The “F” Word

There’s an “f’ word that comes up a lot when you decide to learn a new language and it can really hold you back. This particular word goes a long way to explaining why I’ve never been able to learn a new language – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one. It became such a barrier to progress that I decided to throw it in the bin and not bother using it.

If you think I’m talking about the word “fuck”, well, as you can see, I’m more than happy using that one. “Fuck” is an old reliable when Duolingo’s speaking exercises are refusing to accept your perfectly accurate response. I have nothing but respect for the word “fuck” and for anyone who uses it – even Gordon Ramsay.

Nope, I’m talking about the word “fluency”. I’m sure you’ve been there – feeling as if there’s no point even trying to learn a language because you’ll never be fluent. Or you make a start with barrel-loads of enthusiasm, only to realise how far away fluency actually is, so you sigh and go back to watching Netflix. It’s just not meant to be, you may think.

At this point I’d like to digress to point out that I am about to use the word “fluency” a lot, despite saying I don’t use it anymore. It’s somewhat unavoidable in a post almost entirely on the topic.

Anyway, the main problem with language learning for me was that I couldn’t see any point in trying given how hard fluency is to reach, and I couldn’t see how I would ever actually get there. This partly explains why I ditched French after high school. It explains why I took one 10-hour set of Spanish classes before throwing in la toalla. It explains why I couldn’t even improve my French while living in France, and it explains why my German never got further than a few lessons on Duolingo before I bolted out of there faster than you can say grammatikalischer Fall.

The problem was that, no matter how much vocabulary I picked up, no matter how many declension tables I poured over, I couldn’t use any of what I learned. I couldn’t actually make any of it come out of my mouth when required. Not only that, I couldn’t understand a word of what native speakers said. Not really having a proper understanding of what it takes to learn a language, I chalked it all up to me just not being good enough and that was that.

But the thing is, worrying about fluency is like a gamer worrying about the fight with the final boss while at the very start of the game. Sonic the Hedgehog had a lot of Emerald Hills and Chemical Plant Zones to negotiate before he got to lock horns with the dastardly Dr Robotnik (I’m cool with how uncool this reference is, by the way). As soon as you start worrying about whether you’ll ever be fluent, or about how hard it is to reach fluency, you’ll become disheartened.

I think fluency is a noble goal to set. It’s just that I also think it’s overrated. It’s not worth giving up on what could be the best journey of your life just because you might not ever reach native fluency. Is it essential to reach that level? Do I need to reach it?

I haven’t given up on the idea. I’ve just altered my goals. Realistically, with a full-time job to try to hold down, there’s only so much time in a week that I can dedicate to learning Norwegian. It takes regular practice – to the extent that it’s best to try to do something every day – a requirement I do manage, but not always with ease or with my best thinking cap on. In my case, I decided to stop fretting about whether I’ll ever be a fluent Norwegian speaker and start focusing on what I know I can achieve with the right attitude in the here and now. I set myself the goals of gradually improving the quality of my conversations with native speakers, and massively increasing the level of input I get – through reading and listening – to be able to better understand the language.

I also spent some time reading about the concept of language learning and watching YouTube videos on the subject in order to give myself some understanding of how to actually go about it. And let me tell you – there is a lot out there! After a while it becomes about figuring out what suits you best and what works for you. I’m still working that out, I cannot lie. There’s no getting away from it – some form of immersion is crucial, but in 2021 this has never been easier to get thanks to the internet and computers and enthusiastic native speakers willing to help you.

For the first time in my life, I have developed a proper language learning habit that I have been able to stick to and develop. Unlike in the past, there’s no chance of me giving up this time – and it helps me more than I ever expected to stop worrying about whether I’ll actually achieve what might be termed fluency. Maybe I will – but who knows? You can do a lot without being fully fluent.

Now if I could just find a way to get more comfortable with making mistakes…

In my next set of incoherent ramblings on the subject of language learning, I’ll be talking about the one thing a learner can say that means they’re destined to fail – and why you shouldn’t say it.

Hvorfor lærer jeg norsk? Hvorfor ikke?!

Why am I learning Norwegian? Why not?!

The last 12 months have been something of a downer, but as somebody with alarmingly little going on that could serve as a distraction from the Covid-19 bad-news jamboree and the never-ending restrictions of lockdown, last spring I decided that I’d need to do something – anything – with all this free time spent at home. That something, it turned out, would be to learn a new language. I know that’s very cliché, but I’m never going to learn the clarinet or how to sew, so it had to be a language, okay? I’ve always felt like a bilingual person trapped inside a monolingual person’s body (I know that doesn’t really work but you know what I’m ham-fistedly trying to say), and if I was ever going to do something about it, now seemed like the time.

But why Norwegian? Why a language spoken by only five million people, almost all of them in just one country (guess which one)? Why not Mandarin? Why not Russian? Why not Spanish, a language spoken not just in Spain but throughout the Americas? Why not French, the one language other than English I have some basic knowledge of?

The truth is, I could have chosen any language, but having been to Oslo and learned a handful of basic beginner phrases and rather liked the sound of it, I decided to take that tiny leg-up and run with it. And why not? One day, I’ll go back to Norway and the feeling of being able to speak even a little bit of the language will make it seem worthwhile. Not only that, but Norwegian’s closeness to Swedish and Danish means it’s a good head start should I wish to try and pick those languages up too. After almost a year of learning Norwegian, I can already understand basic written Danish and Swedish, although not their spoken versions.

For a native English speaker, there is much that makes Norwegian quite an accessible language. As a Germanic language, there is plenty of cognate vocabulary, while its grammar is generally quite familiar, at least in the early stages. Indeed, there is very little verb conjugation in Norwegian to wrap your head around. Take the verb å være – to be:

I am = jeg er

you are = du er

he/she is = han/hun er

it is = den/det er (depending on the grammatical gender of the “it”)

we are = vi er

you (pl.) are = dere er

they are = de er

Notice how am/is/are become er all the way through.

Unlike German, there is also no grammatical case system to grapple with in Norwegian, although there are three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. That said, the feminine form is somewhat optional and can be substituted for the masculine.

However, for all the similarities that come with learning Norwegian, it is categorically not mutually intelligible with English, and there are plenty of challenges too. To begin with, learning any language is difficult unless you’re especially gifted. Norwegian adjective forms must agree with the grammatical gender and number of the noun they’re describing. Norwegian prepositions are notoriously difficult for learners to get right, as they don’t correspond easily with their English equivalents. I’m not sure I will ever master Norwegian prepositions. As well as this, pronunciation varies wildly depending on which part of Norway the speaker is from, which makes learning to understand the spoken language quite a hurdle.

There is no standard form of spoken Norwegian, which means there is no equivalent of Britain’s Received Pronunciation or Standard American English. Instead, all dialects are of equal standing, and when two Norwegians from different parts of the country meet, they speak in their own dialect to one another. There is no standard language to turn to for help if it gets difficult. In practice, this doesn’t cause too much difficulty for native Norwegian speakers, as they are quite well exposed to most dialects, but it can be tricky even for natives, especially where very rural dialects are involved.

There are, however, two written forms of the language, Bokmål and Nynorsk, and most spoken dialects are closer to or more distant from one of these written forms. Bokmål is comfortably the most commonly used, and is very similar to the Danish written language. Nynorsk was developed when Norway gained its independence and is based on traditional Norwegian dialects in an attempt to pull the language further away from that of Denmark. Nynorsk is more common in western Norway, while Bokmål has a stronger presence around Oslo and eastern Norway, as well as being prevalent to some degree throughout the country. Neither written form is a spoken language, but most non-natives will learn one of these forms – usually Bokmål – before attempting to master a dialect. Were that student to then speak using their knowledge of Bokmål, they would be understood anywhere in Norway, but they can categorically not expect to be responded to in Bokmål. The response will come in whatever dialect happens to be the speaker’s local form. This is not rudeness, this is the Norwegian way, and every single dialect form carries equal weight. This, arguably, is the hardest element of learning the language, especially when outside Norway.

Fortunately, in the 21st century, the internet helps language learners bridge these gaps in ways that were barely imaginable when I started school in the early 1990s. For a start, the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has made lots of its content available overseas, which is great for creating an immersive environment. As well as this, there are now numerous apps for language learning – some free, most not – of varying quality and usefulness. And perhaps above all, websites like italki mean it’s possible to access native speakers for language classes and conversation practice from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

I very quickly found that, although apps can be very useful for absolute beginners, they all have deep flaws and, once you reach a certain point, outlive their usefulness. This is not to say I don’t still use language apps – I do. But I quickly realised that what I needed was greater immersion in the language so that I could absorb it and actually reproduce it myself when called upon. For me, there’s no substitute for speaking practice, and I’ve had lots of it, but it’s not just about speaking. It’s very easy with speaking partners to continually reinforce what you know without actually expanding your ability in the language. As such, I also try to consume news in Norwegian, and I cannot stress how important I have found it to read in Norwegian. It’s never the case that I understand everything, but the bits I do understand help me piece the meaning together and introduce new elements of the language and show me how things are structured. I also try to listen to podcasts, radio and other sources, but I’m also careful not to choose material that is not too far beyond my level. I try to gradually increase what I’m able to understand and stretch myself just a little. There’s no doubt that understanding the spoken language is the hardest part due to the wide variety of accent and dialects, so I accept that I may never be great at this.

I’ve also found creating flashcards helpful. I like to have an image on one side and the Norwegian word on the other. I avoid English on my flashcards as much as possible. That way I learn the Norwegian word from its association to a picture, which helps me get out of the habit of constant translation and creates more vivid memories and neural connections that improve recall. I’ve recently begun to focus more on expanding my vocabulary at the expense of grammar study. It’s not that grammar isn’t important, but it’s definitely easier to make yourself understood if you know more words. It’s that simple. I’m still absorbing grammar through my study, but I’ve found that building on my vocabulary is the single thing that speeds up my ability to actually speak and understand.

In nine months, what have I achieved? Well, I can sit and read simple Norwegian texts, especially those aimed at non-native speakers. I can listen to slowly-spoken Norwegian and grasp the meaning, even if I don’t fully understand. And best of all, I can hold simple conversations with native speakers in which I can describe myself, my work, my hobbies and how I’ve been spending my time, and can even stutter my way through higher concepts such as expressing opinions or giving explanations. At times I’ve felt frustrated, sometimes very frustrated. Norwegian is said to be one of the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn, but this certainly doesn’t make it easy. However, I’ve managed to stick with it and form a positive new habit. I have plenty still to learn. Indeed, with language-learning, there is always more to learn. But when the chance to travel returns and I can take my new skills to Norway and put what I’ve learned into practice, all of the frustration, the hours of creating flashcards and the stilted stumbling Skype calls will seem worth it.

Vi snakkes!

Around in the world in five posts: H-J

Three years ago, at the end of part two, I pondered whether part three would appear before 2018. It did not. Nor did it appear in 2019. But 2020 is all about having lots of time on our hands and not being able to go anywhere, so the imaginary adventure continues at last…

 

Haiti flag

Haiti

Haïti • Ayiti
  • Official Name: Republic of Haiti
  • Capital City: Port-au-Prince
  • Population: 10,604,000
  • Language: French, Haitian Creole
  • Currency: Haitian gourde
  • Continent: North America

What’s Haiti like?

The second-most populous country in the Caribbean region, Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the larger, more prosperous Dominican Republic. Heavily influenced by a combination of French colonial rule and African cultures and traditions, Haiti is a beautiful but poverty-stricken nation that is also prone to devastating natural disasters. At one time, Haiti was, by some measures, the richest colony in the world. However, conditions for the thousands and thousands of slaves brought over from Africa to work the sugar plantations were grotesque. Modern, independent Haiti has suffered through numerous periods of violence, military coups, and brutal dictatorships, and UN peacekeeping troops have been in position in Haiti since violence erupted following an election in 2004. The country has, in the past, invaded and occupied neighbouring Dominican Republic, and relations today can be tetchy. Of particular concern is the status and conditions of Haitian refugees over the border.

Haiti map
Haiti

Haiti is a deeply religious society. While the majority of Haitians are Catholic, there is also a sizable and growing  Protestant minority. However, the country is perhaps best known for the practice of Vodou (or Voodoo), a mysterious and sometimes misunderstood tradition with its roots in west Africa, that was brought over by slaves. Many Catholics also practice elements of Vodou, although it is more heavily frowned upon in Protestant circles. French remains widely spoken, alongside a local Creole. The country is largely mountainous, and lies in the hurricane belt, exposing it to severe storms. In 2010, hundreds of thousands of Haitians lost their lives in an earthquake, the consequences of which are still felt a decade on.

One cool thing about Haiti

The country was the site of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World. However, Columbus was at first convinced that he had arrived in India. A statue of Columbus stands proudly in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

One sad thing about Haiti

More than half of all Haitians are considered to be living in abject poverty, while around 80% fall under the poverty line to some degree. Haiti is ranked as the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Neighbours Textbox
Haiti’s only land border is to the east with the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Cuba, meanwhile, lies roughly 60 miles away across the North Atlantic to the northwest, and Jamaica is 120 miles to the southwest. Between Haiti and Jamaica lies the tiny island of Navassa, administered by the United States, but claimed by Haiti.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It would be a mistake to assume that the country’s history of social strife, poverty and lack of infrastructure have left it isolated. In truth, Haiti is a moderately popular tourist destination, with the potential for considerable development. This would, however, pose a real challenge to an ecologically and environmentally fragile country. Haiti is famous for its beautiful coastline and pristine beaches, and its resorts are often surprisingly luxurious and exclusive. Indeed, the Labadee area has been leased in its entirety to the Royal Caribbean cruise company and is fenced off from the rest of Haiti. The area around the country’s second city, Cap Haïtienne, is especially popular with beachgoers.

Haiti passport
Haitian passport

The country’s towns and cities are blessed with beautiful colonial architecture, although the chaos and open poverty will prove a shock to those not prepared. Haiti is also home to a large number of ruined palaces and forts that hark back to the various civilisations and powers that have ruled over the island of Hispaniola. The mountains, meanwhile, offer stunning scenery and will please any enthusiastic trekker, although safety precautions must be taken. The likelihood of falling ill while in Haiti is high, so it’s best to be fully prepared before travelling. There is still much devastation from the 2010 earthquake, including in the capital, which can make getting around difficult. Despite the challenges, the remarkably warm welcome offered by the locals, plus the undeniable beauty of their nation, make Haiti a real bucket-list destination.

Haiti
Citadelle Laferrière, Cap Haïtienne

 

Honduras flag

Honduras

  • Official Name: Republic of Honduras
  • Capital City: Tegucigalpa
  • Population: 8,249,574
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Lempira
  • Continent: North America

What’s Honduras like?

One of the poorest countries in the Americas, Honduras is synonymous with gang violence, murder and social strife. The country has also been to war with neighbouring El Salvador – a conflict known at the “football war”, having started during a football match – and has been on the receiving end of deadly natural disasters. Despite its troubles, Honduran society is vibrant and dynamic, with a culture influenced by Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilisations, as well as Spanish colonisation. As well as conflict with neighbouring nations, Honduras has also experienced periods of authoritarian rule, several military coups, and was a site of proxy conflict between the left and the right during the Cold War. It remains a key player in the transit of drugs between South and North America, and is still attempting to overcome a constitutional crisis that began in 2009 through a coup.

Honduras map
Honduras

Rather like other countries in the region, the Honduran landscape is dominated by mountains and rainforest. The country has a long coastline on the Caribbean Sea, dotted with lively port towns and attractive beaches. In the south is the short, more remote, Pacific coast on the Gulf of Fonseca. Honduras is seismically active, with volcanoes and regular, mostly mild earthquakes. Hurricanes are less frequent than in other areas of the Caribbean region, but as Hurricane Mitch demonstrated in 1998, they can be catastrophic when they hit. Thousands of Hondurans lost their lives in the storm, which also severely hampered the country’s fragile development.

One cool thing about Honduras

Every Good Friday in the colonial city of Comayagua, local people create spectacular religious tapestries out of wood shavings, which are then trampled out of existence under foot as soon as they are complete.

One sad thing about Honduras

The country has the highest murder rate in the world outside of conflict zones. Gang violence is rampant throughout the country, and although most of it is not targeted at ordinary people, it is not difficult to get caught in the crossfire.

