Author Archives: An English Guy in Belfast

Around the world in five posts: D-G

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Denmark

Danmark
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Denmark
  • Capital City: Copenhagen
  • Population: 5,707,251 (5,812,444 including Greenland and Faroe Islands)
  • State Religion: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark
  • Language: Danish (Faroese, Greenlandic and German spoken locally)
  • Currency: Danish krone
  • Continent: Europe (Greenland is in North America)

What’s Denmark like?

A small, low-lying northern European country with a long history, modern Denmark is among the world’s wealthiest countries, with a remarkably high standard of living. The country consists of an archipelago in the North Sea and a peninsula on mainland Europe that borders Germany to the south. The cosmopolitan capital city, Copenhagen, is relatively distant from the mainland territory, which features rolling hills and an abundance of farmland and tends to be more rural than the Danish islands. The Danish realm also includes the autonomous self-governing countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both of which have languages and cultures distinct from Denmark-proper and have fairly significant independence movements.

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Denmark

The country is synonymous with the Vikings and has a long seafaring history based on both warfare and trade. The Denmark of today is world-renowned for the benefits bestowed on the country by the Nordic social model, which involves high taxation and high public spending, and has helped create one of the most cohesive societies in the world. Danes are also among the richest people on the planet. However, citizens living in Jutland – the peninsular region of Denmark – sometimes feel marginalised and remote from the centre of the country’s economic and political life in Copenhagen, and these rural regions tend to be less well-off than those closer to the prosperous capital. In recent years, Denmark has seen quite high levels of immigration. Autonomous Greenland, meanwhile, has the world’s highest suicide rate.

One cool thing about Denmark

The country is increasingly well-known for the phenomenon of hygge, a term which lacks a direct English translation but is often explained as a state of cosiness. Danish dedication to this way of life is often said to be one reason why the country scores well in surveys of global happiness.

One sad thing about Denmark

The country has the highest rate of cancer in the world. This is sometimes attributed to the Danish taste for processed pork, especially bacon (also a major export product).

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Denmark’s only land border is with Germany at the southern end of Jutland. However, the country is connected by road bridge to Sweden. Greenland, meanwhile, lies to the northeast of Canada, across the freezing waters of Baffin Bay. The Faroe Islands are fairly isolated in the middle of the North Atlantic.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Denmark’s small size, highly-developed road system and efficient public transport make it an easy country to get around. Most visitors head to the capital city of Copenhagen on the island of Zeeland in the far east of the country, connected to Sweden by the world’s longest road bridge. The city is Denmark’s only real metropolis and has all the trappings of a modern European capital, including a lively nightlife scene. Copenhagen is also home to the world’s longest and oldest pedestrianised street, excellent for shopping, while many visitors come to see the canals and enjoy the attractive buildings that line the city’s famous waterways. Architecture and museum enthusiasts are also well catered for in the Danish capital.

Denmark passport
Danish passport

Beyond Copenhagen, the country becomes more rural, and perhaps more authentically Danish. Modest towns and farming villages are the order of the day, while there are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenic Danish countryside. Denmark also has its fair share of high quality beaches – not much fun during the chilly Scandinavian winter, but a lovely way to while away a long, sunny summer’s day. The windswept Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic are popular with birdwatchers and are famous for their striking scenery. Greenland, meanwhile, is the world’s largest island and has a tiny population clinging to existence around its coastline. The Greenlandic interior is covered by an enormous glacier and is uninhabitable. The unique nature of the Greenlandic people and their country’s geography make it a fascinating and worthwhile destination.

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Copenhagen

 

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Djibouti

جيبوتي‎‎ (Jībūtī) • Jabuuti • Gabuuti
  • Official Name: Republic of Djibouti
  • Capital City: Djibouti City
  • Population: 846,687
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: French, Arabic, Somali, Afar
  • Currency: Djiboutian franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Djibouti like?

A small country in the Horn of Africa region, Djibouti is a former French colony with religious, linguistic, ethnic and cultural links to neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as to the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most Djiboutians live in and around the capital, where the blistering heat is moderated by coastal breezes. The Djiboutian interior, meanwhile, is desolate, dusty and scorchingly hot. Despite its small size, Djibouti plays an important role in global trade due to its position on the Gulf of Aden, through which major shipping lanes pass.

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Djibouti

Djibouti is made up of multiple ethnicities, and an armed conflict was brought to end by a power sharing deal in 2000. The largest single ethnic group in the country are the Somalis, but there are numerous smaller groups speaking a wide variety of languages. The political atmosphere in Djibouti is authoritarian, and the government has been criticised by human rights groups. Opposition parties do exist, but have chosen to boycott the political process due to a perceived lack of fairness. The Djiboutian economy is relatively stable despite a lack of agricultural land and concerns over access to water. Outside investment is encouraged, while the Port of Djibouti plays a major role in the economy. Djibouti City is one of the Horn of Africa’s more cosmopolitan urban centres. Nevertheless, unemployment is very high and poverty remains a problem.

One cool thing about Djibouti

Poetry is an important tradition in Djibouti (and wider Somali culture), and it is common for local poets to compose and memorise poems exceeding 100 lines.

One sad thing about Djibouti

Unfortunately, female genital mutilation is rife in Djibouti, with an estimated 93% of the female population having been subjected to the practice.

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Djibouti’s longest frontier is with Ethiopia to the south and west. The country also has short borders with Eritrea to the north and Somalia to the southeast. The Bab al-Mandab Strait, where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea, separates Djibouti from Yemen.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

A blisteringly hot destination, especially away from the coast, and largely undeveloped outside of the capital city, Djibouti is not a hotbed of international tourism. Visitors should be aware that travel outside the capital is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Djibouti City, home to 76% of the country’s people, is by far and away the most straightforward part of the country to visit. The city is architecturally unremarkable, but it does have a certain cosmopolitan appeal, and even has a casino. The city’s beaches offer a pleasant respite from the heat and dust of the busy highways and bustling markets.

Djibouti passport
Djiboutian passport

Banditry is common away from the capital, so care should be taken when planning trips. However, no visit to Djibouti would be complete without an excursion to the salty Lac Assal, the second-lowest point on Earth. It’s a bumpy ride to get there, but the views are worth every potential bruise.

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Lac Assal

 

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Dominica

Dominique • Wai‘tu kubuli
  • Official Name: Commonwealth of Dominica
  • Capital City: Roseau
  • Population: 72,324
  • Language: English, Dominican Creole, French
  • Currency: East Carribean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Dominica like?

One of the most rugged – and arguably one of the most beautiful – of the Caribbean island nations, Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-EEK-ah, with emphasis on the third syllable) is still being formed by geothermal activity and is home to the second-largest hot spring in the world. It is also a haven for a diverse array of flora and fauna, much of which is protected by an extensive national park system. Much of the island is covered in lush mountainous rainforest, with spectacular waterfalls and gushing rivers. Dominica is not as well-renowned for beaches as other, flatter, Caribbean islands, but there are still typical sandy retreats to be found, particularly in the north of the island. The country receives year-round warm Caribbean sunshine. However, it is also prone to hurricanes.

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Dominica

France was the first colonial power to take possession of Dominica in the face of fierce opposition by the native Carib people. In 1763, Great Britain ousted the French and the island became part of the British Empire. English became the main language on the island, but French retains a presence to this day. Independence came to Dominica in 1980, and the country has become modestly well-off, with an economy that relies heavily on tourism, offshore finance and agriculture (particularly banana production).

One cool thing about Dominica

The country’s national bird is the Sisserou parrot, which can be found nowhere else in the world. Indeed, it is can only be found within a 35 sq mi area of the island’s rainforest.

One sad thing about Dominica

The country is regularly hit by powerful hurricanes. In August 2015, Tropical Storm Erika killed more than 30 people, a sizable number in a country of just 70,000 people. The storm also caused catastrophic damage to infrastructure and the economy.

Neighbours Textbox
As an island nation, Dominica has no land borders. It’s closest neighbours are the French Caribbean island territories of Guadeloupe to the northwest and Martinique to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Dominica’s economy relies heavily on the tourist trade, and as a sun-drenched Caribbean island, it is popular with cruise passengers and well-heeled holidaymakers. As such, the island is well used to catering to guests. However, the landscape makes Dominica a more adventurous destination than some of the lower-lying Caribbean islands, with hiking and mountain-climbing among the most popular activities, and there is a remarkably diverse array of jungle wildlife to discover. Nevertheless, beachgoers will have no trouble finding their own slice of paradise.

Dominica passport
Dominican passport

Most visitors to Dominica head either to the beaches or into the mountains, but it is worth taking some time to explore the charming and friendly towns that dot the island, especially around the coast. The capital, Roseau, has a small-town feel, and is home to plenty of traditional Caribbean churches and markets. The historic French Quarter is particularly picturesque.

Dominica
Windsor Park cricket ground, Roseau

 

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Dominican Republic

República Dominicana
  • Official Name: Dominican Republic
  • Capital City: Santo Domingo
  • Population: 10,075,045
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: North America

What’s the Dominican Republic like?

One of the most successful economies in Latin America, the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the much poorer country of Haiti. It’s a mountainous country with a Caribbean climate and significant biodiversity. At one time a Spanish New World colony, the country has also known brutal occupation at the hands of neighbouring Haiti in the late 1800s and was also occupied by the United States after the First World War. The post-World War II Dominican Republic has seen dictatorship, civil war, another period of US occupation and finally a move towards democracy. The Dominican people are a diverse mix of Taino Indian, Spanish and the descendants of African slaves.

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Dominican Republic

The last two decades have seen impressive economic growth in the Dominican Republic, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the western hemisphere. This is in sharp contrast to its poverty-stricken neighbour, Haiti, and a large number of Haitians have become refugees in the Republic, forced across the border by poverty and natural disasters that have ravaged their homeland. Addressing the Haitian influx is a major challenge facing the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, a large number of Domincans and their descendants live overseas, especially in the United States. The capital city, Santo Domingo, is the hub of the nation’s political and economic life.

One cool thing about the Dominican Republic

Although not widely enforced, it is still technically against the law in the Dominican Republic to share a kiss in front of a police officer.

One sad thing about the Dominican Republic

The country has become home to large number of immigrants from Haiti, and many of these Haitians lack official status as citizens in the country. Since 2015, deportations have been underway, and vigilante groups have become involved in trying to intimidate Haitians.

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The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with its western neighbour Haiti. The US overseas territory of Puerto Rico is a short distance from the Dominican Republic’s southeastern tip.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There must be a reason why the Dominican Republic is the most visited destination in the Caribbean. For a start, the capital city, Santo Domingo, is home to the first cathedral and castle built anywhere in the Americas. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is home to many more remarkable examples of colonial architecture and buildings of historical significance. The country is also the home of the merengue – the Dominican national dance, while lively bars jump to the sound of bachata music.

Dominican Republic passport
Dominican passport

The country also draws visitors to Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, while the striking Dominican coastline has seen the growth of beach resorts that have become an increasingly significant part of the economy. The country is also renowned as a golfing destination, with hundreds of high-quality courses to enjoy. The most popular sport in the Dominican Republic is baseball, and a visit to a local baseball game offers a chance to rub shoulders with ordinary Dominicans in an authentic setting.

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Catalina Island

 

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East Timor

Timor-Leste • Timór Lorosa’e
  • Official Name: Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  • Capital City: Dili
  • Population: 1,167,242
  • Language: Portuguese, Tetum, numerous indigenous languages
  • Currency: United States dollar, East Timor centavos
  • Continent: Asia

What’s East Timor like?

A small former Portuguese colony that shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, East Timor became the first newly-independent country of the 21st Century in 2002. However, decades of war with Indonesia prior to independence left the new country impoverished and unstable. The East Timorese originally declared their independence from Portugal in 1975, but were invaded and occupied only days later by Indonesia. Thus began a long fight between Indonesian government troops and pro-independence militias in East Timor that devastated the country and left up to a quarter of a million people dead. It was in 1999 that a UN-sponsored referendum saw the people of East Timor vote to break away from Indonesia, a result that triggered a civil war and saw Australian and United Nations troops step in to bring order.

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East Timor

Foreign troops and NGO staff have been a common sight on the streets of East Timor in the decade since independence. The desperately poor country has begun to stagger to its feet in recent years, and the number of overseas staff required to keep order and help build the country has been decreasing. Nevertheless, East Timor remains one of Asia’s poorest and least urbanised nations. Hopes that the fledgling oil and gas industry might bring greater prosperity have not so far been realised, and many citizens remain completely dependent on subsistence farming. Portuguese is spoken to some degree in the cities, but the diverse peoples and ethnic groups of East Timor tend to speak their traditional language. Better-educated East Timorese often emigrate, particularly to Australia.

One cool thing about East Timor

The word “Timor” is derived from the Malay word for “east”. This means that East Timor can literally be translated as “East East“.

One sad thing about East Timor

The country is frightfully poor and underdeveloped, and about half of all citizens continue to live in abject poverty.

Neighbours Textbox
East Timor shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, which lies to the west. Indonesia also encloses the East Timorese exclave of Oecusse on three sides. The country also has close ties to Australia, which lies to the south across the Timor Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There is no reason why, as the country becomes more stable, East Timor should not begin to show up on the itineraries of backpackers in Southeast Asia, especially due to its proximity to Australia and the backpacker hotspot of Bali. However, the country is still in a stage of reconstruction and nation-building, with tourist development a distant ambition rather than an emerging reality. For now, tourists are a rare sight even in the capital city, Dili, and in rural areas would draw considerable interest and attention from curious locals.

East Timor passport
East Timorese passport

The country has serious potential as a tourist destination, with its long history and culture, heavily influenced by Portuguese and Indonesian colonisation, but with a distinctive Timorese flavour. With its tropical climate and mountainous terrain, East Timor is beautiful and will surely one day enchant greater numbers of visitors. Who knows? Now may be the best time to visit.

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Tasitolu, near Dili

 

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Ecuador

Ikwadur
  • Official Name: Republic of Ecuador
  • Capital City: Quito
  • Largest City: Guayaquil
  • Population: 16,144,000
  • Language: Spanish, Quechua
  • Currency: United States dollar
  • Continent: South America

What’s Ecuador like?

Nestled between Colombia and Peru in the northwest of the South American continent, Ecuador is, as its name would suggest, an equatorial nation. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries and is especially famous for the Galápagos Islands, home to the unique animal life that Charles Darwin studied in forming his Theory of Evolution. The Ecuadorian mainland is often mountainous, with the capital city, Quito, perched high in the Andes. The Amazonian rainforest also reaches into Ecuador, while the coastal strip is the country’s warmest region and features plenty of attractive beaches. The country is very much a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means powerful earthquakes are an ever-present risk that Ecuadorians must live with.

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Ecuador

As with much of Latin America, the people of Ecuador are a diverse mix that reveals much about the country’s history. The majority of Ecuadorians are mestizos, but there are also black Ecuadorians, descended from African slaves, as well as direct descendants of Spanish colonialists and indigenous peoples. The country’s democracy has been volatile and lively. The country has, since 2006, been run by socialist President Rafael Correa, who has steered it in a more leftwards direction and has had some success in improving the economy. However, inequality remains a major challenge in Ecuador. Agriculture and hydrocarbons play a key role in the Ecuadorian economy.

One cool thing about Ecuador

The country ratified a new constitution in 2008 that was the first in the world to recognise the natural world as having legally enforceable rights.

One sad thing about Ecuador

Earth tremors are a sad fact of life in Ecuador, and in April 2016, the joint-most powerful earthquake of the year struck the northwest of the country. At least 673 people were killed, with tens of thousands injured. In a more densely-populated area of the country, the death toll would likely have been considerably higher.

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Ecuador borders two other South American nations: to the north is Colombia, while Peru lies to the east, south and southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Those with an interest in exploring South America are unlikely to be disappointed by a country as beautiful, diverse and fascinating as Ecuador. The capital city, Quito, occupies a stunning location high amongst the Andean peaks, and features the best-preserved historic centre in Latin America. The mountains themselves offer plenty of opportunities for trekking, hiking and taking in the spectacular scenery. The country is also home to the world’s tallest active volcano. The east of the country is dominated by the Amazon rainforest and features numerous national parks that reveal the country’s biodiversity in all its splendour.

Ecuador passport
Ecuadorian passport

Beachgoers are well-catered for along the Pacific coastline, where the country’s largest city, Guayaquil can be found, as well as plenty of historic colonial cities. The Galápagos Islands, out in the Pacific, are famous for their unique flora and fauna, and are a must-see destination for anybody with a particular interest in the natural world. The cities can be chaotic and often gridlocked, while rural infrastructure varies in quality, but the country’s remarkable scenery and culture make it worth any extra hassle.

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Quilatoa crater lake

 

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Egypt

مِصر‎‎ (Miṣr) • مَصر‎‎ (Maṣr) • Ⲭⲏⲙⲓ (Kimi)
  • Official Name: Arab Republic of Egypt
  • Capital City: Cairo
  • Population: 92,167,000
  • Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Egyptian pound
  • Continent: Africa (the Sinai peninsula is part of Asia)

What’s Egypt like?

At the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, Egypt has one of the longest histories and richest archaeological heritages on Earth. Modern Egypt sits on the site of some of humanity’s oldest and most influential civilisations, and is today one of the most economically and politically significant countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The country’s large population continues to grow, placing ever more pressure on the packed cities of the Nile delta, especially Cairo itself. Most Egyptians live along the fertile banks of the Nile and its delta in the north of the country, and overcrowding is a tremendous problem. Away from the river, much of Egypt is sparsely-populated desert, including the Sinai peninsula, which sits to the east of the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important waterways.

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Egypt

Today’s Egypt grapples with numerous political and social problems. The Arab Spring of 2011 led to the demise of the authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. However, the new Egypt that emerged from these events has been wracked with instability as different forces vie for control and influence, from secular liberals to the Muslim Brotherhood and the always-powerful army. Meanwhile, a violent Islamist insurgency persists in the Sinai Peninsula, occasionally spilling out into other parts of Egypt and beyond. The economy has suffered greatly in the wake of the Arab Spring, with the important tourist trade especially hard-hit. Nevertheless, Egypt remains an intoxicating and vibrant country that continues to hold a significant place in the popular imagination.

One cool thing about Egypt

The country’s famous pyramids are often said to have been built by slaves. However, this is a myth disseminated by Greek historian Herodotus. All workers on the pyramids were paid, often in beer!

One sad thing about Egypt

The eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought hope for a brighter future to Egypt. However, the chaos and violence that preceded the fall of the Mubarak regime led to 800 deaths, and democracy has failed to take root since.

Neighbours Textbox
Egypt’s southern border with Sudan and its western border with Libya are mostly straight lines through open desert. The Sinai peninsula in the northeast borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. The narrow Gulf of Aqaba separates the Sinai from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Few countries can match Egypt when it comes to cultural and historical treasures, from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Sphinx, to the ancient tombs of Luxor. Many visitors take the opportunity to cruise the mighty Nile from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan in the south, stopping to take in the various sights that line the banks of the river and to visit traditional Nubian villages. Adventurous types often head off into the Egyptian Sahara on guided tours, stopping to replenish their energies at picture-postcard oases. For sun-worshippers, Red Sea beach resorts such as Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh offer perfect weather year-round, as well as superb watersports opportunities.

Egypt passport
Egyptian passport

Many Egyptians rely on the tourist trade for their livelihoods, so it is sad that, in recent years, the instability that has followed the Arab Spring, as well as a handful of high-profile terrorist attacks in the region, has delivered a major blow to the industry. Unemployment, already a major problem in Egypt, has risen as visitor numbers have dropped. Security at major resorts and tourist sights is heavy, as it is across Cairo and the country’s other cities. Despite the downturn, Egypt remains open for business. Tourists are more welcome than ever, and the absence of crowds at the country’s main sights means now may be the best time to visit.

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The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, Giza

 

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El Salvador

  • Official Name: Republic of El Salvador
  • Capital City: San Salvador
  • Population: 6,377,195
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: United States dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s El Salvador like?

The tiny, densely-populated Central American country is often associated with gang violence, lawlessness and poverty – issues it shares with several of its larger neighbours. Sadly, the country regularly comes near the top in surveys of global homicide rates, and the capital city, San Salvador, has been ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. A brutal civil war in the 1990s led to tens of thousands of deaths and drove many Salvadorans to seek a new life abroad, particularly in the United States. The political scene is much more stable today as the country tries to shake off its reputation for violence. Efforts to expand an economy that was once heavily dependent on coffee exports have met with some success, while attempts to steer young Salvadorans away from gangs are ongoing. El Salvador is seeking to leave its traumatic past behind and to build a brighter future.

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El Salvador

The majority of Salvadorans are the descendants of European colonists and indigenous peoples. They inhabit a densely-populated country squeezed between Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean, a land of lakes, volcanoes, mountains, jungle and a spectacular coastline. Sitting on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, El Salvador is geologically active.

One cool thing about El Salvador

The country’s name translates into English as “The Saviour“. It is the only country in the world whose name directly references a religious figure.

One sad thing about El Salvador

The 1980s weren’t kind to El Salvador. A civil war between government forces and leftist guerillas resulted in the deaths of 75,000 people and led many to flee abroad. The legacy of the war can be seen in the poverty and violence that still mar the country, although great strides have been made over the past two decades and El Salvador is now a politically stable country.

Neighbours Textbox
El Salvador is the only country in Central America without a coastline on the Caribbean sea. In the northwest, it has a border with Guatemala, while Honduras sits to the north and east. Nicaragua is a short distance away across the Gulf of Fonseca.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

El Salvador is an adventurous destination. The issue of safety is prescient, but the violence so often associated with life in the country is rarely aimed at tourists, meaning that normal levels of vigilance when visiting a poorer country are required. Most ordinary Salvadorans are friendly and welcoming: foreigners are still a rare sight in the more remote parts of the country.

El Salvador passport
Salvadoran passport

For such a small country, El Salvador packs plenty into the tourist experience. Colonial towns and villages dot the spectacular mountainous terrain, in which hiking opportunities abound. Mayan ruins give visitors the chance to walk in the footsteps of an ancient civilisation. The country has numerous lakes and volcanoes, and its national parks are largely unspoiled. The coastline is breathtaking, and is becoming increasingly popular with surfers. Should the country’s reputation improve – and there are signs that it is doing so – expect El Salvador to take of as a must-see backpacker and ecotourism destination.

El Salvador
Estadio Cuscatlán, San Salvador

 

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Equatorial Guinea

Guinea Ecuatorial • Guinée équatoriale • Guiné Equatorial
  • Official Name: Republic of Equatorial Guinea
  • Capital City: Malabo
  • Largest City: Bata
  • Population: 1,222,442
  • Language: Spanish, French, Portuguese, indigenous languages
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Equatorial Guinea like?

The only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, Equatorial Guinea is a small, steamy country in west-central Africa. The country consists of a roughly square-shaped section of the African mainland on the Gulf of Guinea called Río Muni, as well as two islands – Bioko and Annobón – separated from each other by the independent island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. The capital city, Malabo, is on Bioko island, while the biggest city, Bata, is on the mainland. A new capital city is under construction in eastern Río Muni, to be known as Oyala upon completion. Much of the country is dense equatorial rainforest, with hot and sultry weather all year round. The island of Annobón, though hot, is renowned as one of the cloudiest places in the world.

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Equatorial Guinea

Once one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, with a history of violent conflict and political instability, the discovery of oil in the mid-1990s has helped bestow Equatorial Guinea with the highest GDP per capita in Africa. This boom has seen major infrastructure projects to all parts of the country, including the area where the new capital is being built. However, the regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been criticised for the uneven spread of this new-found wealth, much of which remains in the hands of a small elite surrounding the president. Most Equatoguineans remain poor, often without access to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, the country is also heavily criticised internationally for the almost complete absence of political freedoms.

One cool thing about Equatorial Guinea

A legacy of colonial times, Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. Around two thirds of the population can speak it. Of course, numerous local languages are also spoken, while there are also communities that speak French, Portuguese and an English Creole.

One sad thing about Equatorial Guinea

The country has a tragic past, but perhaps the saddest thing about the Equatorial Guinea of today is its low ranking on the UN Human Development Index. In a country awash with oil money, it is estimated that more than 50% of people lack access to clean drinking water. An astonishing 20% of Equatoguinean children die before their fifth birthday.

Neighbours Textbox
Río Muni – the part of Equatorial Guinea on mainland Africa – is bordered to the south and east by Gabon, while Cameroon lies to the north. The islands of Bioko and Annobón are separated in the Gulf of Guinea by the sovereign nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. Bioko lies just off the coast of Cameroon.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The oil boom of the last two decades has brought overseas workers from every corner of the globe into Equatorial Guinea, making foreign faces a more common sight than they once would have been. Nevertheless, there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure, and few tourists visit the country. Those who do might be shocked to discover how expensive it is, while getting around can be challenging due to poorly-developed roads and corrupt officials at checkpoints. Travelling with a guide is often recommended.

Equatorial Guinea passport
Equatoguinean passport

The country doesn’t want for natural beauty however, with scenic stretches of beach along the Atlantic coast and lush, often unspoiled rainforest, home to a wide range of African wildlife. The Equatoguinean islands are volcanic in nature. Visitors may enjoy immersing themselves in a culture infused with African and Spanish flavours, and would find the locals friendly and hospitable should they wish to try out their language skills. A visit to Annobón island will also bring visitors into contact with Equatorial Guinea’s significant Portuguese-speaking population.

Equatorial Guinea
Annobón

 

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Eritrea

ኤርትራ (‘Eertra) • إريتريا (‘Iirytria)
  • Official Name: State of Eritrea
  • Capital City: Asmara
  • Population: 6,380,303
  • Language: Tigrinya, Arabic, Italian, English, numerous local languages
  • Currency: Nakfa
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Eritrea like?

A relatively small country in northeast Africa on the Red Sea, Eritrea is a former Italian colony that was annexed by Ethiopia after the Second World War. Independence from Ethiopia was finally achieved in 1993 following a brutal war that left the larger nation landlocked. Hopes that peace would follow were soon dashed, as Eritrea and Ethiopia entered into a border war, and the boundary between the two countries remains disputed and undemarcated to this day. Tensions between the two neighbours remain high and periodically threaten to spill over into renewed fighting. Eritrea requires all citizens, including women, to carry out military service, often for long periods, partly as a show of strength against Ethiopia.

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Eritrea

The country is roughly evenly-split between Muslims and Christians, and is home to numerous ethnic groups. A wide range of languages are spoken, including, to some extent, Italian – the former colonial language. Many buildings in the capital, Asmara, serve as an architectural reminder of the Italian colonial period. Most Eritreans live inland, in the highlands and the fertile northwest. Much of the Red Sea coastline is arid and inhospitable due to the effects of dry, dusty winds blowing in from the Arabian Peninsula. Since independence in 1993, the country has been ruled with an iron fist by President Isaias Afewerki, who has been heavily criticised for his human rights record. Despite the harsh political atmosphere and relatively high levels of poverty, the mining sector has helped fuel strong economic growth in recent years.

One cool thing about Eritrea

The country is the only one in the world to designate its entire coastline a protected reserve in an attempt to halt desertification and protect the many fish and wildlife species that call the area home.

One sad thing about Eritrea

Reporters Without Borders rank Eritrea as the most dangerous environment in the world for journalists – below even North Korea!

