Ruritania is a mythical land of forests, mountains, lakes, medieval villages with picturesque houses and impressive castles. Created originally by Anthony Hope for his book, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, the term became synonymous with a type of romantic, idealistic landscape forming backgrounds to stories of intrigue and adventure.

As I travelled through Central Europe it became apparent that much of the charm and attraction of this area was due to the appeal of these ‘Ruritanian’ elements, such as gothic churches, baroque castles and romantic, small towns with open squares surrounded by tall buildings with ornate, elegant facades.

Náměstí Republiky in Plzeň, Czech Republic
Náměstí Republiky in Plzeň, Czech Republic

In most Central European counties such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia, the historical background of the region explains the existence and survival of these lovely places. During the Dark Ages after the decline of the Roman Empire, fortresses were built to defend communities against marauding bands. Small towns grew up next to the forts, benefitting from their protection and thriving from crafts and trade. As the social order improved there was more trade and the castle owners became wealthy and more important, using their affluence to improve and decorate their homes and villagers doing the same.

Hluboka Nad Vltavou Castle, Czech Republic
Hluboka Nad Vltavou Castle, Czech Republic

On the Eastern edge of Europe, most countries, developing in size and shape due to alliances and leadership ambitions, were subject to frequent invasion by neighbouring cultures. The Ottoman Empire continued to advance into South Eastern Europe for over six-hundred years, whilst Germanic, Swedish, Lithuanian, Italian, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian Empires all moved into and out of Central Europe leaving their architectural and cultural influences.

In Slovenia today, for example, there is obvious evidence of Austro-Hungarian architecture, together with Italian building styles. Culinary choices, whilst celebrating the local and regional specialities, have an Austrian love of coffee and cakes, an Italian taste for pasta and fish dishes and Hungarian goulash is on more than one menu. A more recent Soviet past has left an appreciation of spirits, but Slovenian wine is excellent and precedes even French viticulture historically.

Slovenian local cooking
Slovenian local cooking

As these countries enjoy their relatively recent independence and celebrate their unique cultural mixes, local cultural events and festivals are more and more popular. Classical music concerts are wonderful pastimes on warm summer evenings, especially in the shadow of some imposing castle. Colourful local traditions are promoted and enjoyed by residents and visitors. The Five-petalled Rose celebrations in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, the traditional splashing of water over each other on Easter Monday in Poland and the resurgence of Carnivals in Croatia are examples of the fun and exuberance of traditional celebrations.

Spending time in these gorgeous places was, a decade or so ago, a matter of accepting some state-run, bland accommodation, but nothing could now be further than the truth with excellent, boutique, charming hotels bursting with local character available in most destinations. Often chateaux, country houses and even castles have accommodation and restaurants within their walls.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Experience and enjoy what the very heart of Europe has to offer now. A wealth of history within a story-book world.