Neighbours Textbox
Honduras has a western border with Guatemala, while El Salvador lies to the southwest. The country’s longest border is with Nicaragua in the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Honduras shares with its Central American neighbours a rich culture and history, as well as abundant natural beauty, that make it a spectacular destination for travel.  The country has some impressive ruins from the Mayan civilisation, in particular at Copán in the far western region, near Guatemala. Picturesque towns such as Gracias and Comayagua abound with attractive colonial architecture. Honduras’s big cities, such as the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, can be quite dangerous and come with shockingly high crime rates, but with careful planning, they offer an insight into modern Honduran life. San Pedro Sula is well known for its vibrant nightlife.

Honduras passport
Honduran passport

The Cusuco National Park is popular with backpackers and offers breathtaking mountain scenery. Away from the interior, Honduras has beautiful Caribbean beaches, as well as idyllic islands renowned for snorkelling and diving opportunities. Honduras also has a UNESCO World Heritage site at the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the northeast of the country. The area is resplendent with tropical wildlife, and transport is almost entirely by boat. As with other parts of Central America, care must be taken when travelling in Honduras. However, the violence that makes so many local lives miserable is rarely aimed at tourists, and with adequate planning, Honduras is far from off-limits.

Honduras
Roatán, Bay Islands

 

Hungary flag

Hungary

Magyarország
  • Official Name: Hungary
  • Capital City: Budapest
  • Population: 9,797,561
  • Language: Hungarian
  • Currency: Forint
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Hungary like?

A former eastern bloc country with a unique language and heritage, Hungary has, with the fall of communism, developed into a modern central European state with a strong economy. The Hungarian people are linguistically, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours, with origins in central Asia. Their language is from the Finno-Ugric language family and is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Numerous ethnic Hungarians also live in neighbouring countries, particularly Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine. Within Hungary, notable minority groups include Slovaks, Romanians, Germans and Roma. The country at one time formed one of the great European powers as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ultimately collapsed having being on the losing side in the First World War. Much of the latter half of the 20th Century was spent under the yoke of Soviet communist influence, with the Hungarian uprising of 1956 one of this period’s most significant events.

Hungary map
Hungary

Hungary is small, and mostly consists of flat plains and rolling hills. In the west of the country is Lake Balaton, one of the largest lakes in Europe. All of Hungary falls within the flood plain of the mighty Danube, which flows through the country’s majestic capital city, Budapest. Some low mountain ranges can be found in border areas, including the very eastern edge of the Alps in the far west, near Austria. Although agriculture plays an important role in the economy, Hungary has achieved impressive growth since the collapse of communism and has fully transformed into a modern market economy, with an increasingly urbanised society.

One cool thing about Hungary

In 2011, Elvis Presley was posthumously made an official citizen of Budapest in commemoration of his drawing attention to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. There is a road in the city named after him, although it is more of a dusty track than an impressive boulevard.

One sad thing about Hungary

The 1956 Hungarian uprising was an attempt to throw off the country’s oppressive Soviet-aligned regime. Sadly, the revolution was crushed, with the loss of around 3,000 civilian lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Hungary may be small, but it still has seven neighbours for company. To the north is Slovakia, while there is a short border with Ukraine in the northeast. Romania  lies to the east. All three countries are home to significant Hungarian minorities, a legacy of when Hungarian territory was much larger than today’s republic. To the south are frontiers with Serbia and Croatia, while Slovenia is to the southwest and Austria is to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Hungary’s long history, unique culture and position in central Europe make for a fascinating tourist destination. The country’s capital, Budapest, has boomed with the advent of budget European air travel to become one of the continent’s most visited city-break spots. The city competes comfortably with the great cities of Europe in terms of its architecture and cultural influence, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The banks of the Danube are renowned for their beautiful bridges and magnificent buildings, including the spectacular Hungarian parliament building, the largest in Europe. The Castle Quarter is also not to be missed. The city also has numerous parks and hills that make for some impressive views of the urban landscape.

Hungary passport
Hungarian passport

Away from the capital, the Hungarian countryside is pleasant and green, rather than spectacular. Lake Balaton, one of Europe’s largest lakes, is great for walking and sunbathing in the summer, and is surrounded by wine-growing regions and quaint traditional villages. Many of Hungary’s smaller towns and cities possess pleasing old towns and attractive centres with impressive architecture. It’s worth taking the time to experience Hungary’s hearty cuisine, dominated by paprika – a central ingredient to Hungarian dishes – and including such world-renowned dishes as goulash. Hungary is also famous for its bath houses and spas, which can be found almost anywhere in the country.

Hungary
Budapest

 

Iceland flag

Iceland

Ísland
  • Official Name: Iceland
  • Capital City: Reykjavík
  • Population: 332,529
  • Language: Icelandic
  • State Church: Church of Iceland
  • Currency: Icelandic króna
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Iceland like?

Perched at the top end of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a rocky, geologically active and starkly beautiful island, much of which is barren and uninhabitable. The country’s small population of around 330,000 is found mostly around the coast, with roughly three quarters of Icelanders living in and around the capital city, Reykjavík. The country’s interior is desolate – a land of mountains, geysirs, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and barren rocky wastelands. Despite its name, Iceland is relatively temperate. Winters are cold, but considerably milder than other locations at the same latitude. Summers are cool and wet. Earth tremors are fairly common in Iceland, although they tend to be mild. Volcanoes, however, pose a threat to life and infrastructure.

Iceland map
Iceland

Iceland was first settled by celtic people from Great Britain and Ireland, alongside Vikings from Norway. The country gained independence from Denmark in 1944. The Icelandic language is remarkably close to Old Norse, and is difficult even for speakers of other Nordic tongues. Today, Iceland is an affluent country, often cited as one of the world’s most stable and prosperous societies. The country has a Nordic social welfare model and has in recent years become an attractive destination for immigration. Despite the fast pace of change that Icelandic society has gone through in the last few decades, the country holds firm to its traditions, including numerous examples of Icelandic folklore. Fishing plays a major role in the economy. Iceland suffered a mighty economic crash in 2008 that devastated the economy and led to widespread protests and political turmoil. In recent years, an unprecedented tourist boom has helped the country to bounce back in spectacular fashion.

One cool thing about Iceland

The country recently launched an app that allows frisky Icelanders to make sure that they are not too closely related to a potential partner – an ever-present risk in such a small, isolated country.

One sad thing about Iceland

The financial crisis that began in late 2008 was the largest in economic history, relative to the size of Iceland’s economy, and triggered a severe depression. All three major banks collapsed, the country’s economy collapsed and unemployment soared. The already high suicide rate increased as a consequence. Thankfully, Iceland appears to have navigated itself out of those dark days.

Neighbours Textbox
Iceland has no land borders and is surrounded by the chilly waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It’s nearest neighbours are Greenland, 550km to the northwest, and the Faroe Islands, 450km to the southeast. Both territories are part of the Danish kingdom.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The tourist industry in Iceland has experienced an unprecedented boom since 2011, helping both to rescue the local economy after the economic crash, and to put considerable strain on this small country’s infrastructure. Reykjavík heaves with tourists, even in the dark, chilly depths of the Icelandic winter, with new hotels and guesthouses springing up all the time. Icelandic roads are having to cope with ever-increasing demand from buses and hire cars transporting visitors from the capital to the island’s many natural wonders.

Iceland passport
Icelandic passport

Most visitors come to Iceland in the hope of experiencing the northern lights (at least outside of the summer season). The Blue Lagoon is currently struggling to accommodate the number of visitors hoping to take a dip in its steaming waters. Þingvellir National Park has one of the world’s most spectacular, eerie landscapes, sitting along the boundary between two tectonic plates. Many also flock to witness the spectacle of the country’s geysirs. Reykjavík, meanwhile, has earned a reputation for some of Europe’s best nightlife.

You can read about my February 2016 trip to Iceland here.

Iceland
Reykjavík

 

India flag

India

भारत (Bhārat)
  • Official Name: Republic of India
  • Capital City: New Delhi
  • Largest City: Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
  • Population: 1,326,572,000
  • Language: Hindi, English, thousands of regional languages
  • Currency: Indian rupee
  • Continent: Asia

What’s India like?

It’s often said that India was never really supposed to be a country, a reference to the bewildering array of peoples, ethnic groups, religions, languages and cultures that co-exist in the world’s second largest nation. Yet somehow, despite all those differences, modern India has managed to forge the world’s largest democracy, with a growing economy that has lifted millions out of poverty and continues to do so. The outsourcing boom and the rise of the tech sector mean India is more plugged into the global economy than at any time in its history, with well-educated Indians driving forward the country’s rise as an economic force, with increasing geopolitical clout to boot.

India map
India

Despite this progress, problems remain. Democratic though its politics may be, India is a notoriously difficult place to govern, with so many competing aims and interests across vastly different regions and cultures. Poverty remains a problem, as does social cohesion and religious tension, which sometimes turns violent. The country is still mired in a stand-off with Pakistan and China over Kashmir, but it also faces other, lesser-known insurgencies across its vast territory. It’s a wonder that India holds together while so many forces push and pull it in different directions. But it does.

The country’s geography is as diverse as its populace, with some of the world’s tallest mountains in the north, as well as coastal ranges plunging towards the sea on both east and west coasts, with deserts and plains in the interior, rainforests, mighty rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Yamuna and the Ganges, and glaciated summits. India also includes tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, some of which are home to mysterious and barely contacted people groups and tribes. The country is also home to a diverse array of animal and plant species, with perhaps the best known being the Asian tiger, which is a major tourist draw. India is susceptible to natural disasters including flooding and drought, while earthquakes occur in the far north and cyclones can be devastating. The country’s large agricultural sector – including its subsistence farmers – remain reliant on the monsoon rains.

India2
Golden Temple, Amritsar

India is a majority Hindu nation, but the country is also home to a significant minority of Muslims (indeed, India has the third highest Muslim population in the world, despite them only making up around 20% of the Indian population), as well as being the home of the Sikh faith. There are also significant numbers of Jains, Buddhists, Bahai’is and Christians in India, as well as other smaller faiths.

Modern India is known worldwide for its cuisine, which differs depending on region, but has had a major influence on parts of the world – particularly Britain – that have interacted with the subcontinent in the past. Part of the colonial legacy of India is one of the world’s largest rail networks, a system of government based on that of Westminster, and a passion for cricket.

One cool thing about India

The Golden Temple at Amritsar in Punjab is officially recognised as the most visited place in the world, receiving over 100,000 Sikh devotees to their holiest shrine every single day.

One sad thing about India

The country has certainly achieved impressive economic growth and even has a space programme, but poverty remains a huge problem. In the region of 800 million people in India are considered poor by some international measures, and around two thirds of the population live on $2 a day.

Neighbours Textbox
India’s long northwestern border with its eternal enemy Pakistan is one of the most militarised in the world. In the north, things get complicated due to territorial disputes over Kashmir with Pakistan and China, as well the disputed Arunachal Pradesh, which India controls but which is claimed by China. If all of disputed Kashmir was considered to be part of India, then there would be a short border with Afghanistan. However, this area is controlled by Pakistan.
In the north, there is a border with Nepal while, in the northeast, there are borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma). The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off India’s far southern tip, while the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands are relatively close to Myanmar and Indonesia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There’s no doubt about it, India will challenge the uninitiated Westerner. Indeed, it can seem almost designed to provide the most intense culture shock for the outsider. Its crowded cities teem with life, while its transport networks and infrastructure still lag far behind what visitors might be used to. However, once the visitor acclimatises to the sights, sounds and intensity of modern India, the country offers the kind of experiences the memories of which will last a lifetime. From the beaches of Goa to the mountains of the Himalayas, the rainforests of the tropics and the hustle and bustle of some of the world’s largest cities, India has it all.

India passport
Indian passport

As one of the cradles of human civilisation, India has a long history, meaning there’s an abundance of historical and architectural sights to take in. The country – especially in the north – boasts thousands of forts that bear testament to the empires and civilisations that have prevailed throughout the subcontinent. The Taj Mahal at Agra – built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the tomb for his favourite wife – is arguably the most recognisable example, and is considered among the most beautiful buildings in the world. The country’s cultural traditions and diverse religious heritage are another draw, with plenty of visitors arriving on what might be termed spiritual journeys, while the many sites of religious significance – Hindu and Sikh temples, churches, mosques and more – inspire awe and wonder. Others want to experience the frenetic energy of the country’s markets and festivals – indeed, festivals are an almost daily fact of life around this vast nation. The country’s array of spices and flavours that define its cuisine have extended their influence far beyond its borders and are another major draw.

Adventurous tourists are also pulled to India by the towering peaks of the Himalayas, though much of this area is in Kashmir, where travel can be risky. Others are captivated by India’s miles and miles of golden sands that stretch north to sound on both coasts, with the state of Goa – formerly a Portuguese colony – arguably the centre of India’s beach tourism trade. Visitors also come to witness the country’s national parks and the wildlife that dwells therein. There’s no question that an adventurous spirit goes a long way when visiting India, but one thing is for sure, the memories and experiences that the country has to offer will always stay with those who come..

India
Me at the Taj Mahal, Agra

 

Indonesia flag

Indonesia

  • Official Name: Republic of Indonesia
  • Capital City: Jakarta
  • Population: 267,670,543
  • Language: Indonesian, more than 700 regional languages
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Indonesia like?

A nation of different people groups, diverse cultures and hundreds of different languages, Indonesia is a nation-state occupying thousands of islands across a vast archipelago in southeast Asia, a few of which it shares with other nations. One of the largest nations on the planet, with a population of nearly 270 million, Indonesia is a developing nation with a growing economy, heaving cities (especially its capital, Jakarta), but also traditional ways of life preserved in the many rural communities scattered about this patchwork of islands. Away from the cities, many parts of Indonesia remain poor, while some regions face civil unrest. Despite all this, a strong sense of Indonesian nationhood has developed since independence from the Dutch Empire, when the region was known as the Dutch East Indies. This huge country with its incredible diversity of peoples and cultures holds together and continues to develop. Most Indonesians are Muslims, and the national language is Indonesian. However, most people, particularly away from cities, will speak a local tongue such as Javanese, Sundanese, Acehnese, Balinese and hundreds more. The famous backpacker destination of Bali is unusual in Indonesia in that the population is majority Hindu rather than Muslim. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country.

Indonesia map
Indonesia

The country is a fragile, fledgling but increasingly vibrant democracy that is stumbling its way out of the dark days of dictatorship under Suharto, whose policies encouraged economic growth, but under oppressive political conditions. In 2014, the country elected its first president from outside the elite cabal that had controlled it for most of its independent history, and the economy continues to flourish.

Much of the country, across most of the islands, is lush and mountainous, with incredible biodiversity. Natural disasters are a fact of life in Indonesia, where volcanoes and earthquakes are a threat to live. The Boxing Day 2004 earthquake and tsunami caused devastation on the island of Sumatra, almost completely destroying the city of Bandar Aceh. The capital city, Jakarta, on Java, is sinking, and the government has begun the process of building a new capital in East Kalimantan province on Borneo. The country’s large and growing population is causing significant environmental problems in this biodiverse nation, leading to deforestation, soil erosion and pollution problems that sometimes impact on neighbouring nations.

One cool thing about Indonesia

Despite its relatively small size, 140 million residents squeeze onto the island of Java, making it the most populous island in the world. The island includes the capital, Jakarta. The population of this one small island is about equal to that of the whole of Russia.

One sad thing about Indonesia

The Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004 killed an estimated 230,000 people across seven countries, and the worst affected was Indonesia – specifically the province of Aceh and its capital, Bandar Aceh. Upper estimates suggest almost 170,000 Indonesians died, mostly in this region, and many more were displaced from completely destroyed settlements.

Neighbours Textbox
Spread over 17,000 islands across 1,904,569 square kilometres (735,358 square miles) of southeast Asia, Indonesia inevitably has plenty of neighbours. Let’s start with the ones with which it shares islands: on Borneo, the country has a long border with the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia; at the far eastern end of the archipelago, the country shares the island of New Guinea roughly equally with Papua New Guinea; while the small island of Timor has been shared between Indonesia and East Timor since the latter became independent in 1999.
The Straits of Malacca separate the island of Sumatra from peninsular Malaysia, while Singapore is also nearby. The country shares the island of Borneo with Brunei, but the two countries do not have a border, as they are kept apart by Malaysian territory. In the northeast, Indonesian Borneo and Sulawesi are separated from Mindanao island in the Philippines by the Celebes Sea, while northern Australia lies to the south, across the Timor Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As you’d expect from a country spread out across so many islands, Indonesia caters for all manner of tourist experiences. Backpacking is big in Indonesia, especially on the island of Bali, arguably the country’s best-known tourist hotspot, where beaches, nightlife and hedonism are the order of the day. The country’s biodiversity means that its rainforests are a huge draw, where people come to see national parks and reserves for animals including orangutans, elephants, tigers and the komodo dragon, while offshore, the country’s waters are a wonderland for divers. Indonesia features the world’s largest volcanic lake at Lake Toba, which offers stunning views and hiking opportunities for the particularly adventurous.