Neighbours Textbox
Eritrea has a long, volatile southern border with its long-running adversary, Ethiopia. In the southeast, the country touches Djibouti, while its northwestern border is with Sudan. A short distance away across the Red Sea is Yemen.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As a young country finding its way in the world, with a fairly restrictive visa regime and an oppressive political scene, Eritrea remains well and truly off the beaten path. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the country is closed to the outside world. Most nationalities can obtain a visa, and those who do make it to Eritrea find a beautiful country of imposing mountain peaks, fertile northern plains, stark, arid deserts in the south and a striking coastline on the Red Sea. The capital city, Asmara, is like a slice of Italy in Africa thanks to the beautiful Italian architecture and presence of the Italian language.

Eritrea passport
Eritrean passport

Diving is growing in popularity along the coast and around the remarkable Dahlak archipelago, a series of islands in the Red Sea notable for the Ethiopian weapons dumped after the war that have created an artificial reef. Away from the coast, the Eritrean interior features many ruins, monasteries and other historic buildings that hark back to the various powers and civilisations that have come and gone in the region. The Eritrean mountains are beginning to open up to hiking, while national parks abound with a diverse range of wildlife. Eritrea, like so many countries in Africa, harbours much potential as a tourist destination, and is just waiting to be discovered.

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Mountains near Asmara

 

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Estonia

Eesti • Эстония (Estoniya)
  • Official Name: Republic of Estonia
  • Capital City: Tallinn
  • Population: 1,317,797
  • Language: Estonian, Russian
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Estonia like?

The smallest and most northerly of the three former-Soviet Baltic states, with a landscape featuring rolling hills, charming islands and pretty beaches, Estonia has a long history of domination by major powers, including the Soviets, Germans, Danes, Russians, Poles and Swedes. The modern republic gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the country hasn’t looked back since. Estonia has developed into one of the world’s most successful democracies, with a strong economy, a reputation for innovation in IT, and a highly-rated education system. The country’s move into the Western sphere of influence has seen it join NATO and the European Union, much to the chagrin of the neighbouring Russians.

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Estonia

Ethnic Estonians are culturally and linguistically linked to the Finns, and many Helsinki residents regularly cross the Gulf of Finland to take advantage of the lower prices to be found in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and other towns along the north coast. However, a quarter of Estonia’s population are ethnic Russians, who retain strong cultural and emotional ties to Russia. Some Estonian towns, especially near the Russian border, are home to more Russian speakers than Estonian speakers. There is some grievance among this section of Estonian society about the direction the country has taken since independence.

One cool thing about Estonia

It may be small, but Estonia is a global leader in information technology. Skype is an Estonian invention, while Tallinn is sometimes referred to as Europe’s Silicon Valley. It was the first country in the world to introduce online voting.

One sad thing about Estonia

As with other countries in the region, Estonia suffered major losses during World War II. Just over seven percent of the country’s population was killed, while another ten percent were sent to Soviet labour camps.

Neighbours Textbox
Estonia has two land borders: to the south is Latvia, while Russia lies to the east. The narrow waters of the Gulf of Finland separate Estonia from Finland.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The main attraction in Estonia is Tallinn’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was built by German crusaders in the Middle Ages. The city’s walls and towers are some of the best-preserved in Europe, and tourists have begun to flock to the city since independence opened Estonia up to the outside world. The advent of budget air travel has helped bring a tourist boom to Tallinn. Outside the capital, there are plenty of historic sites, including numerous medieval castles, that tell the story of Estonia’s history of conquest and resistance.

Estonia passport
Estonian passport

A relatively flat country, Estonia’s countryside is pleasant, with rolling hills inland and a number of beach resorts that become very popular during the short summer season (winters can be bitterly cold). The country also has a large number of attractive islands in the Baltic Sea, some of which are populated by ethnic Swedes. Despite the small size of the country, there are several national parks to explore, and the country also has shorelines on Lakes Peikus and Pskov. Estonia really is a Baltic gem.

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Old Town, Tallinn

 

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Ethiopia

ኢትዮጵያ (Ītiyop’iya)
  • Official Name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  • Capital City: Addis Ababa
  • Population: 99,465,819
  • Language: Amharic, hundreds of regional languages
  • Currency: Birr
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ethiopia like?

The giant of east Africa, Ethiopia is a remarkable country of diverse landscapes and diverse people. The oldest independent country in Africa, Ethiopia is also the only country on the continent to have never been colonised by outside powers, despite the Italians’ best efforts in the 1930s. Ethiopia is thought by some historians to be the birthplace of humanity itself thanks to the discovery of some of the oldest human fossils ever unearthed. Modern Ethiopians are an incredibly diverse mix of ethnic groups, all with their own customs, cultures and traditions. With such diversity comes a similarly wide range of languages and religious beliefs. Much of the country is mountainous, with the Great Rift Valley making violent earth tremors a regular problem. The further east one goes, the drier and more arid the country becomes.

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Ethiopia

The second-biggest country in Africa by population, Ethiopia came to world attention during the 1980s, when a disastrous famine triggered by war and ruinous economic policies gave rise to the Live Aid charity rock concert. Although the country remains one of the world’s poorest, it has come a long way since those dark days and consistently records impressive economic growth. Nevertheless, the border conflict with Eritrea regularly threatens to spill over into renewed fighting, and the country’s ethnic Somali population, a majority in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, remains restive. An insurgency rumbles on in this part of the country. Despite these constant tensions and the ever-present poverty that still persists, Ethiopia is an increasingly assertive and self-confident nation, proud of its history, with a growing urban middle-class.

One cool thing about Ethiopia

We’ve already mentioned that Ethiopia was never colonised, successfully fending off the Italians, and becoming the only African country to avoid this fate. This has made the country a symbol of African resistance in general, and explains how red, green and yellow became the colours of the African resistance movement. These colours are found on the Ethiopian flag, and those of many other African states.

One sad thing about Ethiopia

The infamous Ethiopian famine of the 1980s led to one million deaths. The brutal Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam had even used hunger as a weapon to maintain his rule and crush opposition.

Neighbours Textbox
Ethiopia has a disputed border with Eritrea in the north, while Sudan and South Sudan lie to the west. To the south is Kenya, while the country’s long eastern border with Somalia is disputed and dangerous. There is also a short border with Djibouti in the northeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Ethiopia teems with historic sites, a legacy of its long history, and possesses numerous spectacular national parks. The east of the country is best avoided, due to the Somali insurgency, and there are other areas where intermittent, localised violence mean caution is required. Despite these challenges, the Ethiopian tourist industry continues to develop, and the country is becoming an increasingly popular destination for adventurous travellers. The capital city, Addis Ababa, is a typically vibrant, chaotic, African metropolis, with a growing middle class and a strong economy.

Ethiopia passport
Ethiopian passport

However, much of what people really come to see lies outside Addis Ababa. The country’s national parks are home to a wide variety of African wildlife and offer breathtaking views of mountain scenery or tropical forest. The countryside is dotted with historic towns with roots that stretch far back in human history. Historic mosques and churches, monasteries and tombs, tell the story of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. To cap it all off is the famous Great Rift Valley, which cuts through the heart of Ethiopia, creating some of Africa’s most spectacular geography.

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Rock-hewn church, Lalibela

 

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Fiji

Viti • फ़िजी (Fiji)
  • Official Name: Republic of Fiji
  • Capital City: Suva
  • Population: 909,389
  • Language: English, Fijian, Hindi
  • Currency: Fijian dollar
  • Continent: Oceania

What’s Fiji like?

An archipelago in the South Pacific that was once a part of the British Empire, independent Fiji combines a tropical climate and landscape with a fractious social and political scene. A part of the wider Melanesian region, a narrow majority of Fijians are indigenous ethnic Melanesians. However, a legacy of British rule is that a large section of the population is of South Asian origin, descended from workers brought over from the Indian subcontinent by the colonialists. Since independence in 1970, Fiji has struggled to marry these two very different cultures, and the tensions periodically lead to political strife. Military coups are not unheard of in Fiji.

Fiji map
Fiji

Over 300 islands make up the nation of Fiji, roughly a third of which are inhabited. The capital, Suva, is a teeming, often troubled, always lively city on the most heavily-populated island, Viti Levu. Away from the capital, Fiji is resplendent with rainforest, idyllic beaches, coral reefs, volcanic mountains and far flung paradise islands. Although the land, particularly coconut plantations, plays an important role in the Fijian economy, tourism is the country’s economic mainstay. Political instability has hindered economic development since independence, so most Fijians are relatively poor.

One cool thing about Fiji

The International Date Line runs right through the Fijian island of Taveuni. This means that you can literally stand with your legs in two different dates.

One sad thing about Fiji

When military dictatorship came to Fiji in 1987 with the intention of preventing the rise to power of an Indian-dominated party, large numbers of Fijians of Indian origin felt forced to leave the country.

Neighbours Textbox
Fiji has no land borders. Its nearest neighbours in the South Pacific are New Zealand, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, plus the French overseas territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The name Fiji is synonymous with the exotic – warm blue seas, friendly locals, tropical sunshine and spectacular scenery. As a result, it is no surprise that tourism plays a major role in the economy. Nevertheless, the country’s political travails and its turbulent recent history mean that its potential as a tourist destination has not been fully tapped. Most resorts lie well away from the country’s unpredictable capital, Suva.

Fiji passport
Fijian passport

Despite the challenges, tourism still plays a key role in Fiji’s economy, with numerous resorts springing up along the coasts of the main islands. The country has developed a reputation as a destination for romantic getaways and honeymoons, as well as the traditional laidback beach holiday. There is plenty of mountain scenery to enjoy on the main islands. Adventure sports such as kayaking and skydiving are also popular.

Fiji
Nacula Island

 

Finland flag

Finland

Suomi
  • Official name: Republic of Finland
  • Capital City: Helsinki
  • Population: 5,488,543
  • Language: Finnish, Swedish, Sami
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Finland like?

Lying in the European Union’s chilly northeastern corner, Finland is an affluent country that maintains close ties to the other Nordic countries, while remaining culturally and linguistically distinct from its neighbours. With a history that includes periods of domination and rule by its larger neighbours Sweden and Russia, modern Finland is a peaceful, prosperous nation with a fully-developed, Nordic-model welfare state. The country scores highly on various indices of wellbeing, especially in the areas of social cohesion and education. The majority of Finns speak Finnish, but there is a sizable Swedish-speaking minority, and northern Finland is also home to the Sami people. The Åland Islands, in the Gulf of Bothnia, are a self-governing archipelago that, while part of Finland, are entirely Swedish-speaking.

Finland map
Finland

The majority of Finns live in the southern region, especially around the capital, Helsinki. Much of the country is dominated by forests and lakes, which become very popular with locals during the short summer. The Finnish winters are notoriously harsh, with heavy snow and subzero temperatures, especially in the north. A largely flat country, there is some skiing in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, a region that reindeer and Santa Claus also call home.

One cool thing about Finland

The quirky Finns are renowned for strange sporting events and festivities. Perhaps the oddest of all is the annual Wife-Carrying World Championships, which draws couples from all around the world to tackle a challenging obstacle course.

One sad thing about Finland

The country does so well in so many global surveys, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy. However, Finland’s economy has hit the buffers in recent years, and more Finns find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Neighbours Textbox
Finland shares borders with its Nordic neighbours Norway to the north and Sweden to the northwest. The country also shares a long eastern border with Russia, while Estonia is a short distance away across the Gulf of Finland.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The distinctive nature of the Finnish people and their country’s wide open spaces make Finland a fascinating and worthwhile tourist destination. Finland is one of those countries that offers visitors a pretty strong chance of seeing the Northern Lights, if you can stand the freezing local winter. You can also experience the midnight sun in summer, especially in the north. Roughly ten percent of Finland’s land area is made up of lakes, and the country’s rolling hills and vast expanses of open countryside and woodland make for some beautiful summer strolls. In the winter, the northern ski resorts become popular, as does the legendary home of Santa Claus in Lapland.

Finland passport
Finnish passport

The capital, Helsinki, is Finland at its most cosmopolitan, but the city still retains something of a small town feel. Helsinki is a popular stopping-off point for Baltic cruises, and the city is especially welcoming in summer, when the warmer weather lures the locals out to the many cafés and bars that line its streets. Helsinki is somewhat renowned for its lively nightlife. There are also a handful of UNESCO World Heritage sites dotted around the country, including the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress outside Helsinki.

Finland
Helsinki

 

France flag

France

  • Official Name: French Republic
  • Capital City: Paris
  • Population: 66,991,000 (including overseas territories)
  • Language: French
  • Currency: Euro (CFP franc used in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna)
  • Continent: Europe (with overseas territories in North America, Africa and Oceania)

What’s France like?

A cultural giant with a long history, France is a major European power, one of the driving forces at the heart of the European Union, and has left its cultural and imperial mark across the world. France lay at the heart of the Renaissance, and the political thought and ideals that arose from the period continue to define and shape the modern western world. The country has also been at the heart of some of Europe’s major conflicts, including the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, its own religiously-driven civil wars, and numerous conflagrations with neighbouring powers. Northern France is littered with battlefield memorials to the dead of the World Wars. Modern France’s relations with its neighbours, including the United Kingdom and Germany, are cordial, and often warm. The country also possessed the second-largest empire ever assembled, and continues to wrestle with the legacy and consequences to this day. France was particularly prominent in North and West Africa, where French is still widely spoken, and government is often based on the French system. The French colonial period also left its imprint on North America, especially Canada, where the French language enjoys joint-official status with English. Parts of the United States, too, have been heavily influenced by French language and culture.

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France

The French are renowned for their art, high culture, philosophy and cuisine. French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Derrida and Foucault have left an indellible mark on the country and beyond. France also has a formidable legacy in literature thanks to the likes of Diderot, Jules Verne, Sartre, Camus and many more, and has produced household names in the art world, including Monet, Cézanne, Gaugin and Renoir. The country’s culinary scene is admired the world over, with French chefs in demand in the world’s top kitchens. The French take food very seriously, and even small towns will often have a Michelin-starred restaurant. France is arguably the world’s best-renowned wine producer, with prize-winning vineyards all over the country – especially the Bordeaux region.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris

Modern France remains one of the world’s leading political and military powers. Its cities are architecturally striking, but many also struggle to provide work for their urban young, especially in the so-called banlieues, the tough suburbs mainly populated by people of North African origin. In recent years, the country has struggled to tackle the rise of violent fundamentalist Islam, as demonstrated by a number of significant terrorist outrages. Away from the cities, the French countryside is especially beautiful, featuring rolling hills, open plains, mighty rivers, forbidding mountain ranges and long coastlines. The country also has a number of overseas territories that are considered fundamental parts of the French Republic, including French Guiana, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Mayotte, and Réunion.

One cool thing about France

The most popular tourist destination in the world is… France! The French themselves are not major travellers, as sure a sign as any that what they have at home is pretty special.

One sad thing about France

By some measures, France has the highest levels of depression in the world, with one in five citizens having experienced a depressive episode at some point.

Neighbours Textbox
Metropolitan France (i.e. the part in Europe) borders Belgium and Luxembourg to the northeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, and Italy to the southeast. There is also a border with the tiny independent principality of Monaco on the French Riviera, and southern borders with Spain and Andorra. The Channel Islands lie just west of Normandy in the north, and there is a link to the UK via the Channel Tunnel between Calais and England’s Kent coast. The French island of Corsica is just north of the Italian island of Sardinia. France also has international borders in other parts of the world: French Guiana borders Brazil and Suriname in the jungles of South America; while the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin is divided between France and the Netherlands.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As mentioned earlier, France welcomes more tourists than any other country in the world. The rich and famous are drawn to the upmarket beaches of the French Riviera, while the long Atlantic coast is one of the world’s surfing hotspots. Camping in the beautiful French countryside is popular with locals and visitors from the country’s near-neighbours, while the French Alps and Pyrenees offer world-class winter sports opportunities. Gourmands find their food heaven in the cafés, restaurants, bakeries and markets of the diverse cities, towns and even small villages up and down the country, while wine enthusiasts are drawn to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux.

France passport
French passport

French towns and cities are famous for their imposing churches and cathedrals and attractive central squares. The former battlefields of the north allow visitors to explore a region that saw such suffering and sacrifice during the World Wars. And at the heart of it all is Paris, one of the world’s greatest cities, famous for its food, its fashion, its architecture and must-see sites, including the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc du Triomphe. Paris is considered by many to be the world’s most romantic destination. When all is said and done, there really is something for everybody in France.

France
Strasbourg

 

Gabon flag

Gabon

  • Official Name: Gabonese Republic
  • Capital City: Libreville
  • Population: 1,475,000
  • Language: French, Fang, Myene, Punu, Nzebi
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Gabon like?

A former French colony on central Africa’s west coast, Gabon has exploited oil riches to become one of the wealthiest countries on the continent. Indeed, only Equatorial Guinea and Botswana have a higher GDP. Unfortunately, the proceeds from this boom have not been dispensed evenly, leaving Gabon with a small but wealthy elite alongside significant levels of poverty. However, these disparities have not prevented the country from avoiding the regular turmoil and strife that often engulf its near-neighbours in west Africa. Gabon did experience a period of autocratic rule, if not dictatorship, from the late 1960s until 2009 under President Omar Bongo. In recent years, reforms to Gabon’s political system have helped to improve governance somewhat.

Gabon map
Gabon

The Gabonese live in one of Africa’s more sparsely populated countries. Roughly half the population lives in the capital city, Libreville, which is comfortably the biggest city in the country. Rural Gabon is almost entirely covered by rainforest, including the highlands, and the climate is sultry all year round. These forests are home to several species of monkey and other African wildlife, and the country has done a good job of protecting its natural environment. The people hail from a diverse range of tribes and ethnic groups, and speak a correspondingly wide range of languages. Nevertheless, French remains widely spoken, a legacy of France’s colonial rule over the region.

One cool thing about Gabon

The country is home to around 80% of Africa’s gorilla population. So if you want to see gorillas in the wild, Gabon seems like the place to start!

One sad thing about Gabon

Despite its large oil reserves, the Gabonese economy has failed to deliver widespread prosperity. Jobs are scarce, and the country has been criticised for over-regulating business and preventing the emergence of an entrepreneurial class.

Neighbours Textbox
Gabon has a long frontier in the east and south with the Republic of the Congo. It also borders Equatorial Guinea in the northwest and Cameroon in the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Gabon has the potential to be one of Africa’s most successful tourist economies. With incredible rainforest, towering mountains, a long coastline and year-round tropical conditions, Gabon has plenty to offer. Unfortunately, it has not yet developed the necessary infrastructure to cater to large numbers of guests. Hotels are relatively rare outside the main cities of Libreville and Port-Gentil, and paved roads are few and far between outside of the main cities. Despite these obstacles, the country’s relative prosperity and stable political climate make it a welcoming place to visit, especially for those new to travelling in Africa.

Gabon passport
Gabonese passport

Gabon overflows with national parks, home to diverse flora and fauna, including gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, exotic birds, turtles and deer. The national parks are arguably Gabon’s biggest draw, but the country’s Atlantic coastline, with its miles of pristine, often deserted, beaches should not be ignored. Gabon also possesses some spectacular mountain scenery, featuring breathtaking waterfalls and plunging rivers.

Gabon
Fruit market, Libreville

 

The Gambia flag

The Gambia

  • Official Name: Republic of The Gambia
  • Capital City: Banjul
  • Largest City: Serekunda
  • Population: 1,882,450
  • Language: English, Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Serer, Jola
  • Currency: Dalasi
  • Continent: Africa

What’s The Gambia like?

As the map below shows, The Gambia is one of the world’s more oddly-shaped countries. The smallest country on mainland Africa in terms of area, The Gambia is a small sliver of land that follows the course of the Gambia river inland from the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. This strange arrangement is a legacy of colonial competition and administration in the region. The first to set up a colony here were the Portuguese, but the territory soon ended up under British administration. An agreement with France, which controlled much of surrounding west Africa, cemented British control of the Gambia river colony. Independence came to The Gambia in 1965. The country joined with Senegal in the 1970s to form the state of Senegambia, but this arrangement quickly unravelled.

The Gambia map
The Gambia

Most Gambians live around the largest city, Serekunda, and the capital, Banjul, at the western end of the country by the Atlantic Ocean. The further inland one goes, the more sparsely populated The Gambia becomes. The country is generally rather poor, with foreign aid an important part of the economy. However, agriculture, industry and tourism have contributed to economic growth. In December 2016, Yahya Jammeh, Gambian president for the previous 22 years, was defeated at the ballot box. Jammeh had declared The Gambia to be an Islamic republic and had instituted harsh social policies that earned him considerable criticism. Despite refusing to hand over power, he was eventually removed with the help of neighbouring Senegal. The Gambia has since renounced its Islamic republic status and has returned to the Commonwealth, from which it had been suspended.

One cool thing about The Gambia

One explanation often given for The Gambia’s odd shape is that, when the British and the French were vying for control of the region, British ships sailed up the Gambia river while firing cannons off either side, and that the cannonball’s landing positions became the borders we know today. It’s unlikely that this happened, but ships did play a part in the rivalry between the two colonial powers in the region.

One sad thing about The Gambia

Why was this part of Africa so highly sought after? In a word, slaves. The Gambia river gave ships access to more and more territory from which local people could be taken as slaves. As many as three million people are thought to have been transported from The Gambia to the New World as part of the slave trade.

Neighbours Textbox
The Gambia has just the one neighbour, Senegal, which it borders in the north, east and South. To the west is a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Gambia river.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The recent disruption caused by the December 2016 election saw tourists fleeing The Gambia en masse. However, the situation is considerably more settled at the time of writing (April 2017), and countries have lifted their travel advisories against The Gambia. This will be a relief to the many Gambians who rely on the tourist trade. The Gambia has become a popular exotic destination for European holidaymakers, drawn by the year-round warmth and pristine beaches. The Gambia’s short Atlantic coastline is the centre of the country’s tourist trade, and the vast majority of visitors head for the resort areas that have sprung up over the past two decades.

The Gambia passport
Gambian passport

Few people venture out of the resorts, which means most of The Gambia is off the beaten track. This is especially the case inland, where tourists are a rare sight. However, those looking for a more adventurous Gambian experience can explore the country’s national parks and take in its remarkable wildlife. Nowhere in The Gambia is far from Senegal, which means it is possible to cross the border, provided you have the necessary documentation.

The Gambia
Mangroves in Makasutu

 

Georgia flag

Georgia

საქართველო (Sakartvelo)
  • Official Name: Georgia
  • Capital City: Tbilisi
  • Population: 3,720,400
  • Language: Georgian
  • Currency: Lari
  • Continent: Europe (Eurasia)

What’s Georgia like?

A mountainous country in the often volatile Caucasus region, Georgia straddles the boundary between Europe and Asia. A former Soviet state, the country gained independence upon the demise of the USSR, and it has experienced a fair amount of turmoil since, including a brief war with Russia in 2008. The country has increasingly looked towards Europe and away from its giant northern neighbour in recent years, an outlook that has drawn the ire of Moscow. There are two breakaway regions in Georgia: Abkhazia in the northwest, which is home to the Abkhaz people; and South Ossetia in the north. Both regions are internationally recognised as part of Georgia, with the exception of a handful of countries, including Russia. Georgia recognises Abkhazia as an autonomous region under Georgian sovereignty.

Georgia map
Georgia

Despite these difficulties, Georgia has achieved strong economic growth since independence. Living standards are still low by European standards, but much improved from the 1990s. The country has been successful in attracting inward investment, and has also shown a keenness to increase the number of people entering Georgia to visit and to study. The country is especially intent on strengthening ties to Europe. The Georgian people themselves are something of an enigma, with a language, script and culture not linked to or derived from any of their neighbours. Some scholars suggest a connection to the Basque people, but little evidence of this has come to light. This makes Georgia a particularly fascinating country.

One cool thing about Georgia

The world’s deepest cave can be found in Georgia. Krubera Cave can be found in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, and plummets to an astonishing 2,197m (7,208ft).

One sad fact about Georgia

Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin, was born in Gori – then part of the Russian Empire but now in Georgia – in 1878. He would go on to lead the Soviet Union and was responsible for some of humanity’s worst atrocities.

Neighbours Textbox
Georgia sits in a politically febrile neighbourhood, with the Russian North Caucasus republics on its northern border, Azerbaijan to the southeast, Armenia to the south, and Turkey to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It’s opening up. Indeed, now might be the best time to visit Georgia, before it really takes off. With incredible mountain scenery, a burgeoning wine industry and an alluring Black Sea coast, Georgia’s future as a tourist destination looks bright, and the country has been working to improve its infrastructure to cater to a higher number of visitors. Of particular interest to adventurous guests may be the numerous Orthodox churches that cling to plunging mountainsides and overlook spectacular valleys. The capital city, Tbilisi, is increasingly cosmopolitan and serves as a welcoming, friendly, attractive and interesting hub for travel in the region.

Georgia passport
Georgian passport

It would be wise to consider caution when travelling in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the Georgian government has no practical control. Abkhazia is generally safe, has a beautiful Black Sea coast and a pleasant climate, but consular services are limited should they be required. South Ossetia is a very traditional society made up mostly of poor mountain villages, and security conditions are arguably less amenable to tourism than in Abkhazia.

Georgia
Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi

 

Germany flag

Germany

Deutschland
  • Official Name: Federal Republic of Germany
  • Capital City: Berlin
  • Population: 82,175,700
  • Language: German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Germany like?

A truly global economic powerhouse at the very heart of the European Union, Germany is an affluent, diverse country with a long history and a rich cultural heritage. The country has played a central role in the development of western art, literature, philosophy and medicine, while its classical musicians are some of the world’s most renowned. The country’s 20th century history is dominated by its roles in the two world wars and subsequent division into two separate states, East and West Germany. Since reunification in 1990, Germany has become a key figure in international diplomacy, a desirable destination for immigrants, and a true economic giant. The country is one of the world’s biggest importers and exporters, and is particularly well-known for its efficient motor-vehicle industry and for wine production. Much of the country is forested, but there are also significant mountain ranges, major rivers, wine-growing regions, flat coastal plains and rolling hillsides.

Germany map
Germany

While countries such as Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands were busily assembling and administering colonial empires during the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany as a singular nation-state had not yet formed, and the German people lived in various empires, city-states and vassal states scattered around northern, central and eastern Europe. Germany can trace its roots in part to the Holy Roman Empire, a 19th-century European power that took in large swathes of northern Europe, but this was not a formal German entity. The struggle of the German people to understand their place in the world and to be seen to compete with other European powers ultimately led the German Empire – as it was at the time – to become increasingly militarily assertive, a major factor in the triggering of World War I. The devastating defeat inflicted upon Germany gave rise to the weak, unstable and impoverished Weimer Republic, which was swept away by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) movement. The Second World War brought further death and destruction to Europe as the Nazis attempted to expand German territory, subjugate other nationalities and even to exterminate certain minority groups.

Germany2
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Germany’s defeat in the Second World War saw the western part of the country subsumed into the western family of nations as West Germany, while the east became the Soviet client state of East Germany. Berlin itself was also divided between the two. Reunification came in 1990. Modern Germany has done much to leave its difficult past behind it, and has recently welcomed over one million refugees from conflicts in the Middle East. The German economy is the engine of the European Union and the single market, though this has led to criticism that Germany is too powerful and too able to dictate to other members. The Germans themselves are increasingly diverse, with large Turkish and Arab minorities in many major cities.

