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Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian, Pressburg in German) is Slovakia's largest city and has been the capital since 1969. Here the Carpathian Mountains, which begin at the Iron Gate of Romania, finally come to an end. As you arrive at the main train station, you'll see vineyards on the slopes of the Little Carpathian Mountains, where they meet the Danube River. The Austrian border is almost within sight of the city and Hungary is just 16km away. Many beautiful monuments survive in the old town to tell of its past under Hungarian rule, and Bratislava's numerous museums are surprisingly rich. Franz Lizst visited Bratislava 15 times, and the opera productions of the Slovak National Theatre rival anything in Europe. Bratislava isn't as swamped by Western tourism as are Budapest and Prague (except on weekends when the Austrians invade).The old city and the castle are the best parts of Bratislava - the rest of the city is pretty drab. The old city is packed with museums (such as the Municipal Museum which comes complete with torture chambers and the Museum of Wine Production) and palaces (such as the Primate's Palace, where Napoleon and the Austrian Emperor Franz I signed a peace treaty in 1805, and the rococo Mirbach Palace). The castle, built above the Danube, was a frontier post of the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 5th century. Since the 9th century it has been rebuilt several times, most recently between 1953 and 1962. Climb up for the great views and to check out the very interesting Museum of Folk Music within. The Slovak National Museum and the Slovak National Gallery on the river are also worth a visit.Hviezdoslavovo námestie (square) is a convenient orientation point, with the old town to the north, the Danube to the south, and Bratislava Castle to the west. Bratislava's main train station, Hlavná stanica, is several km north of town. Most of the cheaper hostels and mid-priced hotels are north-east of the centre. The food market in the centre of town is a good place to eat; there are ritzier restaurants in the vicinity of the castle.

Spissky hrad

Spissky hrad (Zipser Burg) is the largest castle in Slovakia. The castle was founded in 1209, wrecked by the Tatars in the 13th century and reconstructed in the 15th century. Although the castle burnt down in 1780, the ruins and the site are spectacular. The highest enclosure contains a round Gothic tower, a cistern, a chapel and a rectangular Romanesque palace perched over the abyss. Instruments of torture are exhibited in the dungeon. The 12th-century town of Spisské Podhradie is below the castle; it's accessible via the main line from Poprad to Kosice.

The Malá Fatra National Park

The Malá Fatra (Little Fatra) Mountains stretch 50km across north-western Slovakia; Velký Kriván (1709m/5605ft)) is the highest peak. At the heart of the national park is Vrátna, a beautiful mountain valley with forested slopes on all sides. Hiking possibilities vary from easy tourist tracks through the forest to scenic ridge walks; in winter the valley transforms into a popular ski resort. There are plenty of places to stay and eat, though midsummer accommodation is tight. The Malá Fatra is an easy day trip from Zilina, Central Slovakia's pleasant, untouristy main town.

The Vysoké Tatry

The Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras) are the only truly alpine mountains in Eastern Europe and one of the smallest high mountain ranges in the world. Narrow rocky crests soar above wide glacial valleys with precipitous walls. The lower slopes are covered by dense coniferous forest. Enhancing the natural beauty packed into this relatively small area (260 sq km/100 sq mi) are 30 valleys, almost 100 glacial lakes and numerous bubbling streams. A network of 600km (372mi) of hiking trails reaches all the alpine valleys and many peaks. The red-marked Tatranská magistrála trail follows the southern crest of the Vysoké Tatry for 65km (40mi) through a striking variety of landscapes.August and September are the best months for high-altitude hiking; July and August are the warmest and most crowded months. Snow can begin falling as early as September and the higher trails are closed from November to about April, when skiiers flock to the area. The best centre for visitors is Stary Smokovec, a turn-of-the-century resort that is well connected to the rest of the country by road and rail.

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