Indonesia passport
Indonesian passport

Culturally, the country is famous for festivals and traditional cultural events that fascinate visitors, while temples and religious sites abound. The major cities can be heavily polluted and smog-covered, especially Jakarta, but they are still a draw, offering the usual cultural sites, nightlife and urban amenities. With so much territory spread out over so many islands, it is no surprise that Indonesia has so much to offer, and as a growing economy in a part of the world crisscrossed by backpackers, gap year travellers and tourists from all corners of the globe, the country is an increasingly significant tourism proposition. The big question for Indonesia is how it will reconcile its growing tourist trade – and its economic development in general – with commitments to protect the environment.

Indonesia
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Lake Bratan, Bali

 

Iran flag

Iran

ایران
  • Official Name: Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Capital City: Tehran
  • Population: 83,183,741
  • Language: Persian (also known as Farsi), regional and minority languages
  • State Religion: Shia Islam
  • Currency: Rial
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iran like?

The behemoth of the Middle East with over 80million inhabitants, enigmatic Iran is a nation of complexities, where parliamentary politics meets authoritarianism, ethnic and religious diversity intermingle under a strictly-enforced state faith, and one of the world’s largest young populations strives to build a future under the gerontocratic rule of the mullahs. With a long and endlessly fascinating history in which Iran has been a huge influence on the region and beyond, Iranians are rightly patriotic and proud of their national identity. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s relations with the West have been deeply antagonistic, with periods of high tension, but this would be the wrong lens through which to see the country as a whole. The country is home to an ancient civilisation and has been the centre of several great empires that spread far beyond the borders of modern Iran. Today, Iran is a middle power that strongly influences other states in the Middle East. International sanctions mean the economy has struggled to fulfil its potential, and poverty is widespread, especially outside the big cities. The country has a controversial nuclear programme which it claims is peaceful, but which is often feared by outsiders to be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran is a major oil and gas producer, but international sanctions mean much of the potential wealth this could generate has failed to materialise.

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Iran

The landscape is dominated by two huge mountain ranges – the Alborz in the north and the Zagros in the west. Most major populations centres sit in valleys or plains between these major mountains chains. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, but it becomes increasingly desolate and desert-like in the southeast. The country has a long coastline on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and has a strategic position at the Strait of Hormuz, a major global shipping route. Iranians themselves are mostly ethnic Persians who follow Shia Islam, but the country has significant minority ethnic groups and religions.

One cool thing about Iran

Evidence suggests that the first postal mail system may have been invented in Iran back in 550BC.

One sad thing about Iran

The country is the most earthquake-prone in the world, and in 2003, a quake struck around the city of Bam in central Iran that killed 30,000 people.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest, Iran borders Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Part of its border with Azerbaijan-proper is with the breakaway ethnic-Armenian republic of Artsakh, which is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. In the northeast is a long border through the desert with Turkmenistan, while the country’s eastern frontier is shared with Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the west is a long border with Iraq.
The country is separated from Kuwait by Iraq’s narrow al-Faw peninsula, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are a short distance across the Persian Gulf. Oman is fairly nearby across the Gulf of Oman, while the Strait of Hormuz separates Iran from Oman’s Musandam exclave.


What’s it like for tourists?

You might assume that Iran – with its authoritarian regime and international pariah status – is closed off, but that is far from the case. Iran receives many tourists, and although visa application processes can be cumbersome, there is nothing to prevent visitors from going to Iran. Unfortunately for Americans, Brits and Canadians, these nationals can’t travel freely around the country, instead needing an approved guide at all times. However, all other nationals are free to roam (with certain restrictions) once they’ve been issued a visa.

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Iranian passport

As the historical centre of some of humanity’s greatest civilisations, Iran has been left with a legacy of sites of historical interest and religious significance, especially to followers of Shia Islam. Vast ancient city complexes reveal the scale and power of the dynasties that have ruled over huge swathes of territory and peoples. Meanwhile, the array of different landscapes attracts visitors to the country’s natural beauty, especially the ski resorts of the mountains, one of which is among the highest in the world. Iran also possesses islands in the Persian Gulf that are major draw to Iranian tourists and have less stringent entry requirements for outsiders than the mainland. Persian hospitality is world-renowned and visitors can expect a warm welcome from the Iranian people.

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The holy city of Qom

 

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Iraq

اَلْعِرَاق(al-ʿirāq) عێراق‎ (Êraq)
  • Official Name: Republic of Iraq
  • Capital City: Baghdad
  • Population: 38,433,600
  • Language: Arabic, Kurdish, regional and minority languages
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Iraqi dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iraq like?

The borders of modern-day Iraq encompass the fertile plains between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that are one of the cradles of civilisation, and the cities of this region – particularly Baghdad – have played a major role in humanity’s cultural, religious and scientific development. The land between these great rivers was known as Mesopotamia and gave rise to some of the earliest and most powerful civilisations. The modern Iraqi nation-state emerged in the 20th century and has suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an eight-year-long war with Iran in the 1980s, the Gulf War of 1991 and the American-led invasion of 2003. Since the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, the country has been perennially unstable and racked by conflict, with parts of the country falling into the control of militant groups.

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Iraq

Most Iraqis are Arab Muslims, with the Shia forming a majority and the Sunni a significant minority. In the northeast are the Kurds, who have a high degree of autonomy in the territory they control. Other much smaller minority groups include the Turkomens and Assyrians. Iraqi Kurdistan has consistently been the most stable part of the country since 2003. The country possesses large oil reserves, but international sanctions and perpetual war and instability mean that many Iraqis live in poverty and suffer from poor public services. While the central region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is fertile, much of the rest of Iraq is sparsely populated desert. However, the northeast is mountainous. Summers in Iraq record some of the hottest temperatures anywhere in the world, with 50c (122f) a regular occurrence.

One cool thing about Iraq

The world’s first written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh – was written circa 1800BC and is about a ruler who fought to save an ancient Mesopotamian city in what is today Iraq.

One sad thing about Iraq

Suffering and tragedy are a daily fact of life, and there are many historical events that could apply here. One example would be the tragedy of the Marsh Arabs, who Saddam Hussein punished in 1991 for rebelling against him by draining their lands, which permanently altered their way of life and resulted in huge ecological consequences.

Neighbours Textbox
In the north is a contentious border with Turkey, while in the east is a long border with Iran. In the southeast, the country shares a border through the desert with Kuwait, while in the south and southwest is another long frontier, this time with Saudi Arabia.
In the remote far west, Iraq borders Jordan, while there is a long border with Syria in the northwest in one of the world’s most dangerous and volatile regions.


What’s it like for tourists?

With so much history and culture, Iraq could and hopefully one day will be a captivating destination. However, most governments advise their citizens not to travel to Iraq for non-essential reasons due to the security situation. The threat of kidnapping and terrorist attacks remains high and could strike at any moment almost anywhere. The vast majority of visits to Iraq are made by Shia Muslim pilgrims heading for the country’s holy sites. Beyond that, there is little infrastructure for tourism, especially outside of Baghdad. Checkpoints make moving around Iraq extremely difficult and time consuming. Nevertheless, the Kurdish region, which is almost entirely self-governing, has achieved a higher degree of stability and is considered safer than the rest of the country. Most Western tourists who decide to visit Iraq head for this region.

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Iraqi passport

In other circumstances, ancient cities such as Babylon, Ur, Ctesiphon and Hatra would teem with tourists, but decades of dictatorship and conflict have had the dual effect of discouraging visitors and damaging heritage. In the future, it may be that these places will no longer seem so off-limits and visitors may be free to explore the cradle of civilisation, but for now, they remain at the mercy of the security situation. Shia Muslims will no doubt continue to descend in large numbers on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but even this activity can be unsafe. Visitors to Kurdistan will find a more stable atmosphere and will have the chance to experience Kurdish culture amidst the mountains of northwestern Iraq.

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Baghdad

 

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Ireland

Éire
  • Official Name: Ireland
  • Capital City: Dublin
  • Population: 4,921,500
  • Language: English, Irish
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Ireland like?

Known as the Emerald Isle for its lush green landscape, the island of Ireland lies to the west of Britain in the North Atlantic off the coast of northwestern Europe. Despite its small size, Irish culture and traditions are familiar to millions around the world and have had an influence well beyond the island’s shores. The island itself is currently partitioned between the sovereign state often referred to as the Republic of Ireland – which this item is about – and the six northeastern counties known as Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and will dealt with in the UK entry. The partition is a legacy of the island’s long history with Great Britain and settlement by people from Britain. The republic regularly scores highly on measures of quality of life and human development, but the 2008 financial crash caused substantial economic trauma that the country is still recovering from.

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Ireland

The Irish people are known for their friendliness and unique sense of humour, as well as their cultural traditions. Irish pubs and Guinness beer can be found throughout the world and are symbols of Irish identity. English is the main language in Ireland, but a minority of citizens still speak the Irish language – indeed, in areas known as Gaeltachta, Irish is usually the primary language. Major historical events that have shaped Irish identity also include the Irish Famine and the War of Independence that aimed to throw off control from Britain. The country has its own traditional sports including Gaelic football and hurling, while rugby union and football (soccer) are also very popular. In recent years, the country’s economic success – especially as it has begun to recover from the catastrophe of 2008 – has seen it become a desirable destination for immigration, with Dublin in particular becoming increasingly diverse. Irish towns and cities are often attractive and well-kept, while the Irish countryside features a long, spectacular coastline, mountainous regions, bogs and rolling green fields. The lush green landscape has given Ireland a strong, successful farming sector.

One cool thing about Ireland

The country has won the Eurovision Song Contest seven times – more than any other participating nation. However, its last victory was in 1996.

One sad thing about Ireland

The Great Famine (sometimes referred to as the Potato Famine) of 1845-1849 had a huge impact on Ireland, with one million dying and another million being forced to emigrate. The population has never recovered to pre-Famine levels.

Neighbours Textbox
Ireland’s nearest neighbour is the United Kingdom. The two countries share a land border on the island of Ireland, separating the sovereign state from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. To the east is Great Britain, with Scotland to the northeast and England and Wales to the east. As well as this, the self-governing British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man is nearby in the Irish Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourist infrastructure in Ireland is very well developed and the country is a major tourist destination. The pubs and bars of Dublin throng with visitors from all around the world, despite the astronomical drinks prices! Other towns and cities are much smaller than the capital, but they still pull in tourists to their pubs and charming centres. The Irish welcome is one of the warmest and friendliest anywhere in the world, and many visitors, particular from North America, arrive to investigate the land of their roots.

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Irish Passport

As well as the people and the pubs, Ireland is also beautiful, with large areas of unspoilt countryside, breathtaking coastal views and excellent walking and hiking opportunities, though the weather can never be relied upon! The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic drive down Ireland’s Atlantic west coast, from Donegal to County Cork, and takes in sheer cliffs, mountain vistas, sea air and traditional Irish-speaking communities. The land is also dotted with sites of historical interest, from castles and forts to scenes of significant battles. Despite its small size and high level of development, there’s plenty of adventure to be had on the Emerald Isle.

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County Donegal

 

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Israel

יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ (Yisra’el) إِسْرَائِيل‎ (Isrāʼīl)
  • Official Name: State of Israel
  • Capital City: Jerusalem
  • Population: 9,187,200
  • Language: Hebrew, Arabic
  • Official Religion: Judaism
  • Currency: New shekel
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Israel like?

This strip of Levantine land on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean is the centre of one of humanity’s most intractible conflicts – a land of ancient history populated today by several people groups, but principally by Jews and Arabs. It is the world’s only majority Jewish state, but has a large Arab Muslim minority as well as smaller groups of other faiths and ethnicities. The modern state of Israel came into existence in 1948, but the land on which the state was formed has been populated by different people groups since ancient times and is sacred to the world’s Jews, Muslims and Christians. This melting pot of faiths and ethnicities has been mired in conflict to varying degrees ever since the state was declared, and the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank remains controversial. Israel is also frequently criticised for its policies towards the Palestinians. Other issues include the final status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Israel is an established democracy with high standards of living and a reputation for investment in research and development that have helped create a successful economy. Arabs living within Israel are full Israeli citizens and political parties representing Arab interests sit in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament.

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Israel

Israel is a small country in the region of the Middle East known as the Levant. Much of it is desert, and summer temperatures inland can get very hot indeed. However, the coastal strip is cooled somewhat by the presence of the Mediterranean. The country is home to some of the world’s oldest and most historically significant settlements, with important religious sites, winding allies and tight streets, not least in the bustling capital, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Tel Aviv is the heart of liberal Israel, a city of gleaming towers, pristine beaches and teeming nightlife.

One cool thing about Israel

Perhaps it’s not surprising in a country with so much history, but Israel has more museums per head of the population than any other country in the world.

One sad thing about Israel

Plenty of people – Jewish, Arab, Druze and others – have experienced trauma and strife in this much-fought over slice of the Middle East. Picking a single fact out might seem one-sided, so perhaps the mere fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven so enduring and has wrought so much suffering should stand on its own as the saddest thing about this region.

Neighbours Textbox
Many of Israel’s border areas are, understandably, off-limits to visitors with a major security presence in place. In the north, the country borders Lebanon, while in the northeast is the disputed Golan Heights, controlled by Israel and claimed by Syria.
In the east is Jordan, while in the southwest, the country borders the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Israel-proper also borders the West Bank, which contains both Jewish settlements and Palestinian-administered territory, and the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian militant Hamas organisation.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The answer to this question differs depending on the security situation, but at the time of writing, most visitors to Israel encounter no trouble. Some outsiders might get a culture shock from the sight of so much security infrastructure, but this is the day-to-day reality for ordinary Israelis and is more mundane than it might appear. Citizens of countries that don’t have relations with or don’t recognise Israel won’t be able to get in, and evidence of travel to many of these countries will prevent tourists from being admitted to Israel. For others, the country is open and is well adjusted to receiving visitors, though airport security will seem more stringent than in many other countries.

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Israeli Passport

Once in, visitors are spoiled for choice. The city of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, is a hotbed of history and sites of historical and religious significance. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is Israel’s hedonistic beach and party capital, with a world reknowned nightlife scene. The Dead Sea – famous for its properties that allow bathers to float on the surface – is a major draw and can be accessed from Israel and the West Bank. The country’s small size and well-developed transport infrastructure mean it’s easy to get around, from the mountains of the north to the barren deserts in the south and the resort town of Eilat on Israel’s short strip of Red Sea coast.

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Jerusalem

 

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Italy

Italia
  • Official Name: Italian Republic
  • Capital City: Rome
  • Population: 60,317,116
  • Language: Italian (numerous dialects and regional languages exist)
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Italy like?

The boot-shaped Italian peninsula gave birth to one of the greatest empires in human history and has historically been home to numerous people groups and cultures. A hub of enlightenment thought and philosophy, Italy is where the Renaissance began, and it was also here that the Catholic faith emerged. However, for much of its history, the land we now know as Italy lacked a single common identity, with various city-states and powers holding sway across different parts of the peninsula and islands that today make up Italy. As a result of this, Italy is diverse, with a wide variety of dialects and minority languages, and strong loyalty to its regions. While northern Italy is a hub for high culture, finance, fashion and industry, southern Italy is poorer, more rural and less developed, which leads to tension and even separatist sentiment among some. Despite these regional inequalities, the country nevertheless has one of the world’s largest economies, with a high life expectance and a lifestyle that is the envy of many around the world. Italians are known for their vibrant culture, passion, artistic flair, design and, of course, their world famous cuisine.

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Italy

As well as the peninsula, Italy also includes numerous islands, including Sicily and Sardinia, which both have their own languages and distinctive local cultures. In the far north are the Italian Alps, below which is the Italian plain, home to cities such as Milan, Verona, Bergamo and Venice. This is Italy’s most economically important region. The Appennine mountain chain runs down the centre of the country, while the far south becomes more arid. Anywhere in Italy can get hot during the summer, though coastal areas are often tempered by sea breezes. Winters are cool in the north and mild further south. The long Italian coastline features spectacular cliffs and pristine beaches, with colourful traditional villages clinging to the hills as they rise from the sea.