One cool thing about Germany

The city of Reutlingen is home to what is officially the world’s narrowest street. Spreuerhofstraße is 31cm (1ft) across at its narrowest point, so stay trim if you plan to visit!

One sad thing about Germany

The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich were the scene of tragedy when terrorists murdered members of the Israeli team at their hotel.

Neighbours Textbox
As a large country at the heart of Europe, Germany has quite a few neighbouring countries. To the north is a short border with Denmark, which prevents Germany’s two coastlines from connecting. Germany has eastern frontiers with Poland and the Czech Republic, while Austria and Switzerland lie to the south. In the southwest is France, while in the west, Germany borders Luxembourg, Belgium and The Netherlands.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With its diverse regions, stunning scenery, beautiful towns and cities, and highly developed, efficient infrastructure, Germany can boast a lot. Outsiders may arrive in Germany with stereotypical ideas about the country and its people, but the federal structure and regional identities that prevail mean that what might apply to one part of Germany is completely irrelevant to another. If you’re looking for beer halls and lederhosen, head to Bavaria and its vibrant capital, Munich, in the southeast of the country. But don’t expect to find these things in Berlin or Hamburg, for example.

Germany passport
German passport

There are simply too many attractions to list here, but among the many reasons to visit Germany are its lively cities, superb beers and wines, picturesque towns and villages, majestic castles, scenic mountains and ski resorts, its tasty range of sausages and sausage-based dishes, and its numerous events and festivals. Munich hosts the world’s biggest festival – Oktoberfest – which actually takes place every September and celebrates German – especially Bavarian – culture and, of course, beer. The capital, Berlin, is a fascinating metropolis, particularly for those with an interest in Germany’s 20th century history. Parts of the Berlin Wall still stand, and give a real insight of what Berlin might have been like as a divided city. As for the Germans themselves: whatever pre-conceived notions you may have, you can expect to find a warm and friendly welcome everywhere.

Germany
Hohenzollern Castle, Baden-Württemberg

 

Ghana flag

Ghana

  • Official Name: Republic of Ghana
  • Capital City: Accra
  • Population: 27,043,093
  • Language: English, numerous local languages
  • Currency: Ghanaian cedi
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ghana like?

Relatively prosperous by sub-Saharan African standards, Ghana is one of the continent’s more stable and successful countries, with an increasingly diverse economy and sound democratic credentials. A former Dutch and then British colony on west Africa’s Gulf of Guinea coast, Ghana was once known as the Gold Coast, and was, for a time, at the heart of the slave trade. In 1957, Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence. Despite early strife and economic problems, the country managed to chart a path to a more stable future, and democracy has developed firm foundations.

Ghana map
Ghana

The Ghanaian people are almost all black Africans, but there are numerous ethnic groups within the country that fall under that umbrella. English is quite widely spoken, but regional and local languages are common. A largely Christian nation, a sizeable Muslim minority exists, especially in the poorer northern regions. Ghana’s north is mostly open savannah, while the centre and south become progressively more humid and more heavily-forested. Numerous rivers flow out of the enormous Lake Volta in eastern Ghana.

One cool thing about Ghana

As has already been mentioned, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957, with Kwame Nkrumah becoming president.

One sad thing about Ghana

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF have ranked Ghana among the world’s least hygienic countries, with high rates of infant mortality linked to poor sanitation and unclean drinking water.

Neighbours Textbox
Ghana is bordered in the west by Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso in the north and northwest, and Togo in the east. In the south is a coastline on the Gulf of Guinea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

First-time visitors to sub-Saharan Africa could do a lot worse than start in Ghana. With its friendly people, relatively good infrastructure and moderate levels of poverty, Ghana can prove a less challenging first exposure to the continent for those raised in more affluent parts of the world. The Ghanaian coast is dotted with so-called slave castles – forts built by various European powers to service the slave trade, some of which have received UNESCO World Heritage status. It is also possible to visit mosques, fortifications and other remnants of civilisations that pre-date the arrival of Europeans in what is now Ghana.

Ghana passport
Ghanaian passport

The country is also blessed with national parks, home to elephants, big cats and other African wildlife. The coast offers attractive beaches, while Lake Volta is a natural wonder. The city of Kumasi, in south-central Ghana, offers a glimpse into the history and culture of the Ashanti people. The capital, Accra, meanwhile, is a heaving metropolis that burgeons with lively markets and sights and attractions dedicated to the country’s history, independence movement and local culture.

Ghana
Elmina slave castle, Cape Coast

 

Greece flag

Greece

Ελλάδα (Elláda)
  • Official Name: Hellenic Republic
  • Capital City: Athens
  • Population: 10,955,000
  • Language: Greek
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Greece like?

A beautiful country at the southern end of the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe, Greece is considered the birthplace of Western civilisation, with an ancient culture that gave rise to the concept of democracy, as well as the Olympic Games, Western philosophy, drama and theatre, literature and political thought. Modern Greece may not quite be the mighty civilisation of its ancient forebears, but the country is still an important regional player with a distinctive culture and language. Greeks are some of the most politically active people in Europe. The country was at one time part of the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, and has experienced war, population exchange with Turkey, military dictatorship and periods of economic strife. Greeks have suffered some of the worst consequences of the 2008 financial crash, as the country endured swingeing cuts, a ferocious recession, rampant unemployment and wage repression.

Greece map
Greece

While the country is largely at peace with its neighbours, the possibility of conflict with Turkey over Cyprus remains, and the country also disputes the name of the Republic of Macedonia to the north. The country is famous for its cuisine, its long, hot summers, its many ancient sites, its mountainous terrain and its many hundreds of idyllic islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. The capital city, Athens, is Greece’s main metropolis – a heaving, traffic-choked, cosmopolitan, historic and striking centre of an ancient culture. However, much of Greece is rural, with small, traditional villages, rugged mountains and pleasant forest. The islands in particular are renowned for their beautiful beaches, and play a major role in the country’s economic life.

One cool thing about Greece

The first Olympic games took place in Greece in 776BC, which seems astonishing when you think about it. The first person to win an Olympic event was a cook by the name of Coroebus, who won the sprint race.

One sad thing about Greece

It is estimated that around $1billion was wiped out of Greece’s economy following the financial crash of 2008. The consequences have been devastating: poverty, unemployment, and a national debt larger than the country’s economy. Ordinary Greeks continue to suffer the fallout.

Neighbours Textbox
Greece has a dispute with its northern neighbour, Macedonia, over that country’s name. Greece claims that the use of the name “Macedonia” suggests a territorial claim over the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece’s other neighbours are Bulgaria and Turkey to the northeast and Albania to the northwest. Many of Greece’s most easterly islands also hug the Turkish coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Greece is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and its not hard to see why. The biggest sector within the country’s tourist industry is focused on the beach resorts of the islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas, some of the most significant of which are Corfu, Zakynthos, Rhodes, Crete, Kos, Lesbos and Skiathos. The Greek mainland also includes a long, deeply indented coastline, with the beach resorts of Chalkidiki in Greek Macedonia in the north of the country especially popular. The main appeal of the islands is their warm, sunny weather, moderated by sea breezes, as well as their charming, traditional village communities and sandy beaches. Some islands, most notably Rhodes, Crete and Corfu, also include resorts that cater to the 18-30 party scene and are not always for the fainthearted!

Greece passport
Greek passport

However, Greece is about far more than package tourism. With its ancient history and culture, there are numerous historic sites, including Olympia, where the first Olympic Games took place, and the ancient Parthenon atop the Acropolis in central Athens. The country’s architecture, ancient and modern, is famous around the world, while many are drawn in by the fresh, flavoursome cuisine, heavily influenced by seafood, lamb, olives and feta cheese. The capital city, Athens, offers all the trappings of a modern city, while the country’s second city, Thessaloniki, immerses the visitor in Greek Macedonian culture.

Greece
Akropolis and Parthenon, Athens

 

Grenada flag

Grenada

La Grenade
  • Official Name: Grenada
  • Capital City: St. George’s
  • Population: 109,590
  • Language: English, French, Grenadian Creole
  • Currency: East Caribbean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Grenada like?

The so-called “Spice Island” of the Caribbean due to its substantial nutmeg export industry, Grenada (pronounced Gre-NAY-da) is another small, idyllic island nation in the West Indies. The country is made up of one major island on which the majority of the population resides, plus two smaller islands and a handful of islets. Aside from the spice industry, Grenada shares with other small Caribbean island countries a reliance on high-end tourism, especially from cruise ships. The main point of entry is the capital city, St. George’s, in the south west of the main island, also known as Grenada, on which most of the population resides. The Grenadian interior is mountainous, while the coast is lined with beaches, many of which are black due the island’s volcanic geography. Grenada is the largest island in the Grenadines chain, but is not a part of the separate sovereign state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Grenada map
Grenada

The country shares with many other black Caribbean nations a history as a British colony. It briefly came to global attention during the 1980s, when a Marxist coup triggered an invasion by the United States and other Caribbean nations. The invasion was criticised by the UN and many other countries, including the former colonial power, Britain. Despite the turmoil of the period, Grenada has developed into a stable democracy that has been able to deliver respectable economic growth. However, the country lies in the path of substantial Atlantic hurricanes and has been almost entirely destroyed on several occasions.

One cool thing about Grenada

Despite its small size, the country is the world’s second-largest nutmeg producer, accounting for twenty percent of the world’s supply. The national flag even depicts the crop, such is its importance to the economy.

One sad thing about Grenada

The islands managed to go 49 years without a direct hit from a hurricane until September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan smashed into the country, levelling an incredible ninety percent of homes.

Neighbours Textbox
As an island nation, Grenada has no land borders. It’s nearest neighbour is St. Vincent and the Grenadines, whose southernmost islands lie just north of the Grenadian islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Grenada shares with many other West Indian destinations a reputation for high-end tourism, attracting well-heeled Americans, Canadians and Europeans, often aboard mighty cruise liners. With its year-round tropical warmth and clear blue seas, it’s no surprise that the country’s beaches are a major draw. But there is plenty more to do in Grenada than laze on the beach. The interior is dominated by spectacular mountains, plunging waterfalls and beautiful lakes. The country’s spice and rum estates also make for popular tourist spots.

Grenada passport
Grenadian passport

Grenada is an increasingly popular location for couples seeking somewhere romantic to tie the knot, with a growing wedding industry. Ecotourism has begun to take off in the country, while diving and other watersports are, of course, a major draw. There a several historic forts dating back to colonial times to pique the interest of history lovers. Grenada also produces some of the world’s finest dark chocolate, which is bound to be worth trying.

Grenada
St. George’s

 

Guatemala flag

Guatemala

  • Official Name: Republic of Guatemala
  • Capital City: Guatemala City
  • Population: 16,176,133
  • Language: Spanish, numerous Mayan and non-Mayan regional languages
  • Currency: Quetzal
  • Continent: North America

What’s Guatemala like?

With a distinctive culture influenced by Spanish colonisation and indigenous Mayan civilisation, the Central American republic of Guatemala makes for a fascinating destination. The country’s remarkable history has left a legacy of historical treasures, while the landscape and geography are often breathtaking. Most Guatemalans speak Spanish and are a mix of indiginous Central American peoples and those descended from European colonisers. The country is mountainous and covered in steaming tropical jungles, but it also possesses attractive coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Guatemala map
Guatemala

Despite the country’s cultural and natural riches, Guatemala has struggled to shake off a reputation for instability and violence. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Guatemala was engulfed in a vicious civil war involving state-sponsored murder, particularly of civil rights activists and Mayan peoples. Although the war ended in 1996, Guatemala continues to grapple with high rates of crime, including violent crimes, as well as poverty. The country is also a central player in the drugs trade, serving as a home and a base to various drug-smuggling gangs involves in shipping narcotics to the United States. There is, however, hope that Guatemala’s young democracy will take root and help to deliver both economic growth and a more stable and peaceful existence for its 16 million citizens.

One cool thing about Guatemala

The country can claim one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind – the chocolate bar. The first ever bar was invented during the Mayan civilisation, and chocolate residue dating back to around 470AD has been found in a vessel in Guatemala. Thank you, Guatemala.

One sad thing about Guatemala

The country’s civil war was the longest in the history of Latin America – a region that knows a thing or two about civil war. The fighting involved government forces, right-wing militias and Marxist rebels, and resulted in about 200,000 deaths.

Neighbours Textbox
The country’s longest border is in the north and northwest with Mexico and features quite a few straight lines and some sharp turns. To the northeast is Belize, a country that Guatemala claims in its entirety. Honduras lies to the east, with El Salvador in the southeast. The country also has a Pacific coast in the southwest and a short Caribbean coastline in the east.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There’s no getting away from the fact that a trip to Guatemala requires careful planning. The biggest threat to visitors is from kidnappings and robberies, which can turn violent. Sadly, events such as these do sometimes occur around popular tourist sites. Nevertheless, with plenty of caution and good planning, Guatemala is a staggeringly beautiful destination for travel. The country is renowned for its numerous Mayan ruins, often in remote mountain locations. Some sites require quite substantial treks across challenging terrain, but it is certainly worth the effort. And the landscape itself, with towering mountain peaks, majestic rainforests and awe-inspiring waterfalls and lakes are just as rewarding.

Guatemala passport
Guatemalan passport

Arguably Guatemala’s most popular tourist attraction is Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes and remote Mayan villages. The city of Antigua, near the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a rustic colonial gem that was once the capital of Central America. Many tourists also come to see the beautiful Rio Dulce, or Sweet River, which winds its way into the Caribbean Sea through forests and mountains near the borders with Honduras and Belize.

Guatemala
Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua

 

Guinea flag

Guinea

Guinée
  • Official Name: Republic of Guinea
  • Capital City: Conakry
  • Population: 11,628,972
  • Language: French, Maninka, Fula, Susu
  • Currency: Guinean franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Guinea like?

A former French colony in west Africa, Guinea has had a troubled experience as an independent nation, mired as it has been in corruption, sporadic violence, underdevelopment and high levels of poverty. Furthermore, Guinea has occasionally been destabilised by the spillover of conflicts in neighbouring nations, particularly Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The various regimes that have ruled Guinea since independence in 1958 have all drawn criticism for their autocratic governance and poor human rights records. The country is only just beginning to overcome the affects of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Guinea map
Guinea

Agriculture and mining are at the heart of the Guinean economy. The land is rich in natural resources, but much of this potential remains untapped, and Guineans remain amongst the world’s poorest people. A majority Muslim country, French is still the most widely-spoken language, although many local languages are also spoken by particular ethnic and tribal groups. The country’s landscape is quite diverse, with a tropical coastal strip, forests and mountains, stretching inland to the more arid Sahel region. Pretty much all of Guinea experiences hot, humid weather conditions year-round, with pronounced dry and rainy seasons which differ depending on region. Cooler conditions are not unheard of at higher altitudes.

One cool thing about Guinea

The country’s capital, Conakry, is the wettest capital city in the world, receving nearly four metres of rain a year.

One sad thing about Guinea

The recent outbreak of Ebola, which began in 2014, has taken the lives of an estimated 2,500 people in Guinea. Although the disease appears to have been brought under control as of May 2017, its impact on the country’s economy and society will be felt for years to come.

Neighbours Textbox
For a fairly small country, Guinea has quite a few neighbours. In the northwest is the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, while Senegal lies to the north and Mali to to the northeast. In the southeast is Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), while Liberia lies to the south and Sierra Leone to the southwest. There is also a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Guinea has little in the way of tourist infrastructure and generally only appeals to the most fervent enthusiast for African travel. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to see French tourists exploring this fellow Francophone nation, especially around Conakry and along the coast. And the country certainly possesses its share of natural beauty and attractions for the intrepid traveller. Like many west African countries, Guinea has its share of national parks offering the chance to take in the native wildlife, including chimpanzees, elephants and hippos. The Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve on the border with Côte d’Ivoire is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Guinea passport
Guinean passport

The country’s coastline includes miles of largely unspoilt sandy beaches with quiet resorts that are popular getaways for expats based in Conakry. Wildlife viewing is also possible in this region. The area of Foutah Djallon offers spectacular hiking amongst heavily forested hills, with striking geography and scenery. The capital, Conakry, is chaotic, with heavy traffic and the constant hubbub of daily life in a large African city. Its beaches provide locals and expats with a pleasant escape from the frenetic inner city, and many visitors to the city take time to experience the local music scene. It may be a poor country, and the usual precautions required when visiting west Africa certainly apply here, but there is no doubt that Guinea has plenty to offer, including a warm welcome.

Guinea
Foutah Djallon

 

Guinea-Bissau flag

Guinea-Bissau

Guiné-Bissau
  • Official Name: Republic of Guinea-Bissau
  • Capital City: Bissau
  • Population: 1,693,398
  • Language: Portuguese, Upper Guinea Crioulo, numerous local languages
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Guinea-Bissau like?

A tiny, impoverished republic in west Africa, Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony and the only Portuguese-speaking country on the west African mainland. The name of the capital city, Bissau, was added to the country’s name in order to differentiate it from its larger neighbour, Guinea. Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, with little in the way of infrastructure. Despite this, recent signs of economic growth have given a sliver of hope that the lives of the country’s citizens may slowly begin to improve. The people themselves are a diverse mix of ethnic and tribal groups who speak a number of different languages – Portuguese, despite being the official language, is not widely understood, especially outside of Bissau. The vast majority of Bissau-Guineans are employed in agriculture.

Guinea-Bissau map
Guinea-Bissau

The country became independent from Portugal in 1974 and has experienced considerable political turmoil ever since. No elected president has ever succeeded in serving a full term. This instability has helped to entrench poverty in the country. Guinea-Bissau experiences hot, muggy conditions all year-round, and is mostly flat coastal plains with mangrove swamps along the complex coastline, which is lined with many tropical islands. There are some forested areas further inland. The country faces numerous environmental challenges, particularly soil erosion and deforestation.

One cool thing about Guinea-Bissau

The country is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cashews – not bad for such a small country with a population of just 1.5m.

One sad thing about Guinea-Bissau

The country has one of the lowest scores for economic freedom in the world, which serves as a reflection of the poverty many Bissau-Guineans sadly have to live in.

Neighbours Textbox
Guinea-Bissau borders Senegal to the north and Guinea to the southeast. The country also has a coastline on the Atlantic in the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It may be small, poor and underdeveloped, but the country packs a punch for the adventurous traveller. The Jemberem forests are home to a national park featuring an array of local wildlife. Another great location for wildlife spotting – as well as a warm Mandinka welcome from the locals – is the Boé region in the southeast. Off the coast, the Bijagós islands are an increasingly popular ecotourism destination abounding with tropical scenary, hippos, turtles, beaches and fishing lodges.

Guinea-Bissau passport
Bissau-Guinean passport

The capital city, Bissau, is worth seeing for the Portuguese colonial architecture that makes it feel like a slice of the Mediterranean with an African twist. It is also worth taking in the bombed-out former presidential palace and colonial fort. Other towns dotted around the small country, while much smaller than Bissau, also possess interesting colonial architecture. The country’s deep poverty and numerous endemic tropical diseases mean that the standard precautions when visiting poorer countries should be observed here. However, the vast majority of Bissau-Guineans offer a warm and friendly welcome.

Guinea-Bissau
Jemberem forests

 

Guyana flag

Guyana

  • Official Name: Co-operative Republic of Guyana
  • Capital City: Georgetown
  • Population: 735,909
  • Language: English, Guyanese Creole, regional languages
  • Currency: Guyanese dollar
  • Continent: South America

What’s Guyana like?

Another creation of colonial machinations, Guyana was once a Dutch territory, before falling into the hands of the British. Despite being on the South American continent, Guyana’s cultural, political and social links are with the Afro-Caribbean island nations to the northwest, rather than with neighbouring Latin American nations. Black Guyanese are the descendents of slaves brought to the region to work sugar plantations. Today they rub shoulders with the descendants of indentured servants brought over by the British from the Indian subcontinent following the abolition of slavery. Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, the country has struggled to forge a coherent national identity, as the ethnic divide continues to play a major role in Guyanese society. There is also a sizeable Amerindian population, as well as groups of mixed ethnicity.

Guyana map
Guyana

Most citizens live in and around the capital city, Georgetown, and along the coast. The Guyanese interior is almost entirely made up of Amazonian rainforest, often mountainous, with smaller pockets of savannah in the southwest. Despite its small size, areas of the country remain untouched and barely explored due to the challenging rainforest terrain. Guyana enjoys a hot, steamy, humid climate, with spectacular tropical storms. Infrastructure is limited away from the coast. Sugar remains a major foreign currency earner, with agriculture and mining the most important sectors of the Guyanese economy.

One cool thing about Guyana

It might be in South America, but with its distinctly Caribbean flavour, you’re far more likely to find Guyanese playing or watching cricket than football (soccer).

One sad thing about Guyana

In 1978, nearly 1,000 members of an American cult who had evaded law enforcement in the US by escaping to Guyana, perished in a murder/suicide instigated by their leader, Jim Jones. The event became known as the Jonestown Murder/Suicide (or Massacre), and saw parents willingly poisoning their own children before taking their own lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Guyana has a long border through the Amazon rainforest with Brazil in the south and southwest. It also neighbours Venezuela to the northwest and Suriname to the east. The North Atlantic lies to the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Guyana is a truly spectacular tourist destination, with a significant ecotourism sector. With its vast acres of rainforest, teeming wildlife, beautiful coastal strip and awe-inspiring geography, Guyana leaves a profound impression on those who visit. Most tourists head into the rainforest on organised treks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the country’s unique wildlife and to admire the numerous plunging ravines, waterfalls and mountains. However, the country’s beaches are also worth exploring.

Guyana passport
Guyanese passport

The capital city, Georgetown, is more of an arrival point into the country than a destination in itself, but its pleasant colonial core is charming enough and worth a stroll around. The city especially comes alive during carnival season, and also possesses some interesting museums and markets. Guyana’s mix of natural wonders and cultural diversity make it a fascinating destination.

Guyana
Kaieteur Falls

 

Better late than never, that’s a wrap on Part Two. Will Part Three appear before 2018? Stay tuned to find out…

Anxiety, and why you shouldn’t get into a boxing match

I know I said I wasn’t going to go on and on about anxiety, but at the end of a year which began with my mental health crisis and Generalised Anxiety Disorder diagnosis, I hope I can be forgiven for looking back and taking stock of just how far I’ve come in such a short space of time. In the months that have followed my first panic attack and subsequent hospital stay, doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, I’ve learned a lot about the nature of anxiety, the ways it affects people, the challenges it presents, the impact it has on the lives of good people, and also about myself and the reasons why I ended up in such a mess.

There is no one single way of coping with anxiety or of recovering from a period of nervous illness, and it is certainly not the case that people, like me, who suffer with anxiety just need to allow more positivity into their lives and all will be okay. That said, I personally began to get better once I started taking steps to improve my mental health, to challenge my long-established ways of thinking, and, yes, by taking a more positive approach to life in general. I hope the next few paragraphs might prove helpful to anyone currently trapped in their own spiral of suffering, and that, if you’re not an anxiety sufferer yourself, this might illuminate what it means to have a disorder of this nature.

Firstly, I want to make one thing clear to anybody who, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand that anxiety is an illness. It is. The problem is that the term “anxiety” also applies to a perfectly natural, normal, often healthy (if usually unhelpful) human emotion. We all experience anxious feelings from time to time, whether it’s over a first date, a job interview or a medical procedure, and many other things besides. This is normal and appropriate to the situation and usually doesn’t cause any extended suffering or harm. But an anxiety disorder is a whole different ballgame. I always felt that my own diagnosis should really have been “Unspecified Relentless Terror Disorder” (but that doesn’t exist as a diagnosis.. yet). An anxiety disorder is all-consuming and the worries and fears that go with it tend to lack any grounding in rationality. Even where it may seem rational to have a particular worry or fear, those worries and fears will be totally out of proportion to the situation, or the sufferer will ruminate on them constantly and obsessively and will feel as if they are unable to handle them. The may need constant reassurance from healthcare professionals or friends and family, but this very pattern of reassurance-seeking only keeps them trapped in their deepening anxiety spiral.

There are many different diagnoses that fall under the anxiety umbrella, from Generalised Anxiety Disorder to Panic Disorder to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (one of the most misunderstood, having absolutely nothing to do with liking things to be tidy), and many more besides. It’s not uncommon for them to overlap. Panic attacks, for example, are a common feature of almost any anxiety disorder you can name. But the point I’m trying to make is that these are potentially serious and very real illnesses that can, at their worst, leave people bedridden and miserable.

They also come with an absolute smorgasbord of grotty physical symptoms, from lightheadedness to breathing difficulties to stomach upsets and plenty more. You can spend all day and all night with a general feeling as if you’re on the verge of collapsing and dying, as if you’re literally just waiting for it to happen. They can also lead to strange psychological sensations characterised as brain fog and depersonalisation/derealisation. These are not dangerous states, but they are incredibly frightening to the sufferer, who experiences feelings of being disconnected from their own body and from a world that seems hazy, distorted and strange. All this really means is that the anxious mind needs a break, but the strangeness and unpleasantness of the sensations causes most anxiety sufferers who experience them – including yours truly – to worry that they are losing their sanity, which only makes the symptoms worse and more entrenched.

So if you ever hear of a colleague needing time off work due to “anxiety” or perhaps a friend lets you down due to feeling too anxious to do something you had planned, please bear in mind that this person needs only the best support you can offer. They are not lazy or weak. They are ill, and they are struggling. But please also remember that this person, unable to attend work or throw themselves into social activities, doesn’t necessarily want to be alone, either. If you know someone in your life who has been diagnosed with anxiety, don’t judge them. Do your best to be there for them. Remember that, in the UK and many other countries, mental health services are woefully underfunded in comparison to physical health services. Your colleague or friend might be receiving the bare minimum of treatment and care. They might be on a months-long waiting list for therapy. You could easily be the most important thing in their life and their recovery without even realising it.

A few weeks ago, I posted an analogy in a Facebook group for anxiety sufferers, in which I attempted to explain how I believe one can best live with anxiety and begin to get better, which I’d like to repeat here. It’s a boxing analogy, so please forgive me if any of my boxing references or terminology are inaccurate. It’s not a sport I follow.

Picture yourself being confronted by an angry heavyweight boxer. Let’s go with Mike Tyson, because I can’t think of anyone else right now. For whatever reason, Tyson has taken an exception to you, and has decided to confront you. You find yourself with three possible responses:

The first response is to step into the ring with him. He’s a boxer (okay, he was a boxer) and it seems like the obvious thing to do. But there’s an obvious problem. You’re not a boxer (if you are one, please just go with me on this). You can fight and fight as hard as you like for as long as you like, but Tyson is bigger, stronger, and knows all your weaknesses. All your fighting will do is wear you out and grind you down. Tyson, meanwhile, is still standing, still tormenting you. Was it worth all the expended effort? I don’t think so.

The second option is perhaps the most obvious – try to run away. But this has something in common with the first option: it’s exhausting. While you might feel better temporarily, having escaped the thunderous uppercuts of the erratic heavyweight pugilist, you’ll still be worn out at the end of it all. And he’ll always catch up with you eventually. So this is really no option at all.

