I was invited by Zuzana Zentková of In Form Slovakia to travel from Berlin to Bratislava, Slovakia, to keynote the Daily Web Conference. Not only had I never been to Slovakia, I had never really thought about the country, focusing mostly on the Czech Republic instead of the Slovak Republic. My tickets were booked from Berlin to Vienna because, I discovered, Vienna is only 63 kilometers away from Bratislava -- only a half-hour away by some fast highways.
So, here are my impressions after a few days there, having lived the high life. The organizers of the conference drove me from the hotel and back, they kept me in a gorgeous room at MaMaison residence and the conference was at the stunning Rotunda pod Slavínom building at the highest point in Bratislava.
Bratislava is a town to explore on foot, bus and tram. There are some very new cars but I am told that Slovakians are having a tough time adjusting to loans, credit and leasing. When they buy cars, they pay cash. In general, Slovakians only buy what they can afford, which means that there are very aggressive "no cash down" and "no money for a year" incentives to seduce Slovakians into buying on credit. The same goes for mortgages and other forms of borrowing.
As a result, there are many taxis, trams and buses on the road. Mostly, though, people walk. I didn't see a lot of motorcycles, scooters or bicycles. There isn't a subway system, but there is a world of pedestrian underpasses linking sidewalks together, freeing up the roads for traffic. As a result, there is a strong reliance on very modest-but-plentiful, eye-level advertisements. In Bratislava, the biggest ads are for car insurance, cars, telecoms (especially T-Mobile and Orange), banking, credit, Christmas and for upcoming events. It seems to me that you can make a lot of assumptions based on the sort of ads you can see on the street. By far, the biggest advertiser in downtown Bratislava is Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile.
One of the most impressive ads in the entire city sheaths the National bank of Slovakia. A Euro coin emblazons the entire site, with the base encircled with all the bill denominations of the Euro available. It is pretty impressive to behold. Slovakia, is a member of the EU, currently accepting both euros and Slovak koruna. Come Jan. 1, the Slovak Republic will complete its conversion over to the euro. There is no longer any border between Austria and Slovakia. You can easily see the wind farms of verdant Austrian farms from Bratislava high ground. Even though Bratislava is close to Western Europe, Slovakia is so far truly a world away. This is still a country in development. It felt to me like lots of people don't have a lot.
Still, Bratislava has leapfrogged from simple technology to a very strong and ubiquitous 3.5G telecoms infrastructure -- and this leapfrogging often bypasses laptops, DSL and even home computers, I am told by the savvy and world-class high-tech participants of the conference. Jan Horna, the Daily Web conference moderator, told me that there are over two GSM SIM cards for every Slovakian.
I only had three days in Slovakia so my experience is limited; however, Bratislava is a city to watch, especially as the Euro becomes the official -- and sole -- currency of Slovakia in less than a couple months.