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Florence

Some of the biggest challenges Italy faces include the wide gap between the richer north and poorer south, separatism in some regions, the influx of migrants crossing from north Africa and arriving in southern Italy, pollution – especially in the northern plains, political volatility and economic stagnation. Despite these problems, Italy can boast high living standards and a culture admired around the world.

One cool thing about Italy

There are 55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, the most of any country in the world, a reflection of its status as a cultural and historical powerhouse.

One sad thing about Italy

The country is one of Europe’s most seismically active, and earth tremors are common. There have been many damaging quakes over the years, with the most recent major event being the 2009 earthquake centred on L’Aquila in central Italy, which killed over 300 people and saw the collapse of numerous buildings in a region where many structures are not conditioned to withstand major tremors.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest is Italy’s border with France, while the microstate of Monaco is also not far away along the French coast. Italy shares mountainous northern frontiers with Switzerland and Austria, while Slovenia is to the northeast.
The island of Sardinia lies to the immediate south of the French island of Corsica, while the Adriatic Sea separates Italy from Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and a tiny strip of coastline belonging to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Malta is due south of Sicily, with Tunisia further away to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The fifth most-visited country in the world, Italy is a global tourism hotspot thanks to its history, culture, cuisine, natural beauty and remarkable 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the ski resorts of the Alps in the far north through cosmopolitan cities like Milan and Turin, the canals of Venice and the Renaissance splendour of Florence and the ancient history of Rome, down to traditional villages of the far south and Sicily, Italy arguably has something for everyone.

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Italian passport

Italy’s great cities combine all the vibrance and energy of modern European conurbations, but with fascinating history and breathtaking architecture, while its long coast offers stunning sea views dotted with small colourful villages that seem to cling to cliff faces. Rural Italy is still very traditional, while the cuisine and wines of the country are among the world’s most famous and are not to be missed. Italy is a land where tradition and modernity truly meet, where the visitor can experience the hustle and bustle of the markets and shops of the big city, then head into the countryside to find small sleepy traditional villages or tiny fishing communities.

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Cefalú, Sicily

 

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Ivory Coast

Côte d’Ivoire
  • Official Name: Republic of Côte d’Ivoire
  • Capital City: Yamoussoukro (political); Abidjan (economic)
  • Largest City: Abidjan
  • Population: 23,740,424
  • Language: French, regional languages
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ivory Coast like?

A former French colony in west Africa, Ivory Coast once constituted numerous kingdoms and states, but is today a presidential republic that is a diverse mix of ethnicities, language groups, religions and cultures that has seen its fair share of instability over recent years. For much of its history as an independent nation, Ivory Coast has built a reputation for relative peace and harmony in comparison to other countries in the region, but religious strife and even civil wars have flared up from time to time, the most recent being in 2010-2011 after a disputed presidential election. Like many other west African states, Ivory Coast was heavily impacted by the slave trade, and as the name suggests, the country was also a major centre of the ivory trade. The country’s ethnic and religious diversity mean that there is no one dominant culture, with different art forms, musical styles, cuisines and festivals to be found in different regions. While French is the national language, different people groups tend to speak their own native language.

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Ivory Coast

Much of the country’s economic activity is centred on the largest city, Abidjan, on the Atlantic coast, while rural areas are dominated by various forms of agriculture. Much of the country is flat or made up of rolling plains, rising gradually the further one gets from the coast, while there are hillier regions in the northwest. The climate is warm to hot all year round, with marked dry and wet seasons. Inland, the country is generally more arid, especially in the far north.

Although the country is generally known in English as “Ivory Coast”, the government has stated that its name in English is the same as in French – “Côte d’Ivoire.”

One cool thing about Ivory Coast

The country’s political capital, Yamoussoukro, is home to the world’s largest church. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, at an area of 30,000 square metres, is even bigger than St Peter’s in the Vatican City.

One sad thing about Ivory Coast

The Second Ivorian Civil War of 2010-2011 left around 3,000 people dead and shattered the country’s economy. The rebuilding process is ongoing.

Neighbours Textbox
The country borders five other west African nations. In the northwest is a winding frontier with Guinea, while in the north, the country borders Mali and Burkina Faso. In the east is the border with Ghana, while to the southwest is Liberia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The instability brought about by the civil war, combined with the general threat of armed groups in the region and the country’s poverty have served to make Ivory Coast a fairly challenging place to visit. However, the return of political stability after the Second Civil War has seen an increase in the number of visitors, and there is certainly plenty to see here.

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Ivorian passport

Some of the main attraction in Ivory Coast are the country’s long sandy beaches, which in places are rather unspoiled and luxurious, plus traditional villages and the local culture therein, and opportunities for safari and wildlife spotting. The city of Abidjan is the country’s most cosmopolitan urban centre with Ivory Coast’s main nightlife scene, though caution is required here. The world’s largest church in Yamoussoukro is a must-see while in west Africa. UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the former colonial town of Grand-Bassam, several national parks, and the towering Mount Nimba.

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The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro –
RyansWorld / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

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Jamaica

Jumieka
  • Official Name: Jamaica
  • Capital City: Kingston
  • Population: 2,890,299
  • Language: English, Jamaican Patois
  • Currency: Jamaican dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Jamaica like?

This small Caribbean island nation of almost three million people has had a cultural impact on the world that defies its diminutive size. Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae music and culture, as well as the Rastafari religion, and Jamaicans are renowned for their sporting prowess, particularly in athletics and cricket. Its culture and society is vibrant and unique, yet at the same time quintessentially and unmistakably Caribbean. Most Jamaicans speak English, a legacy of the island’s status as a former British colony, but there is also a Jamaican patois. The majority of Jamaicans are descended from Africans brought over to work on plantations during colonial rule, but there are also small numbers of Chinese and Indian descendants of indentured workers, and even a handful of white Jamaicans.

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Jamaica

An upper middle-income country, modern Jamaica is heavily reliant on the tourist trade, especially in the luxury and cruise sectors. Since independence in 1962, the country has struggled with violent crime, especially in the larger urban areas, though in recent years there has been some improvement in this area. While the country is moderately well-off, poverty does exist. The island’s position in the Caribbean Sea exposes it to hot, tropical conditions all year-round, with occasional hurricanes. This climate has led to a diverse array of plant, animal and marine life. The Jamaican interior is lush and mountainous, while the coast is lower-lying and ringed by sandy beaches and deep-blue Caribbean waters.

One cool thing about Jamaica

Author Ian Fleming bought land in Jamaica and wrote his first ten James Bond books here. He called his home Goldeneye.

One sad thing about Jamaica

The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with much of this crime being linked to the ‘Yardies’, local criminal gangs.

Neighbours Textbox
Jamaica is an island nation with no land borders, but it does have some near-neighbours. In the northwest, across roughly 200 miles of the Caribbean Sea, are the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory. To the immediate north is Cuba, while Haiti is about 130 miles to the east.
Situated between Jamaica and Haiti is Navassa Island, a tiny uninhabited island claimed by Haiti but controlled by the United States.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As with most of the Caribbean, many tourists come to Jamaica to find a slice of paradise, but they are also drawn by the country’s unique culture and interesting history. Many visitors arrive on cruise ships and go directly to resorts, while others arrive on package holidays, often aimed at the luxury end of the market. Jamaican resorts are well known for their high-end villas and private tropical beaches, and the country is among the leading destinations for honeymooners. Nevertheless, there is plenty to experience beyond the resorts. Fans of reggae make the pilgrimage to Jamaica, particularly to Trenchtown in the capital, Kingston, where reggae and rastafarian culture were born, as well as Nine Mile, where Bob Marley was born and is buried.

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Jamaican passport

Jamaica’s mountainous interior is renowned for walking and hiking, as well as its awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife. Many visitors head for the famous Dunn’s River Falls, a  cascading 600m waterfall that runs off into the Caribbean Sea. Jamaican cuisine is famous for jerk seasoning and has a reputation for being hot and spicy, but it is also diverse, with many flavours, and is always delicious. Jamaicans themselves are renowned for the warmth and friendliness of their welcome.

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Dunn’s River Falls, Ochos Rios –
Banja-Frans Mulder / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

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Japan

日本国 (Nippon-koku or Nihon-koku)
  • Official Name: Japan
  • Capital City: Tokyo
  • Population: 126,150,000
  • Language: Japanese
  • Currency: Japanese yen
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Japan like?

An archipelago stretching from the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk to the tropical climes of the Philippine Sea, Japan is home to an ancient, unique culture, world famous traditions, the world’s largest conurbation centred on Tokyo, a cohesive society and one of the world’s most innovative, modern and powerful economies. Japan’s culture, from its long tradition of martial arts to its more recent innovations in videogames, comic books, cartoons and pop music – as well as its world renowned cuisine – have gained large followings around the world, all while Japan’s rulers have sought to maintain a high degree of isolation from external influences.

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Japan

After World War II, with the Japanese Empire militarily defeated and its people reeling from the atomic bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan set about a programme of rapid development and economic growth that transformed it into a highly-developed first world nation. Today, Japan is a byword for quality electronics, while many of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies are Japanese. The country’s automotive industry exports reliable motor vehicles around the world. Meanwhile, Japan’s transport system, particularly its system of bullet trains, or shinkansen, are the envy of the world. Japanese people have the highest life expectancies in the world, but they are also faced with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. In recent years, economic growth has been stagnant. Organised crime is a problem in Japan, but in general crime rates are remarkably low for a large industrialised nation.

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Tokyo

Japan sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is highly susceptible to natural disasters, from potentially devastating earthquakes to tsunamis and powerful typhoons. To counter this, Japanese building standards are among the most stringent in the world, with most buildings designed to withstand substantial tremor activity. Nevertheless, in the most severe instances, large numbers of lives are lost, and this is a threat that the Japanese simply have to live with. The country has a large population, including the largest urban agglomeration in the world, yet much of the country is mountainous and heavily forested in places. Most Japanese are crammed into cities that sit in valleys and face the coast. Winters are cold and snowy in the far north, particularly on Hokkaido, while in the far south, a more subtropical climate prevails. Summers are warm and humid everywhere in Japan.

One cool thing about Japan

The world’s shortest escalator can be found in a department store in Kawasaki. It rises a mere 83cm and features just five steps.

One sad thing about Japan

The 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War, but they also killed somewhere between 130,000 to 226,000 people, the majority of whom were ordinary civilians.

Neighbours Textbox
Japan is a nation made up of islands in east Asia, and has no land borders. The mainland of Russia lies to the northwest, while the Russian island of Sakhalin lies to the north. In the northeast, Russia’s Kuril Islands chain stretches north from Hokkaido up to the Russian Kamchatka peninsula. Japan claims these islands.
In the far south, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands chain reaches as far as Taiwan, while China lies across the East China Sea to the southwest. North Korea and South Korea lie to the west, across the Sea of Japan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

For those with an active interest in Japanese customs, traditions and culture, a trip to Japan is often seen as the adventure of a lifetime. Visitors are mesmerised by the bright lights and technological advancement of the major cities. Historically, Japan was a closed-off country that received few visitors, but the modern nation is among the 20 most-visited in the world. The country is served by some of the most futuristic infrastructure on Earth, from unique and sometimes eccentric hotels and restaurants to its efficient and punctual transport network. However, it certainly isn’t all about modernity in Japan. This is an ancient culture that maintains numerous longstanding traditions, many of which can seem daunting and impenetrable to outsiders. Away from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle are sites of religious significance, especially in Buddhism and the Shinto faith, including beautiful temples.

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Japanese passport

Japanese cuisine is world famous and the country has some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. Rice and noodles are staples, while fish and seafood are major sources of protein, along with soybeans. Food is generally eaten with chopsticks, and there are many customs and unspoken rules to be taken account of while dining out in Japan.

A mountainous country, Japanese scenery is often spectacular, and the country has numerous ski resorts, though most visitors come from inside Japan. The country is also famous for its beautiful colourful gardens, often resplendant with cherry blossoms. One of Japan’s most popular attractions is Mount Fuji, an active volcano and the seventh-highest peak on Earth, which is visible from Tokyo on clear days.

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Mount Fuji

 

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Jordan

لأردن (Al-ʾUrdunn)
  • Official Name: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
  • Capital City: Amman
  • Population: 10,407,793
  • Language: Arabic
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Jordanian dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Jordan like?

An island of stability in a volatile region, Jordan is one of the most successful modern Arab states and has largely avoided the turmoil and conflict that have afflicted its near neighbours. In turn, this has left it one of the Arab world’s more prosperous economies outside of the oil-rich Gulf states. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Jordan became an emirate under British protection after the First World War, before gaining independence in 1946. It has been ruled by the Hashemite dynasty ever since. The country is home to large communities of refugees from war-torn nations nearby, especially Palestinians, many of whom have lived in Jordan for decades. Indeed, the descendants of Palestinian refugees now outnumber the original Jordanian people. More recently, refugees from conflicts in Iraq and Syria have found their way to Jordan. The instability of the wider region and the need to absorb so many refugees has often hindered Jordan’s economic development, but the country remains broadly socially cohesive.

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Jordan

Tourism is a major industry in Jordan, and the country has numerous sites that draw large numbers of visitors. Health tourism is also common, owing to Jordan’s well-resourced healthcare system. Most Jordanians live around the capital, Amman and along the stretch of highway that cuts south from Amman towards the Red Sea. However, there are nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin communities in the Jordanian desert. The country is largely arid, though it is named after the Jordan river which runs along its western border. There is a very short strip of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba, and the country has a shoreline on the Dead Sea. The country experiences long, hot summers, especially in the desert, while winters are generally mild. Most rain falls during the winter.

One cool thing about Jordan

Earth’s lowest point on dry land is in Jordan at the shore of the Dead Sea (which is actually a saline lake) at an incredible 420m (1,378ft) below sea level.

One sad thing about Jordan

Though terrorist attacks are rare in Jordan, in 2005 three major hotels in the capital, Amman, were bombed, resulting in 57 deaths and 115 injuries.

Neighbours Textbox
In the west, Jordan borders Israel and the West Bank, while in the north is the frontier with Syria. Jordan’s northeastern border with Iraq is a remote desert area, while the country’s longest border is in the southeast and the south with Saudi Arabia.
The Sinai peninsula in Egypt lies a short distance across the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea from Jordan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With little in the way of natural resources, tourism is Jordan’s lifeblood, and fortunately the country has plenty to offer. Not only that, but the country’s relative stability makes it one of the safest destinations in the Arab world. The country abounds with Roman architecture and sites linked to Roman civilisation, but undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Jordan is the ancient city of Petra, a fully-preserved Nabatean city carved into the pink rocks of the Jordanian desert. This spectacular location has been used in Hollywood films, most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

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Jordanian passport

The city of Jerash is famous for its well-preserved Roman architecture, while Amman, a cosmpolitan and modern city, boasts the Temple of Hercules, an amphitheatre and a citadel, as well as some of the best shopping in the Middle East. The resort town of Aqaba on the Red Sea is a major watersports destination, while the Dead Sea is a must visit to experience the sensation of floating unaided on the water. The desert mountains of Wadi Rum feature some of the world’s most unique landscapes and are associated with TE Lawrence.

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Petra

 

So there we have it, part three out of the way at long last. Hopefully part four won’t be so long in the making, but I won’t be making any promises.

A few thoughts on Flybe…

You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to be familiar with Flybe if you live in Belfast. Wherever you are, the whirring sound of the airline’s turboprop passenger planes flying low over the city is just part of everyday life as short-haul flights take off and land at George Best City Airport. So Thursday 5th March was a strange day without the sight and sound of those commuter flights bound for or arriving from various locations around Great Britain. With Flybe in administration, yet another airline has gone to the wall in Europe as the industry continues to contract.

 I didn’t use Flybe very often. For most of my time in Belfast, it’s been easyJet or nothing as no other airline – not even Ryanair – serve the Belfast-Liverpool route. But for a brief period between 2016 and 2018, Flybe launched a service between Belfast City and Liverpool John Lennon, at last providing some kind of competition on what is a very busy route. Although their flights were a little more expensive, I was more than happy to bear the cost to use a more convenient airport (easyJet operate from Belfast International, which is 40 minutes away by bus), and the service was always good in my experience.