Then there’s the much less obvious third option – the one that offers you the best hope of results: realise that Tyson just wants to be friends. He isn’t going anywhere fast, so instead of inviting him into the ring or trying to run away from him, welcome him into your home. I mean, yes, it might be incredibly inconvenient. He’ll crash about and demand your attention and generally make life difficult for you. But at least you’re still living your life while Tyson’s around. You’re living even while he prepares in his room for his next bout or stomps around the building in his enormous boxing shoes (if such things exist). And then, one day, once you’ve gotten used to your new routine and have figured out how to tolerate it, you notice that you’re seeing less and less of Tyson. He’s gradually moving on and getting bored of life with you. Oh sure, he still comes home from time to time to torment you with his cacophonous ebullience, but at least you get the occasional break. And then you realise that you’re seeing even less of him. At long last, Tyson has moved out! He might call in occasionally to pick up his things and see how you’re getting on, but before long, it becomes apparent that he’s gone for good! You get your life back. Tyson is no more.”

If you can’t see what I’m getting at, Mike Tyson is anxiety, your house represents your life, the general noise and inconvenience of having Tyson for a roommate are your anxiety symptoms, and the consequences of running away or fighting him are what happens if you try to run away from anxiety or to fight it. Oh, and you… are you.

It was late January into early February when I had my breakdown. I don’t mind calling it that. That’s what it was. It came out of the blue with a massive panic attack while at work, which was a winning combination of terrifying and embarrassing. I don’t want to focus too much on what I actually experienced as I’ve covered it before and it’s history now. But I did end up in hospital and went through a spell of deep, deep fear and desperation for some kind of release from my suffering. I went through a three-day spell where I presented to A&E each evening, convinced I was developing a severe mental illness and begging the doctors to admit me to a psychiatric ward. All I came away with each time was a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and a handful of diazepam (Valium).

I began to get better only once I achieved some insight into what was actually wrong with me, combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and an SSRI antidepressant (specifically sertraline, also known as Zoloft and Lustral, among other things). I was very lucky to get into therapy so quickly as even people deep in despair can be forced to wait six months or more before a slot becomes available. I only had to wait two weeks after referral. I built up a rapport with my therapist who helped me understand what was happening to me and taught me ways to relax, to calm my mind and to tolerate and accept the way I was feeling. His help was invaluable.

I recently returned home to live with my parents again. At 31 years of age, I could, if I wanted to, feel insecure about needing to do this. However, I feel it’s important to be honest about mental health. Anxiety is one of the most commonly-diagnosed conditions, and anyone can get it. I am not currently convinced of my ability to handle the day-to-day stresses and responsibilities of work, so moving home and focusing on my continued recovery in a caring and relaxed atmosphere (where all my meals are cooked for me by my ever-dedicated mother) is the best thing for me right now.

I’ve also picked back up my running hobby, something which I got into while in Belfast, but which fell away completely as my mental health declined and collapsed. In a very short space of time, I’ve noticed improvements in the way I feel both physically and psychologically. It’s great to have a challenge to focus on, something that draws me away from ruminating on how I feel and whether or not I’m about to die. Exercise is not an anxiety cure, but science shows that it plays a part in mental health management – and everybody, no matter how well they are, manages their mental health. I’ll be running the Liverpool Spring 10K in Sefton Park in May, which means I have something to look forward to and to devote my energy and effort towards. Am I back to full health? No, but I’m on the right road.

Thanks for reading. Please be kind to people. It’s been a shit year, hasn’t it?

 

Around the world in five posts: A-C

If I had one wish (forgoing the usual three), it would be to visit every country in the world. But seeing as I’m unlikely to come into the millions of pounds needed to make this happen, here’s the first of five posts offering a virtual tour of our planet’s sovereign states, based on what information I could be bothered to cobble together from freely available online sources.

Obviously I haven’t been to most of these countries, but I’ve done my best to provide a brief outline of what they’re all like and what tourists who visit might expect. So sit back, relax, and get ready to visit every country in the world with me.

Defining the term “every country in the world” is problematic. There are plenty of countries that aren’t sovereign or independent, but still qualify as countries. For this reason, I’ve decided to stick with Wikipedia’s list of sovereign states, with a couple of exceptions that will come to light in due course. Thanks!


 

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Afghanistan

افغانستان (Afġānistān)
  • Official Name: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
  • Capital City: Kabul
  • Population: 32,564,342
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: Dari, Pashto, Uzbek, Turkmen
  • Currency: Afghani
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Afghanistan like?

Forbidding. The country has a long history of conflict, much of it involving various local tribes and ethnic groups, but also dragging in outside powers, from the British and the Russians during the so-called Great Game of the 1800s, to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Americans and their allies in the wake of the September 11th attacks in 2001. Those attacks were planned from Afghanistan for a reason – its remote landscape and lightly-governed territory made it a perfect base for terrorist organisations to operate from.

Afghanistan map
Afghanistan

Everyday life for ordinary Afghans is dominated by the strict social mores and religious codes that have been the cornerstone of the various peoples living within the country’s borders for centuries. The country remains one of the poorest and least developed in the world, while a weak central government struggles to project its authority beyond the capital, Kabul. The south of the country, as well as the Pakistani border region, is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group and is the homeland of the Taliban. However, Afghanistan is home to numerous ethnic and religious groups, including Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north, Persians in the west, and the oppressed Shia Hazaras in the centre.

One cool thing about Afghanistan

It may be one of the world’s poorest countries, but Afghanistan has two KFC restaurants, which apparently stands for Kabul Fried Chicken.

One sad thing about Afghanistan

The country is the world’s leading exporter of opium, the plant from which heroin is derived. While many Afghans literally depend on the crop to survive, there’s no doubting the untold misery it causes around the world.

Neighbours Textbox
Afghanistan’s borders bring it into contact with regional and global powers. To the northwest is Turkmenistan, to the north is Uzbekistan, and to the northeast is Tajikistan. The Wakhan Corridor in the northeast has a short border with China. In the east and south, the Durand Line separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, while in the west, the country borders Iran.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Challenging. Although not all regions of Afghanistan are as volatile as others, the lack of governmental authority much beyond the capital, the poor and often dangerous infrastructure, the lack of basic services, including medical facilities, and all the usual hazards associated with mountainous countries make it an off-the-beaten-track destination. In particular, the south and east of the country are best avoided. However, each year, a few hardy souls do find their way to Afghanistan, usually as part of a well-planned organised tour group involving specialist security arrangements.

Afghanistan passport
Afghan passport

By far the safest part of Afghanistan for visitors is the Wakhan corridor, a strip of remote, rugged territory that protrudes from the country’s northeastern corner between Pakistan and Tajikistan, touching China’s western border. Far removed from the conflicts that have plagued the country for so much of its history, this beautiful region does draw in adventurous tourists seeking solitude, clean air and breathtaking scenery.

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Kabul and the Hindu Kush

 

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Albania

Shqipëria
  • Official Name: Republic of Albania
  • Capital City: Tirana
  • Population: 2,886,026
  • Language: Albanian
  • Currency: Lek
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Albania like?

The country is still emerging from decades of isolation during the austere socialist rule of Enver Hoxha in the latter half of the 20th century. Under Hoxha, life for most Albanians was tough. With the fall of communism and the collapse of the socialist state in Albania, the country has opened up to the world, and living standards have been rising since the 1990s. In 1997, the country took a major hit when protests broke out after a series of pyramid schemes collapsed.

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Albania

Despite the progress that the country has made and the improvements in everyday living standards that came with the fall of communism, Albania continues to grapple with corruption and gangsterism, and remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. However, the country will need to tackle these issues head on as it pursues a journey towards European Union membership at some point in the future. Most Albanians are Muslim, but the state is secular, and minority rights are protected in law.

One cool thing about Albania

Albanians nod their heads to say ‘no’ or to disagree, and shake their heads to answer in the affirmative, which can get confusing for unsuspecting visitors!

One sad thing about Albania

In some of Albania’s more remote regions, stunting still exists due to malnutrition, which seems hard to believe for a modern European country just a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.

Neighbours Textbox
Albania borders Montenegro in the northwest, the partially-recognised republic of Kosovo in the northeast, and Macedonia in the east. To the southeast is Greece, while Italy lies a short distance away across the Adriatic Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Closed off from the world for much of the 20th century, Albania is finally being discovered by adventurous tourists, and those who visit enjoy a warm welcome, beautiful weather (in the summer, anyway) and breathtaking scenery. Albania’s coastline has much to offer in the way of sunshine and sand, while the interior is often mountainous and resplendent with stunning river valleys and dense forests.

Albania passport
Albanian passport

Architectural and historical sights abound. The capital city – Tirana – is a happening, up-and-coming destination, while many visitors to the nearby Greek island of Corfu take day trips aboard ferries to the country’s southern beaches. It seems likely that interest in Albania as a tourist destination will only grow, so the time to visit may be now, before the hoards discover everything it has to offer.

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Berat

 

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Algeria

الجزائر‎‎ (al-Jazā’ir) • ⴷⵣⴰⵢⴻⵔ (Dzayer) • Algérie
  • Official Name: People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
  • Capital City: Algiers
  • Population: 40,400,000
  • Official Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Language: Arabic, Berber, French
  • Currency: Dinar
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Algeria like?

Most Algerians are a mix of Berbers (considered to be the country’s indigenous people) and Arabs, and the country very much identifies with the Arab world. At one time the jewel in the crown of the colonial French, a vicious civil war following independence made the country one of the most dangerous and unstable Arab states. The 1990s saw terrible internecine strife when elections were cancelled after it appeared Islamists would win them. Low-level violence continues to this day, and militant Islamist organisations remain a significant threat. Nevertheless, Algeria is a more peaceful and stable country than it used to be.

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Algeria

The majority of Algeria’s 40-odd million inhabitants live along the rocky coastal strip, while much of the vast interior is uninhabitable, dominated by the mighty Sahara desert. Surprisingly, the country remained pretty quiet during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and the country’s political life is dominated by the elite that surrounds the authoritarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The country is rich in natural gas and is a major supplier to European markets. Pressing problems include a rapidly expanding population, chronic unemployment (especially among the young) and the delivery of reliable services.

One cool thing about Algeria

Despite the patriarchal culture prevalent in many Arab countries, women play a major role in the Algerian economy. As an example, an impressive 70% of the country’s lawyers are women.

One sad thing about Algeria

Estimates suggest that up to 150,000 people were killed in the Algerian civil war from 1991 to 2002. Let’s hope that the worst of the violence remains in the past.

Neighbours Textbox
Algeria shares borders with fellow Arab states Morocco in the northwest, Tunisia in the northeast and Libya in the east. Meanwhile, the country has long, largely undemarcated desert borders with Niger in the southeast, Mali in the southwest and Mauritania in the west. It also has a very short border in the west with the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Western governments continue to issue pretty scary-sounding warnings about visiting Algeria. However, with the improvement in the security situation since the end of the war, visitor numbers have increased and Algeria is beginning to emerge as a tourist destination. As one would expect from such a large country (the biggest in Africa by area), Algeria has plenty to offer visitors. Roman ruins are a particular draw in the north, as are the colonial buildings of the towns and cities, while the coastal mountain ranges are being opened up to hikers.

Algeria passport
Algerian passport

The sparsely populated deserts of the south and centre also receive a modest stream of tourists on guided trips, usually by 4×4, or involving camels. While most visits to these areas are trouble free if carefully planned in advance, occasional kidnappings and sometimes lethal attacks against tourists do, sadly, still occur.

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Constantine – the “city of bridges”

 

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Andorra

Andorre
  • Official Name: Principality of Andorra
  • Capital City: Andorra la Vella
  • Population: 85,470
  • Language: Catalan, Castillian Spanish, French, Portuguese
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Andorra like?

Tiny Andorra – one of the very smallest countries in the world – is perched high in the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain. The country has an unusual system of government in which the highest office in the land – that of Co-Prince – is held jointly by the president of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia. Most Andorrans communicate in Catalan, but Castillian Spanish and French are also commonly heard.

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Andorra

One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Andorra’s economy is heavily geared towards tourism, and the country’s geography makes it a perfect winter sports destination. The small population of just over 85,000 enjoy some of the world’s highest living standards, with very little in the way of crime or pollution. The principality’s tax haven status also plays a major role in the economy.

One cool thing about Andorra

According to some sources, Andorra has the highest life expectancy in the world at 81 years, an obvious benefit of the country’s prosperity and excellent healthcare facilities.

One sad thing about Andorra

There isn’t much to be sad about in Andorra, but despite having almost no agricultural land to speak of, the country produces a quantity of tobacco well in excess of what one would expect for such a small country and remains a key European smuggling hub for tobacco products.

Neighbours Textbox
High up in the Pyrenees, Andorra borders France in the north and the autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain in the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Something of a playground, to be honest, with steep mountains and plunging valleys. The country receives about 10 million visitors a year, which is incredible for a land of just 85,000 people. Winter sports are the mainstay of the Andorran economy and the main reason people visit the principality, but the warm, sunny summers have a pull of their own as well.

Andorra passport
Andorran passport

Traditionally, tourists have also been keen to take advantage of Andorra’s duty-free status. However, the tourist economy did take something of a knock during the global economic crisis of 2008, when a drop in prices over the border in Spain reduced Andorra’s competitive advantage in this area.

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Andorra la Vella

 

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Angola

Ngola
  • Official Name: Republic of Angola
  • Capital City: Luanda
  • Population: 25,789,000
  • Language: Portuguese, numerous indigenous languages
  • Currency: Kwanza
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Angola like?

Poverty is widespread in the southwest African state that was once a Portuguese colony. The country’s development was held back for decades thanks to a brutal civil war that broke out on independence in 1975 – a war which didn’t end until 2002. Many rural citizens were displaced during the conflict and now struggle to get by in slums in the capital, Luanda. The country is blighted by a lack of basic services, especially outside the capital, food insecurity, low literacy levels and a violent insurrection in the exclave of Cabinda, which is cut off from the rest of Angola by a sliver of territory belonging to Congo (DR). Despite these troubles, Luanda is often ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.

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Angola

Angola does, however, have one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies thanks to a resource boom focused mainly on diamond mining and oil production. Luanda in particular has seen an explosion in construction as shiny new towers emerge and more and more roads are paved. While these resources offer hope for a brighter future for a more peaceful Angola, much of the wealth they have generated so far rests in the hands of a tiny minority, while most Angolans continue to live in abject poverty, especially those living outside Luanda.

One cool thing about Angola

Angola is the only place in the world where one can find the giant sable antelope. The species was only recently discovered, and the really cool thing is that it had been believed to be extinct!

One sad thing about Angola

The country has the highest mortality rate on the planet. Every year, 23 out of every 1,000 die. Will the economic boom help to bring health and prosperity to Angola?

Neighbours Textbox
Angola has a long border in the north and northeast with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also borders Zambia in the east and Namibia in the south. The Angolan exclave of Cabinda is separated from the rest of Angola by a small piece of territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also borders the Republic of the Congo. Angola has a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Decades of war kept Angola firmly off the tourist trail for much of its post-independence history. Whilst the country is more peaceful nowadays, its onerous visa requirements discourage all but those most determined to visit. Indeed, those who do travel to Angola are trailblazers and, should they explore beyond Luanda, will almost certainly meet people who have never encountered foreigners before.

Angola passport
Angolan passport

Luanda itself is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of Africa“, but it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world. Beyond the capital, the large country has several spectacular national parks and an abundance of wildlife. Angola’s long Atlantic coastline and warm climate mean there is much scope to expand and develop the tourist sector.

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Luanda

 

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Antigua and Barbuda

  • Official Name: Antigua and Barbuda
  • Capital City: St. John’s
  • Population: 91,295
  • Language: English, Antiguan Creole
  • Currency: East Caribbean dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Antigua and Barbuda like?

The island nation in the West Indies comes pretty close to what many people think of as a tropical paradise. Year-round sunshine, unspoilt sandy beaches, warm deep-blue sea, palm trees and Creole culture make this small nation a magnet for well-heeled tourists. Much of the country’s economic and cultural activity centres on Antigua, with its smaller companion Barbuda a little less developed and slightly more isolated.

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Antigua and Barbuda

The islands are a Commonwealth realm that gained independence from the British in 1981 after more than 350 years of colonial administration. The islands have a history of slavery linked to sugar plantations, although the practice was abolished in the 1830s. Today, the people of Antigua and Barbuda live relatively comfortable, if not always affluent, lives.

One cool thing about Antigua and Barbuda

The country’s highest point used to be called Boggy Peak until August 4th, 2009, when it was renamed Mount Obama after the 44th President of the United States. He may not yet have his face on Mt. Rushmore, but there’ll always be a piece of him on Antigua!

One sad thing about Antigua and Barbuda

The country’s national sea creature – the Hawksbill turtle – was once hunted for its shell and, although the practice has now ceased, the species is considered to be endangered.

Neighbours Textbox
Antigua and Barbuda is an island nation with no land borders. It’s nearest neighbours are Montserrat to the southwest and St. Kitts and Nevis to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

See above! Antigua is, by some measures, the most prosperous of all the Caribbean islands, and owes much of this to the advent of high-end tourism. Gigantic cruise ships are a common sight in the harbour at St. John’s. The island’s beach resorts, with their five-star hotels and pristine sands, cater to affluent guests seeking the archetypal Caribbean idyll.

Antigua and Barbuda passport
Antiguan passport

Barbuda is much less developed than its larger counterpart and is often visited by daytrippers making the short ferry hop from their base on Antigua. However, it does have a number of exclusive resorts of its own. Much effort has been made on Barbuda to maintain its quieter, more laid-back demeanour.

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A beach on Barbuda

 

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Argentina

  • Official Name: Argentine Republic
  • Capital City: Buenos Aires
  • Population: 43,417,000
  • Language: Spanish, various regional languages
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: South America

What’s Argentina like?

Stretching from the subtropical centre of the South American continent to its chilly southern tip, Argentina is a land of geographical contrasts. From the scorching deserts of the far north, to the strident peaks of the Andes in the northwest, to the temperate Pampas region surrounding the capital, to the sparsely populated plains and spectacular glaciers of Patagonia and the rocky,  remote Tierra del Fuego in the far south, Argentina’s borders encompass a wide variety of climates, topography and geographical features.

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Argentina

The country gained independence from Spain in 1816 and has, by and large, been one of the more prosperous in Latin America. However, political and economic turmoil have been constant features of Argentine life, and protests and demonstrations are a common sight, especially in Buenos Aires. Argentines are not shy about making their views known, especially when it comes to the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas), over which the country fought with Britain in 1982. Football (soccer) is also a national obsession. Economic crisis in the early 2000s ravaged the country, and although things have improved in recent years, inflation remains a problem.

One cool thing about Argentina

There is a small Welsh-speaking community in Argentina in a relatively remote area of Patagonia. Place names such as Y Wladfa, Trelew and Trevelin stand out in this otherwise Spanish-speaking part of the world.

One sad thing about Argentina

It may be among the richer nations of Latin America, but since 1913, Argentina has gone from being the world’s 10th richest country to its 54th richest. Economic mismanagement and political instability are at the heart of the country’s difficulties.

Neighbours Textbox
Argentina has a border stretching 5,300km (3,300m) with Chile in the west – the world’s third-longest international border. It also borders Bolivia to the north, Paraguay and Brazil to the northeast and Uruguay to the east. The British-administered Falkland Islands, known to and claimed by Argentines as Las Malvinas, lie in the South Atlantic off Argentina’s southeastern coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As befits the eighth-biggest country in the world, there is lots to entice visitors to Argentina. Walking and hiking opportunities abound, and there is skiing in the Andes during the winter months. The country’s vast national parks offer scenic beauty, including the chance to see and explore glaciers in the south.

Argentina passport
Argentinian passport

Most visitors will spend at least some of their time in the vibrant metropolis of Buenos Aires. Colourful, open, tolerant and welcoming, Buenos Aires is the lifeblood of the country and always leaves an impression. Argentina is also not the easiest place for guests to keep vegan – the country has the world’s second-highest consumption of beef, and the meat plays a central role in Argentine cuisine.

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Ushaia, Tierra del Fuego

 

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Armenia

Հայաստան (Hayastan)
  • Official Name: Republic of Armenia
  • Capital City: Yerevan
  • Population: 2,998,600
  • Official Religion: Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church)
  • Language: Armenian
  • Currency: Dram
  • Continent: Europe (Eurasia)

What’s Armenia like?

Armenia is a small, landlocked republic in the often volatile Caucasus region. Much of it is mountainous, though there is also an abundance of forest and even borderline desert in the far south near Iran. The country also has a shoreline on Lake Sevan. Culturally and linguistically unique, Armenia straddles the blurred lines between Europe and Asia. Often linked culturally to the former, it sits geographically in the latter.

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Armenia

The Armenians are an ancient people with a unique language and script. The vast majority of the population adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church – the oldest Christian church in the world. Armenians have experienced much strife in their history, including the Armenian Genocide in Anatolia during the First World War, and the hardships of life as a Soviet republic until independence in 1991. The country’s relations with Turkey are frosty, and a war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s hindered its post-Soviet development.

One cool thing about Armenia

Armenia has a large diaspora, especially in the United States. Notable ethnic Armenians include the Kardashians, and in 2015, Kim and Khloe holidayed in Armenia to learn more about their ancestry. And yes, they were joined by Kanye West.

One sad thing about Armenia

It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the Armenian Genocide, which took place in 1915 while under Ottoman rule. The legacy of the Genocide lives on in Armenian identity and folklore and continues to poison relations with modern Turkey.

Neighbours Textbox
Armenia borders Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south. It also borders the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan in the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The country is far from the radar of mass tourism, but it is a very rewarding destination for those who do visit. Stunning mountain scenery, ancient churches, historic buildings and friendly people make Armenia a welcoming place to explore. While the capital, Yerevan, has all the trappings of a modern, mid-sized city, much of Armenia is rural and unspoilt.

Armenia passport
Armenian passport

Yerevan lies in the shadow of the magnificent Mount Ararat, the holiest site in Armenian Christianity, which lies just over the border in Turkey, and on a clear day  makes for some superb views. Armenia, especially Yerevan, also makes a great place to take in café culture and watch the world go by.

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Yerevan and Mount Ararat

 

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Australia

  • Official Name: Commonwealth of Australia
  • Capital City: Canberra
  • Largest City: Sydney
  • Population: 24,200,000
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Australian dollar
  • Continent: Oceania

What’s Australia like?

One of the world’s largest countries in terms of area, Australia’s interior is mostly desert, with rainforest in the tropical north. The vast majority of Australians live around the coast, especially in the southeast. The country is one of the most urbanised in the world, although some Australians do make a living from the harsh Outback. In much of the country away from the populated coastal areas, it is possible to go for days without seeing civilisation. The country is well known for being home to some unique wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, including kangaroos, wallabies and some of the world’s most venomous spiders.

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Australia

Australia performs consistently well in various measures of national well-being and is considered to have some of the highest living standards anywhere in the world. Modern Australia is very multicultural, with 25% of its residents born overseas. The Australian economy is buoyed by a booming mining sector, and has ridden out the global economic downturn well. However, the country’s Aboriginal peoples have not shared in the prosperity and remain marginalised, and a slowdown in the Chinese demand for raw materials is one major problem Australia will need to be prepared for.

One cool thing about Australia

Estimates suggest that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for up to 60,000 years, making it the oldest culture in the world.

One sad thing about Australia

Australia has the highest rates of gambling in the world. While this does contribute to economic growth and most Aussies who gamble do so responsibly, it nevertheless comes with all the usual downsides associated with impulsiveness and addiction.

Neighbours Textbox
Australia has no land borders. Its nearest neighbours are New Zealand across the Tasman Sea in the southeast, New Caledonia in the Coral Sea to the east, and Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Australia has a very highly-developed tourist economy. The country is especially popular with adventurous young Europeans, who will often travel up or down the east coast, or perhaps explore the Outback, before heading to Southeast Asia. The country offers vibrant, multicultural cities, unique landscapes and wildlife, beaches with world class surfing and the majesty of Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Care is, of course, required when travelling around Australia, where distances between settlements and potential assistance can be enormous. The country’s natural wonders, from its diverse wildlife to the remarkable Great Barrier Reef, are also a major draw.

Australia passport
Australian passport

While the country is often seen as synonymous with beautiful warm sunny weather, the southwest and southeast of the country do have discernible winters, and there are plenty of opportunities for winter sports enthusiasts in the mountains of New South Wales and Victoria. Australia’s major cities have developed into youthful, vibrant multicultural metropolises that provide excellent bases for those exploring the country, and offer plenty of amenities to those who enjoy the buzz of the urban environment.

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Uluru

 

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Austria

Österreich
  • Official Name: Republic of Austria
  • Capital City: Vienna
  • Population: 8,726,000
  • Language: German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Austria like?

A prosperous, mountainous, German-speaking Central European republic perhaps best known for The Sound of Music, Mozart, winter sports and it’s beautiful capital city, Vienna. The country has played a major role in European military and political history and was part of one of the world’s most powerful empires in the shape of Austria-Hungary. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is widely seen as a key trigger for World War One, and the country was also invaded by Nazi Germany in 1938. Since the restoration of full sovereignty in 1955, the country has pursued a policy of neutrality.

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Austria

Modern Austria is a wealthy country with high living standards. Most Austrians speak Bavarian German dialects, and the country has in recent years welcomed economic and political migrants, particularly from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. The country’s cities are world-famous for their classical architecture and long histories. However, Austria also has one of the most influential far-right movements of any European country.

One cool thing about Austria

Arnold Schwarzenegger is originally from Austria, which is pretty fantastic. He lives in California now, though, and hasn’t confirmed he will ever “be back”.

One sad thing about Austria

Adolf Hitler was originally from Austria, which is not quite so cool. Hitler may, for obvious reasons, be more heavily associated with German history, but he was born and raised in Austria and saw the distinction between different German-speaking peoples as phony.

Neighbours Textbox
Austria may be small, but its location at the heart of Europe means it has plenty of neighbours. Germany and the Czech Republic lie to the north, Slovakia is to the northeast, with Hungary to the east and Slovenia to the southeast. To the south is Italy, while Switzerland and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein are to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Some of the highest peaks in the Alps are in Austria, and the country is one of the world’s most popular winter sports destinations. Outside of the skiing season, the mountainous nation offer spectacular views to walkers, hikers and climbers.

Austria passport
Austrian passport

Each year, millions of tourists are attracted to the country’s capital, Vienna, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a rich cultural heritage and a proud history. The city is renowned for its stunning Baroque architecture and its prominent role in the history of classical music.

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Belvedere Palace, Vienna

 

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Azerbaijan

Azərbaycan
  • Official Name: Republic of Azerbaijan
  • Capital City: Baku
  • Population: 9,754,830
  • Language: Azerbaijani
  • Currency: Manat
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Azerbaijan like?

A former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas, and has used these commodities to achieve impressive economic growth since independence in 1992. However, much of the wealth that this boom has delivered is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite surrounding the country’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, who has been accused of human rights abuses. Most ordinary citizens remain poor.

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Azerbaijan

The country also smarts from the fallout of its war with neighbouring Armenia and the loss of control over a substantial swathe of territory in the west to the de facto independent ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Despite these travails, the country is increasingly ambitious and has begun to raise its international profile, while the Tour of Azerbaijan has become one the most prestigious events on the cycling calendar. Football fans may have seen the country’s tourist board advertised on the shirts of FC Barcelona.

One cool thing about Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire, and fire is a big deal in the country. The first known fireplace – dating back as far as 700,000 years – was discovered in a cave in the country, and there is a mountain which is permanently ablaze due to escaping natural gas.

