Two eastern Europes exist in my mind. One found in maps and another which sits between those the borders, populated by countries which only exist in fiction.
Perhaps it’s the turbulent history of the region, with real borders often in flux, or maybe it’s the location, far enough to feel exotic but close enough to be familiar, but Eastern Europe has proven to be an unusually fertile location for writers seeking to create new locales. There’s something about the area that makes it easy to believe there could be unknown countries there we’d just never spotted before.
These countries can be ciphers for real places or portmanteaus of many. They come from the realms of everything from political satire to romantic adventures. At their best though they can feel so real, and so enticing they almost feel as if we could visit them. For anyone else that has felt the urge to visit an Eastern Europe that doesn’t exist on any map I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite fictional countries and where you might find their real world counterparts.
First introduced in The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, Ruritania is the classic example of a fictional country and is perhaps where the trend began. Ruritania is the backdrop for a series of classic swashbuckling adventure stories revolving around plots to usurp the throne. The books were so popular that they inspired an entire literary sub-genre of Ruritanian romances set in similar fantasy states. Ruritania has a classic fantasy landscape filled with castles and medieval towns that seems equal parts Slavic and German. Strelsau, the beautiful capital of Ruritania is supposed to be only a few hours train ride away from Dresden which means that Hope probably had Prague and parts of the Czech Republic in mind when he was writing.
Coming from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Zubrowka is Ruritania’s snowier alpine cousin. Throughout the course of the film the hotel of the title, along with Zubrowka around it, transforms from an opulent example of old european grandeur into a faded communist shell. It’s never the less always beautiful, melancholic, chocolate box of a country. Large parts of the exterior shots for The Grand Budapest were shot in the town of Gorlitz on the border between Germany and Poland so heading they’re you’re most likely to find the Zubrowka that was shown in the film. Alternatively Zubrowka is named for a type of flavoured Vodka that comes from the east of Poland along the border with Belarus so you could try heading to Bialystok, Brest or the Białowieża national park.
Cagliostro is the setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro starring the cult Manga hero and gentleman thief Lupin III. The Grand Duchy of Cagliostro is a tiny state that consists of a huge castle high up in the mountains and ruled over by the villainous Count of Cagliostro. The real life Count of Cagliostro is one of my favourite historical figures, an adventurer, occultist and fraudster who was born as Giuseppe Balsamo an Italian commoner who rose to power and influence by claiming to be a foreign nobleman. This sets the scene for the type of intrigue and skullduggery that goes on in Cagliostro. Europe still has a handful of city states on the scale of Cagliostro left, with the most likely candidates for Cagliostro being Liechtenstein or San Marino, both fit the mountainous setting and each have more than their fair share of castles.
The excellent and brilliantly original “Bureaucracy-em-up” game Papers, Please is set at the border checkpoint of Arstotzka. You play the overworked and underpaid border guard whose duty is to check the ever more complicated documentation of those entering the country from the equally fictitious neighbouring states of Obristan, Kolechia, Republia, Antegria, Impor and the United Federation. While border guards are rarely high on a list of people travellers are fond of it’s a game I’d recommend to anyone. Arstotzka is a depressing, grey, communist dystopia but enough of the characters in Papers, Please seem to want to get in so it stands to reason it must have something to going for it. The worlds most famous contentious border point is Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and there’s loads of good museums nearby which will give you a good taste of what life was like before the wall came down. The region which Arstotzka is most reminiscent of though is the collection of countries that used to form Yugoslavia; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. They all bear the scars of soviet regimes and civil war but are thankfully all a bit nicer than Arstotzka these days.
There’s many more fictional countries I’d love to have included on this list, Freedonia, Latveria, Cimmeria, Trans-Carpathia just to name a few but I think these will do for now. Another region which deserves an honourable mention is Transylvania. It didn’t make the cut purely because it’s a real region within Romania however I don’t think anywhere else has taken on such a life of its own within the realms of fiction and it’s definitely pretty high on my list of places to visit soon.
So what do you think? Are there any I’ve missed? Which fictional countries would you most like to visit and where do you think they can be found? Let me know in the comments.