 Boarding a Flybe turboprop flight could seem a little strange to those used to the larger jets operated by the likes of Ryanair and easyJet. The outside of the aircraft seemed much closer due to the thinner casing of the fuselage, and the sound of the propellers was deafening. It was a squeeze on the inside too, with space at a premium on small aircraft and even the overhead lockers barely big enough to take a fully-packed backpack. And if it was windy, you’d feel very vulnerable as the Bombardier Q400 swayed and rocked in the currents. Indeed, cancellations and delays weren’t unusual, due to the aircraft’s relative vulnerability in adverse weather. Nevertheless, it was comfortable, the staff were friendly and welcoming with dapper purple uniforms, and they could connect you to places you’d otherwise face a much longer journey to get to.

 And that’s why Flybe is a loss to the industry and to so many communities and smaller airports. Eighty percent of flights from Belfast George Best City were operated by Flybe. The picture is even worse for Southampton, which has lost 90% of its flights overnight due to Flybe’s collapse. Flybe provided a vital link between Cornwall and other parts of England, particularly London, from Newquay Airport, in a part of the country poorly connected to other regions. Then there’s the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, which all saw crucial routes served by Flybe. Even Manchester Airport – the north of England’s busiest airport and its gateway to the rest of the world – is losing 16% of its flights with Flybe. The vast majority of these routes were viable and profitable (with some operating as public service obligations) which explains why other airlines have already jumped in where they can, with many airports, including Belfast City, in talks with other operators to see if these routes can be salvaged.

 Unfortunately for Flybe and those who enjoyed their service, the company had made too many mistakes. Overreach saw them invest in a fleet of Embraer jets in an effort to break into the European market, but this half-hearted attempt left them in debt with expensive aircraft they couldn’t gainfully employ. Even the branding gave the impression of a half-finished job, with some planes painted in the new purple livery and many others left in the older white and blue. This was a rudderless airline that wrote its own obituary, but even then, it looked as if help was at hand through the UK government, until the coronavirus came along and hit passenger numbers while simultaneously diverting government attention.

 It’s good news that other airlines already appear to be stepping in. Loganair are operating between Belfast City and several Scottish destinations. Others are in talks to keep routes served around the UK. Whatever your views on the merits and perils of aviation and its environmental impact, I think it’s sad to see a formerly successful airline that had a decent core business model dig its own grave so spectacularly and leave so many unemployed and so many others in connected trades fearing for their own futures. Simply switching to rail or other modes of transport is not an answer in the UK, where the railways are a source of frustration and embarrassment (and let’s not get started on the cost). Belfast City is a fantastic little airport with a sense of informality and an absence of the chaos you often get elsewhere. Conveniently located a short ride from the city centre on the eastern edge of Belfast Lough, it also offers stunning views of the water and the hills on the other side. Without Flybe, its future looks uncertain unless others step in. It’s a familiar feeling around the UK’s regional airports, where nerves have been set jangling over their futures. Can they survive in the wake of Flybe’s failure? Those communities served by these airports will hope that they do.

I’m Okay…

It’s 3am in late November 2017 and I’m lying awake in my little bedroom in my parents’ house. I’m a week away from my 33rd birthday, and I’ve been living with Mum and Dad again for two years. On this particular night, the deafening silence is oppressive, like a weight closing in around my head, attempting to crush me. The heating has been off for four hours and there’s an icy chill in the air – or at least it feels like there is. It’s a scary place to be. There might be two other people in the house, but it feels as if they’re an entire universe away at this moment in time.

I pick up the phone and dial 111. If you’re not familiar with 111, it’s basically a way for people in Britain to dial 999 without dialling 999 (if you’re not familiar with 999, it’s basically a common-sense version of 911). It’s a hypochondriac’s dream. A way to call 999 without actually calling it and clogging up the real emergency line so people having actual heart attacks (as opposed to the imagined kind) face an increased risk of, well, death. Medical advice on tap, 24/7. You’re never more than a phone call away from being told you need to see a doctor because nobody can possibly diagnose you over the phone. Superb.

Fast forward to 6am and I’m leaving the house. The weather is a good metaphor for my state of mind – angry, wintry gusts, and spasms of sideways hail. I’m headed for the train station on my way to see the only available out-of-hours GP I can find. Without a car, all I can do is get the train to Southport and then walk a (mentally) agonising half an hour to what I hope will be salvation. I should know by now that salvation isn’t doled out in ten-minute appointments. To cut a long story as short as I can do, I’m told I probably don’t have Multiple Sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease or any of the other terrifying diseases I’m convinced have befallen me, handed a prescription for some diazepam, and told not to worry. Some chance!

Before I developed this obsession with my own mortality (because that’s what health anxiety really is), I used to think of hypochondria in clichéd terms to do with “attention seeking” and “irrationality”. Hypochondriacs were people with nothing better to do and were just desperate to be noticed. If that doesn’t sound very empathetic, think of how hypochondriacs are depicted on TV. Here’s a hint – it’s never kind. I remember the Harvey Corman character in hospital-based sitcom Scrubs, who used to frequent Sacred Heart convinced of his imminent demise at the hands of all manner of outlandish diagnoses, including, at one point, kuru, a degenerative brain disease not seen outside of tribal Papua New Guinea. His repeated visits and baffling worries illicit mockery and eye-rolling incredulity from those obliged to treat him. Reassuringly, during a medical exam ordered by the taciturn Dr. Cox in an effort to scare poor Mr. Corman off, he is eventually diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. Even hypochondriacs get unlucky sometimes. I forget what became of him after that.

The truth about hypochondriacal breakdowns is that they are about far more than wanting attention. The all-consuming fear of imminent doom – the certainty that imminent doom is coming – is a huge distraction from thoughts about whether or not people care enough about you or not. In fact, if it were possible, you’d probably accept a bargain in which people stopped caring about you, if it meant you could feel well again. To put it simply, hypochondria – health anxiety if you prefer – is hell. It’s a spiral of torment and despair and, in my case, MRI scans and endoscopies, in which each symptom triggers more worry, which triggers more symptoms, which trigger more worries, until you can’t see a way out.

I guess you could say I’m a lucky guy. I have parents prepared to put me up and look after me almost as if I were a child again in my early thirties. I’m sure they felt powerless to help, but I’m much better now, which suggests otherwise. I got better the way countless people get better from anxiety and panic – therapy, medication, patience, and time. I still experience similar thought patterns, but I’m in control of it now. I’ve found some degree of comfort and happiness again. In many ways, my relapse followed a similar pattern to my previous anxious collapse – panic attacks, fear of death, worsening physical symptoms, medication initially making things even worse, therapy, a small chink of light, room to breathe, some semblance of normality, recovery. Perhaps it will happen again, perhaps it won’t. Who knows? I’m not going to worry about that right now.

In a previous post, I rationalised that there was no shame in anxiety disorders because they are illnesses that we don’t choose and we can’t fully control. I absolutely stick to the view that there should be no shame or stigma attached. However, when thinking about my own experiences, I wonder if the notion of anxiety as an illness is insufficient. I am not expert enough to say one way or another what anxiety is. At the end of the day, the mind is a part of the body, and if a part of the body begins to function in a way that leads to suffering, that’s illness, isn’t it? Anxiety has severely limited the last two years of my life. In fact, it’s caused me suffering ever since I was a child. And brain scans show that anxious people tend to have larger amygdalae – the amygdala being the fear-processing centre in the brain. It’s also been shown that there are weaker connections between the amygdalae and the part of the brain responsible for rationalising our instinctual thoughts and feelings. So it must be a mental illness, right?

Well, yes, I accept that it must be. However, when I think of my own experiences with anxiety, I sometimes struggle to see it – and to feel it – as an illness. To me, it feels like a natural part of who I am – a consequence of genetics and environment that mean that this is one way my personality manifests itself. Yeah, I might have an enlarged amygdala, but does that mean having a brain difference means having  a mental illness? I do sometimes feel that anxiety – a feeling and an emotion that everybody experiences to some degree or another – is not like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or depression, where there is so obviously something chemically and neurologically wrong.

If you’re reading this and feel that I’m devaluing anxiety as an illness or as a source of suffering, please know that that is not my intention. I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a neurologist. If thinking of anxiety as an illness helps you, then stick with that belief. You’re probably right. And rest assured that I know only too well what it is to suffer with these debilitiating feelings. I’ve felt so overwhelmed with fear that just getting off the bed feels herculean. Some days, the idea of taking a shower is akin to wading across a lake filled with treacle. Mental energy and physical energy – can they really be prised apart?

Almost a year on from that horrible episode (trust me, I’ve only skimmed the surface here), I’m back on my feet, back in work and doing my best to function like a normal human being (whatever that means). I live in Belfast again, which is a place that seems to be good for me and the hamster-wheel that is my brain. My parents can breathe a sigh of relief that, for now at least, their 33-year-old son has found something to enjoy and be happy about and isn’t running back and forth to the hospital looking for the magic words that never come. I have good and bad days. Sometimes the bad days are still quite bad. But they aren’t torture. They’re something to be gotten through by focusing on work or breathing the fresh Irish air or listening to the rain or eating a giant cheeseburger. Things are looking up. And they will for you, as long as you remember to breathe.

 

Around the World in Five Posts: Bonus Post

It’s over year ago since I last pulled my finger out and posted in my Around the World in Five Posts series. If you read the second entry, you may remember that I jokingly pondered whether the next post would appear before 2018 arrived. Well, it’s now June 2018 and it still hasn’t happened! I will be returning to it soon, though. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to look at some constitutional and geopolitical goings-on that could require me to alter my already published posts in the series, and that could also see some new countries emerge in the next few years.

Bye bye Swaziland, hello Eswatini.

Let’s start with something that’s already happened. You may or may not recall that the series broadly follows alphabetical order, based on Wikipedia‘s List of Sovereign States. However, one of those countries has recently changed its name, which means entry number two in the series will require editing in order to insert it.

On April 18th, 2018, King Mswati III changed Swaziland’s name to Eswatini. Actually, that’s not technically correct. Eswatini has always been the country’s name in the Swazi language and is derived from the name of 19th century ruler King Mswati II. Swaziland was simply the country’s official name in English. Swaziland and Eswatini essentially mean the same thing – “land of the Swazi people.”

Mswati
King Mswati III of Eswatini

The decision to ditch Swaziland as the country’s official name in English and replace it with Eswatini was made in order to mark 50 years since independence. It is also viewed as a way of helping to avoid confusion with Switzerland – a very different country with a similar name to Swaziland.

The United Nations has since accepted the change of name and acknowledges the Kingdom of Eswatini. Wikipedia are sticking with Swaziland for the time being – at least for the header of their article on the country – but this is presumably down to the fact that Swaziland will remain in much wider colloquial usage until Eswatini catches on. Nevertheless, I’ll be breaking with my convention of following Wikipedia‘s list and will be sure to install Eswatini into the second post.

FYROM/Macedonia vs Greece – is a solution finally in sight?

One of the countries that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia calls itself Macedonia. Or, to give it its full name, the Republic of Macedonia. A majority ethnic Slavic country with Albanian and other minorities, this newly-independent state claims a connection to Alexander the Great, or Alexander of Macedon. It uses symbols associated with the historical region of Macedonia, including in its flag. It has renamed roads and infrastructure after Alexander the Great and has asserted that traditional Macedonian symbols and historical figures form part of its legacy and identity.

Macedonia
The flag of the Republic of Macedonia featuring
the Vergina Sun, a historically Greek symbol

But there’s a problem with all this, especially if you’re Greek. Alexander the Great wasn’t a Slav. He was a Greek. The historical region of Macedonia today spans both countries, but the majority of its territory is in northern Greece. Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, is in Greek Macedonia. For many Greeks, the fact that that their northern neighbour calls itself the Republic of Macedonia suggests a claim over Greek territory, as well as an attempt to appropriate Greek Macedonian culture and history. The Greek response to this has been to veto efforts by the Republic of Macedonia to join international institutions, including the EU and NATO. Nationalist sentiment in both countries has crystallised around the naming issue.

Macedonia dispute
Republic of Macedonia and Greece’s Macedonia region

For Macedonia (the majority Slavic state, not the Greek region), this is a problem. The country is the poorest to have emerged from the former Yugoslavia (unless you count Kosovo, but that’s another issue). It is keen to increase its ability to trade internationally and to join global institutions to help boost its economy. But the Greeks won’t allow this while it continues to call itself Macedonia. The country is a member of the United Nations, but only under the clunky compromise name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM for short).

For over two decades, the two sides have been locked in a bitter dispute, with nationalists on both sides refusing to back down. Talks have dragged on under American supervision without ever coming to a solution. However, in early June 2018, an agreement was finally reached which would see the majority Slavic state renamed as the Republic of Northern Macedonia. This name would make it clear that the country makes no claim on Greek territory. The change would remove all barriers to Macedonia joining international institutions and would speed up its EU accession process. For Greece, its northern border would be normalised and it could begin to trade openly with its majority Slavic neighbour.

TsiprasZaev
Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece (left) and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia

There are hurdles to clear first, however. In the Republic of Macedonia, the proposed name change will be put to a referendum in autumn of 2018, and it is by no means guaranteed that its citizens will support the move, containing as it does numerous concessions beyond simply inserting “Northern” into its name. The Republic’s president has also vowed not to sign the agreement, which would prevent it from coming into law. Indeed, the President has been pretty scathing about his Prime Minister’s endorsement of the deal. The agreement will also need to clear the Greek parliament, which is far from certain given the objections of several parties therein.

So watch this space. You may have to get used to saying Northern Macedonia in the future. Or, if things don’t progress, you may have to accept the continuation of the current state of awkward confusion that currently exists. As things stand, Macedonia will come under “M” in our series – not because I want to piss off Greeks or am interested in taking sides, but because that’s where it is on Wikipedia’s list. However, should the name change go through, the country will appear among those countries beginning with “N”, and will be referred to as Northern Macedonia.

A South Pacific Referendum

France is in Europe, right? Well, most of it is. But France has territory in several locations around the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Some of these territories are very remote, but all are integral parts of the French Republic. They possess differing statuses within the republic which define the level of self-government they enjoy, but they are, essentially, parts of France.

France and New Caledonia flags
The flags of France and New Caledonian

One of these territories is New Caledonia in the south Pacific. A group of islands scattered off the eastern seaboard of Australia, with a population of 270,000, New Caledonia is the only one of France’s overseas territories recognised as a “special collectivity”, giving it a unique status within the French Republic. But in November 2018, the people of New Caledonia will vote on whether to remain a part of France or become an independent, fully-sovereign state. Should they vote in favour of such a move, the family of nations will welcome a new country into the world.

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The distance between New Caledonia and Paris is 10,289 miles

The referendum is compulsory under the terms of the Nouméa Agreement, a 1998 deal named after the territory’s capital city, that was designed to help deal with demands for greater automony among the islands’ native Kanak people. However, most preliminary polls seem to indicate that the public is likely to reject independence.

Not Another South Pacific Independence Referendum?!

Oh yes. If you like your geopolitics, there’s plenty to get your teeth into at the moment! Chances are you’ve heard of Papua New Guinea at some point, but it’s less likely you’ve heard of Bougainville. While the majority of Papua New Guinea is on the island of New Guinea (which it shares with Indonesia), it also possesses a number of smaller islands, including Bougainville.

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Papua New Guinea with Bougainville in the east

Geographically, Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands, but it is politically part of Papua New Guinea. Since Papuan independence, Bougainville has had an uneasy relationship with the government in Port Moresby, and these tensions have bubbled over into war in the past. The allocation of resources is a major factor behind this trouble.

Today, Bougainville has a high degree of automony from the rest of Papua New Guinea, and governs itself in a broad range of areas. The island is scheduled to hold a referendum some time before 2020 on whether to become independent. However, there are conditions that the island must meet before the vote can be held, and some observers doubt whether these can be met before 2020. Bougainville has a large informal economy and is a hub for illegal weapons trafficking – a problem that must be curbed before the vote goes ahead.

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Current flag of Bougainville province

Unlike in New Caledonia, there is a strong possibility that, should the vote take place, the people of Bougainville will back independence. It could still take time to create a viable sovereign state in that event, however. What does this mean for the series? Well, here’s hoping I’ve finished all five posts before 2020! Even if not, a newly independent Bougainville would have to be inserted into the already published first entry.

 

The third post in the series is well under way. I’m also aware of changes I really should make to the previous two. All of this will hopefully appear soon. But I’m an excellent procrastinator so I make no promises!