One sad thing about Azerbaijan

Human rights groups have criticised President Aliyev and his government for cracking down increasingly harshly on dissenting voices and failing to tackle corruption as the country’s resource boom fails to improve the lives of most ordinary Azerbaijanis.

Neighbours Textbox
Azerbaijan borders Georgia to the northwest, Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Armenia to the west. There are several tiny pockets of Azerbaijani territory surrounded by Armenia, and vice versa. Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchevan also gives the country a short border with Turkey.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The government is ambitious about developing the country’s fledgling tourist industry and has dedicated itself to making Azerbaijan a popular tourist destination. The country is beginning to restore its reputation after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the 1990s had a negative impact on its tourist industry.

Azerbaijan passport
Azerbaijani passport

Visitors will find Baku to be an increasingly modern and shiny oil city on the Caspian Sea, but it still retains the charms of its attractive mosques and Islamic history and culture. Outside of the capital, winter is a great time to visit the mountains of Azerbaijan, where the country’s ski resorts continue to develop and expand. Meanwhile, the Tour of Azerbaijan draws cycling enthusiasts from around the world.

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Baku

 

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The Bahamas

  • Official Name: Commonwealth of the Bahamas
  • Capital City: Nassau
  • Population: 392,700
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Bahamian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s The Bahamas like?

Often thought of as a typical Caribbean nation, the hundreds of islands and cays that make up The Bahamas actually lie in the North Atlantic, just to the north of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola, and to the south east of the US state of Florida. However, despite this geographical distinction, the people of The Bahamas share much in common with other Afro-Caribbean nations of the West Indies in terms of culture, history and identity.

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The Bahamas

The islands became a British colony in the 18th century and went on to become a new home for freed African slaves either rescued from slave ships or brought over by “owners” fleeing the US following the American War of Independence. The majority of Bahamians are the descendants of freed African slaves. Today, The Bahamas is one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas, with an economy built on financial services and a high-end tourist industry that takes advantage of the islands’ idyllic setting.

One cool thing about The Bahamas

When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, his first landing point was in The Bahamas, rather than on the American mainland, although this was probably less cool for the native Arawaks, who were to be forcibly relocated to Hispaniola by the Spanish.

One sad thing about The Bahamas

The islands are sometimes subjected to some pretty hefty hurricanes. In August 2004, Hurricane Frances became the first hurricane since 1928 to pass over the entirety of The Bahamas, almost wiping out the country’s agricultural sector and causing widespread damage to property. Earlier this year, Hurricane Matthew landed a direct hit on The Bahamas.

Neighbours Textbox
The Bahamas is made up of hundreds of islands and cays and, as such, has no land borders. The US state of Florida is nearby to the northwest, while Cuba lies a short distance away to the southwest. The British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos lies to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The occasional monster hurricane aside, The Bahamas offers year-round sunshine, warm seas, excellent diving opportunities and an array of upscale beach resorts. The harbour at Nassau, the country’s capital, often resembles a car park for cruise ships, and luxury cruise passengers make up just shy of three quarters of the islands’ annual visitor numbers.

The Bahamas passport
Bahamian passport

Nassau itself dominates the islands’ cultural, economic and political life, and is home to enormous hotels and casinos, although most come for the more tranquil atmosphere and picturesque setting of the islands and cays beyond the capital.

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Long Island

 

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Bahrain

البحرين‎‎ (al-Baḥrayn)
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Bahrain
  • Capital City: Manama
  • Population: 1,378,000
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Bahraini dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bahrain like?

Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf that lies just off the coast of Saudi Arabia – to which it is linked by the King Fahd Causeway – and to the west of Qatar. The country is a major oil producer, but its reserves have never been as vast as those of its neighbours. Bahrain has attempted to address this by developing its tourism sector and attracting financial institutions to its capital, Manama. Like other countries in the Gulf, its imported labour – mainly from the Indian Subcontinent – are considerably less well-off than native Bahraini Arabs.

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Bahrain

By Gulf standards, Bahrain’s absolute monarchy is relatively permissive, and it is common for young Saudis to cross the causeway to take advantage of the relative freedoms on offer in their near neighbour. However, Bahrain became restive during the 2011 Arab Spring, when the Sunni Muslim monarchy suppressed protests that emanated particularly from the country’s Shia Muslims, who make up a large majority of the population and, especially outside Manama, tend to live less comfortably than their Sunni compatriots. While things are quiet again now, the grievances for many have not subsided.

One cool thing about Bahrain

The British School of Bahrain holds the world record for the largest simultaneous coin toss after 1,117 staff and students participated in the effort in 2010 to mark World Maths Day.

One sad thing about Bahrain

It seems a shame that in a hot island nation, only 5% of its beaches are open to the public. The rest are in the hands of the ruling family or private investors.

Neighbours Textbox
Technically and island nation without land borders, Bahrain is directly linked to Saudi Arabia in the west via the King Fahd causeway. Meanwhile, Qatar lies a short distance away across the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bahrain’s summer heat can be oppressive, with temperatures sometimes reaching 50c. However, outside the hottest part of the year, Bahrain is a great winter sun spot that blends modern Middle Eastern culture with a wealth of archaeological treasures. Most visitors come from surrounding Arab states, but the country draws visitors from further afield with its opportunities for diving, birdwatching and sailing.

Bahrain passport
Bahraini passport

Bahrain is also on the Formula One motor-racing calendar, although its circuit has come in for criticism from some quarters for not being demanding or exciting enough. The country’s comparatively relaxed social scene make it something of a playground for young partygoers from more conservative nearby states, especially Saudi Arabia.

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World Trade Center, Manama

 

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Bangladesh

বাংলাদেশ (Bāṃlādēśa)
  • Official Name: People’s Republic of Bangladesh
  • Capital City: Dhaka
  • Population: 168,957,745
  • State Religion: Islam
  • Language: Bengali (or Bangla), English
  • Currency: Taka
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bangladesh like?

An intoxicating, crowded country, Bangladesh is roughly comparable in size to England, but with a population bigger than that of Russia! The land is extremely fertile thanks to two of Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into Bangladesh, forming a huge delta system as they empty into the Bay of Bengal. However, the country is prone to severe storms and often devastating flooding.

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Bangladesh

Bangladesh began life as an independent nation in 1971 when, following a vicious war, it broke away from Pakistan. After the British gave India its independence in 1948, partition gave rise to two new states – India and Pakistan. The latter was made up of two wings – a western wing and an eastern wing. However, the more populous eastern wing remained restive, eventually rising up and breaking away from Pakistan to form a new country – Bangladesh. Whilst progress has been made, and the country has considerable natural resources, poverty remains an endemic problem in the bustling, crowded country. In recent times, a rise in attacks by Islamists, especially against secular bloggers, has presented a new challenge, although most Bangladeshis practice a tolerant brand of Islam.

One cool thing about Bangladesh

Bangladesh is home to the world’s longest beach at Cox’s Bazar in the southeast country, near its border with Myanmar (Burma).

One sad thing about Bangladesh

The country is very agricultural, but it is also one of the world’s leading textile and garment manufacturers. Sadly, worker protection and safety standards are often poor, and a huge fire at a garment factory in the capital, Dhaka, in 2012 killed over 100 staff and resulted in more than 200 injuries. Then, in 2013, a complex that was home to multiple factories collapsed and 1,100 workers lost their lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Bangladesh is bordered by India to the west north and east. The border between the two countries becomes mind-bogglingly complex in places, with parcels of one country’s territory often surrounded by the other. There are many enclaves within enclaves. It’s a fascinating border for those with an interests in quirky political geography. Bangladesh also has a short border with Myanmar (Burma) in the southeast. Nepal and Bhutan are separated from Bangladesh in the north by narrow stretches of Indian territory.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bangladesh’s chaotic infrastructure, political volatility and endemic poverty make it a challenging destination for tourists. However, the country does receive a steady stream of visitors every year, and it has an abundance of natural, cultural and historic treasures.

Bangladesh passport
Bangladesh passport

The vast Sunderbans mangrove swamps is a UNESCO World Heritage site, while Cox’s Bazar is home to the world’s longest unbroken beach. The country’s national parks are home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna, while the intense, frenetic, colourful and, occasionally, dangerous capital, Dhaka, boasts a number of impressive forts and mosques.

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Cox’s Bazar

 

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Barbados

  • Official Name: Barbados
  • Capital City: Bridgetown
  • Population: 277,821
  • Language: English
  • Currency: Barbadian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Barbados like?

The island of Barbados is a former British colony, technically in the North Atlantic, but widely considered to be a quintessential Caribbean nation. A relatively low-lying island, especially when compared to some of its neighbours, Barbados lies outside the path of most Atlantic hurricanes, and its year-round warm weather, multitude of beach resorts and laid-back Caribbean pace of life make it a hugely popular tourist destination.

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Barbados

Most Barbadians enjoy a relatively high standard of living in one of the western hemisphere’s wealthier countries. However, small pockets of poverty do still exist in some parts of Barbados, and the country’s reliance on tourism does put it at the mercy of industry downturns. The vast majority of Barbadians are of Afro-Caribbean descent, but there also South Asian and Chinese minorities on the island.

One cool thing about Barbados

The pop star Rihanna was born in the parish of Saint Michael and raised in the Barbadian capital, Bridgetown. Since 2009, she has been an honorary ambassador for youth and culture on the island.

One sad thing about Barbados

In 2006, a “ghost” ship was brought into port in Barbados. The eleven occupants had been adrift in the Atlantic for four months and died from starvation. The boat appeared to have originated in west Africa and to be attempting to reach Spain’s Canary Islands.

Neighbours Textbox
Barbados is a fairly remote island in the North Atlantic, geographically separate from the chain of Caribbean island nations it is generally seen as being a part of. It’s nearest neighbour is St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Barbados is something of a tourist mecca, with the majority of visitors well-to-do Brits looking for some guaranteed sunshine. The island is also popular with Americans and Canadians. For most, the chief appeal of Barbados is its luxury beach resorts, but the country also contains interesting towns and villages featuring attractive colonial buildings.

Barbados passport
Barbadian passport

The island’s less visited east coast is an altogether different affair as giant waves crash against rocky cliffs, making this one of the most scenic parts of the island.

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The Barbadian parliament, Bridgetown

 

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Belarus

Беларусь (Biełaruś)
  • Official Name: Republic of Belarus
  • Capital City: Minsk
  • Population: 9,498,700
  • Language: Russian, Belarusian
  • Currency: New Belarusian ruble
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Belarus like?

Often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus has been run since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union by its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko. The country retains strong ties with Russia, with some observers speculating that the two may reunite one day to form a single state. However, relations between the two have soured somewhat in recent years. Belarus’s relations with the West have been tetchy due to criticisms of the regime’s human right record. One of the better-off parts of the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, the country experienced an economic crisis after independence, but rebounded fairly well in the late 1990s, and has a relatively low rate of unemployment.

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Belarus

Geographically, Belarus is heavily forested, with a fairly flat landscape featuring numerous lakes and the occasional rolling hillside. Most people speak Russian in everyday life, although there is a Belarusian language, and both language have official status. The term “Belarus” literally translates into White Russia.

One cool thing about Belarus

The massively-multiplayer online game World of Tanks was created by a Belarusian firm, and a Belarusian was also heavily involved in developing the popular instant messaging app, Viber.

One sad thing about Belarus

The 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, severely impacted Belarus, which received about 60% of the nuclear fallout. The country continues to struggle with the affects of environmental pollution.

Neighbours Textbox
Landlocked Belarus borders Poland in the west, Lithuania in the northwest, Latvia in the north, Russia in the east and Ukraine in the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is a very small sector of Belarus’s economy, and the country receives relatively few Western tourists. Most visitors come from Russia. Many Western visitors find the presence of such an authoritarian state in Europe surprising, but tourists are unlikely to run afoul of the authorities during a brief stay. Getting a visa to enter Belarus can be tricky.

Belarus passport
Belarusian passport

The country does have plenty of pleasant countryside to enjoy, while there also UNESCO World Heritage sites waiting be discovered and an array of attractive churches, historic fortresses and imposing castles. Belarus is not without potential as a tourist destination.

Belarus
Minsk

 

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Belgium

België • Belgique • Belgien
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Belgium
  • Capital City: Brussels
  • Population: 11,250,585
  • Language: Dutch, French, German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Belgium like?

Home to major European Union institutions, the site of infamous First and Second World War battlefields, modern Belgium is a prosperous northern European country with a growing immigrant population. Belgian politics and society are somewhat fractious, with three different language communities – Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French speaking) and the small German speaking community – often pulling in different directions. On occasion, this has left Belgium without a functioning government, and the possibility of break-up in the future cannot be ruled out. The country is renowned for its waffles, beer and especially for producing high quality chocolate.

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Belgium

In common with the other Low Countries (Netherlands and Luxembourg), most of Belgium is low-lying, with coastal plains and a central plateau that gives way to the rolling hills of the Ardennes in the southeast. The coast is lined with beach resorts that become very popular in the summer months, while the country’s towns and cities – especially Bruges and Antwerp – are a particular draw for tourists. The port of Zeebrugge is one of Europe’s busiest.

One cool thing about Belgium

The first person to publish what is now known as the Big Bang theory was a Belgian physicist (and, somehow, priest) by the name of Georges Lemaitre. Small country, major contribution to our understanding of the universe!

One sad thing about Belgium

The country was occupied by Germany during both World Wars and is home to many war graves, especially around Ieper (Ypres).

Neighbours Textbox
Belgium has an intriguing border with the Netherlands in the north, which includes a number of enclaves and exclaves and even runs directly through the middle of buildings in places. The country also borders Germany in the east, Luxembourg in the southeast and France in the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Belgium packs a lot into its relatively small territory, and possesses world class infrastructure, making it a simple country to get around. The major towns and cities, including Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp, feature numerous Gothic-style buildings and attractive central squares, although Brussels itself is not always considered Belgium’s most enticing destination. Nevertheless, the quirky (some might say bizarre) Atomium is worth a look.

Belgium passport
Belgian passport

Arguably the most scenic part of Belgium is the Ardennes, where hillsides, valleys and forests host tiny villages and impressive castles. The Belgian coast becomes popular during the summer months and is served by the world’s longest tramline. French fries, despite their name, were invented in Belgium, and they are delicacy when served with mayonnaise.

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Bruges

 

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Belize

  • Official Name: Belize
  • Capital City: Belmopan
  • Largest City: Belize City
  • Population: 368,310
  • Language: English, Spanish, Belizean Creole
  • Currency: Belize dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Belize like?

A small Commonwealth realm and former British colony on the Central American isthmus, Belize is remarkably diverse, and possesses an impressive array of land and marine life. Culturally, the country has taken on much from the British and Spanish influences in the region and retains strong links to both Latin America and the Caribbean nations. Belize is considered a middle-income country, and social inequality is less pronounced in Belize than in other countries in the region. A constant thread running through the country’s post-independence history is its tense relationship with neighbouring Guatemala.

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Belize

The country’s jungles and coastal waters are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, and has taken some steps to try and protect its ecosystem. However, pollution and global warming remain a constant threat. The country is regularly hit by severe hurricanes and earthquakes are also a risk.

One cool thing about Belize

A culinary delicacy in Belize is gibnut, which is a type of rodent. This appetising treat is sometimes referred to as the royal rat, having once been served to Queen Elizabeth II!

One sad thing about Belize

Relations between Belize and its western neighbour, Guatemala, are so bad that the countries do their best to shame each other on the world stage, and Guatemala lays claim to more or less all Belizean territory.

Neighbours Textbox
Diminutive Belize borders two other Central American nations – Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. To the east is a long Caribbean coastline.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is an important part of Belize’s economy, and it has plenty to offer. The country draws visitors from all around the world to explore its many Mayan ruins, to marvel at its diverse flora and fauna and to experience world class diving off its coast. Belize is home to the Great Blue Hole – the world’s largest sinkhole – a paradise for keen divers.

Belize passport
Belizean passport

The country is a thriving ecotourism destination, and the government of Belize has made further development of the sector an important goal.

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Great Blue Hole

 

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Benin

Bénin
  • Official Name: Republic of Benin
  • Capital City: Porto-Novo
  • Largest City: Cotonou
  • Population: 10,879,829
  • Language: French, Yoruba, Fon
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Benin like?

A small, relatively narrow country on the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, Benin was once the centre of the great Dahomey kingdom, one of the most powerful and influential west African realms. It is also the birthplace of the Verdun faith, perhaps better known as Voodoo. The country abounds with historic palaces and temples that serve as a reminder of its glorious past, while the French language and colonial architecture of the big cities recall the country’s days as a French colony.

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Benin

Most Beninese live along the narrow coastal strip in the city of Cotonou and the official capital, Porto-Novo. Much of the country is tropical, but there is an arid region in the far north. Agriculture is hugely important, with subsistence farming commonplace. The country has experienced political turbulence in the past, and spent the early part of its post-independence history under a Marxist government, before transitioning to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. The majority of Beninese remain poor.

One cool thing about Benin

In 1990, Benin became the first African country to make a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy when the Marxist regime of Mathieu Kérékou fell.

One sad thing about Benin

Southern Benin was part of what was once known as the Slave Coast. The powerful Kingdom of Dahomey, of which Benin was a large part, is estimated to have made £250,000 per year selling Africans to European traders.

Neighbours Textbox
Benin borders Togo in the west, Burkina Faso and Niger in the north and Nigeria in the east. It also has a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As a poor country with underdeveloped infrastructure, not many tourists make their way to Benin each year. However, the country’s colonial history and the legacy of the Kingdom of Dahomey mean their is plenty to reward those that do. Especially, in the south, Benin is blessed with numerous ruins that tell the story of the country’s past, while the palaces at Abomey are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Benin passport
Beninese passport

The country also has some small national parks for those looking to enjoy typical west African savannah scenery, and the coastal resort town of Grand Popo, near the border with Togo, is popular with locals and visitors alike.

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Royal Palaces of Abomey

 

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Bhutan

འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ (druk gyal)
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Bhutan
  • Capital City: Thimphu
  • Population: 742,737
  • Official Religion: Buddhism
  • Language: Dzongkha
  • Currency: Ngultrum
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Bhutan like?

Spectacular Bhutan is a small, somewhat isolated, kingdom straddling the borders between India and China (specifically Tibet), dominated by the peaks of the eastern Himalayas, but with subtropical plains in the south. The country never became part of the British Empire per se, but it did cede some authority to British India, and has spent much of its history as an absolute monarchy. However, in 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, increasing the degree of freedoms open to ordinary citizens and reducing the role of the royal family.

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Bhutan

The country has jealously guarded the isolation afforded by its location to preserve its culture and traditions, much of which remain intact, and the Bhutanese follow a unique strand of Buddhism. A poor country, Bhutan has devised a philosophy referred to as Gross National Happiness, which recognises that the well-being of a society can be measured in more than just economic terms, and regular surveys find Bhutanese to be among the happiest people in the world. However, there is much anxiety about the pace of change as the country gradually opens up.

One cool thing about Bhutan

Thimphu is the only city in the world without traffic lights. A system was piloted in 1995, but Bhutanese drivers found them too impersonal, so they were removed. The city’s road junctions are managed by smartly-dressed officials in white gloves.

One sad thing about Bhutan

Society in Bhutan is pretty harmonious, but keeping it that way can come at a cost. In the 1990s, the government became concerned about a lack of conformity from the country’s ethnic Lhotshampa people and forcibly expelled them all.

Neighbours Textbox
Bhutan’s northern border is with the Tibetan autonomous region of China. To the east is Arunachal Pradesh – administered by India but claimed by China. India also lies to the south and west. Nepal and Bangladesh are separated from Bhutan by small sections of Indian territory.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Historically, Bhutan did not allow tourists to visit out of concern that such contact with the outside world might permanently alter and damage their unique way of life. However, things began to change in the 1970s, and the country is now open to guests. You’ll need plenty of disposable income, though, as the Bhutanese government requires all tourists to be on an organised tour, and a visa costs $250 a day(!) for the duration of your stay.

Bhutan passport
Bhutanese passport

Those lucky enough to have the means can enjoy incredible trekking opportunities in the Himalayas and to take in the country’s charming and often spectacular dzongs, ancient fortresses that often cling to mountainsides, while the scenery is spectacular wherever you are in Bhutan.

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Taktsang Dzong, near Thimphu

 

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Bolivia

Buliwya • Wuliwya • Mborivia
  • Official Name: Plurinational State of Bolivia
  • Capital City: Sucre (constitutional capital), La Paz (seat of government)
  • Largest City: Santa Cruz de la Sierra
  • Population: 11,410,651
  • Languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani
  • Currency: Boliviano
  • Continent: South America

What’s Bolivia like?

Landlocked Bolivia, by some measures the poorest country in South America, is diverse in terms of both landscape and society. Much of the country’s centre and east is a hot, subtropical plain, while the western part is dominated by the Andes mountains. The Andean region was once part of the Inca empire, and the civilisation’s legacy is evident in the many ruins and temples that remain. A former Spanish colony, modern Bolivia is named after independence hero, Simón Bolívar, who played a major role in the various regional wars for independence from Spain.

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Bolivia

Bolivians are a diverse ethnic mix, and Bolivia is the only country in South America in which indigenous peoples make up a majority of the population. However, much of the country’s wealth and influence lies with the elite, mainly the descendants of European immigrants. Poverty is a major challenge. In 2006, Bolivians elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is still in power today. Morales has embarked on a programme of renationalisation, and has also altered the country’s constitution in an attempt to begin addressing the huge inequalities in Bolivian society.

One cool thing about Bolivia

Despite being landlocked, Bolivia maintains a navy. This is because the country harbours hopes of one day reclaiming land lost to Chile in the late 19th century, which would give it access to the Pacific Ocean.

One sad thing about Bolivia

The Camino de las Yungas in the Andes is famous – or perhaps infamous – as the most dangerous road in the world. This narrow, unpaved, winding route through the mountains is open to traffic in both directions, despite the precipitous, mostly unguarded, drops. Every year, as many as 300 people are killed on a stretch of road only 50 miles long.

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At the heart of the South American continent, Bolivia has a long border in the north and east with Brazil. It also borders Paraguay in the southeast, Argentina in the south, Chile in the southwest and Peru in the northwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bolivia is a backpackers dream and has become an increasingly popular part of South American itineraries. Bolivia’s relative remoteness when compared to much of the rest of the Americas, along with its indigenous culture, make it a particularly interesting destination to experience. The Andes hide remote villages, while the city of La Paz is unofficially the world’s highest capital. Everywhere in Bolivia there are stunning vistas to be enjoyed. Bolivia also has the largest salt flats in the world, perfect for attempting to break land speed records or filming Top Gear.

Bolivia passport
Bolivian passport

The country’s Inca and colonial legacies mean there are plenty of interesting sites, both remote and urban, from Spanish colonial buildings in the major cities, to the ruins of ancient Inca palaces and forts. And if you’re really brave, you can take a drive along the aforementioned “death road”, but you’ll need nerves of steel!

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La Paz

 

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Боснa и Херцеговина (Bosna i Hercegovina) • Bosna i Hercegovina
  • Official name: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Capital City: Sarajevo
  • Population: 3,531,159
  • Language: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian
  • Currency: Convertible mark
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Bosnia and Herzegovina like?

Bosnia sits at the heart of the Balkans and was a constituent republic of Yugoslavia until 1992, when the collapse of the authoritarian socialist Yugoslav state precipitated a succession of independence declarations and violent conflicts in the region. The war in Bosnia was particularly vicious, as ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats pulled in different directions, each turning on each other in the process. The war raged for three years before the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Ohio brought the conflict to an end and created a state based on a loose confederation of two entities, both of which largely look after themselves.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Most Bosnian Serbs live in the Republika Srpska, a majority Serb entity, while Bosniaks and ethnic Croats mostly live in the Federation. These two entities together form Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in reality, they largely take care of their own affairs. Bosnia’s constitutional arrangement is complicated and cumbersome, a direct consequence of the conditions needed to bring about peace. At times, Bosnia remains a highly dysfunctional place, hindering governance and economic prospects. Nevertheless, Bosnia is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.

One cool thing about Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Bosnian men’s volleyball team won gold at the 2004 Summer Paralympics. Many of the players had lost limbs during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

One sad thing about Bosnia and Herzegovina

There were many atrocities during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, but perhaps the most shocking of all was the Srebrenica Massacre, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mainly men and boys, were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces. The tragedy was compounded by the fact the UN had declared the town a safe zone, and its forces failed to act to prevent the bloodbath.

Neighbours Textbox
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s longest border is with Croatia, which runs the western and northern lengths of the country. It also has borders with Serbia in the east and Montenegro in the south. The country has a tiny section of coast on the Adriatic Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Bosnia was fairly popular with tourists while part of Yugoslavia, but the break-up of that country and the wars that followed ravaged Bosnia’s infrastructure and made it categorically unsafe. After the war, the threat of landmines remained a serious problem. Happily, the country is beginning to reemerge as a tourist destination, both in its own right, and as a day-trip from the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik. Travel guides increasingly espouse the beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, Sarajevo. Meanwhile, the city of Mostar is famous for its Ottoman era bridge, which was destroyed in the war and restored after the conflict’s end.

Bosnia and Herzegovina passport
Bosnian passport

The country is mostly mountainous and does have a handful of ski resorts. The scenic countryside is full of Ottoman era forts and traditional villages, and the country also has the last remaining jungle in Europe in the beautiful Sutjeska National Park.

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Stari Most bridge, Mostar

 

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Botswana

  • Official Name: Republic of Botswana
  • Capital City: Gaborone
  • Population: 2,155,784
  • Language: English, Tsetswana
  • Currency: Pula
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Botswana like?

A landlocked, sparsely populated country in southern Africa, Botswana is a former British colonial possession that has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to something of an African success story. A mining boom has driven economic growth and made Botswana one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nations. Politically, the country has achieved remarkable stability and has a solid democratic record. Despite the positives, Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, and although government initiatives have had some success, HIV/AIDS remains a substantial problem.

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Botswana

The country is mostly flat, and is dominated by the Kalahari Desert. Traditional ways of life remain strong, especially in rural Botswana. The Batswana (as the people of Botswana are known) are quite diverse, although the ethnic Tswana make up about 80% of the population. The capital city, Gaborone is a small, modern, fairly affluent and strikingly low-rise city.

One cool thing about Botswana

Botswana is the third biggest producer of diamonds in the world, which partially explains its economic success. Only Russia and Canada produce more diamonds than Botswana. The country also has the world’s single richest diamond mine.

One sad thing about Botswana

HIV/AIDS has had a devastating effect on Botswana. The country used to have Africa’s highest life expectancy at 65 years, but by 2006, this had plummeted to just 35 as a result of the epidemic. However, life expectancy has been rising in recent years.

Neighbours Textbox
Botswana borders Namibia in the west and north, Zimbabwe in the east and South Africa in the south. It also makes the tiniest contact with Zambia in the northeast, across the Zambezi river.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is a key component of Botswana’s economy, with visitors drawn to its extensive national parkland and the wide variety of wildlife that live there. Botswana has more elephants than any other country in the world, and there are also sizable populations of hippos, lions, crocodiles, antelope and all manner of bird life. Many tourists also come to see native tribesmen – especially the Bushmen of the Kalahari – in their native attire, although they will often only dress ceremonially for tourists.

Botswana passport
Batswana passport

Botswana is also home to the unique Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, which is formed by a river flowing not into the sea, but into the Kalahari Desert. The delta system attracts a remarkable array of African wildlife from thousands of miles around.

