Cheese was the subject of a recent falling out between the two countries when Slovakia wanted to register oštiepok - a smoked sheep's cheese - at the same time as the Poles put forward their equivalent, oszczypek. EU rules mean registered products can only be sold as such if they are made in a designated area. But in a classic European compromise they agreed to register what is essentially the same product under two different names.

The other important thing which the two nations share are the High Tatra mountains - and their traditional inhabitants, the Gorals, whose language, despite being a mixture of Slovak and Polish seems mostly unintelligible to native speakers of either.

Michaela Stanková contributed to this article.

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

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