Site Update

It can’t have escaped your attention that a blog dedicated to an English guy’s reflections on living in Belfast and Northern Ireland almost never talks about Belfast and Northern Ireland. There’s a reason for this and I’m going to have to come clean about it – I haven’t lived in Northern Ireland since September 2015.

The original idea was to share with the internet how fond I was of my adopted home on the other side of the Irish Sea. The problem is that, not long after getting started, I took a job in London and the whole premise of the blog was compromised. And by compromised, I mean ruined. Fundamentally altered.

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Church near where I lived in South Ealing, west London

Given that we’re approaching 2018, I probably should’ve gotten round to rebranding the blog by now (apologies if “rebranding” sounds a bit grandiose), but it just never happened.

These days I live back on home territory in Liverpool, but the option of a return to Northern Ireland at some point in the future is something I keep open as I was very happy over there and think I would be again. What I don’t fancy is redesigning the blog just to have to change it all back again if and when I move back to Belfast. So you’re just going to have to accept, for the time being, that An English Guy in Belfast is written by an English guy in England.


 

A couple of years ago I did one or two posts about anxiety – a condition that, since leaving Belfast, has had a major impact on my life. I prefer not to talk about it too much on the blog as I came to a conclusion pretty quickly that I don’t want to give this pain in the arse of a condition any more attention that I absolutely have to. But I did write a piece that used a pretty terrible boxing metaphor to describe what having anxiety is like.

Since then, I’ve noticed that I often get referrals from Google from people searching the terms “boxing” and “anxiety” together. I did wonder about removing the piece or altering it in some way so as to prevent anxious young boxers finding their way to what is mainly a travel blog and wondering what on earth happened and how a story about my underpants in Norway is meant to help them. But then I thought, you never know, the stuff about anxiety might help someone somewhere (boxers or otherwise), so I’ve left it up, but I wanted to let anyone who finds my blog this way know that I am sorry if you arrive here and feel misled. It’s interesting that boxing is so often about bravado and machismo, yet clearly there are plenty of amateur fighters out there for whom their chosen sport can lead to levels of tension and anxiety that cause them to seek help online.

Anyway, I just wanted to clear a couple of things up. Oh, and part three of our trip to every country in the world is on the way. Eventually. It’s a lot of research and I get tired. I’m a bit stuck on India. Can you imagine trying to condense India into a bitesize chunk? It’s one of the most complex countries on earth and I’m terrified of excluding anything important for the sake of brevity. Also, I’m getting more nervous the closer I get to Israel. I’m gonna piss someone off no matter what I say there, aren’t I?

Thanks for reading,

Michael

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Formby Point, Formby, Liverpool – home

 

Oslo: the City on the Fjord

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“We’re a little stricter about this type of thing in Norway”, says a polite but firm border guard at Torp Airport, with the air of a veteran school headmistress. Apparently I look suspicious arriving in the country with only a backpack to my name. It’s just convenience, I assure her. I’m only in Norway for four days and I can travel very light when I want to. Travelling with hand luggage alone is great, except that things that might ordinarily be in a larger suitcase for the hold have instead been stuffed unceremoniously into a backpack, increasing the chances of you having to expose your racing-green, fox-head embroidered boxer shorts, or the blue pair with bright yellow smiley faces, to full public view during an airport inspection. Pictures available on request, if you absolutely insist.

Sandefjord Airport, Torp, as it’s officially known, is referred to by Ryanair as “Oslo Torp”, in line with their policy of sometimes flying you to airports located far away from your intended destination while just about being in the same country. It sits just outside the town of Sandefjord, about 70 miles to the south of Oslo. As well as Ryanair, it’s served by budget carrier Wizz Air and local commuter airline Widerøe. It’s great being able to fly to Norway for £40 return, but the drawback is that when you land, you’re only about halfway through your journey. It’s a bit like getting off the train about five stops away from where you actually intend to go. I land at roughly 9:20pm, with a cramped bus ride ahead of me and an undercurrent of low-key angst about what might happen if I get to Oslo after the metro has stopped running. An online review I read before leaving said it’s best not to arrive alone in the middle of the night due to the “dodginess” of the area around my hostel. Gulp. How dodgy can anywhere in Norway really be, though?

The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful. In daylight hours, it might have been a nice opportunity to stare out of the window and watch Norway pass by – a first chance to set eyes on a new country. For some reason, I get a kick out of seeing road signs in foreign languages displaying directions to exotic-sounding locations – a reminder that you’ve arrived somewhere outside of your comfort zone. In Bratislava, Slovakia, I remember seeing signs directing traffic to Győr in Hungary and Wien (Vienna) in Austria and being fascinated by the idea that some people’s lives require them to regularly cross international borders as if they were driving into the next town, which they may very well be doing. Growing up on an island, you never see that. I guess the same is probably true if you grow up in the middle of a huge country like the US. I’m assuming you don’t see signs for Tijuana or Toronto in Missouri. Am I the only one who notices stuff like this?

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Oslo city centre

Anyway, in the dark, there was nothing to see but my own vaguely careworn reflection and the occasional set of headlights from traffic on the other side of the carriageway. Few of those on my flight seem to be using the bus to get to wherever they need to go next, leaving it pretty empty and very peaceful. For some reason, I spend the whole journey with my backpack on my lap, as if I half-expect the border guard from the airport to reappear and have one last rummage through my smalls. In front of me is an English family consisting of a mum and dad and an adult daughter, with accents implying Mancunian origins. Their dynamic seems to revolve around exchanging what, to be fair, is quite witty banter, but that dries up as they are lulled to sleep. Behind me, a Norwegian father and his daughter of about eleven or twelve share quiet conversation. She spends most of the journey crying and eating sweets. I don’t know if she’s left someone behind in Manchester and isn’t taking it very well, but when I see the same duo waiting to board the return flight four days later, it seems like that probably isn’t the case. Maybe she’s just a bit sad. Sometimes even Norwegians get sad.

I arrive in Oslo city centre (or do I call it downtown Oslo?) with just enough time to catch my metro train, but I instantly throw this happy development into jeopardy by walking out of the bus station at the wrong end. Sometimes in life, you follow the correct signposted directions, and yet somehow, something goes wrong. When I eventually find the metro station, I’m not done with my bumbling. It’s a pretty straightforward system involving a loop in the city centre, but I manage to board a train going in the wrong direction. By this point, all I want to do is get to my hostel, check in, find something convenient to nourish me and then go to sleep.

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A view from the Anker Apartments roof terrace

Oslo’s east side is supposedly the grittier district. Norway, of course, is among the world’s wealthiest nations, with some of the most impressive indices for social and economic equality. Nevertheless, Oslo, as the capital and by far the biggest city, does have some social problems, the most pressing of which are in the east. As I emerge from the subterranean world of the metro system into Carl Berner’s Plass at about 1am, however, any concerns for my safety triggered by the offending hostel review are immediately laid to rest. If anything, there’s a gentle buzz about the area. You can see the diversity that has become a hallmark of modern Oslo almost immediately in the faces of the locals. The area is mainly made up of apartment buildings, but unlike in many British cities, they aren’t ugly. Nondescript, yes, but not ugly.

The main problem I’m confronted with by this point is that my hostel appears to be in a bit of a ghost town. At least during the night. There are no late-night shops, no takeaway food establishments, and the hostel doesn’t serve as much as a sandwich. The Irish pub across the road is in complete darkness. If I’d had dinner before my flight, I’d have just gone to bed, but there’s no way I can sleep on a stomach this empty. Essentially, I’m in one of those make-or-break moments where you’re faced with two diverging choices. In this case, the easy one would be to concede defeat and get some sleep, but the more challenging and infinitely more exciting option is to wander the streets of this alien district of a city I’ve just arrived in, in the hope of finding some grub. Listening, as always, to the wants and needs of my ample midriff, I take the latter option.

By this point, the streets are largely deserted. There’s an early autumn chill in the air that keeps my walking pace brisk. It turns out that, contrary to my original impression, I’m actually based in Grünerløkka, one of the east end’s trendiest districts. A former bastion of Oslo’s working class, gentrification has bestowed Grünerløkka with all manner of bars and eateries, as well as appealing public spaces and attractive buildings. Most of the restaurants are closed as I show up, but I soon find a 7/11 convenience store where I can splash out 100kr (about £10) on a sandwich and a can of Coke. No, Norway isn’t a budget destination.

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Grünerløkka

Gentrification can be a touchy subject. In Berlin, I learned about the strength of opposition there often is to it, and even saw a counter-cultural demonstration in which protestors stand against many things, including the gentrification of numerous districts of the German capital. Some will tell you that it sanitises whole city districts, while driving up prices, forcing out local residents and changing the whole social identity. Whether Grünerløkka is better or worse off for this process, all I know is that I like the place. I love how the quaint, slightly worse-for-wear, trams rattle along the streets, scooping up passengers who presumably never stop to think about how they’ve basically just boarded a small train in the middle of the street and how cool that is. The shops and bars make the area feel like somewhere people go specifically to enjoy themselves and relax. I found the colours and styles of the facades to be quite charming. Grünerløkka is the kind of city district I always imagine myself feeling at home living in, but it’s never quite happened as of yet.

It’s 7am the following morning. I’ve been asleep for about four hours, but all that is about to change. A jolting, terrifying screech launches me out of my dream-state, sending me from comatose to upright in a matter of seconds. I race around the room like I’ve misplaced a winning lottery ticket, in a frantic search for the source of the unbearable din. Still stuck in a strange hinterland between sleep and wakefulness, I’m convinced it’s emanating from somewhere in my room and that I’ll be able to turn it off if I can just find it. In this bizarre mental state, I feel like somehow I’m going to be to blame for waking the whole hostel. My heart is pounding out of my chest as if I’m in the middle of a raging panic attack. Then it hits me. It’s the fire alarm, and I’ll presumably be toast if I don’t pull myself together. It’s a fortunate intervention, as it happens. Not because there’s a fire. There was no fire. Just lots of bleary-eyed hostel guests standing in the cold early morning air waiting to go back to bed. No, it’s worked out well for me because I have a walking tour to go on in two hours and I’d forgotten to set my own, slightly less intense, alarm. Drama over, I’m left to ponder over the strange behaviour being woken from a deep sleep induces.

It turns out I’ve hit the jackpot with the weather. The morning’s pretty chilly, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the day only gets warmer until, by mid-afternoon, it’s pushing 20c. Not at all bad for Oslo in October. You can tell it’s a major bonus to those who live here. Everybody not in a suit or uniform of some kind has firmly grasped this unexpected chance to revisit their summer wardrobe. The Oslo waterfront is brimming with people out for a stroll in the autumn sunshine. The city just feels as if it is in a good mood. Walking tours are a brilliant way to get acquainted with a new city. There’s often a free one, although I think you’ve got to be pretty miserly not to chip a little something in. My first impression of the Norwegian capital is that it feels as if it’s been designed with humans and their wellbeing in mind. The metro is reliable, modern, easy to use and very comfortable. The trams are regular, if perhaps a little cramped. The roads are not choked with traffic, and the cars you do see are more likely to be powered by electricity than any other city in the world. There’s plenty of cycle lanes, but you never get the feeling you do in Amsterdam that crossing the road is a death sport involving you, a neverending stream of cyclists and rampaging trams. The great thing about the public transport system is that it is all integrated. A 24-hour ticket gets you unlimited rides within that period on the metro, the trams, the buses and even the ferries that shuttle between the city and the islands out in Oslofjord. The ferries are literally just another part of the public transport system.

Oslo isn’t blessed with an array of jawdroppingly beautiful buildings. Much of what makes it special is its laidback, welcoming and friendly atmosphere. A walking tour tends to cover the main sights you’d want to see, and the city centre is small enough to get around on foot. At the northwestern end of Karl Johannes Gate – the main street that runs through the centre of the city – is the Royal Palace, a suitably impressive building that sits within a large park. This is the residence of Norway’s ruling monarch and, while quite imposing, certainly feels less ostentatious than Buckingham Palace. Facing the palace is a large open square that, as you’d expect, throngs with tourists. The street runs from this point through the centre of the city, terminating at the central train station, which is a big help with orientation. During my stay, this area overflows with inebriated but good-natured Northern Ireland football fans, in town for a crucial World Cup qualification fixture with Norway. Some of them are very drunk, which must have cost them a fortune…

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Royal Palace

Further along Karl Johannes Gate, you pass the Nationaltheatret – perhaps Norway’s most significant venue for the dramatic arts and, in my opinion, probably the most beautiful building in the city. A little further still is the Storting building, home to Norway’s national parliament, placed firmly in the very heart of the city. It’s an understated but elegant affair, and I would argue that you may not even realise its significance were you not to know beforehand what it stood for. Each time I pass by, the small square to the front has been colonised by more Northern Ireland football fans.

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National Theatre

One of the best things about Oslo is the easy access to some truly breathtaking scenery that lies on its doorstep. Norway is a spectacularly beautiful country. It stretches from the temperate waters of the North Sea, where Oslo and the far south are within easy sailing distance of Britain, Denmark and the Low Countries, to the barren Arctic north, where it even has a short border with Russia. The coast is heavily indented by magnificent fjords, giving Norway one of the world’s longest coastlines. In summer, huge ships ply the cruise trade in and out of the fjords. Coastal Norway is kept relatively mild in winter by the influence of the Gulf Stream, meaning the city of Bergen on the Atlantic coast can often be as much as ten degrees celsius warmer than Oslo in January. The north of the country is where the harshest weather is to be found. Summers are short and cool, with almost 24 hours of daylight. Winters, on the other hand, are long, dark and cold. The capital, meanwhile, is situated at the top of a long fjord and surrounded by mountains in the southeast of the country, and has colder winters than areas of the south and southwest. But even here, it tends to stay warmer than many other places at the same latitude around the world. The mountains on the city’s doorstep make for superb hiking opportunities in the summer and world-class winter sports during the colder months. The ski-ramp at Oslo Winter Park – the country’s busiest ski resort – is visible from many vantage points around the city.

With only four days in Norway, I don’t have time to explore much beyond the confines of Oslo, but you can still get a taste of the country’s natural beauty without technically leaving the city. I’m lucky in that the weather is still on my side to the extent that I face the genuine prospect of going home from Norway in October with a bit of a suntan. To the southeast of the city is Ekebergsparken, a large area of parkland offering views out over the city and across the fjord below. On a warm, sunny autumn day, I can no longer think of anywhere I’d rather be. It’s awkwardly located to access on foot, despite not being far from the city centre. Fortunately, there is a tram stop right outside the park, which means you can board your tram in the heart of the city and enjoy the ride up the hill. (By “fortunately”, I mean “conveniently” – I don’t think the tram stop appeared there by accident). My favourite area of the park looks south, down the fjord – a beautiful sparkling blue beneath clear autumn skies – across the islands, flanked on either side by rocky peninsulas. The paths are also lined with strange and interesting sculptures. In fact, this isn’t the only sculpture park in Oslo. It’s also a good spot to gaze out over the city, from the industry of the port at the foot of the hill to the skyscrapers of Oslo’s booming business district, and the ski resort on the mountains in the distance.

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Oslofjord from Ekebergparken

Away from the dizzy heights of Ekebergsparken, I drop down into one of the most vibrant parts of Oslo. The waterfront has undergone enormous regeneration in order to become the kind of place people would want to hang out, and it’s a really lovely place to pass some time. At the far eastern end, you’ve got the brand new opera house, a modern, whitewash building now serving as one of Oslo’s premier cultural venues. The bright white of the exterior can be quite dazzling on a sunny day, but it’s an impressive piece of modern architecture. The design incorporates two long slopes either side of the main construction, allowing visitors to access the roof and take in views over the fjord.

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The Opera House

Moving west, you arrive at Akerhus Fortress, a medieval castle and grounds built on the edge of the fjord that once served to protect the city from marauding invaders. This part of Oslo can be quite noisy, but step away from the busy street and behind the castle walls, and you enter an altogether more peaceful setting amidst the medieval fortifications and cobblestoned walkways. A little further along still is the Rådhus – Oslo City Hall – where the local government sits. The scale of the building is undeniably impressive, but its brutalist style is also quite challenging and certainly not to everybody’s taste. Even the tour guide says it tends to divide people. It’s worth a look inside, though, as this is where the real beauty of the building lies.