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Okavango Delta

 

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Brazil

Brasil
  • Official Name: Federative Republic of Brazil
  • Capital City: Brasília
  • Largest City: São Paulo
  • Population: 206,440,850
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Currency: Real
  • Continent: South America

What’s Brazil like?

The fifth-biggest country in the world by both area and population, Brazil is a vibrant, diverse, sometimes chaotic, soccer-mad federal republic – the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America. Economically, the country has made incredible strides in the last two decades, and its global influence and profile has been growing. However, the country is politically volatile, while the overheated economy has hit the buffers in the last five years. Many Brazilians live in ramshackle, illegal shanty towns known as favelas on the edge of the big cities, where crime and poverty remain intractable problems, and the country has a vast gulf between the haves and the many have-nots in society.

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Brazil

Brazil is an increasingly urbanised country as more and more rural people seek a better life in the big cities. Descendants of Portuguese settlers rub shoulders with Afro-Brazilians whose ancestors were brought to the country as slaves, as well various mixed race groups and indigenous peoples. Remote Amazonian Brazil has the highest number of uncontacted tribes anywhere in the world. The Amazon Basin itself dominates northern Brazil, where tropical conditions prevail, but the further south one goes, the cooler the country becomes. Winters in the southern city of Porto Alegre can be rather chilly.

One cool thing about Brazil

Brazil has been the world’s leading coffee producer for more than 150 years. No country has done more to help generations of sleepy workers around the globe kick-start their day!

One sad thing about Brazil

Vast sections of the Amazon rainforest are being cut down all the time to create new farmland. This results in the daily extinction of over 100 species and, at the current rate, will have completely destroyed the rainforest by the 2060s.

Neighbours Textbox
The giant of South America, Brazil borders more countries than any other on the continent. In the west, the country borders Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. In the northwest is Colombia, while in the north, Brazil borders Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and the French overseas department of French Guiana. In the far south, Brazil borders Uruguay, while in the far southwest, there is a relatively short frontier with Argentina. Brazil has one of the world’s longest coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean.

 

What is it like for tourists?

Over six million tourists visit Brazil every year to take in the iconic sights of Rio de Janeiro – Copacabana beach, Christ the Redeemer statue, Ipanema and much more – to experience the hustle and bustle of the country’s biggest metropolis, São Paulo, or to camp in jungle lodges and boat along the Amazon, and many, many other reasons besides. The country’s reputation for passion and exuberance, embodied in the tradition of the samba and the love of soccer, make Brazil an intoxicating destination. Guided tours of the favelas are becoming increasingly popular, and give tourists the chance to see the real Brazil as lived by many of its poorest citizens.

Brazil passport
Brazilian passport

Those with an interest in colonial times will find plenty of interest from Brazil’s days under Portuguese rule. The major cities all possess examples of fine colonial architecture and historic sites, but there are treasures to be discovered in smaller provincial centres too, especially the old gold mining towns.

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Rio de Janeiro

 

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Brunei

Negara Brunei Darussalam
  • Official Name: Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace
  • Capital City: Bandar Seri Begawan
  • Population: 415,717
  • Official Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Language: Malay, English, Chinese
  • Currency: Brunei dollar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Brunei like?

A small absolute monarchy surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Brunei was historically the centre of a powerful Southeast Asian empire, before eventually entering decline and becoming a British colony. Independence was achieved in 1984, and economic growth driven by offshore oil and gas reverses has transformed this once poor nation into one of the world’s richest. Brunei’s absolute ruler – Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – is one of the wealthiest people on Earth – and while his comfortably-off subjects enjoy almost nothing in the way of political freedom, there is little dissent.

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Brunei

The state religion of Brunei is Sunni Islam, which most Bruneians follow. Ethnically, most Bruneians are Malay, but there are also small numbers of Chinese, Indians and indigenous Borneans. The country also has a sizable expat population working mainly in the oil and gas industry. The country itself is made up of two small slivers of mostly forested, mountainous territory in northern Borneo, separated from one another by a strip of Malaysian territory.

One cool thing about Brunei

According to Forbes magazine, the Sultan of Brunei has a personal wealth of $25billion (other sources go as high as $40billion). He lives in one of the world’s largest palaces and owns hundreds of expensive cars. He also provides free universal medical care for every Bruneian citizen.

One sad thing about Brunei

The country does have a parliament, but no elections have been held since 1962, when a revolt led to the implementation of emergency powers that are still in use today. Even if elections were held, women would likely be barred from voting.

Neighbours Textbox
Brunei sits in the northweat of the island of Borneo and is divided into two sections by Malaysia to the west, south and east, the only country with which it shares land borders. However, Indonesia is relatively close by to the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Brunei is a popular, if rather expensive, destination that often appears on backpackers’ Southeast Asian itineraries. Ecotourism is a growing sector of the industry, and many visitors join tours of the Bruneian rainforest to see the various animals – such as monkeys, crocodiles and birds – that call it home. It is also possible to visit Istara Nurul Iman, the world’s biggest currently occupied residential palace to marvel at the opulence in which Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah lives and to admire the stunning views it offers.

Brunei passport
Bruneian passport

The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is the only major city, and has plenty of beautiful mosques to take in. However, Brunei is a strictly Islamic country, and Bandar is no party city. The sale of alcohol is prohibited. But who needs booze in such a beautiful setting?

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Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Bandar Seri Bagawan

 

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Bulgaria

България (Bǎlgariya)
  • Official Name: Republic of Bulgaria
  • Capital City: Sofia
  • Population: 7,202,198
  • Language: Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma
  • Currency: Lev
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Bulgaria like?

A former Ottoman province and eastern bloc country, the fall of communism and the introduction of democratic and market reforms have improved the lot of many Bulgarians in what was once a very poor country. However, economic growth has been uneven, corruption and sclerotic government have hindered progress, and the country remains one of Europe’s poorest. It is also wrestling with a demographic crisis, as more and more Bulgarians leave the country for more prosperous parts of the continent. However, the country became a member of the European Union in 2008, and efforts to clean up government have met with some success. It is also a developing tourist destination.

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Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a highly urbanised country, but agriculture still plays an important role in the economy, though efforts to modernise this sector have been hit-and-miss. The country has a beautiful coastline on the Black Sea, while much of inland Bulgaria is mountainous. The capital city, Sofia, is in the far west of the country. Most Bulgarians are a Slavs, and the country uses the Cyrillic alphabet. However, the country has a Turkish community dating back to Ottoman times. There is also a sizable Roma population, who continue to face discrimination.

One cool thing about Bulgaria

The country has a decent track record when it comes to innovation. Bulgarians invented the first electronic computer, the digital watch and car airbag system. Not bad.

One sad thing about Bulgaria

A 2015 survey found that Bulgaria was comfortably the most unhappy country in the European Union. Government corruption, poverty and a high rate of unemployment, coupled with the demographic problems triggered by the country’s “brain drain” have been blamed for Bulgarians’ dissatisfaction.

Neighbours Textbox
Bulgaria borders Romania to the north, Turkey to the southeast, Greece to the south, and Macedonia and Serbia to the west. It also has a coastline on the Black Sea

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The country’s natural beauty, rich history and culture, and pleasant summer weather make it a popular destination. Sun-seeking northern Europeans are discovering the hedonistic Black Sea resorts that provide a cheaper – often much cheaper – alternative to the more established summer getaway locations of the Spanish Costas and Greek islands. But the country’s towns and cities also have plenty to offer: Plovdiv is Europe’s oldest inhabited city with a historic ancient heart and a striking Roman amphitheatre. The capital, Sofia, is an increasingly modern, cosmopolitan European metropolis.

Bulgaria passport
Bulgarian passport

Rather like its Black Sea beach resorts, Bulgaria’s ski slopes also offer a more affordable alternative to pricier Alpine destinations. The country also has a thriving wine industry, with plenty of opportunities to explore its vineyards and try the local vintage.

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Roman amphitheatre, Plovdiv

 

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Burkina Faso

  • Official Name: Burkina Faso
  • Capital City: Ouagadougou
  • Population: 17,322,726
  • Language: French, Mossi, Fula, Mandinka, Bambara
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Burkina Faso like?

A dusty, landlocked country in west Africa, Burkina Faso has been the centre of influential African kingdoms in the past, and was also a French colony. The country gained independence in 1960 under the name “Upper Volta“, and has experienced much political and economic upheaval. About 90% of Burkinabé – as the people of Burkina Faso are known – are involved in subsistence farming, and the country is one of the poorest in the world with a scarcity of natural resources. Large numbers of Burkinabé have gone abroad to find work, mainly to France and parts of north Africa.

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Burkina Faso

As a rule of thumb, the further north and east one goes, the more arid the country becomes, with the far north forming a part of the Sahel region. Western Burkina Faso is greener, while the south and centre, around the capital, Ouagadougou, is the most heavily populated. The country can be extremely hot, and has distinct rainy and dry seasons, with frequent droughts in the far north. Most goods and resources consumed in Burkina Faso have to be imported, and tackling poverty remains an enormous challenge.

One cool thing about Burkina Faso

While the name of the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, might be a bit of a mouthful for those unfamiliar with the Mossi language, translation to English reveals it to be arguably the most appealing name of any capital: Ouagadougou literally means “you are welcome here at home with us.” How lovely!

One sad thing about Burkina Faso

Despite its poverty and political turbulence, Burkina Faso has historically been a pretty safe country. However, things took a turn for the worse when, in January 2016, terrorists attacked a hotel and restaurant, killing 30 and wounding at least 56.

Neighbours Textbox
Burkina Faso has a long northwestern border with Mali. In the northeast, the country borders Niger, while Benin lies to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

A beautiful, friendly and welcoming country with a rich cultural heritage, Burkina Faso receives only a trickle of tourists, but it has much to offer those with an interest in west Africa. The country is arguably the heart of the west African music scene and hosts an array of music festivals throughout the year. Most towns and cities have traditional markets where excellent bartering skills will be required. There are also numerous excellent hiking spots, and the country offers the chance to see hippos and crocodiles in the wild.

Burkina Faso passport
Burkinabé passport

Many visitors to Burkina Faso head to the country’s second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, to see one of the most iconic buildings in west Africa, the mud mosque. Built in the late 1800s (the exact date is debated), the mosque is a fine example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture. Guided tours of the mosque are available.

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Grand Mosque, Bobo-Dioulasso

 

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Burundi

Uburundi
  • Official Name: Republic of Burundi
  • Capital City: Bujumbura
  • Population: 11,178,921
  • Language: French, English, Kirundi, Swahili
  • Currency: Burundian franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Burundi like?

A small, densely-populated country shaped vaguely like a human heart, Burundi is in east Africa’s Great Lakes region. A former colony of Germany and, after World War One, Belgium, most Burundians live in poverty, and, at the time of writing, the atmosphere in the country is tense following violent political unrest in 2015. Burundi shares a similar ethnic make-up and social tensions that helped lead to the 1994 genocide in its northern neighbour, Rwanda. However, while Rwanda has made a great deal of political, social and economic progress since, Burundi has remained blighted by instability, corruption, poverty and occasional bouts of violence. Other major problems include HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking and child labour. Many Burundians have gone abroad to seek a better life.

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Burundi

The country’s main ethnic groups are the Tutsi and the Hutu. Inter-communal relations are fraught, and in 1972, spilled over into a genocide that led to more than 250,000 deaths. The country is heavily forested and fairly mountainous, with deforestation and soil erosion major problems. Burundi’s national parks are home to a wide variety of African wildlife.

One cool thing about Burundi

Burundian athlete Venuste Niyongabo won gold in the men’s 5,000m at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, making Burundi the poorest nation to have ever won a gold medal.

One sad thing about Burundi

The 2016 World Happiness Report ranked Burundi as the world’s most unhappy nation. The poverty in which most Burundians live, coupled with the ever-present threat of civil unrest, violence and the corruption and authoritarianism of the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza, make life extremely tough for most citizens.

Neighbours Textbox
Burundi borders three other countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the west, mostly across Lake Tanganyika; Rwanda in the north; and Tanzania in the east and south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Most governments advise against visiting Burundi at this moment in time due to the risks posed by the still simmering unrest in the country. In any case, Burundi remains off the beaten path and receives very few tourists. But this should not detract from the fact that Burundi is a beautiful country with people who may not always see eye-to-eye with each other, but who welcome guests with open arms. Political stability, should it ever be achieved, would help Burundi to begin tapping into its considerable tourism potential.

Burundian passport
Burundian passport

Burundi’s main attractions are its national parks and nature reserves, where tourists get to see all manner of African wildlife – from chimpanzees to hippos – as well as the stunning waterfalls, peaks, forests, valleys and views. The capital city, Bujumbura, is the country’s liveliest population centre and lies on the eastern shoreline of Lake Tanganyika.

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Kayanza province

 

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Cambodia

កម្ពុជា (Kâmpŭchéa) • Cambodge
  • Official Name: Kingdom of Cambodia
  • Capital City: Phnom Penh
  • Population: 15,458,332
  • Official Religion: Theravada Buddhism
  • Language: Khmer, French
  • Currency: Riel
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Cambodia like?

Located on the Indochina peninsula of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a land of awe-inspiring temples, rice paddies, the mighty Mekong river and bustling towns and cities. Despite its rich cultural heritage and beautiful landscape, Cambodia must surely be a candidate for one of the world’s saddest histories, the impact of which is still felt today in one of the poorest corners of Asia. Following independence from France in 1953, Cambodia has had to contend with the overspill of the Vietnam War, the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge under the infamous, savage dictator Pol Pot, a decade-long war with neighbouring Vietnam and the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1997.

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Cambodia

So much turmoil has made economic development almost impossible, and although a degree of stability has taken root, political freedoms are few, and most Cambodians are poor. And it’s not just the Cambodian people who suffer. The country’s forests, wildlife, national parks and environment are at serious risk thanks to a wide range of illicit activities, from illegal logging to construction projects that destroy important natural habitats. On a more positive note, although Cambodia remains extremely poor, its economy has been growing quite rapidly in recent years, and there is even some oil and gas potential still to be exploited.

One cool thing about Cambodia

Cambodians don’t celebrate, and barely acknowledge, their birthdays. Although young Cambodians have begun to take up the practice, many older citizens have no idea of what age they are.

One sad thing about Cambodia

The sheer brutality and mercilessness of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s is impossible to ignore. In an attempt to realise their dream of a classless, agrarian state, the party carried out a genocide targeting anybody deemed intellectual – wearing glasses was enough of an indicator – and buried them in what became known as “killing fields”. Almost two million people were murdered by the regime in a four-year period.

Neighbours Textbox
Cambodia’s neighbours are Thailand in the north and west, Laos in the northeast and Vietnam in the south and east. It also has a coast on the Gulf of Thailand.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism has become a major foreign currency earner for Cambodia, and the country receives around two million visitors every year. The biggest draw of all is Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple complex at Siem Reap, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cambodia abounds with historic and beautiful temples and has found its place at the heart of Southeast Asia’s backpacker trail.

Cambodia passport
Cambodian passport

The capital, Phnom Penh, is a lively, chaotic, but friendly city with a number of worthwhile museums and the splendid Royal Palace. Beach lovers, meanwhile, tend to head to Sihanouk, Cambodia’s main resort area on the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia is a once-seen-never-forgotten destination that enchants those lucky enough to see it.

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Angkor Wat

 

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Cameroon

Cameroun
  • Official Name: Republic of Cameroon
  • Capital City: Yaoundé
  • Largest City: Douala
  • Population: 22,534,532
  • Language: French, English
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Cameroon like?

Sometimes referred to as “Africa in miniature” due to its wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, languages and landscapes, Cameroon is a west African country that emerged when two colonies – one French, one British – came together in the early 1960s. The country has achieved a high degree of political stability and social cohesion which have helped in tackling poverty. However, the current president, Paul Biya, in power since 1982, dominates Cameroonian political life, and most citizens, especially in rural areas, are poor. Furthermore, the country’s English-speaking areas are increasingly restive and complain of marginalisation. Some campaign for secession from Cameroon.

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Cameroon

The remote, sparsely-populated far north of Cameroon is arid, approaching desert conditions. Cameroon’s Muslims live mainly in the north. The further south and west one goes, the lusher, more tropical, more densely-populated  the country becomes. Equatorial conditions prevail along Cameroon’s relatively short coastline. The seat of government is the city of Yaoundé, but the economic and cultural heart of the country is the coastal city of Douala, which is also the biggest city.

One cool thing about Cameroon

The name “Cameroon” is derived from Portuguese and means Shrimp River. This is because the sailors noticed an abundance of shrimp as they explored the Wouri River.

One sad thing about Cameroon

One of Africa’s most stable, peaceful countries, the last few years have seen a spate of kidnappings and terrorist attacks in the north by militant group Boko Haram, based in the northeast of neighbouring Nigeria.

Neighbours Textbox
Cameroon has a long northwestern border with Nigeria. It also has an arid frontier with Chad in the northeast, as well as borders with the Central African Republic in the east, the Republic of the Congo in the southeast, and Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in the south. The island of Bioko, also a part of Equatorial Guinea, is just off the Cameroonian coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Cameroon does not receive huge numbers of visitors, but with its diverse society, varied landscapes, political stability and relative safety, it is a worthwhile destination for those with an interest in west African culture. Most of those who do venture into Cameroon at the moment are French and Belgian, but the country has potential to develop wider interest. Many visitors take the opportunity to visit Mt. Cameroon, the tallest mountain in west Africa and a relatively short trip from the country’s biggest city, Douala.

Cameroon passport
Cameroon passport

The country’s national parks offer a great way to experience its geography and landscapes, as well as its diverse array of colourful and fascinating wildlife. Indeed, Dja Faunal Wildlife Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The country’s cities are not particularly geared towards tourism, but they do provide a good opportunity to visit frenetic local markets and to experience thriving west African city life. Douala is a good base for exploring the country’s beaches.

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Mount Cameroon

 

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Canada

  • Official Name: Canada
  • Capital City: Ottawa
  • Largest City: Toronto
  • Population: 36,286,425
  • Language: English, French
  • Currency: Canadian dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Canada like?

The second-largest country in the world by total area, much of Canada is wilderness, from Arctic tundra to expansive plains, untouched forest and majestic mountain ranges. A highly urbanised country, most Canadians live within 100 miles of the border with the United States, but small communities do exist even in the harshest Arctic climes. Canadian society is diverse, and its cities, especially in the east, are home to communities from many different corners of the world. Canada scores highly in surveys of economic performance and prosperity, and ranks as one of the richest countries in the world. Its cities are often regarded as some of the world’s most livable, especially Vancouver. This has been helped by exploitation of the tar sands of the province of Alberta, in which vast quantities of oil lie. However, controversy surrounds the environmental impact of extraction.

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Canada

Wealthy and stable as Canada is, some tensions do exist. An increasingly significant gulf has developed between the liberal east of the country centred on Ontario and Quebec, and the more conservative west, particularly the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But perhaps the biggest divide in Canada is between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of the country, where English predominates. Culturally distinct from the rest of Canada, Quebec maintains its own identity centred on the French language, and periodic calls for greater autonomy or even independence do arise. However, on the whole, relations remain cordial. Elsewhere, the country’s remote northern communities, often made up of First Nation Canadians, must contend with relative poverty and tough living conditions.

One cool thing about Canada

The world’s most northerly permanent settlement is in Canada. The research station and military base of Alert on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, is populated year-round by Canadian military staff and research technicians. Winter temperatures have been known to drop as low as -50c (-58f), which I think we can all agree is pretty “cool”.

One sad thing about Canada

In 1989, a mentally disturbed young man with a hatred of feminism carried out a massacre at a college in Montreal, Quebec, in which 14 young women lost their lives. The incident led to a tightening of Canadian gun laws.

Neighbours Textbox
Canada has the longest international land border in the world to the south, which it shares with the United States. It also borders the US state of Alaska in the northwest. The nation of Greenland – an autonomous island within the Danish kingdom – lies to the northeast. To the west of the island of Newfoundland in Canada’s southeast is the French overseas department of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Canada is an extremely popular tourist destination and offers a wide variety of attractions and activities. The Canadian Rockies are home to some of the world’s most famous ski resorts and the country is a world class winter sports destination. However, the summer months are also an ideal time to head into the mountains to admire the breathtaking scenery and enjoy superb hiking opportunities. Ontario is also home to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Quebec is a great place to head for a taste of something different, where the French language predominates and the culture is discernibly unlike the rest of Canada.

Canada passport
Canadian passport

The country’s major cities offer the usual array of museums, cuisines, architecture and nightlife one would expect from modern North American cities. The country’s compact bilingual capital, Ottawa, is home to the iconic, striking parliament building. Cross-country trips are popular, usually originating in Montreal or Toronto and terminating at Vancouver city or on Vancouver Island. The vast expanses of the great Canadian north are much less traveled and require lengthy planning. Distances between settlements are enormous, but the Arctic scenery and unique Native cultures make for a fascinating off-the-beaten-track experience.

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Parliament Hill, Ottawa

 

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Cape Verde

Cabo Verde
  • Official Name: Republic of Cabo Verde
  • Capital City: Praia
  • Population: 525,000
  • Language: Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole
  • Currency: Cape Verdean escudo
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Cape Verde like?

A volcanic archipelago in the mid-Atlantic off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde is a former Portuguese colony that won its independence in 1975. The majority of its people are a mix of European (mainly Portuguese) and black African. The country lacks resources and has been forced to focus economically on developing service industries, from financial services to tourism. Despite the challenges this poses, Cape Verde has become arguably the most successful and stable democracy in Africa, winning praise for its governmental transparency and tolerant society. Although still a developing country, living standards are higher than in most parts of the African mainland.

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Cape Verde

As a Portuguese colony, the islands grew rich on the slave trade. However, the abolition of slavery – welcome as it was – caused an economic downturn that brought hardship to the islands and triggered a wave of emigration. Today, a greater number of people of Cape Verdean extraction live overseas, especially in Portugal and Brazil. The islands are mostly rocky and volcanic in nature, with beaches that are beginning to attract European tourists.

One cool thing about Cape Verde

It is considered rude in Cape Verdean culture to eat in public without sharing. This increases social interactions, but does mean that those feeling particularly hungry are better off eating in private!

One sad thing about Cape Verde

The land in Cape Verde doesn’t offer much in the way of resources. Very little of it is suitable for agriculture, and desertification is a mounting problem.

Neighbours Textbox
Cape Verde is a chain of islands in the North Atlantic, off the coast of west Africa. It has no land borders, but its nearest neighbours are Senegal and Mauritania on the African mainland to the east. 

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With year-round warm sunshine and beautiful beaches, it’s no surprise that more and more tourists are discovering Cape Verde. In a country unable to rely on much in the way of natural resources, expanding the tourist industry is a key policy, as attested to by the growing number of resorts throughout the islands. The eastern islands of Sal and Boa Vista are especially popular with sun worshippers, and most of the country’s resorts are laidback getaways rather than hedonistic party destinations.

Cape Verde passport
Cape Verdean passport

Watersports and hiking are popular activities, while the cultural capital, Mindelo, and the modern political capital, Praia, offer a slightly more urban pace of life. Some of the more remote islands are especially tranquil and traditional.

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Boa Vista, Cape Verde

 

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Central African Republic

République centrafricaine •  Ködörösêse tî Bêafrîka
  • Official Name: Central African Republic
  • Capital City: Bangui
  • Population: 4,709,000
  • Language: French, Sango
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s the Central African Republic like?

The modern borders of the Central African Republic encompass mostly African savannah, with arid Sahelian conditions in the far north, and are home to a diverse mix of African ethnicities, languages and religions. At one time a French colony, the Central African Republic achieved independence in 1960, and has suffered under the yoke of autocratic leaders. Violent conflict has been an almost constant in the country’s post-independence history. Although the CAR has considerable mineral wealth and hydrocarbon reserves, it remains one of the poorest, least developed and most unstable countries in the world.

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Central African Republic

In recent years, the country has been accused of ethnic and religious cleansing, targeting in particular its minority Muslim population living mostly in the north. Whilst the country’s capital city, Bangui, is relatively peaceful, much of the countryside is dangerous thanks to armed groups and persistent fighting. A major difficulty in the CAR is getting the 80 various ethnic groups to share and recognise a common identity, living as they do within borders created through colonialism that pay little regard to realities on the ground. Despite the potential for economic development, a lack of clean, reliable and stable government, combined with constant conflict, keeps the country mired in poverty.

One cool thing about the Central African Republic

It may be a sign of the country’s lack of development, but National Geographic has described the Central African Republic as the country least affected by light pollution, making it a great place to be to do some stargazing.

One sad thing about the Central African Republic

There are numerous problems in the Central African Republic. Violence, forced labour, child labour, female genital mutilation – it all goes on. Perhaps the most symbolic example is that there is a law against “witchcraft”, and many women continue to suffer the consequences of accusations.

Neighbours Textbox
The Central African Republic borders Chad in the north, Sudan in the northeast, South Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the south, the Republic of the Congo in the southwest, and Cameroon in the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As things stand, the Central African Republic should be considered unsafe for tourism. The country teeters on the brink of civil war, particularly in rural areas. Even in Bangui, access to medical care, in a country with a high rate of disease, is basic. As such, few tourists venture into the Central African Republic – arguably one of the most remote destinations on earth. Once inside the country, moving between towns and cities can be perilous due to the poor quality of the roads and the presence of armed groups and fake roadblocks.

Central African Republic passport
Central African passport

Nevertheless, the country does have plenty of natural beauty, and the handful of visitors that do make it to the Central African Republic enjoy an authentic African experience in its natural parks and amongst its outgoing, friendly people. The country’s potential for development as a tourist destination is real.

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Boali Falls

 

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Chad

Tchad •  تشاد‎‎ (Tshād)
  • Official Name: Republic of Chad
  • Capital City: N’Djamena
  • Population: 13,670,084
  • Language: French, Arabic
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Chad like?

A fairly large country in north-central Africa, Chad can be roughly divided into three clear zones. The northern third is sparsely populated desert, where the Sahara meets the Sahel. The centre of the country is where most people live (though still sparsely) and is dominated by the arid plains of the Sahel. The south, meanwhile, is mostly subtropical lowlands and is the wettest part of the country. Most Chadians are subsistence farmers. There are more than 200 different ethnic groups, many of whom barely identify with the Chadian state. Poverty is deep and widespread. The country’s main export has traditionally been cotton, but this has been replaced in the last decade by crude oil.

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Chad

Chad’s post-independence history has been marred by stratospheric levels of corruption and a string of coups and attempted coups, making it one of the world’s most poorly governed countries. The current autocratic president, Idriss Déby, has a firm grip on power, although his ability to project influence beyond N’Djamena is limited, and his forces have had to fend off a number of attempts to overthrow him. Eastern Chad is also the scene of one the world’s least known humanitarian crises as the war in Darfur in neighbouring Sudan spills over the border and vast numbers of refugees attempt to survive in camps. Violence against women and female genital mutilation are officially illegal in Chad, but are sadly still widespread, as is polygamy.

One cool thing about Chad

Camel racing is popular in Chad, and the Tibesti mountains in the far northwest of the country play host to some of the best camel racing in the world.

One sad thing about Chad

Despite being among the poorest countries in the world, the country hosts a whopping 500,000 refugees who have fled to the country to escape violence in Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic.

