Passports, pastry and polemics
The Czech town of Stramberk near the border of Poland is the seat of the Kingdom of Wallachia, the figment of a marketer’s overactive imagination. Tomas Harabis issued passports to the tongue-in-cheek mini-nation and established it in the hearts of the people with a flag, currency, stamps, a patron saint and a beer god.
Despite a coup that resulted in a court case and a deposed monarch, the economy of the fictional kingdom flourishes, so much so that the townspeople are building beautiful new homes off the money they get from tourists to their idyllic town.
If you go: Try a tasty ear! Legend has it that the Mongols used to slice the ears off people who annoyed them. In the spirit of making a profit out of a painful situation you can buy a gingerbread “ear” filled with fruit nestled in rich cream. The entire town of Stramberk smells like gingerbread.
Our tour guide Peter encourages us to change our thinking. How you think about the heart of Europe (calling these countries Eastern Europe offends the residents; if I tried to explain I’d have a Master’s thesis) changes depending on what framework you use: history—who held the power; ethnicity—what backgrounds and religious faiths make up the population; geography—where borders get drawn and redrawn; and generations—what people have experienced. For example, after the communist regime fell, opportunities opened up for the young people with language and computer skills, but their parents lost their jobs and the security they depended on under communism.
Loss is a theme in this part of the world. With every regime change whole populations lose their homes and this has been going on for centuries. There have been bright spots: when a king was generous with his people (good King Charles IV of Prague); when peace settled long enough for the people to get ahead (early twentieth century) and today, with the establishment of the European Union and open borders, although some would disagree.
The young people have hope. They value education, enjoy travel and embrace change. That’s as lovely to see as the stunning architecture in the city squares.