Keep moving west and you pass the Nobel Peace Centre, a pretty building housing a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize. At this point, the harbour opens out into a large square, criss-crossed by tram lines and teeming with locals and tourists enjoying the incredibly laidback atmosphere. Ferries shuttle between the docks and the islands in the fjord, while, to the western side, a modern development consisting of desirable apartment buildings with ocean views and numerous high-end restaurants stretches out. I take a walk down along the water, noting how the air becomes quieter and quieter the further into the distance you advance, until all you’re left with is the fjord and your thoughts. It’s a beautiful place just to sit and watch the ferries and gaze out toward the islands, especially in weather like this.

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The harbour, with the Rådhaus to the left and Akerhus Fortress to the far right

In the summer months, it’s possible to island-hop using just your regular public transport ticket, as ferries dart between each island and eventually return you to the mainland. However, in October, services are winding down, so I explore only Hovedøya, the largest of Oslofjord’s islands. The ferry ride lasts about 15 minutes, but at the other side, it’s like being in a different world. Hovedøya is awash with the colours of mid-autumn, bathed in warm sunshine and lapped by the calm waters of the North Sea. I walk a ring around the island, at one point straying from the path just enough to get lost. I’m forced to climb a steep cliff face, aware by this point that others have assumed I know where I’m going. Funnily enough, by the time we get to the top, they’ve decided to stop following me. Still, I’m sure the exercise did us all some good, even if my leisurely stroll has turned into a grimace-inducing rock climbing event. If I lived in Oslo, this is where I’d come to get away from it all. Do the locals know how incredibly lucky there are to have this on their doorstep? I’d love to see it in winter, coated in a thick layer of Nordic snow.

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Autumn on Hovedøya

It’s my last night in Oslo. The sun has gone down, the stars are out, and it’s gone cold. I’m surrounded by people in thick coats, red and white scarves and woolly hats. And then  there’s the Northern Ireland fans. Some of them are also well wrapped up, but others look like they’re preparing for a foam party in Magaluf. Undeterred by Norwegian beer prices, it looks to me like they’ve drunk Oslo dry. I’m outside Ullevaal Stadion, the home of the Norwegian national football team. Tonight, Norway are hosting Northern Ireland. It’s a meaningless game for the hosts, who can’t qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia even with a win. For Northern Ireland, a win would see them seeded in the draw for the play-offs, theoretically resulting in an easier opponent in November. It’s more than thirty years since Northern Ireland went to a World Cup, and the fans have descended on the Norwegian capital in good numbers, hoping for yet another good night. It’s been a remarkable few years for Northern Ireland.

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Ullevaal Stadion

I don’t think much of Ullevaal Stadion. It’s a modern, shiny, unbroken ring, lined on the outside by shops, including a Domino’s pizza restaurant. There’s little in the way of character. If anything, it looks a bit like a spaceship from a 1980s sci-fi movie. But it’s an interesting experience for a football fan like myself to attend a World Cup qualifier in another country. My seat is behind the goal, in with the Norway fans. There’s plenty of empty seats, as you’d expect for a match on which little rides for the home side. The pre-match atmosphere is fairly subdued, with most of the noise coming from the opposite end of the ground where the exuberant Northern Ireland fans are making themselves heard. Things ratchet up a notch towards kick-off when everyone around me launches into song, accompanied over the PA by a mid-tempo rock number that everybody here seems to know. Spine-tingling stuff. I think about how my souvenir red and white scarf with “Norge” on one side and “Ja vi elsker” on the other cost the equivalent of £20, and how I didn’t even consider not buying it. I vow from now on to see it as the best scarf in the world. What else can you do?

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Looking from my seat toward the Northern Ireland fans

The match itself was rubbish. Norway won 1-0. The quality of the football was terrible. I loved every minute of it.

I learned something interesting at the football. In keeping with a theme in many countries around the world, there’s some resentment in parts of Norway outside the capital towards Oslo. At the match, it came out as frustration on the part of a fan I spoke to from Bergen who explained how he wishes the team would sometimes play in other parts of Norway. To him, the national football team seems as if it exists mainly just for people in Oslo. I guess that’s the problem with having a dedicated national stadium – it has to be used. Norway is a deceptively large country. It is also around eighty percent mountainous, which makes creating nationwide transport links challenging. Even cities like Bergen, Trondheim or Stavanger can seem a long way from Oslo, separated by  forbidding geography. The prosperity of the Oslo region, combined with its economic dominance, can make people from areas outside the capital feel marginalised. Consider cities like Tromsø in the north, accessed from Oslo mainly by plane. Or the remote city of Kirkenes in the far northeast, much closer to the Russian port city of Murmansk than to Oslo. A theoretical road trip from Kirkenes to the capital would take you through vast swathes of Finnish and Swedish territory, before re-entering Norway only right at the end. Norway is an affluent country, fuelled by large oil reserves and social policies designed to minimise inequality. As such, most Norwegians live fairly comfortable lives, in Oslo or well outside of it. Nevertheless, I can understand how many Norwegians get frustrated at Oslo’s centrality and prominence, just as residents of, say, Inverness or Carlisle or Truro feel remote from the machinations of Westminster back home. It’s an interesting brief insight to get at the football!

And then it was time to fly home. (Not literally – I went to bed first and then had breakfast the next morning). By this point, I have a cold. Not a sniffle. Not even the manflu. Okay, maybe manflu, if you still find that whole thing funny. But I’ve got a proper full-on cold. If you’re wondering why this matters, don’t worry, I’ll get there. Oh god, how it matters.

As you’ll know if you were paying attention at the start of this essay, Torp airport is nowhere near Oslo. To get there, I’ve decided to enjoy one last little adventure by taking a suburban train. The line runs from the central station to the small town of Skien, stopping at a dedicated station for Torp Airport, where a shuttle bus picks you up and takes you to the terminal building. Spoilt as I was by the punctuality and reliability of public transport, I assumed this would be a painless experience.

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A friendly welcome awaits at the train station

Nope. Even Norwegian trains go awry sometimes. Half the tracks in Oslo are out of use due to an electrical fault. It’s peak time in the afternoon, the station is heaving with sweaty, anxious commuters, and I’m standing there, wondering if I’ll make my flight. To their credit, the local rail company offers constant updates, and there are members of staff dressed in smart red uniforms who seem furnished with remarkably niche information about individual journeys. In the hullaboo, I could just as easily be at Manchester Piccadilly or – shudder – London Euston, but I don’t think you’d get this level of information and assistance back home. I’m impressed with that at least.

My train does eventually depart, absolutely jam-packed with commuters stopping off at the various satellite towns along the rail line that runs southwest away from Oslo. As time passes, the crowd thins out, but by this point, I’m dripping with snot, coated in sweat, I smell like a dustbin and there’s still the anxiety about whether my flight is going without me or not. I wanted an authentic experience, though…

By the time I’m sat on the plane, a sense of relief pervading my entire being, I’m under the impression the drama is over. For the next hour and half, it is. But then things take a sinister turn. I make no apologies for being over-dramatic at this point. Have you ever flown with a cold? It’s usually okay on take off and during level flight, but the descent is a descent into hell. When the Eustachian tubes in your ears are blocked, your head can no longer adjust for the increasing air pressure on the outside as you begin to descend. This, to put it bluntly, is a nightmare. In severe cases, this can lead your eardrums to perforate and blood to dribble from your ears, nose, or even your eyes.

Even if this doesn’t happen, some temporary hearing loss is likely, and the pain is excruciating. For the entire fifteen minutes of our descent, I sat there in a world of misery, lightning bolts of pain flashing across my sinuses and through my ear canals, desperately hoping – praying even – that my eardrums would hold up. At one point, a flight attendant brought me two plastic cups with warm damp toilet paper in the bottom (dear God, I hope the warmth and the damp came from a tap…), to place over my ears. This made me look like a complete lunatic, but apparently it lessens the impact of the pressure change and allows the ears to slowly adjust. I’ll be honest, I think that intervention was the difference between my eardrums perforating or not. My advice? Don’t fly with a severe cold. You’ll regret it. Think I’m overdoing it? Okay, go for it. Let me know how it goes.

By the time I get off the plane, I’m left with about five percent normal hearing. I’m almost entirely deaf. The terminal building at Manchester seems as if it has been covered in that egg box stuff they use in recording studios. My ears feel as if they’ve been packed with gauze. Every now and then, I get another little jab of pain from my sinuses. It takes a week for my hearing to return to normal. I’m left to wonder if I’m the first person to go to Oslo for a city break in October and come home with a suntan and hearing loss. Maybe. I don’t care. I had a great time.

One day I’d like to live in Grünerløkka, the trendy, up-and-coming city district where I lodged. It’s the kind of place I can really imagine myself feeling at home. Aside from that, I really hope I get to see more of Norway beyond the capital. I mean, I always think it’s a real shame when people visit Britain and don’t leave London. How could you come here and not want to see, for example, Cornwall or Snowdonia or Edinburgh or the Lake District? But I also want to go back to Oslo, to sit in the sun in Ekebergsparken or watch the ferries on the fjord. I don’t think I’m done with Norway quite yet.

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Papin to Pogba: The Story of the Football Transfer Record

I originally wrote this piece earlier in the summer when Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris-Saint Germain was a swirling rumour, but as I couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing it, I’m breaking my golden rule and writing a football-related post on here. I found myself wondering how often breaking the world transfer record works out, and how often it doesn’t. Since this was written, Neymar has made his move to the French capital in the first deal to exceed £100m (and, indeed, the first to hit £200m), while Barcelona have also smashed the £100m barrier to bring in Borussia Dortmund’s exciting young forward Ousmane Dembélé.

It came to my attention prior to publishing this that Sky Sports had had the same idea. But someone was always going to, so I make no apologies for publishing this anyway!


Brazilian superstar Neymar is seemingly on the verge of a £200m move from Barcelona to Paris-Saint Germain, though it remains to be seen whether the eye-wateringly expensive deal ultimately goes through. But just how successful have world record signings been in the modern era? Beginning with the advent of the UEFA Champions League in 1992, I ask whether buying clubs received enough bang for their world record buck.

1) 1992 – Jean-Pierre Papin – Marseille to AC Milan – £10m

No year has seen the world transfer fee record broken more times than 1992. The first of the trio of unprecedented big-money moves saw AC Milan become the first club to break the £10m barrier by bringing in French forward Papin from Marseille. Papin had a remarkable record in France, scoring plenty of goals and winning an array of domestic trophies, as well as the Ballon d’Or.

However, things didn’t go quite so well in Italy – arguably Europe’s strongest league at the time. Papin did manage a decent scoring rate for the Rossoneri, but injury problems hampered his attempts to settle into life at the San Siro, and he left for Bayern Munich after just two seasons. Despite his struggles in Italy, Papin still achieved a strike ratio just shy of one goal every two matches, not bad considering the player’s fitness battles.

VERDICT – A quality player worth every penny on paper, injuries prevented Papin from truly living up to the world record price tag at Milan.

Jean-Pierre Papin
Jean-Pierre Papin

 

2) 1992 – Gianluca Vialli – Sampdoria to Juventus – £12m

In a sign of the strength of Italian football during this period, it wasn’t long before Juventus eclipsed Milan’s outlay on Papin by splashing out £12m to bring in Sampdoria striker Gianluca Vialli. Vialli’s prolific partnership with Roberto Mancini had helped deliver Sampdoria their most successful period, so it was no surprise when a giant of Italian football stepped in to claim the club’s prized asset.

Vialli’s first two seasons with Juve saw him struggle to find the kind of form that made him such a hot property at Sampdoria, while injury problems meant he was restricted to just 10 appearance in his second season. However, after working hard to improve his strength and fitness, Vialli’s third and fourth seasons with the club were much more prolific, helping endear him to Juve supporters. His goals would help Juventus to a league and cup double in 1995, followed by Champions League glory a year later.

VERDICT – After a difficult start, Vialli ultimately proved to be money well spent as he helped fire the Old Lady to glory.

Gianluca Vialli
Gianluca Vialli (left) takes on Parma’s Fernando Couto

 

3) 1992 – Gianluigi Lentini – Torino to AC Milan – £13m

It wasn’t long before Milan reclaimed their title as the game’s biggest spenders from rivals Juventus, but the story of Gianluigi Lentini is laced with sadness. The winger had built up a stellar reputation for pace and trickery during his time with boyhood club Torino, helping them achieve promotion to Serie A and then challenge towards the top of the table.

A year after signing for Milan for a world record fee, Lentini was involved in a serious road traffic accident that left him with a litany of injuries, including a fractured skull. Remarkably, he recovered sufficiently to return to action, but health issues in the wake of the accident continued to hinder his game and prevented him from performing at his previous best. Despite this, he still claimed an impressive list of honours during his four seasons with the Rossoneri, including the Champions League, three Serie A titles, and the Italian Super Cup.

VERDICT – To come back from the injuries sustained in his car accident and play for Europe’s best team at the time attests to Lentini’s strength of character. Although he may not have hit the heights he was surely destined for, his list of achievements despite such challenging circumstances makes it churlish to declare Lentini anything but a success.

Gianluigi Lentini
Gianluigi Lentini

 

4) 1996 – Ronaldo – PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona – £13.2m

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima is one of only two players to break the world transfer record twice (the other is Diego Maradona), during a career which saw him become, for many, the greatest ever out-and-out goalscorer. The Brazilian arrived in Europe as a teenager at relatively unfashionable PSV Eindhoven, and his record of a goal a game during his two seasons in the Netherlands caught the eye of Europe’s biggest clubs. There seemed little doubt that, as the world record fee was broken for the first time in four years, Ronaldo would be a hit at Barcelona.

Sadly for the Catalan outfit, they couldn’t keep hold of their prolific new signing for more than one season. Ronaldo was indeed a phenomenal hit at Camp Nou, scoring a procession of often breathtaking goals, winning World Footballer of the Year, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. While observers struggled for superlatives to describe the young Brazilian’s exploits, behind the scenes, there were problems. Attempts to renegotiate his contract broke down, and Barcelona were forced to part with the man they called O Fenômeno, as he departed for Inter Milan, admittedly with the consolation of another world record fee.

VERDICT – Barcelona got one season of sheer brilliance out of Ronaldo. However, their failure to tie the player down to a stay of longer than just a solitary season means his time at the club is tinged with a hint of regret.

Ronaldo
Ronaldo

 

5) 1996 – Alan Shearer – Blackburn Rovers to Newcastle United – £15m

When powerful striker Alan Shearer left Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers to join boyhood club Newcastle United, an English club broke the world transfer fee record for the first time since 1951. Shearer’s goals, allied to his formidable strike partnership with Chris Sutton, had fired Blackburn to the title in 1995, but as the club struggled to recapture that form in the following season, it seemed increasingly inevitable that Shearer would leave. Perhaps his strongest suitor was Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, but with Blackburn reluctant to sell to their closest rivals at the top of the Premier League and Shearer himself set on a move home, it was Newcastle who found themselves in pole position.

Shearer was made for the Magpies. A local hero the passionate Toon Army could worship, and willing to disregard the overtures of Manchester United, Shearer went on to become the Premier League’s all-time highest goalscorer, revelling in the adulation of the supporters to whom he could so readily relate. Sadly, the Premier League title at Blackburn was Shearer’s last ever trophy – he won no silverware during his time with Newcastle. But you can bet he has no regrets.

VERDICT – They may not have won any trophies, but Shearer’s goals were a source of endless joy on Tyneside and provided a generation of Newcastle fans with some of their most treasured memories. A snip at £15m.

Alan Shearer
Alan Shearer gracing a banner at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park

 

6) 1997 – Ronaldo – Barcelona to Internazionale – £19.5m

As we’ve already seen, Ronaldo’s one season with Barcelona was an unbridled success. However, with his contract wrangle unresolved, Inter Milan were only too happy to stump up a world record fee to bring in the best striker in the business. The Brazilian’s time with Inter began exactly has his Barça spell had ended, with goals galore and personal accolades that attested to his sheer brilliance.

Sadly, it was at Inter where Ronaldo’s injury problems began, robbing him of some of his explosive power and keeping him sidelined for the entire 2000/2001 season. Ronaldo only won one trophy during his time with the club – the 1998 UEFA Cup – and he never recovered the form that pre-dated his knee issues. It wasn’t until his move to Real Madrid in 2002 that he recaptured some of his old magic.

VERDICT – Ronaldo’s early form in Italy suggests he would have been a huge hit, were it not for his serious knee injuries that ultimately took some of the shine off his time at Inter.

