A rather strange court case made the news recently when the deposed king of the make-believe Wallachian Kingdom lost a seven year legal battle with his former ‘foreign minister’ over the copyright to the fictitious realm. The Wallachian Kingdom – which has its own passports and currency - started as a practical joke, but soon grew into the most successful tourist venture in the country. And confusingly, it’s situated in the real Moravian region of Wallachia. Our reporter Rob Cameron went there to find out what all the fuss was about.
Far, far away from anywhere, in a wooden pub in the middle of a forest, a short and rather rotund man called Olin Kutáč is leading a rousing chorus of what he claims is the Wallachian national anthem. Dressed in traditional Wallachian clothes and wearing a large, pointy black shepherd’s hat, Olin doesn't have to try very hard to get his fellow Wallachs – fortified by glasses of slivovica or Wallachian plum brandy - singing along.
Olin describes himself as the Prime Minister of the Wallachian Kingdom. Plastered over the walls of his mountain-top pub are photos of himself standing alongside a host of celebrities and public figures, from the Czech president Václav Klaus to the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo. Olin, as you've probably guessed, is proud of his roots.
"In 1620, at the Battle of White Mountain, the Prague troops were wiped out by the Austrians and everyone else ran away. The only ones who stayed to fight were 800 soldiers from Moravia. Of those 800, 689 were Wallachian. That says all you need to know about the Wallachs."
Let’s just get this straight because I can tell some of you are already getting confused. Wallachia is a real place. It's a mountainous region in the south-east corner of Moravia about the size of Luxembourg. It was settled over many centuries by migrating Romanian shepherds called 'Vlachs', herding their sheep westwards along the mighty Carpathian mountain range.
The Wallachian Kingdom, however, is not real. It’s a fantasy kingdom that was started as a practical joke ten years ago but has since grown into a highly successful tourist venture. And as Olin explains, becoming a subject of the kingdom is rather more straightforward than herding sheep over the Carpathian Mountains.
“To become a Wallach all you need to do is spend seven days in Wallachia and drink a litre of plum brandy per day. We've got consulates all over the world; there's one in Canada, one in New Zealand. So it's very easy to arrange."
Olin is one of the men who've dominated the Wallachian Kingdom over the last decade. But the man who started it all – the man who created the trappings of Wallachian statehood such as the fake passports and the make-believe Wallachian currency – is Tomáš Harabiš, the so-called 'Foreign Minister' of Wallachia.
“Wallachia is a real place with real people and real history, but a lot of the attributes of the Wallachian Kingdom are not real.”
Like the passports and the currency and so on.
“Yes – the passport isn’t an official document.”
“Yes, we have reports that there are always problems with a Czech passport, but a Wallachian passport – even if you go to Africa or anywhere else, you don’t really need to show it to customs officers.”
Right, that’s quite an achievement for a foreign minister of a country that doesn’t exist.
“Yes, it is. Even I crossed the Canadian-U.S. border – between the Yukon and Alaska – with it. When I crossed the border into Alaska I got the stamp in my Wallachian passport, and when I decided to show the Czech passport, that’s when the problems started. So this was proof that a Wallachian passport is easy to travel with, and the Czech passport is the problem.”
So far we’ve heard from two of the kingdom’s most senior officials. But we haven’t heard from its deposed monarch – King Boleslav I. First, here’s a bit of background to this tale of royal intrigue.
Every kingdom, of course, needs a king. Back in 1993, four years before Tomáš Harabiš created the Wallachian Kingdom, a popular comic actor and trained clown named Bolek Polívka, had himself crowned "Wallachian King, Boleslav I the Gracious, Forever" in an elaborate TV sketch. So in 1997, when Tomáš was casting around for Wallachian personalities to help bring the kingdom alive, Bolek Polívka was the obvious choice for King.
In the beginning it was a harmonious relationship. King Boleslav put his royal seal on the passports, and appeared at lavish events organised by his Foreign Minister Tomáš. But as the idea grew more successful – as more and more local hotels, restaurants and breweries saw the potential of encouraging people to visit this little-known region – the two sides began to argue about money. Tomáš Harabiš again.
"The moment when King Boleslav became king, he started confusing this fiction with a real position in the kingdom. So he was trying to rule the economy of the kingdom, which was very important for the stability and the idea, because we didn't create a kingdom only for just a one-day joke. We created it forever."
That’s Tomáš Harabiš’ side of the story. So what about Bolek Polívka? Unfortunately A series of phone calls, emails and text messages failed to procure an royal audience. So here he is speaking to Czech Television about the case earlier this year:
"For me the main thing is to stop Mr Harabiš preventing us from having a laugh. He claims that because he owns the copyright to the kingdom, I am not the King of Wallachia, and that I’m misleading the public. I don’t think he should be allowed to get away with it.”
King Boleslav, as far as Tomáš is concerned, no longer has the right to call himself Wallachian King. Back in 2001, Tomáš led a palace coup, announcing that Boleslav I had been overthrown, and installing a 'Queen Mother' to rule the troubled kingdom in his place.
The King's lawyers were not amused. In 2002, they filed a lawsuit to stop Tomáš Harabiš from using the "Wallachian Kingdom" trademark he had registered in 1998, claiming he was profiting unlawfully from Bolek Polívka's name. As we’ve heard, Bolek has lost that court case, and Tomáš Harabiš has been established as the true heir of the kingdom.
Meanwhile, the kingdom goes from strength to strength. Almost 90,000 people now own a Wallachian passport, and 10,000 or so are well on their way to becoming fully-fledged Wallachian citizens. Tomáš has just established a (make-believe) 'University of the Wallachian Kingdom', with its fictional 'Faculty of Distilling and Slivovica Science'. So why do Czechs take their practical joking so seriously? Philosopher Erazim Kohak says the roots lie in the country's communist past:
"A totalitarian regime, in principle, cannot let its people grow up, because mature people claim freedom and responsibility. So it seems to me that it's a childlike streak which can be very delightful. As an obsession, it is dangerous, because it distorts your sense of reality."
Sitting in a pub in the middle of nowhere, warmed by several glasses of slivovica - your sense of reality certainly is distorted. Just what is the Wallachian Kingdom? Is it a practical joke, created for no other reason than having fun? Or is a tourist project, set up to make money? Well it's both of those things, and, confusingly, it's in a real historical region of the same name. Perhaps the only way to decide is to see it for yourself.