With Dr Felicity Nicholson.
The standard of public health in Slovakia is very good. The tap water is perfectly drinkable, but cheap and beneficial mineral water is also available in shops, cafés, restaurants and hotel minibars (€0.75–1 for a 1.5-litre bottle in shops).
No vaccinations are legally required but it is wise to be up to date with routine vaccinations such as diphtheria, tetanus and polio. This is now given as an all-in-one vaccine (Revaxis) which lasts for ten years. Hepatitis A should also be considered. For those who are going to be working in hospitals or in close contact with children, hepatitis B vaccination is recommended. The course comprises three vaccines over a minimum of 21 days. Rabid deer and foxes roam the Slovak countryside so pre-exposure rabies vaccine (ideally three doses given over a minimum of 21 days) should also be considered for anyone who is going to be working with animals. If you are unfortunate enough to be bitten, scratched or licked over an open wound you should scrub the wound with soap under running water and apply an antiseptic. You should then get to medical help as soon as possible for treatment. Tell the doctor if you have had the pre-exposure course of vaccine as this will change the treatment you need and make it more available in Slovakia.
The sun is very strong in central Europe; this is because the air is still relatively clean as there is not a lot of heavy industry or traffic congestion. Take a supply of suntan lotion and after-sun care, or look in the local shopping mall.
Many people smoke and the concept of non-smoking areas in restaurants has been slow to catch on.
The cuisine can be heavy on the meat and fat, and locals have already joined the world trend towards obesity. Cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) have been reported in cattle in Slovakia. To avoid risk don’t try the often-offered beef tartare, which involves raw meat spread on toast. Alcoholism is not as widespread as in neighbouring countries, but with the availability of powerful, cheap spirits, it’s sensible to watch your intake.
Cases of the H5N8 ‘bird flu’ virus have been detected in wild birds and hens in Slovakia from time to time since 2016; this has never transferred to humans, but birds are culled and protection zones set up following standard EU practice.
People don’t swim in the Danube because of the strong current and pollution, but there are many local lakes where the water is pretty clean (Zlaté Piesky, Senec and Kuchajda Lake in the Nové Mesto district, for example). Mosquitoes are irritating and the Danube in summer is plagued by the little devils. If you stay on a botel (hotel on a boat), take a good supply of insect repellent and cream.
If you intend to go walking or cycling in the countryside remember that a tick bite can cause the potentially deadly disease encephalitis. TBE (tickborne encephalitis) is now endemic in 16 European countries, including Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.
The disease is most prevalent during the warmer spring, summer and autumn months when the ticks are active. Vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis is readily available in the UK and two injections given at least two weeks apart are needed, with a third dose given five to 12 months later if at continued risk. Ticovac is available for adults and children aged one and above. Whether you are immunised or not, you should make sure that you wear suitable clothing, such as a hat and long trousers tucked into boots, and use tick repellents.
Ticks should ideally be removed complete, and as soon as possible, to reduce the chance of infection. You can use special tick tweezers, which can be bought in good travel shops, or failing this your finger nails, grasping the tick as close to your body as possible, and pulling it away steadily and firmly at right angles to your skin without jerking or twisting.
Irritants (eg: Olbas oil) or lit cigarettes are to be discouraged since they can cause the ticks to regurgitate and therefore increase the risk of disease. Once the tick is removed, if possible douse the wound with alcohol (any spirit will do), soap and water, or iodine. If you are travelling with small children, remember to check their heads, and particularly behind the ears, for ticks. Spreading redness around the bite and/or fever and/or aching joints after a tick bite imply that you have an infection that requires antibiotic treatment. In this case seek medical advice.
Bratislava is a safe city for travellers, with a low rate of violent crime. There is, however, a high incidence of petty theft. Pickpockets operate around the main tourist areas, the railway station and in large shopping malls and foreigners are easily identified and targeted. Cameras, mobile phones and small electrical items (computers, games, etc) are as attractive as cash and credit cards. Take sensible precautions against bagsnatching and mugging. Do not leave valuables unattended or anything on show in a hire car.
You will see quite a lot of homeless people in Bratislava, sitting outside Tesco on Kamenné námestie, on Námestie SNP and on Hviezdoslavovo námestie. They are harmless, drinking cheap wine and look too tired to hassle tourists, although I saw one tall homeless man picking on a little Roma lad who always stands outside McDonald’s.
You must carry your passport with you at all times as identification. Keep it safe, in a zipped-up pocket or secure bag and keep a photocopy of the details separately in case you lose it. Contact your embassy in Bratislava immediately if you do lose your passport.
Check restaurant bills; restaurants are legally required to provide a receipt from the electronic till. Taxi drivers have an undeserved reputation for ripping off foreigners. I have taken countless taxis in Bratislava and, with one unfortunate exception, they have been inexpensive and the drivers charming and helpful.
Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as a military establishment or somehow of security interest used to be a problem but everyone’s much more relaxed now. When driving, remember there is a zero tolerance of alcohol and hand-held mobile phone use when driving is also illegal. There are spot fines for speeding or drinking.
When walking around late at night, avoid the stations or deserted parts of town; however, the Old Town is perfectly safe at all times. Travellers with darker skin colour should be aware that there is a nasty rash of nationalist skinheads in parts of Slovakia. They tend to be ‘nerds’ who focus on what they see as historical injustices but they would not be pleasant to encounter in a dark alley.
Slovak men are courteous, if a little old-fashioned regarding women. Feminism is still a fairly new concept here, and women on their own are more likely to be pitied than pestered.
Similarly to its former ‘Eastern Bloc’ neighbours, Slovakia lags behind western Europe in terms of gay rights and attitudes to LGBT+ people. Slovaks are quite conservative and, while not overtly homophobic or aggressive, they would not appreciate kissing, handholding or other public displays of affection between same-sex couples. Discretion is advised.
Travelling with children
Slovaks adore children and Bratislava is a very safe destination for travellers with young ones. The city is packed with many child-friendly venues such as playgrounds, parks (page 180) and Bratislava Zoo/DinoPark. British visitors might be surprised to see adults giving up their seat on the tram for a perfectly healthy five-year-old.