Ronaldo(2)
Ronaldo (left) celebrates a goal with Diego Simeone

 

7) 1998 – Denílson – São Paulo to Real Betis – £21.5m

One of the more leftfield world record breaking transfers saw Real Betis become the first club to break the £20m barrier when they splashed out on up-and-coming Brazilian winger Denílson, in the hope his mercurial talents could help them penetrate the upper echelons of La Liga. Just a teenager when he made his debut for the Brazilian national team, Denílson’s displays of skill and trickery saw him labelled as one of the games great prospects, but it was still a major surprise when the club that swooped to bring him to Europe was Real Betis.

Unfortunately for both club and player, Denílson did not live up to expectations. Despite establishing himself as a regular in the Betis line-up, his difficulties in adapting to life in La Liga saw him loaned to Flamengo in his homeland in 2000. He did return, but failed to nail down a regular starting place, eventually departing for Bordeaux in 2005. Denílson’s career tailed off after that, and the former world record signing now includes Hải Phòng of Vietnam and Greek side Nea Kavala among his former clubs.

VERDICT – It would have been fascinating to see Denílson live up to his potential in the green and white of Real Betis, but it wasn’t to be.

Denilson
Denílson

 

8) 1999 – Christian Vieri – Lazio to Internazionale – £32.1m

Just a year after Real Betis became the first club to break the £20m mark in their signing of Denílson, the world record jumped above £30m as Inter snapped up prolific striker Vieri from Lazio. Unfortunately for Vieri, he joined a club struggling to challenge for titles in Italy, and the managerial merry-go-round at the San Siro often seemed to affect his form. The player was further hampered by injuries – especially during his earlier seasons with the club – that prevented him from forming a consistent partnership with Ronaldo.

Nevertheless, Vieri did flourish under the tutelage of Argentinian manager Héctor Cúper, scoring 25 goals in all competitions in 2001/2002 as Inter narrowly missed out on the title. Following Cúper’s departure, Vieri again began to struggle and his star ultimately waned, before a move to city rivals AC Milan that yielded just eight appearances.

VERDICT – A qualified success, but Inter could have hoped for more from a player for whom they smashed the world transfer record.

Christian Vieri
Christian Vieri (left) with Inter strike partner Ronaldo (and a football)

 

9) 2000 – Hernán Crespo – Parma to Lazio – £35.5m

After winning Serie A in 1999/2000 under Sven-Göran Eriksson, Lazio sought to bolster their efforts to defend their crown by splashing the cash on Parma’s gifted Argentinian forward Crespo. Despite failing in their efforts to retain the title, Crespo’s first season in Rome was a success as he scored 26 league goals, appearing to justify the huge price tag.

However, injuries curtailed Crespo’s influence in his second and final season at the club as several of Lazio’s big-name signings failed to make an impact. As the club began to feel the financial pinch, it became increasingly clear that they would need to sell. On the final day of August 2002, Crespo departed for Inter.

VERDICT – Having spent so much, Lazio would have hoped to have kept hold of Crespo for longer. However, the club’s financial problems forced their hand and meant the player never really had the time to make the kind of impact expected of the world’s most expensive player.

Hernan Crespo
Hernán Crespo

 

10) 2000 – Luís Figo – Barcelona to Real Madrid – £37m

Portugal’s graceful, supremely gifted midfield maestro was the centre of one of the most controversial transfers of all time when Real Madrid, setting out on their Galáctico adventure, prised the player from bitter rivals Barcelona for a world record fee. The move turned Figo from a Camp Nou idol into a hate figure, and the atmosphere during visits to his old stomping ground with Real could be described as seething. Invective would rain down from the cavernous stands, accompanied by all manner of missiles, from liquor bottles to mobile phones.

Figo had been a star in Catalonia, helping Barcelona win two La Liga titles during his five seasons, as well as the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. He had already secured his place among the pantheon of the game’s greatest players, owing to his silky passing and elegant movement. Despite the controversy and furore surrounding his move to the Spanish capital, Figo settled in instantly at Real, taking his game to new levels, winning two La Liga titles, as well as the Champions League in 2002.

VERDICT – After one of the most acrimonious transfers in football history, Figo slotted into Real Madrid’s midfield with aplomb, helping to deliver trophies and establish the Galáctico phenomenon. A complete success.

Luis Figo
Luís Figo takes to the air in a clash with Galatasaray

 

11) 2001 – Zinedine Zidane – Juventus to Real Madrid – £46.6m

With the Galáctico era in full swing, Real Madrid signalled their status as the most powerful club in world football by smashing the world transfer fee record to sign Zidane from Juventus. The French international midfielder would go on to cement his place as one of the greatest footballers of all time, peppering his career with moments of sublime genius that often defied belief, possessing an ability to make the game look easy. Zidane’s first season at the Bernabéu ended in glory as he scored a spectacular volley in the Champions League final – one of that competition’s best ever goals – to secure victory.

Zidane, together with Luís Figo, ran the engine room at the heart of the Real midfield as the club won La Liga in 2003, and he also won FIFA World Player of the Year for the third time. Zidane went on to retire from football in 2006, having scored 49 goals in 225 games for the club. In January 2016, Zidane replaced Rafael Benítez as Real Madrid manager, and has already guided them to two Champions Leagues and one La Liga title.

VERDICT – A resounding success as a player, Zidane has only bolstered his standing among Real Madrid fans since becoming manager. There will never be another player quite like Zinedine Zidane.

Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane

 

12) 2009 – Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United to Real Madrid – £80m

Real Madrid’s record fee paid for Zinedine Zidane stood for eight years before they decided to almost double it in signing Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. In the wake of the prospective Neymar deal, it’s easy to forget how staggering the £80m it took to capture Ronaldo from a very reluctant Sir Alex Ferguson’s grasp seemed in 2009. But it’s fair to say that it has been money well spent. A flashy winger in his early days, Ronaldo developed at Old Trafford from a player who at times flattered to deceive into an attacking tour-de-force – a winger whose trickery, pace and awesome physical strength made him a formidable opponent. He also began to demonstrate an eye for goal well beyond that expected of most natural wingers.

After clinging on for as long as they could, United eventually relented and allowed the player to switch to the Spanish capital, and he hasn’t looked back since. Ronaldo’s physique and presence in the penalty area has seen him develop from a winger into a more orthodox centre-forward, and, at the time of writing, the player has scored a scarcely believable 406 goals in 396 appearance for Real Madrid. Ronaldo’s goals have helped the club to win two La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and two Copa del Reys. In his ongoing rivalry with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for recognition as the world’s best player (or even the best player of all time) Ronaldo has also won three Ballon d’Ors during his time at Madrid and, at the age of 32, continues to perform at the very highest level.

VERDICT – Real knew they were investing in a supreme talent when they lavished £80m to sign Ronaldo, but even they probably didn’t realise just what he would go on to achieve.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo

 

13) 2013 – Gareth Bale – Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid – £86m

For the fourth time in a row, Real Madrid demonstrated their awesome spending power by breaking the world transfer record, this time to secure pacy Welsh winger Gareth Bale from Tottenham. Bale had emerged as a talented but raw young left-back at Southampton, before a move to Spurs that initially saw him struggle to make an impact. A move to a more advanced, wide attacking role saw Bale develop into a player whose frightening speed made him one of the most feared players in the Premier League. A Champions League hat-trick in the San Siro against Inter Milan in 2010/2011 announced the player onto the world stage.

By the time of his move to Spain, Bale had added real physical power to his game. The pace that was his trademark remained, but he had also discovered an eye for goal. However, despite this progress, Bale has never fully endeared himself at the Santiago Bernabéu. Often treated as a scapegoat and sometimes frustrated by injury, Bale’s Real career has sputtered, rather than roared, into life. Almost since the day he signed, he has been linked in the press with a move to Manchester United, though this has always been vehemently denied by the player himself. Despite these issues, Bale has scored some important goals for his club, including a Champions League final winner against city rivals Atlético, and his tally stands at a creditable 67 goals in 150 appearances at the time of writing.

VERDICT – Some of the criticism aimed at Bale from sections of the Real support has been harsh. It is debatable whether Bale has lived up to the tag of world’s most expensive player, but he has proven to be a qualified success in Spain.

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale

 

14) 2016 – Paul Pogba – Juventus to Manchester United – £89m

The most recent world record fee was not without its share of controversy and intrigue, and involved Manchester United paying £89m for a player they’d allowed to leave for free just four years earlier. French midfielder Pogba’s departure from United in 2012 was acrimonious, with Sir Alex Ferguson critical of the emerging talent’s decision not to sign a new contract at Old Trafford. After signing for Juventus, Pogba developed into the engine at the heart of Italy’s dominant force, winning the Serie A title in each of his four seasons at the club. As his power and drive began to increase, Pogba also secured a regular berth in the French national side.

Meanwhile, Manchester United appeared to be crying out for a midfield general to help boost their waning fortunes, and there was some regret about letting Pogba leave so easily. When José Mourinho came to the helm in summer 2016, bringing the player back to Old Trafford became a priority, even if that meant breaking the world transfer record. Indeed, some reports suggested a bid in excess of £100m may be necessary to convince Juventus to part with a player they desperately wanted to keep. Pogba’s first season back in a red shirt saw United finish a disappointing sixth in the Premier League, but two trophies were secured in the shape of the Europa League and EFL Cup. Pogba came in for criticism, with many suggesting that his performances did not befit the world’s most expensive player. At 24, however, Pogba has plenty of time to raise his game.

VERDICT – Far too soon to say whether £89m is money well spent, but United will be looking for far more from Pogba than they saw in his first season back at the club, and will hope the recent signing of Nemanja Matić can free the player from his shackles.

Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba celebrates a goal with his teammates

 

A warning to PSG then: breaking the world transfer record doesn’t always guarantee success. As many of the above demonstrate, injuries can seriously disrupt even the most promising of careers, and some players just don’t shine as expected. Nevertheless, when a player lives up to the price tag, it usually equals trophies. If Neymar does make the switch to Paris, he will almost certainly dominate the French domestic scene. The success of the deal will be measured by what the club achieves in Europe. Bonne chance!

Plovdiv: Europe’s best kept secret?

Bulgaria Flag

Built over seven hills on an otherwise wide open plain in south-central Bulgaria, the city of Plovdiv is quite possibly the most beautiful city you’ve never heard of. Let’s face it – the name alone makes it a difficult sell, to the English-speaking world at least. Plovdiv just doesn’t sound right. Yet this, apparently, is the oldest still-inhabited city in Europe, and today features what must be one of the continent’s most charming old towns, alongside Roman ruins and some truly spectacular views.

I rolled into town on a bus from the capital, Sofia, on a baking hot early Saturday afternoon. The city’s “Jug” bus station is a dusty collection of ticket offices and stalls selling cheap snacks and cold drinks, next to a busy road opposite the train station. The surrounding buildings are cracked and grubby, with peeled paint, broken pavements and that cute air of ramshackle that Bulgaria – one of Europe’s poorest countries – does in spades. A kind of sweaty lethargy engulfs you as soon as you leave the air conditioned haven of the bus.

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Quaint Kapana (aka “The Trap”)

Central Plovdiv is walkable from the bus station, but I decide to hop in a taxi anyway, on account of not really knowing where I am. (Incidentally, not really knowing where I am is one of my favourite travel experiences.) My poor driver looks at me in bafflement as I ask him to take me to “Zagreb”. I do my best to explain that I’m not asking for a lift to the capital of Croatia, and that my accommodation is much more conveniently located on Zagreb Street in central Plovdiv. It takes a while, but he gets the message. Zagreb Street is in the heart of Kapana (“The Trap“), Plovdiv’s recently-restored cultural and artsy hub that once served as home to the city’s craftsmen. The colourful streets of this district are lined by worskhops, galleries and plenty of appealing bars and restaurants painted in light hues of yellow and pink that make the area one of the most charming things about Plovdiv. Bunting flutters in the midsummer breeze. Only recently, the area had been in a state of disrepair and dereliction, much of which can still be seen on Google Street View. However, the city’s successful bid to be named European Capital of Culture for 2019 has seen Kapana transformed into what I would describe as one of my favourite city centre neighbourhoods that I’ve encountered anywhere on my travels.

The main shopping street extends from the southern edge of Kapana, past the city’s central mosque (the second-oldest in Europe), numerous eateries and bars, and the beautiful Municipal Building, before reaching the enormous Garden of Tsar Simeon. New to the city and desperate for some shade, this seems like the perfect place to while away a couple of hours among the locals and other holidaymakers enjoying the sunshine and tasty local ice cream. Numerous paths criss-cross each other under the trees, and the sparkling splish-splash of the “singing fountain” offers a welcome hint of freshness. Never underestimate how much of a shock to the system hot weather is to a blonde-haired Liverpudlian.

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The hazardous cobbles of Plovdiv’s old town

Plovdiv is a laid-back city with a completely different character to the frenetic, traffic-choked capital Sofia, 80-or-so miles to the northwest. (Don’t worry if you’re going to Sofia – I liked it there too). The main reason people head to this somewhat remote corner of the Balkans – and the main reason I’ve stopped by – is the picturesque old town and Roman amphitheatre. Perched high across three of the city’s seven hills (technically six, as I’m told the seventh was destroyed to provide building materials), Plovdiv’s old town is quite a demanding walk up steep streets, and the uneven cobblestones and the large gaps that separate them, require careful negotiation. Lonely Planet describes the streets as “beyond cobbled”. Fair enough. In the summer heat, you will need a drink at the top, but the area is well served by bars and restaurants offering traditional Bulgarian grub and quite simply gorgeous views over the rest of the city. And Bulgarian beer is pretty refreshing, as it happens.

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A view of the old town from one of the city’s many hills

The beauty of Plovdiv is its array of historic architecture, from antiquity to Ottoman and Bulgarian Revival, juxtaposed with the aforementioned views of the wider city, the plains beyond, and distant mountain ranges in all directions. During my stay, towering cumulonimbus clouds seemed to hover over the peaks to the south, threatening storms and a break in the blistering heat, but never quite reaching Plovdiv. The Roman amphitheatre was excavated as recently as 1960 and is in use for performances today. Indeed, I had the pleasure of seeing the stage hands preparing for an evening performance of Chicago. With views of Kapana and central Plovdiv in the foreground, and the Rhodope mountains punctuating the skyline in the distance and descending toward the border with Greece just beyond, it must make for a breathtaking venue for a show, just as it would have done in ancient times (although the Romans, as far as I know, missed out on Chicago).

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Getting ready for a show at the amphitheatre

The place at which I most fell in love with Plovdiv was Nebet Tepe, a rocky hill at the northern end of the old town surrounded by the remains of ancient walls. This is the oldest part of the city, originally settled by Thracians some 6,000 years ago. From here, you can take a vantage point and gaze out across the city in a westerly direction to the famous clock tower without a clock and the monument to Russian soldiers that liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. On the other hand, you could pick a spot that looks north, and instead watch the modern city go by, across the Maritsa River, dominated by seemingly hundreds, if not thousands, of communist-era tower blocks. For company, you’ll have other equally spellbound tourists taking photographs and babbling excitedly as they clamber about the ancient fortifications, as well as young Plovdiv folk enjoying the romance of a warm summer’s evening amidst the magic of their pleasant city. Watching the sun set from Nebet Tepe, dipping slowly behind the urban forest of concrete towers, and then ultimately the horizon, I wondered why anybody who lived in Plovdiv would ever leave. As the shadows grew, extending their reach across the ancient city, it felt good to be alive.

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Sunset over Plovdiv

Plovdiv is not an off-the-beaten track destination. During my three days in the city, I spoke to travellers from the USA, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and Ukraine, as well as other parts of Bulgaria. With European Capital of Culture to come in 2019, it seems that more and more tourists will descend on Bulgaria’s second city. However, this is no Prague or Budapest. It’s not even Sofia. It’s too small to take off in the same way as these cities have done with the advent of budget air travel and the fall of the Iron Curtain. There’s still a sense of the obscure about Plovdiv. Tell a friend you’re going to Plovdiv and see what they say. Then you’ll know what I mean. The time to visit is surely now, before it does really takes off. My tour guide from my first day in the city said of Kapana that “I feel this area has a bright future”. I think she was right, but she could have said the same about the whole city. It feels modern, secure, youthful and optimistic, while at the same time preserving the gifts bestowed upon it by its long history. I loved Plovdiv, and one day, I’ll go back. I’m sure of it. Another thing I’m sure of is that it won’t remain Bulgaria’s Europe’s best-kept secret forever.

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