Neighbours Textbox
Chad’s northern border with Libya is a long, straight line through the Sahara with one moderate deviation in the northwest. In the east it borders the volatile Darfur region of Sudan, while the Central African Republic lies to the south. In the southwest is Cameroon, while Niger and a short border with Nigeria lie to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourists are a rare sight indeed in this remote, poverty-stricken land. Most Westerners in Chad are diplomats in N’Djamena or humanitarian workers in the refugee camps.Western governments are clear that, although there is no specific threat in Chad, the country’s instability and sporadic bouts of violence make it a risky destination. However, as with almost all countries, some tourists do decide to brave it. Trips to Chad require considerable advance planning and armed guides should be considered. Distances between settlements are enormous and the chance of encountering corrupt officials or armed militia is high.

Chad passport
Chadian passport

Most visitors come to experience Chad’s remarkable landscapes and wide open spaces. Lake Chad is a popular destination, while the Ennedi desert draws a handful of hardy souls to admire its stunning sandstone formations. However, this region of Chad – in the far northeast – is especially isolated, with medical facilities potentially thousands of miles away, and there is the ever-present risk of banditry or armed ambush.

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Lake Teli, northern Chad

 

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Chile

  • Official Name: Republic of Chile
  • Capital City: Santiago
  • Population: 18,006,407
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: South America

What’s Chile like?

One of the world’s most unusually-shaped countries, long, thin Chile extends for thousands of miles from South America’s bone-dry Atacama desert in the north to the rainy, rocky, isolated Cape Horn in the continent’s far south. Chile has a diverse array of landscapes, from Andean mountains to long, Mediterranean-esque beaches, the world’s driest desert and dramatic fjords. The population is most heavily concentrated on the centre of the country, where the capital city, Santiago, as well as the major cities of Valparaíso and Concepción, are located. Chile’s far south includes some of the most remote communities in the Americas.

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Chile

A former Spanish colony, independent Chile’s politics have been dominated by a fierce struggle between left- and right-wing viewpoints. Perhaps the most significant period in the modern country’s history was the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who toppled a left-wing administration and attempted to purge the country of intellectuals and left-wing political and academic figures. Thankfully, since Pinochet’s demise, Chile has developed a stable and successful democracy, although the age-old bitter left-right divide persists. Modern Chile is South America’s most prosperous country.

One cool thing about Chile

It’s been mentioned already, but Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest place on the planet. Some parts of the desert have never seen a drop of rain since records began and are thought to have been completely dry for most of history.

One sad thing about Chile

The country forms part of the Pacific “ring of fire“, which makes it prone to sometimes devastating earthquakes. In 1960, southern Chile was rocked by the most powerful earthquake in recorded history, killing 1,500 people. In a more heavily-populated area, the death toll would have substantially higher.

Neighbours Textbox
Chile has a very long eastern border with Argentina that stretches from South America’s subtropical centre to the continent’s cold southern tip. The country also borders Bolivia to the northeast and Peru to the north. To the west and south is a long, heavily indented Pacific Ocean coastline.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Chile is a remarkably beautiful country that is well used to receiving and accommodating tourists. Culturally, its major cities are modern and increasingly cosmopolitan, but with plenty of colonial squares and buildings that help them to retain their charm. By South American standards, Chilean cities are deemed pretty safe.

Chile passport
Chilean passport

Away from the urban centres, Chile has much to offer. The Atacama gives visitors the chance to experience stark, arid desert landscapes, while the Andean mountains provide great hiking and winter sports opportunities. Chile has also become one of the world’s most significant wine producers, and the country’s central region, where conditions closely resemble the Mediterranean, should be of interest to wine enthusiasts. Further south, lakes, rivers, glaciers and fjords become the main attraction. And, of course, there is Easter Island, the mysterious home of the famous giant stone-carved heads.

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Torres del Paine

 

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China

中国 (Zhōngguó)
  • Official Name: People’s Republic of China
  • Capital City: Beijing
  • Largest City: Shanghai
  • Population: 1,376,049,000
  • Language: Mandarin Chinese, numerous regional languages
  • Currency: Renminbi (also known as yuan)
  • Continent: Asia

What’s China like?

The world’s most populous nation and one of its biggest by area too, China is a political, economic and military heavyweight, famous around the world for its unique cuisine, ancient civilisation, distinctive languages, wildlife and packed cities. Since 1949 and the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War, the country has been a one-party state under the control of the Communist Party. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s brought about severe famine and resulted in millions of deaths. However, in the last two decades, the party has reformed the economy and opened China up to the world, and the subsequent economic growth has had a transformative effect on Chinese society.

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China

Vast swathes of the rural Chinese population have headed for the cities, making China’s eastern seaboard one of the most densely-populated, urbanised, environments on earth. All this progress has also resulted in creating some of the world’s most polluted cities. China is also a centre of global manufacturing, and many countries have experienced the loss of industry to China. The infamous one-child policy – an attempt to control rapid population growth – has recently been liberalised, and has been widely criticised ever since its inception. The country is also looking to increase its international influence and has invested heavily in developing the natural resources of Africa.

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Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Areas

While most Chinese now live in cities in the east and south of the country, much of China’s interior remains rural, with traditional ways of life still strong. Significant minority groups include Tibetans of the southwestern plateau and the restive Uighur Muslims of the far western province of Xinjiang. China also has sovereignty over the economic powerhouse of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It also claims sovereignty over the island of Taiwan, although it does not currently have control. Much of China experiences warm summers, with the southeast rather subtropical and the northeast bitterly cold in winter. Earthquakes are relatively common and occasionally devastating, while the coastal regions are sometimes subjected to powerful typhoons.

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Shanghai

One cool thing about China

The Chinese discovered and began using natural gas for heating and energy roughly 2,300 years before it was discovered in the West.

One sad thing about China

The country’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979 by then-leader Deng Xiaoping, was a controversial approach to managing population growth that said couples could only have one child. While debate continues about whether the policy was successful and/or necessary, the negative effects include a skewed sex ratio that means there are far more men than women, and a legacy of forced abortions and punitive sanctions against citizens.

Neighbours Textbox
The People’s Republic of China ties with Russia as having the most amount of bordering nations, some of which are partially or wholly disputed. In the north, China has a long border with Mongolia, while Russia lies to the northeast and northwest. There is also a border with North Korea in China’s northeast. In the south, China borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). China also has a southern and southwestern border with India, which is disputed in places, especially at Jammu and Kashmir. China has a smaller dispute over a part of its southern border with Bhutan, and also borders Nepal in this region. As with India, China’s southwestern border with Pakistan is disputed in the Kashmiri region. A tiny section of China’s western frontier makes contact with the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also lie to the west, while Kazakhstan is to China’s northwest. The island of Taiwan, claimed in whole by the People’s Republic of China but not under its jurisdiction, lies across the Taiwan Strait to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With an ancient civilisation, a rich heritage, famous culture, delicious cuisine, vibrant modern cities, ornate, beautiful temples and almost too many sites of historical interest to count, few countries can boast a tourist scene as awe-inspiring as China’s. Only Italy and Spain have more UNESCO World Heritage sites than China. Perhaps the most obvious site of interest is the Great Wall, the famous fortified barrier stretching across a swathe of northern China that was built to protect the country from raiders and warriors to the north. The Wall stretches for thousands of miles and is widely accessible to tourists, though also prone to degradation due to the number of visitors. Beijing’s Forbidden City is a must-see. This former imperial palace was home to numerous emperors, including from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and today hosts a museum. The incredible Terracotta Warriors in the city of Xi’an are designed to recall an imperial Chinese army.

China passport
Chinese passport

China’s cities are choked with traffic and increasingly polluted, but still worth exploring. The capital, Beijing, is the country’s political centre, while its largest city, Shanghai, is China’s principal economic and business centre. Hong Kong falls under Chinese sovereignty, but is largely self-governing, as is Macau. Those looking to enter Tibet should be aware that a separate permit is needed and all visitors must be part of a guided tour. However, the region’s Buddhist culture and temples, and stunning scenery, make it a worthwhile experience. China’s far west is much less-visited, but it is still worthwhile for those looking to experience something a little bit different. The province of Xinjiang is home to the Uighur, a Turkic people of Islamic faith. Visiting Xinjiang can be difficult due to the security situation, but the region is strikingly beautiful.

Hong Kong passport  Macao passport
Hongkonger and Macanese passports

The country also has incredible mountain scenery, from the Himalaya along its borders with Nepal, India and Bhutan, to the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, with its remarkable karst landscapes. The country abounds with sacred and famous mountains, including, of course, the northern face of Mount Everest.

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Great Wall of China

 

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Colombia

  • Official Name: Republic of Colombia
  • Capital City: Bogotá
  • Population: 48,786,100
  • Language: Spanish, numerous regional languages
  • Currency: Peso
  • Continent: South America

What’s Colombia like?

In the northwest corner of South America, Colombia is one of the world’s most linguistically, ethnically and geographically diverse countries. A former Spanish colony, and named after Christopher Columbus, the country’s recent history has been turbulent thanks to a long-running armed conflict between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist militant organisation seeking to turn Colombia into an egalitarian, agrarian society by force. The conflict has died down substantially in the last ten years or so, allowing a degree of stability and economic growth – albeit somewhat uneven – to take hold.

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Colombia

Most Colombians live in the big cities of the Andes mountains, where temperatures are moderate to cool year-round. Coastal Colombia tends to be much warmer, with tropical conditions prevailing. The Amazon Rainforest also extends into southern Colombia. The people of Colombia are diverse, descending from the original indigenous inhabitants of the region, Spanish colonists and later European and Middle Eastern immigrants. Some are also descended from Africans brought over as slaves. An unequal society ravaged by decades of violence and the influence of drug cartels, rural Colombians remain poor. City dwellers are generally more prosperous, but areas of deprivation are still found.

One cool thing about Colombia

Surveys suggest that Colombia is the happiest country in the world. Despite its poverty and decades of conflict, it seems that the passionate, dance-obsessed Colombians are pretty happy with their lot in life.

One sad thing about Colombia

Football is a national obsession in Colombia, and the national team went into the 1994 World Cup in the USA with a team many believed could win the tournament. Sadly, the Colombians flattered to deceive and, after returning to Colombia following the tournament, defender Andrés Escobar was shot dead, apparently for having scored an own goal against the hosts. He was only 27.

Neighbours Textbox
Colombia borders Panama in the northwest across the remote Darién Gap. To the east is Venezuela, while Brazil lies to the southeast, Peru to the south and Ecuador to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Colombia’s forbidding reputation for violence and drug trafficking has served to keep it off many travelers’ South American itineraries, and the country is still underdeveloped for tourism. However, this seems unlikely to last as Colombia inches closer to long-term peace and more and more people set out to discover the secrets of this incredibly beautiful, exciting and enchanting country.

Colombia passport
Colombian passport

With its remarkable cultural and geographical diversity, Colombia has something to offer almost anyone. The capital city, Bogotá, is a teeming, intoxicating metropolis high in the Andes and is an obvious cultural and economic locus. Beautiful Cartagena on the Caribbean coast features a stunning old town and offers a great hub for exploring the region’s beaches. The city of Cali, meanwhile, is a draw for salsa lovers, with a reputation as a real party city. Southern Colombia features endless miles of lush Amazonian jungle, some of it barely explored. However, any travel in rural districts requires care and meticulous planning, as nefarious groups do still operate and pose a risk to safety.

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Cartagena

 

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The Comoros

Comores • Komori •  جزر القمر‎‎, (Juzur al-Qumur)
  • Official Name: Union of the Comoros
  • Capital City: Moroni
  • Population: 798,000
  • Official Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Language: Comorian, French, Arabic
  • Currency: Comorian franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s the Comoros like?

One of Africa’s smallest countries, the Comoros is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, constituting a federal union of three islands. Geographically, the Comorian archipelago also includes the French island of Mayotte, and the Union has claimed sovereignty over it since achieving independence from France in 1975. Instability has been a constant feature of Comorian life ever since, with two of the three islands in the union declaring independence in 1997, before the rebellion was brought to a close two years later. The country struggles to find jobs for its growing, young population, and lacks much in the way of natural resources. The Comoros ranks as one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world.

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Comoros

The volcanic islands that make up the Comoros – Grand Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan – are largely mountainous and rocky, with beautiful beaches and a tropical climate. The country is also home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and its small area of rainforest is under existential threat. The influence of contact with the Arab world is evident in the prominence of the Arabic language and Islamic faith, while the former French colonial masters have also left their distinctive trace on the islands. Despite the challenges that the modern country faces, it has much potential as a luxury and ecotourism destination.

One cool thing about the Comoros

It may not be blessed with a bounty of natural resources, but if you use cosmetic products enriched with ylang-ylang, chances are you’ve been applying a little piece of the Comoros to your skin. The country is the world’s largest producer.

One sad thing about the Comoros

Half of all Comorians live below the international poverty line, making the country one of the poorest on Earth.

Neighbours Textbox
As a nation made up of islands in the Indian Ocean, the Comoros has no land borders. It’s nearest neighbour is the French-administered island of Mayotte to the southeast, which the Comoros claims in its entirety. Beyond Mayotte is Madagascar, while Mozambique lies to the west on the African mainland.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourism is of some importance to the Comorian economy, but the sector is still underdeveloped and the country remains off the beaten track. Most tourists come from France and Arabic-speaking countries. Despite the lack of tourist infrastructure, the islands natural beauty and warm, tropical climate mean there is plenty of untapped potential, and those who do venture into this relatively remote culture will meet a friendly people not jaded by the influence of mass tourism in a country that offers a genuinely unique travel experience.

Comoros passport
Comorian passport

The islands’ beautiful blue Indian Ocean waters are great for diving, as well as observing dolphins and, if you’re really lucky, giant sea turtles, who come ashore on Mohéli to lay their eggs. It is also possible to trek to the Karthala volcano crater, to get a close-up look at one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

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Moutsamoudou, on Anjouan

 

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Congo (Democratic Republic of the)

République démocratique du Congo • Repubilika ya Kôngo ya Dimokalasi • Republíki ya Kongó Demokratíki • Jamhuri ya Kidemokrasia ya Kongo • Ditunga dia Kongu wa Mungalaata
  • Official Name: Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Capital City: Kinshasa
  • Population: 81,680,000
  • Language: French, Lingala, Kituba, Swahili, Tshiluba
  • Currency: Congolese franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s DR Congo like?

Africa’s second-largest country is a vast land that sprawls across equatorial central Africa. It is all but landlocked, save for a short strip of coastal territory on the South Atlantic Ocean. Much of the country is remote rainforest, often barely explored, that serves as home to all manner of exotic species and isolated human communities. Indeed, the Congolese rainforest is second only to the Amazon in terms of size. The mighty Congo river serves as the country’s lifeblood, while eastern Congo is dominated by spectacular mountain ranges. The southeast of the country in particular is blessed (or cursed) with a wealth of minerals that offer the prospect of great prosperity. However, this is also one of the world’s most blighted, chaotic, poverty-stricken and war-ravaged countries.

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Democratic Republic of the Congo

During the period of European colonial expansion, this massive swathe of African territory and its diverse people had the particular misfortune to be subdued, ruled and exploited by Belgium’s King Leopold II, and became known as the Belgian Congo. Leopold saw his colony as nothing more than a resource to be plundered, and his administration brutalised the local population in the process. Since independence in 1960, the country has proved a fractious beast, at times straining to remain together, and has experienced periods of autocratic rule – including under the infamous President Mobutu – as well as bitter conflicts on a scale not seen since the Second World War, often partially fomented by, encouraged by and involving neighbouring countries. Many eastern Congolese still live in refugee camps. Despite the country’s mineral wealth and a gradual improvement in recent years, this remains a remote, difficult-to-govern and extremely poor part of the world.

One cool thing about DR Congo

The country is home to Africa’s oldest national park – the Virunga National Park – which is home to rare and endangered species including mountain gorillas and African elephants.

One sad thing about DR Congo

Take your pick – it’s a sad fact that the Congolese are no strangers to hardship. The country is unfortunately somewhat synonymous with the recruitment of child soldiers, and as recently as 2012/2013, the UN reported 1,000 children being conscripted to fight.

Neighbours Textbox
A vast country in the heart of Africa, the DR Congo has a large number of neighbouring nations. To the north and northwest is the Central African Republic, to the northeast is South Sudan and Uganda, to the east is Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, to the southeast is Zambia, to the southwest is Angola, and to the west is the Republic of the Congo. The country also has a tiny stretch of coastal territory in the far west, which separates Angola’s Cabinda province from the rest of that country.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Even the hardiest, most experienced backpackers find the DR Congo a challenging country to explore. Although some especially adventurous Westerners do venture into the country’s rainforests, mountains and chaotic cities each year, this poverty-stricken, underdeveloped nation has little in the way infrastructure aimed at the tourist trade and requires extremely precise, careful planning and a willingness to part with any vestige of creature comforts in order to be fully enjoyed. Despite its remoteness and sad, brutal history, the Congo remains a beautiful country with an array of treasures to share with the intrepid few who head there.

DR Congo passport
Congolese passport

The country’s remote, volatile eastern provinces bordering Rwanda and Burundi play host to towering, misty equatorial mountain peaks and even offer the chance to sleep on the rim of an active volcano (if that sounds scary, remember – this is the Congo). The Congolese jungles also allow tourists occasional access to endangered mountain gorillas in their lush and mysterious redoubts. The fast-flowing Congo river and its many tributaries give especially adventurous Westerners the chance to travel by barge alongside innumerate curious Congolese passengers. The capital city, Kinshasa, is located in the far west of the country, facing the capital of the other Congo (the Republic) across the Congo river, and offers arguably the most comfortable experience for visitors to the country. This enormous metropolitan expanse is booming and Chinese investment is bringing development to the city.

DR Congo
Kinshasa

 

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Congo (Republic of the)

République du Congo • Republíki ya Kongó
  • Official Name: Republic of the Congo
  • Capital City: Brazzaville
  • Population: 4,662,446
  • Language: French, Kituba, Lingala
  • Currency: Central African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Congo Republic like?

The former French colony is a lot smaller, considerably less unstable and somewhat better-off than its giant neighbour and namesake. The country is one of Africa’s most urbanised, with most of the population living in and around the capital city, Brazzaville, and close to the Congo river along the border with the DR Congo. Away from this region, the country is mostly endangered tropical rainforest. Congo also has a short Atlantic coastline.

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Republic of the Congo

The Republic of the Congo gained independence from France in 1960 and entered the Soviet sphere of influence as a Marxist one-party state. However, market reforms and multiparty elections came to the country in 1991, and it has managed to avoid the violence and instability that has plagued many of its neighbours. However, despite these reforms, President Denis Sassou Nguesso has ruled the country since a brief civil war 1997 and has faced a number of criticisms in that time. Although rich in minerals and with strong hydrocarbon potential, the Republic of the Congo remains poor, with political and societal tensions bubbling just below the surface.

One cool thing about Congo Republic

The Congolese rainforest is home to numerous tribes, but perhaps the most famous are the Pygmy. The average height of a Pygmy man is just 4ft 10in tall, with Pygmy women shorter still!

One sad thing about Congo Republic

In October 2015, a referendum was held to allow the government to change the constitution to allow the president to stand for a third term in office. When the result came through as heavily in favour, street protests broke out that saw 18 people killed by security forces.

Neighbours Textbox
The smaller of the two Congo nations borders Gabon to the west, Cameroon to the northwest, the Central African Republic to the north, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the east and southeast, and the Cabinda exclave of Angola to the south. It also has a short Atlantic coast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As with many fellow central African nations, tourism is an underdeveloped sector of the economy. Most visitors come from France, with whom the country has historical and linguistic connections. Those who do visit, however, are rewarded with an authentic African experience in a beautiful and friendly country.

Congo passport
Congolese passport

The Congo’s jungles and national parks offer the chance to see gorillas and other highly endangered species in their natural habitat, as well as some challenging hiking. The Congo river – the deepest in the world – is itself a particular draw to this part of the world. Meanwhile, the vibrant capital, Brazzaville, gives a flavour of modern urban Africa and offers views across the river to Kinshasa in DR Congo.

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Brazzaville, with Kinshasa visible across the Congo river

 

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Costa Rica

  • Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica
  • Capital City: San José
  • Population: 4,586,353
  • Official Religion: Roman Catholicism
  • Language: Spanish, Mekatelyu, Bribri, Patois
  • Currency: Costa Rican colón
  • Continent: North America

What’s Costa Rica like?

The poster boy for peaceable nations and political stability on the often volatile Central American isthmus, Costa Rica is also incredibly biodiverse, drawing visitors from around the world to explore its jungles and enjoy opportunities for adventure. The country is fiercely protective of its remarkable natural environment, and almost a quarter of Costa Rica’s land area is given over to national parks and specially-protected areas. The country consistently scores at the very top of world rankings in the area of environmental policy.

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Costa Rica

Costa Rica is also one of Latin American’s most stable, prosperous and equal societies, with an economy that continues to grow and diversify. A former colony of Spain, the country has a proud and longstanding democratic tradition as an independent nation and has been able to avoid the strife, chaos and violence that mars other Central American countries. Its citizens rank among the happiest anywhere in the world. Despite the many positives, future challenges include delivering further development while protecting fragile ecosystems, and tackling a still stubbornly high crime rate.

One cool thing about Costa Rica

The country is one of only a handful of nations without a standing army, having abolished its forces all the way back in 1949. It pursues a pacifist foreign policy.

One sad thing about Costa Rica

The country is a bit of an all-round goody-two-shoes, which makes it hard to find much to lament. This is, of course, a good thing. However, it is home to the Arenal volcano, one of the world’s most active, which destroyed the town of Tabacón in 1968.

Neighbours Textbox
Costa Rica has two neighbours in Central America – Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the southeast. To the east is the Caribbean Sea, while to the west is the Pacific Ocean.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Costa Rica, with its abundant national parks, diverse wildlife, thick jungles and idyllic beaches, is one of the world’s leading ecotourism destinations, as well as a haven for adventure tourists. Some sources suggest that this tiny country could possess as much as 6% of the world’s animal and plant life, a startling statistic that helps to illustrate the country’s ecotourism credentials.

Costa Rica passport
Costa Rican passport

For those who’ve had enough of exploring the national parks and taking in the country’s awe-inspiring flora and fauna, the capital city, San José, and other towns dotted about this small country, offer a warm, relaxed and friendly welcome. Costa Rica has coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean that continue to entice enthusiasts of exotic beaches, and the active Arenal volcano can be safely explored on a guided tour.

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Arenal volcano

 

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Croatia

Hrvatska
  • Official Name: Republic of Croatia
  • Capital City: Zagreb
  • Population: 4,190,700
  • Language: Croatian
  • Currency: Kuna
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Croatia like?

Two decades on from the collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent Balkan Wars, Croatia has emerged as a modern liberal democracy and has experienced impressive economic growth. The days of Yugoslav socialism under the autocratic rule of Marshal Tito (himself a Croat) have been left well and truly behind as market forces have taken root in Croatia and the country has developed into one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Croatia is also the most recent new member of the European Union, having joined in 2013. Despite clear progress, life in rural Croatia can still be quite traditional, with ramshackle farming villages and old fashioned agricultural methods still visible. Meanwhile, the global economic downturn has hit Croatia hard, and the economy has stalled in recent years. Many Croats have very quickly become disillusioned with the EU.

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Croatia

The country’s capital and largest city, Zagreb, has developed into a vibrant, modern and relatively well-off city, but Croatia is perhaps best known for it’s magnificent Adriatic coastline and the historical city of Dubrovnik. The Croatian coast abounds with rocky islands on which perch tiny traditional villages, while spectacular fjords cut miles into the mainland. The country also includes the attractive Istria peninsula in the northwest.

One cool thing about Croatia

Film director Alfred Hitchcock seems to have liked Croatia, and once described the sunset in the seaside resort of Zadar as the most beautiful in the world.

One sad thing about Croatia

The 1991-1995 war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Croatians, and a further 170,000 had to leave their homes. After the war ended, the newly-independent nation’s ethnic Serbs had little choice but to leave.

Neighbours Textbox
All but one of Croatia’s bordering nations are former Yugoslav republics. The odd man out is Hungary to the northeast. Serbia also lies to the northeast, while Bosnia and Herzegovina lies to the east. In the far south is a short border with Montenegro, while the country also borders Slovenia in the north. Croatia almost makes contact with Italy in the northwest, but is prevented from doing so by a tiny slice of Slovenian territory. Croatia has a long coastline on the Adriatic Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Aside from a few areas where landmines remain, war is no longer a factor to consider when visiting Croatia. The country is peaceful and very popular with tourists. The majority of visitors head to the long, breathtaking coastline on the Adriatic Sea to sample world-class seafood, relax on numerous beautiful beaches, island-and-fjord hop and, of course, to explore Dubrovnik, the superbly preserved walled city in the far south that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other popular destinations along the coast include the Roman ruins at Split, the resort town of Zadar and the Istrian town of Pula, which features a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. However, Croatia’s coast is so remarkable that there is barely an inch of it that is not worth seeing.

Croatia passport
Croatian passport

Away from the seaside, Croatia’s north is mostly rolling hills and open plains, punctuated by rustic towns and villages. However, the capital, Zagreb, with its attractive old town, is also one of the country’s more popular tourist destinations and features architecture that gives the city the feel of a central European capital.

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Dubrovnik

 

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Cuba

  • Official Name: Republic of Cuba
  • Capital City: Havana
  • Population: 11,239,004
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Peso, convertible peso
  • Continent: North America

What’s Cuba like?

The largest island in the Caribbean and a former Spanish colony, Cuba has been a one-party Marxist-Leninist state since 1965 and is one of the world’s few remaining centrally planned economies. The country has been in a state of almost constant hostility with its near neighbour the United States since the overthrow of nationalist President Batista in 1959 and the subsequent coming to power of Fidel Castro, who set about attempting to create a classless, agrarian society and grew close to the Soviet Union in the process. The country is synonymous with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world is often acknowledged to have come as close as it has ever done before or since to nuclear war.

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Cuba

The US is home to a large Cuban diaspora, especially in Florida. Recently, the Obama administration has shown tentative signs of attempting to bring Cuba in from the diplomatic and economic cold, although this may change when Donald Trump takes office. While the government’s policies have achieved some successes, especially in healthcare and education, most Cubans remain relatively poor. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his younger brother Raúl in 2008, and some small steps towards greater political and economic freedom have been made. The outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Election will have been of particular interest to Cubans.

One cool thing about Cuba

Although the Cuban political system has received decades of criticism and its economy has stagnated, the country scores extremely highly in ratings of international healthcare. Indeed, Cuba trains so many doctors that the country exports many to parts of the world with shortages.

One sad thing about Cuba

Few Cubans are allowed to access the internet, and the punishment for doing so without permission can be up to five years in prison.

Neighbours Textbox
You might think that Cuba, as an island nation, lacks land borders, but this would technically be inaccurate. This is because a tiny southeastern portion of the island of Cuba belongs to the United States as its Guantánamo Bay military base and high security detention centre. The US state of Florida lies to the north, across the Florida Strait, while The Bahamas are to the northeast, Haiti is to the southeast, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands are to the south, and Mexico lies a short distance away to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Sadly, Cuba does not allow United States citizens to visit as tourists, although this may change depending on future developments in US-Cuba relations. More happily, the country has begun to open up to the rest of the world, and more and more visitors are arriving to experience this slice of socialism in the Caribbean or just to soak up the sun on one of the island’s pristine beaches.

