For the 200th post on this site I thought I would reflect on one of the factors that defines Slovakia more than almost anything else: its borders.
Any study of Slovakia alights, sooner or later, upon the issue of borders.
It is an issue ever embedded in the psyche, too, of such a new nation with its geographical position in the very heart of Europe.
Slovakia shares a frontier with five nations: Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland. That’s not many compared, say, to Germany (which borders nine other countries) but it’s enough for a small, fledgling country to contend with. Particularly when it’s still trying to establish itself on grounds its bigger, more powerful neighbours long believed was theirs.
Some of Slovakia’s borders are natural ones. The Danube chisels a frontier along a portion of the southern frontier with Hungary. The Morava river performs a similar role in Slovakia’s west – along the boundary with Austria and the Czech Republic. And in sections of Slovakia’s northern border with Poland, the High Tatras mountains create a rather formidable frontier. Then there is that most talked-about border of all – the border which even if it is not at all geographically obvious forms part of the edge of the European Union, the border with Ukraine, the border that has had millions and millions of Euros spent on fortifying it with fancy security, the border which still leaks a large number of refugees and helps to line the pockets of a fair number of traffickers through its porousness.
And if you make the trip out to some of these frontier-hugging places – Kohutka, say, in the Biele Karpaty on the border with Czech Republic, or Nová Sedlica in the far east on the border with Ukraine, first by car and then on foot because very little of the border is actually road, that porousness is emphasised a hundred-fold. Borders are so much, in Slovakia (they are representative of the centuries for which Slovaks strove to have any place on this planet to call their own at all). But borders are so little at the same time. They are lines in the lonely pine forest. On one side: unbroken kilometres of pines. On the other: unbroken kilometres of pines. And in the middle, a line little wider than a firebreak with a footpath running through it, and perhaps the odd drunkenly leaning sign proclaiming pozor: Štátna hranica, warning: state border.
They might have had meaning in the Communist era, these little lines in the pines. Now they are mostly incredible places to go hiking – with the guarantees the hike will pass directly through the middle of nowhere, yet have the added allure of crossing national boundaries many times. (The Cesta Hrdinov SNP, featured on this site, follows much of Slovakia’s border and is, indeed, Slovakia’s ultimate hike).
Borders do signify other things in the Slovakia of today. On the frontier with Austria, they are both fabulous adventure playgrounds (Devínska Kobyla) and testaments to bygone wars (the bunker museum in Petržalka), on the frontier with Hungary they are both fabulous art museums and vineyards in the Tokaj wine region, hotly-contested between both countries to this day.
But mostly, in Slovakia, borders are lines in the pines. I suppose, coming from Britain, an island that has such definitive borders, and ones which never presented an obstacle to the British colonising a large percentage of the world, these lines in the pines seem so innocuous a frontier: even though for half a century they essentially kept foreigners out, and were therefore far more dramatic than any of the UK’s lofty cliffs.
I like to think of Slovakia’s borders as reminders of the foreign influences that make up its hotchpotch history, too. They add an extra, indefinable aurora to the land on which they lie.
Once, they signified the oppression of Slovaks by other bigger powers, once, you could be shot for trying to cross one of them.
What better way to counteract that sombre past today than by the act of strolling along them to find a spot for a picnic, without a care in the world?