Slovakia (Slovak: Slovensko) is a landlocked republic in Central Europe with a population of over five million. It is a member of the European Union (since May 1, 2004) and borders Czech Republic and Austria in the west, Poland in the north, Ukraine in the east and Hungary in the south. The largest city is its capital, Bratislava. The Slovak landscape is noted primarily for its mountainous nature, with the Carpathian Mountains extending across most of the northern half of the country. Amongst them are the high peaks of the Tatra mountains, where the High Tatras are a popular skiing destination and home to many scenic lakes and valleys as well as the highest point in Slovakia, the Gerlachovský štít at 2,655 metres (8,711 ft). Major Slovak rivers, besides the Danube, are the Váh and the Hron. The Slovak climate is temperate, with relatively warm summers and cold, cloudy and humid winters. In terms of tourism, Slovakia is an up-and-coming European Union country. Tourism and food in Slovakia remains relatively cheap as compared to Western Europe, but prices are currently adapting very quickly to the continental market. Slovakia is particularly noted for its numerous mountain ski resorts, historic cities, caves, wooden churches, national parks and other natural features. Some 40 percent of Slovakia is forested. Slovakia's forests are home to brown bears, wolves, foxes, wild boars, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, and muskrats. Chamois and lynx can be seen in mountain areas. As one of few good heritages from the former Communist regime, Slovakia features an extraordinarily high percentage of national parks and other protected area spaces (see National Parks in Slovakia). There are hardly any mountain ranges and areas not under some form of protection. One of Slovakia's main tourist attractions are the Alpine Tatra Mountains (see Tatra, High Tatras, Vysoké Tatry and Low Tatras for details), the highest part of the Carpathians. They feature many rare plant and animal species and offer numerous ski, mountain walking and mountaineering opportunities. The High Tatras have been a final candidate for the Winter Olympics several times. Rivers and streams in the mountains of Slovakia are often used for rafting and other white-water based activities. Using boats, kayaks and canoes is also very popular in Slovakia (and the country has won many of its Olympic medals in these sports). The use of rafts has a very long tradition in Slovakia and especially rafts on the spectacular Dunajec river are very popular among tourists. Slovakia's karst areas offer an extremely high number of caves and their list is being expanded every year due to new discoveries. The number of caves per capita is the highest one or among the highest ones in Europe. Thirteen caves are open to the public, the longest one of which is 9 km long. Some of them have been proclaimed UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Among them, Ochtinská Aragonite Cave is one of three aragonite caves in the world. Slovakia is reputed to be one of the countries with the highest number of fortified castles (most of which are unfortunately ruined) per capita in the world. In the Middle Ages, castles or at least forts were built in proximity of virtually every settlement. The best known castles are the Bojnice Castle (featuring in many international movies, especially fairy tales), Spiš Castle (the largest fortified castle in Europe, on the UNESCO list), Orava Castle, Bratislava Castle (some 4,000 years old) and the ruins of the Devín Castle. The Cachtice Castle used to be home of the world's most prolific female serial killer, the 'Bloody Lady', Elizabeth Báthory. Ancient stone churches can be found in virtually any village and town in Slovakia. Most of them are built in the Baroque style, but there are also many examples of fine Romanesque and Gothic architecture (for example in Banská Bystrica, Bardejov, and Spišská Kapitula). The St. James Church in Levoca (with the highest wood-carved altar in the world) and the Church of the Holy Spirit in Žehra (with precious medieval frescos) are UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Other highlight is the St. Martin's Concathedral in Bratislava, which served as the coronation church of the ancient Kingdom of Hungary. The oldest sacral buildings in Slovakia stem from the Great Moravian period (9th century). Very precious - and expensive to maintain - structures are the complete wooden churches of northern and northern-eastern Slovakia. Most were built from the 15th century onwards by Catholics, Lutherans and members of eastern-rite churches. Slovakia is also rich in songs, dances, folk art, folk costumes and folk architecture. Complete original historic villages however have been preserved only in some cases, such as in Cicmany, Vlkolínec (UNESCO site), Brhlovce, Špania Dolina, Osturna, Podbiel, Stará Hora in Sebechleby, Plavecký Peter, Velké Leváre and Ždiar. The Dielo shops network sells works of Slovak artists and craftsmen. These shops are mostly found in larger towns. Typical souvenirs from Slovakia are dolls dressed in folk costumes, ceramic objects, crystal glass, carved wooden figures, crpáks (wooden pitcher), fujaras (a folk instrument on the UNESCO list) and valaškas (a decorated folk hatchet) and above all products made from corn husks and wire, notably human figures. Such typically Slovak souvernirs can be bought in the shopd of the state organisation ÚLUV (Ústredie ludovej umeleckej výroby - Center of Folk Art Production). Shopping is possible in most towns and cities in large shopping malls, municipal markets, and small shops. Prices of imported products are generally the same as in the neighbouring countries, whereas prices of local products and services, especially food, are usually much lower.
Alternative: Winter description

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