The Guardian


Hidden gem?

Maev Kennedy visits Molvania, a land so far off the beaten track that no one knows where to find it

Saturday May 1, 2004
The Guardian

Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch
296pp, Jetlag Travel Guide, £8.99
As the EU flings its arms wide to embrace the new members of the family, legions of travellers will be pondering a suddenly richer, broader, and stranger holiday horizon. I cannot commend too highly this superb guide to a terra which, I am prepared to wager a fistful of Molvanian struvls, has been the most incognita of all.

Many elements of the country's culture and topography will be instantly recognisable to seasoned wanderers: the bald mountains and the bare plains - a remarkable landscape now under consideration by Unesco as a world heritage site, cited as "a site of significant monotony" - the ancient towns and the sometimes startling impact on them of Soviet-era concrete brutalism, the friendly but notably unobsequious welcome for strangers, and the heavy emphasis in the native diet on the pig, the cabbage and the beet.

Its history, at a crossroads of Europe tramped by every invader from east or west, north or south, is tragic and tragically often overlooked. The brutal pragmatism of the country's first king and patron saint, Fyodor I - who "set about unifying his country by killing off as many of its citizens as he could. Those not murdered or imprisoned were forced into teaching" - should be more familiar to every European schoolchild.

I am certain that I stayed in the former Carmelite convent in Bardjov - a town famous for its bitter prevailing wind and its massive cement works, said to have inspired Shakespeare's spiteful lines "Curs'd dominion foul poxen layer". The beautifully converted convent is justly listed in the "luxury accommodation" category, which notes the "real eye for period detail" of the designer. "For example each room features a large wooden crucifix that opens to reveal a fully stocked mini-bar."

I believe I actually crossed the path of one of the contributors, Philippe Miseree ("a professional traveller since his youth, there is not a city or town Philippe has not recently been disappointed by", as the guide describes him). We bumped into one another, alas, at the Boots travel sickness remedies counter in Heathrow Terminal 3, not in Molvania's Katflaap nightclub where we might have swapped travellers' tales over a garlic vodka. Miseree contributes many of the shrewdest observations: "Why pay for a bland westernised meal in an overpriced tourist café when, for half the cost, a street vendor will sell you a piece of salted cod and a bag of lemon rind?" he remarks of the tourist traps on the outer fringes of the Postenwalj national park. More timid travellers may find themselves in the Gostinka Lec, washing down a bowl of zucchini fritters with a glass of the garden-loving host's speciality, sparkling zucchini beer.

Despite the superficial familiarity of much of the material - who has not shared the experience, reported to the guide by recent visitors, of being physically attacked by their hotel owners when they came down a few minutes late to breakfast? - it takes this book to tease out the country's uniquely Molvanian qualities: the national fascination with dentistry as a spectactor sport; the beautiful national park, now largely restored after the chemical spill incident; the surprising range of desserts based on parsnips; and ancient Gyorik, home of bubonic plague. You could describe this guide as an unforgettable experience that perhaps goes on for slightly too long. Nevertheless it is inescapably the moment for Molvania, before Ryanair discovers Lutenblag.

I hope the authors will accept that it is with affectionate admiration of their extraordinary achievement that I am forced to point out a howler in the text: the plant in the Lutenblag Botanical Gardens which produces no flowers or leaves, only thorns (illustrated on page 61), is not the Molvanian rose but the country's famous fruitless gooseberry, internationally known as the emblem of the respected Institute of Obstetricians. The Molvanian rose has lush green flowers. The two plants are indeed very close neighbours in the gardens, so this may be an innocent mistake - but it is just possible that somebody was pulling the authors' legs.


Buy Molvania at