Cuba passport
Cuban passport

The country is renowned for its cigars and rum, both of which can be found almost anywhere on the island. The capital city, Havana, is a swinging town with a happening nightlife, and many visitors are fascinated by the decaying colonial architecture and array of American cars that pre-date the 1959 revolution. Cubans are masters of make-do-and-mend. Away from the more luxurious beach resorts, Cuba’s infrastructure is creaking, with power outages a common problem. Nevertheless, the country is on the up as a tourist destination – imagine the windfall if they started letting Americans in!

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Havana

 

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Cyprus

Κύπρος (Kýpros) • Kıbrıs
  • Official Name: Republic of Cyprus
  • Capital City: Nicosia
  • Population: 1,141,166
  • Language: Greek, Turkish
  • Currency: Euro (Turkish lira accepted in the north)
  • Continent: Asia (but culturally and politically European)

What’s Cyprus like?

A beautiful sun-drenched island in the eastern Mediterranean, the Cypriot political situation takes some explaining. The country is politically and militarily divided between its two constituent ethnic groups – Greeks and Turks. The south and centre is home to the Greek Cypriots, while the Turkish Cypriots live in the north. This division came about in 1971, when a Turkish invasion of the island triggered a brief war, a mass movement of the population, and the setting up of a UN buffer zone between the two sectors. The Republic of Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960 and is still the legally recognised authority over the whole island. However, it is, in practice, a Greek-only state with control over the south, while the north is the self-declared independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The Green Line, as the buffer zone is known, was once closed, but it is now possible to cross between the two sides. Efforts to reunite Cyprus have thus far been unsuccessful, but hopes remain that the latest round of talks could lead to a settlement.

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Cyprus

The southern (Greek Cypriot) part of the island is a modern European country with a thriving tourist industry and numerous resorts appealing to package holidaymakers from northern Europe. It also features the country’s only ski resort, in the Troodos mountains. Exposure to the Greek economic crisis has hit the economy hard after a period of sustained growth. The Turkish north continues to open up, but this is still one of Europe’s wilder frontiers, and parts of the north retain a traditional, rustic feel that is less prevalent in the south.

One cool thing about Cyprus

The island is known as the “playground of the gods due to its key role in Greek mythology. Aphrodite is said to have risen from the sea in Cyprus. She probably didn’t, but it’s still worth visiting her purported birthplace near Paphos.

One sad thing about Cyprus

Although the armed conflict in Cyprus ended in the mid-1970s, it is estimated that as many as 2,000 people remain missing to this day.

Neighbours Textbox
Rather like Cuba, Cyprus, despite being an island nation, does technically have land borders. This is because of the British Sovereign Base Areas in the south – Akrotiri and Dhekelia. The UN Buffer Zone separating territory controlled by the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus also forms a de facto border.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

If you live in Britain, or some other gloomy, windswept corner of northern Europe, chances are you’ve either already been to Cyprus or know somebody who has. The country is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, with its year-round sunshine, fascinating history, Greek and Turkish cultures, delicious cuisine, glorious beaches and lively nightspots. The town of Ayia Napa has developed into one of Europe’s premier summer party destinations, while Paphos is a package holiday mecca. You can even ski in the Troodos mountains in winter.

Cyprus passport
Cypriot passport

It’s not all go in Cyprus, though. Much of the island away from the tourist centres remains quite traditional, and even the larger cities have quieter, more authentically Cypriot districts. The island is also strewn with a wealth of archaeological treasures, and there are still plenty of peaceful, remote beach hideaways off the beaten track. The Turkish north is relatively underdeveloped and offers visitors a very different experience to the Greek Cypriot side. It’s worth heading to the capital, Nicosia, to cross the Green Line before reunification is finally agreed and the fortifications are dismantled.

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Petra tou Romiou, or Aphrodite’s Rock

 

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Czech Republic

Česká republika
  • Official Name: Czech Republic
  • Capital City: Prague
  • Population: 10,553,443
  • Language: Czech
  • Currency: Czech koruna
  • Continent: Europe

What’s the Czech Republic like?

The modern Czech state came into being after the fall of communism in Europe and the so-called Velvet Divorce, which saw Czechoslovakia split into two new countries – the Czech Republic (sometimes referred to as Czechia) and Slovakia. What is today known as the Czech Republic is small in size, but its position at the heart of Europe has resulted in a rich history. The country’s capital, Prague, has been an important centre of power, but the Czechs have also known invasion and occupation (not least by Nazi Germany during the Second World War), and Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence after 1945. The Velvet Divorce saw the Czech and Slovak people go their separate ways in a peaceful separation, following the collapse of communism.

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Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is now a prosperous liberal democracy and became a member of the European Union in the 2004 enlargement. Democratic politics have taken firm root since the demise of communist Czechoslovakia, and the Czech Republic has experienced considerable economic growth since opening up to world markets. The country has achieved relatively low unemployment, even during the recent economic crisis. The Czech landscape is remarkably diverse for such a small country, featuring mountains, flat plains and river valleys.

One cool thing about the Czech Republic

The country is sometimes referred to as the castle capital of the world owing to the presence of more than 2,000 castles that dot the landscape.

One sad thing about the Czech Republic

The Prague Spring of 1968 saw a reformist movement emerge in Czechoslovakia intent on liberalising the communist state. This began in January, but ended when troops from the Soviet Union and other communist countries rolled in to crush the uprising.

Neighbours Textbox
The Czech Republic is situated at the heart of Europe, which Germany on its western flank, Poland to the north, Slovakia to the southeast and Austria to the south.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

People from all across Europe and beyond flock to Prague to experience its beautiful architecture, fascinating history, UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre and its somewhat hedonistic nightlife scene. The city has become popular (and perhaps even a little infamous) as a destination for boisterous mainly British stag and hen parties. But both Prague and the wider Czech Republic are about far more than that. The country’s historical medieval towns enchant those who choose to explore beyond Prague, and Czech spa resorts are world renowned.

Czech Republic passport
Czech passport

The beautiful Czech countryside abounds with medieval castles and monasteries, while the mountains are great for hiking. The country’s natural parks draw visitors off the beaten track. The Czech Republic is also world famous for beer, and quality Czech brews can be sampled throughout the country. The city of Plzeň is the birthplace of Pilsener.

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Prague

 

So that’s Part One out of the way. Those familiar with the alphabet will no doubt know that we’ll begin Part Two with the letter D – Denmark, to be precise. I’ll see you then.

 

 

 

Nicosia: a city with a difference

In July 2012, I spent a week in Cyprus, hiring a car and exploring the island. Here, I look back on my brief visit to the country’s bustling, divided and sweltering capital, Nicosia, the highlight of my trip.

Flag_of_Cyprus.svg (1)  North Cyprus

Once you get out of the congested towns and cities, Cyprus is a great place to drive. The well-maintained motorways flow quickly and freely, suggesting that most Cypriots don’t feel much need to move between the island’s population centres. It’s a Wednesday morning in late July 2012, and I’m cruising the hour and a half’s drive from the coastal city of Larnaca to Nicosia, the capital, in the centre of the island. The skies over Larnaca are their usual brilliant blue as temperatures quickly climb. The drive northwest to Nicosia will take me along the B2 through Larnaca’s suburbs, before joining the A2 and subsequently A1 motorways, climbing through the hills of the interior before dropping into the valley containing the sprawling metropolis of the capital. While Larnaca may have been bathed in hot morning sunshine, the hills on the road to Nicosia are cloaked in murk, and at one point I have to employ my car’s wipers to remove drizzle from the windscreen. Cyprus receives almost no rain during the summer months, but I managed to find some.

Arriving in Nicosia at about 11 o’clock, I’m funnelled onto a major arterial highway – a serpentine three-lane race track winding its way towards the city centre. Suddenly, I’m surrounded on all sides by aggressive, weaving traffic. Keeping my wits about me, I vow to remain in my lane for as long as possible, driving defensively as the walled heart of Nicosia edges nearer. I eventually find a small car park just off the main road and a short walk from the city centre. Stepping out of my Ford Focus, the city air feels like a furnace. This is the hottest part of Cyprus, and the temperature is in the high thirties already. The car park attendant takes my €3 for a day’s parking and engages me in friendly conversation. We talk football, and his eyes light up when I correctly guess that he supports local side APOEL rather than their bitter rivals Omonia. He also wants to talk about Manchester, referring to Manchester United by the first part of their name only, in that way Europeans tend to do.

Divided Cyprus

The partition of Cyprus

A little bit of background before we go any further. I’ve come to Nicosia because it offers me the opportunity to do something unique – something that has always appealed to my interest in history and geopolitics. It might surprise one or two holidaymakers – especially those who stick religiously to the beach and the hotel pool – that Cyprus is technically in a state of war, and Nicosia is known as the last divided capital in Europe. The Republic of Cyprus was formed upon independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 (except for the British sovereign base areas, but let’s not over-complicate matters), with the intention of power being shared between the majority ethnic Greek community and the minority ethnic Turkish community. A lofty ideal in theory, this arrangement soon broke down, leading to governmental paralysis and inter-communal violence.

Things got even worse when, in 1974, the military government in Greece fomented a coup in Cyprus designed to achieve enosis – the union of Cyprus with Greece. In response, the Turkish military invaded the island. The conflict that followed saw the legally recognised Republic of Cyprus lose nearly 40% of its territory to Turkish occupation. A ceasefire was agreed, and the UN formed a buffer zone which crosses the island, running through the middle of Nicosia. A population exchange occurred, whereby thousands of Greek Cypriots had to leave their homes in the north, and Turkish Cypriots headed to the Turkish-controlled zone. Around 2,000 people remain missing to this day in the wake of these events. Nicosia’s airport lies abandoned in the no-man’s land of the Green Line, visitors to Cyprus now arriving into the country at Larnaca or Paphos.

Cyprus Refugees

A museum piece depicts the movement of refugees

In 1983, the Turkish-occupied north of the island declared itself to be an independent state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Republic of Cyprus – now essentially a Greek-only state – controlled the south and centre. The international community refuses to recognise the northern state, viewing the Republic of Cyprus as the legitimate authority over the whole of the island, and the presence of Turkish troops in the north as an illegal occupation. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise the northern state. This led to decades of isolation for Cyprus’s north, cut off from the rest of the island by the buffer zone – known as the Green Line – its tourism potential untapped and its people unable to trade with the rest of the world other than Turkey. Meanwhile, the south became a tourist mecca, joined the European Union in 2004 and experienced a period of rapid economic growth and rising living standards that brought prosperity to that part of the island until the economic disaster beginning in 2008, and the country’s banking collapse of 2012, when exposure to the Greek economy, among other things, brought it all to a crushing halt.

The last decade has seen tentative moves towards a brighter future on Cyprus. A referendum on re-unification in 2004, just prior to Cyprus joining the EU, saw Greek Cypriots reject the plan. However, the north has begun to open up to the world. A number of crossing points now allow free movement between the two entities at the Green Line. Tourists are beginning to discover North Cyprus, whether on a day trip from their resorts in the south, or during a longer stay. While the south is heavily developed, the north offers deserted beaches and rural wilderness that should only increase interest in this part of the world. Overseas visitors are beginning to buy property in North Cyprus, and experiencing some headaches in the process. The northern economy has ridden the global downturn fairly well. At this very moment, talks over re-unification are under way again.

Ledra Street

Ledra Street, south Nicosia, approaching the crossing point

It is in this context that I find myself pounding the streets of south Nicosia, dripping with sweat in the baking heat as I make my way to the walled city and the popular pedestrian crossing point on Ledra Street where one leaves Greek Cyprus behind and steps into a very different culture. I decide to explore the southern part of the city first and plan to cross into the north in time for a late lunch. I wander the tight streets of the old city, taking in the sights along the historic walls and stopping to admire the fortified gates that once guarded the entrances to the city. At certain points the flags of Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey and North Cyprus confront each other over the dividing line. The minarets of the Selimiye Mosque dominate the skyline, serving as a reminder of the very different society that lies just a short walk away. The sound of the Muslim call to prayer echoes out across the whole city. Nicosia feels surreal.

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British colonialism in all its glory…

Nicosia is the hottest place I’ve ever been by 2012. Although the sun occasionally slips behind the odd lumpy cloud, the temperature has reached 40c. I’ve never felt 40c before, so I beat a hasty retreat to the air-conditioned interior of the Leventis Municipal Museum. This converted two-storey house isn’t mentioned in my Lonely Planet guidebook to Cyprus, and yet it turns out to be one of the best museums I’ve ever set foot in. It contains artifacts dating back to the ancient world and tells the story of Nicosia and Cyprus up to the present day. The displays are immaculate, the artifacts themselves are illuminating and the story of the island comes alive inside this otherwise unassuming building. At one point, I catch a glimpse of the mosque and the Turkish flag in the north and feel a twinge of excitement about the thought of the crossing. I also find myself amused by a display featuring a book dating back to the start of the British colonial administration in the late 19th century entitled “Cyprus: Our New Colony and What We Know About It”. How cute. If you’re ever in Nicosia, seek out this award-winning little museum on Hippocrates Street. You won’t be disappointed.

Nicosia Tennis

A well-kept tennis facility in south Nicosia – perhaps they’ll unearth the next Marcos Baghdatis one day

The southern part of Nicosia in 2012 reminds me of the more upmarket districts of other Mediterranean cities, such as Barcelona or Rome. Pedestrianised streets feature attractive, smooth tiles, as fashionable high-end clothes stores beckon affluent tourists and well-heeled locals to part with their cash. Gleaming banks and pharmacies seem to be everywhere. This was before Cyprus began to feel the pinch, its economy buoyed by rising tourist numbers (especially from Russia) and a lightly regulated financial services industry. However, as Greece began to fail, dragging Cyprus with it, western institutions insisted that the country take a stricter approach to offshore finance, a move which saw investors begin to pull out. In March 2013, Cyprus would require a bailout – one which, due to the country’s small size, would go largely unnoticed by the wider world. In 2016, I have no idea if these events have had a detrimental effect on south Nicosia. I can only assume they must have. But back in July 2012, before the facade slipped, the city appeared to the casual observer to be in rude health.

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A typical pedestrianised south Nicosia street

Finding myself back on Ledra Street, I begin to walk in a northerly direction, towards the checkpoint at which I will enter the unrecognised Turkish republic. I have no idea what to expect. Will there be long queues? Will I have to answer questions? Will I be felt up by an over-zealous border guard? When you arrive at the crossing point, the first thing you see are the flags of the Republic of Cyprus and the European Union. On the right is a kiosk at which Republic of Cyprus officials do their business. The Republic claims all of Cyprus, which means there’s no need to stop at this kiosk on the way through. There are no customs checks as such, as the Republic doesn’t consider the Green Line to be an international boundary. On the way back, they may occasionally ask to see ID, but at this point, I’m free to pass. On my way through, I see some very disappointed-looking American tourists who have turned up without their passports and been turned away by the Turkish Cypriot authorities on the other side. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus sees itself as a sovereign, independent state, and as such, insists on visitors obtaining a visa at the crossing point, for which you’ll need a passport. Fortunately, I’ve come prepared.

There’s a small queue on the Turkish side, but nothing too alarming. The border guards sit in another unassuming kiosk on the left hand side as you pass through. I notice how resplendent they look in their spotless navy blue uniforms. Approaching the desk, I’m greeted by a pretty young Turkish Cypriot border guard with a friendly smile and a perfect grasp of English. She asks me a couple of routine questions, takes out a piece of flimsy paper on which I scrawl my name and passport number, tells me I am now in possession of my Turkish Cypriot visa, flashes me another charming smile and sends me on my way. If only immigration officials everywhere in the world were as welcoming as those of North Cyprus.

Cyprus checkpoint

The Republic of Cyprus-controlled side of the crossing point – the office is the brownish building on the right, partially obscured by the sculpture

 

TRNC checkpoint

Looking back at the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’s checkpoint – the people on the right are obtaining their entry visas. In the background is the Greek checkpoint seen in the previous photo

Things are immediately and strikingly different here. Ledra Street, just a few metres behind me, seems a world away as the road forks in a number of directions. The red and white bunting of the Turkish and Northern Cypriot flags is omnipresent. The upscale shopping streets of the south could be on a different continent now. The streets close to the crossing point are tight and winding, some lined with market stalls and Turkish eateries. The air is dusty and the buildings charmingly scruffy in comparison to the tidy south of the city. Signs display information in Turkish (and English) rather than Greek (and English). Most shops and businesses appear to accept Turkish lira alongside the euro. The dustiness enhances the impact of the heat, making north Nicosia feel like a cauldron. It’s now 41 degrees.

North Nicosia

Rustic north Nicosia with one of the minarets of the Selimiye mosque in the background

Yielding to the oppressive temperatures, I take a seat at a table on a shaded terrace outside a Turkish café. Still only metres from the Green Line, most places appear to cater to tourists in this part of town, but I notice that the place I’ve chosen seems to be serving a healthy number of locals. The surly proprietor brings me an ice-cold bottle of water and an ice-cold Pepsi, both of which go down a treat. Eager to see what a proper Turkish kebab is like, I place an order and watch the world go by while I wait for it to arrive. Back home in the UK, kebabs are best ‘enjoyed’ when you’ve imbibed enough intoxicating liquor to suppress your best nutritional judgement, but in the part of the world where kebabs are a central component of the local cuisine, it seems worth a try. I don’t remember exactly what I thought of my first (and so far only) Turkish Cypriot kebab, but four years on I’m still just about alive, so it can’t have been that bad. I remember enjoying it, though, so what else really matters?

Istanbul Street

Turkish Cypriot patriotism on display on Istanbul Street

With my stomach setting to work on the helping of minced lamb and pitta bread I’ve just introduced it to, the only thing to do is to start exploring North Nicosia. I have a strange and completely misplaced sense of apprehension about the place, as if I’ve somehow stepped out of reality by entering an unrecognised state. Still, I can’t ignore my giddy excitement at standing in the middle of a country that doesn’t really exist. Or rather, a country that does exist, but everybody ignores. Setting myself no targets or time constraints, I decide just to walk around the city streets, taking in the sights and sounds of this unusual place, observing Turkish Cypriots going about their lives as they do every day. Several streets are strewn with rubble due to the sheer number of building sites and roadworks that seem to suggest that change is beginning to come to this once isolated corner of the Mediterranean. I reach the ring road known as Istanbul Street, a busy, wide thoroughfare beyond which lie the residential districts of north Nicosia. I’m fascinated to see how the road is criss-crossed by more red and white bunting. The locals must be fiercely proud of their Turkish and Turkish Cypriot identity. I stumble across Kyrenia Gate, another of Nicosia’s famous medieval city gates. This one was the main point of entry and departure between the city and the island’s northern reaches. Nowadays, it houses a tourist information office.

Selimiye Mosque

Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags at Selimiye Mosque

Northern Cyprus is one of the least devout and most secular Muslim societies on Earth. However, the top attraction in north Nicosia is the Selimiye Mosque. Originally built as a cathedral and converted into a mosque in 1570, the towering minarets are visible both north and south of the Green Line, the call to prayer not requiring a visa to make itself heard on the southern side as well as throughout north Nicosia. It’s always advisable to dress modestly when entering a place of worship, and there are signs instructing visitors to do just that. Whilst I wouldn’t want to be accused of encouraging visitors to break this rule, I do notice that large numbers seem to be ignoring the advice. On stepping inside, it appears that the small band of worshippers are unmoved by this. The atmosphere inside the mosque is relaxed, with the locals barely seeming to notice the outsiders in their midst. The former Gothic cathedral has an understated interior, all whitewash walls and a number of simple but attractive arches. I love the way the mosque seems to dominate the whole city, and I love how the eye-catching Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags are never far away, even inside a mosque.

Ataturk Square

A much-needed rest in Ataturk Square

Leaving Selimiye Mosque behind me, I amble through a small, dusty market selling a combination of tacky tourist merchandise and local foodstuffs. Food markets are always interesting and give the visitor a real insight into local ways of life. Here, the majority of people jostling for space on the narrow street appear to be tourists haggling for a souvenir of their brief visit to the TRNC, the food largely ignored. I suspect most Turkish Cypriots are far too sensible to be out buying tomatoes in the middle of the day in Nicosia in July. Continuing my brief odyssey in north Nicosia, I come to Atatürk Square, named after the founder of modern Turkey. In the middle is a Venetian column, while all around, Turkish Cypriots go about their busy lives, far more oblivious than I am to the searing heat. Sitting in this little square and taking in the architecture of the courthouse and other historic buildings, I find myself wishing I could stay longer.

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Parts of north Nicosia are charmingly ramshackle

Alas, my friend in the car park in the south probably wouldn’t like that. One day I will return to North Cyprus to explore the traditional villages, rugged coastline and wilderness of the Karpaz Peninsula, hopefully before re-unification comes along to steal the novelty away. I return to the checkpoints and join a queue to re-enter the Republic of Cyprus. Things seem to be slow moving, the guards’ attention monopolised by a handful of confused-looking tourists. I notice that people seem to be walking straight past us, as if the checkpoint wasn’t there. I wonder what makes them so special that they don’t need to stop and officially re-enter the south, as I am attempting to do. There’s only one thing for it: I decide to find out what is so special about these people by becoming one of them myself. I strike out from the line, walk straight past the kiosk and back onto Ledra Street, back into the legally recognised Cypriot state. I’ll never know what the queue was for as it becomes clear that there is no real need to stop on re-entry. By this point, all this walking in balmy heat has given me some serious blisters on the soles of my feet, blisters that won’t let up for the rest of my trip to Cyprus.

On returning to my car, my new friend is nowhere to be seen. The car park is deserted, and I’m grateful to see that my Ford Focus is peeping out from the shade of a low-hanging tree. I decide to set a steady pace back to Larnaca, taking in as much of the scenery as I can while I drive. I notice a small football stadium on the outskirts of Nicosia, almost certainly home to APOEL and probably the Cyprus national team as well. I can’t stop to find out, but I’m always intrigued to see sights such as this when travelling. The drive back to Larnaca is blissful along the motorway as I leave the heavy traffic of the city behind. I won’t encounter much traffic again until I arrive back in Larnaca and get lost trying to return to my hotel. I’ve had a brilliant time in Nicosia – a beautiful city with a real difference.

Paphos Gate Kyrenia Gate Turkish flags

 

 

I am not anxiety

A couple of months ago, I decided to begin what I would call my “Anxiety Diary”, in which I would document my thoughts, feelings and experiences of the condition. Well, this will be the second and last ever entry into the diary.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought it would help me get things off my chest and to relieve tension and stress. Writing your thoughts down is a pretty common part of treatment for anxiety and other psychological conditions. However, since I had my first panic attack in January, I’ve done a lot of thinking. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about panic attacks and anxiety disorders. I would probably have to confess that my ignorance left me unsympathetic – as if people needed to ‘snap out of it’. But here we are in the month of May, and I can now say that I am well versed in the subject, both through personal struggle and my own research, and I can say that it certainly isn’t that simple. The one thing I now want to avoid is giving anxiety too much respect. It’s not a heavy load I have to haul around. It’s not an inevitable part of my character that I have to be proud of. It’s not a part of me at all. And it certainly isn’t me. I started this blog because I felt I’d found a subject – travel – on which I had something to say (feel free to disagree with me on that one!) and which I would enjoy thinking about and writing about. So why inject more anxiety into my life by making the condition a part of that? Why spend hours or days coming up with blog posts about something that doesn’t matter? If you blog about anxiety and panic, I’m not saying that you too should stop. Anxiety is an extremely subjective and personal journey and we all handle it in different ways. What helps one person may not help the other. But I thought, to draw a line under the issue for me (at least as far as blogging goes), I’d share some things I’ve learned as a result of the condition, whether it’s about what helps me to feel better, what anxiety is really about or just what I’ve found out about myself, and then leave it at that. All of this is based on personal experience rather than expertise or study, but if it helps even one person feel better, that would make it all worthwhile. It would even make my own suffering seem worthwhile.

Anyway, in no particular order…

A) I’ve been doing this to myself: Nobody asks to have panic attacks. Why on Earth would they? Nobody asks to feel ill all the time, to feel anxious, to wrestle with unpleasant thoughts. So when I say that I have done this to myself, I don’t mean that I have made a conscious choice to suffer, or that you have. However, anxiety is not an external force or a nasty infection about which I can do little other than to wait out. I’ve not been randomly chosen to suffer. I have, however, created my own anxiety through years of unnecessary worry and fear, of unhelpful thought patterns and too much concern for things that may never happen. Of course, there are genetic and environmental factors about which we have no control, but neither of these things mean we have to suffer. I can now see how everything in my life has been leading to this moment. And being able to see this is extremely powerful, because it allows me to begin to change it.

B) The right information is crucial: For such a common condition, it is astonishing how many people receive that wrong information and go on to fall into a cycle they don’t even know they’re in or cannot break free from. I’m still waiting for a medical professional to give me a proper explanation of the condition. Doctors seem to want to throw pills at you and call it good. Of course, what works for one person out there won’t necessarily work for another for all sorts of reasons, but at its heart, anxiety and panic is easily understandable, can be treated, and would hold far less fear for sufferers if they could truly see what is going on. There is so much self-help information out there, some of it excellent, some absolutely useless. I’m of the opinion that you don’t need shelves full of anxiety literature. The last thing I want is to come home from work and see bookshelves full to the brim with the subject. For me, the work of Dr Claire Weekes and Paul David is all I needed. All the information that would allow me to begin to recover is in their books.

C) I can have the life I want right now: Anyone who’s read Paul David’s books and follows his blog might recognise a lot of what I say, so for the record, I’m not looking to pass off other people’s ideas as my own. However, I cannot escape the fact that this man’s advice has proved invaluable. If you can truly understand his message, you will begin to recover. His central message is that, despite the awfulness of anxiety, you don’t need to stop. Claire Weekes was saying much the same as early as the 1960s. So many people put their lives on hold because of how they feel. The problem with this is that it can make things worse. If you take to your bed because you feel unwell, you’ll create behaviour patterns and safety methods that mean it will get harder and harder to get out of that bed. I was headed that way before I picked up ‘At Last A Life’, the first book by Paul David. His simple message that I didn’t need to wait to feel better to do things got me back on my feet almost immediately. I know it’s done the same for others. I’m not saying it made me feel instantly better. I had to go through some hard times, and I still feel rubbish occasionally. But it showed me that none of what I felt was actually a barrier to me getting out of bed and living. This in turn helped me to create the right kinds of behaviours.

D) Anxiety isn’t actually that bad: Anxiety is a massive lie our minds and bodies tell us. If you’re healthy, feelings of anxiety are an accurate reflection of how you feel and the feelings associated with it make sense. But if you’re like me, it pops up in the wrong situations and dominates your entire day. It’s a great big lie! I’ve felt an absolute array of symptoms, from loss of sensation in my limbs and face, dizziness, feelings of inhibited consciousness, depersonalisation, derealisation, a total and complete loss of my ability to feel emotions, nausea, muscle pain and spasms, perceived (but not actual) loss of bladder control, jelly legs, headaches, eye floaters, insomnia, hot spells, cold spells, crippling but unspecified fear, stomach pains, choking sensations, palpitations, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, upsetting thoughts, low mood and more. So I’m not going to say that anxiety isn’t horrible. It is. But when I rationalise the situation properly and truly, from the very pit of my being, accept and believe that it is all being caused by anxiety rather than anything more sinister, it loses its power. I’m not saying it goes away, but you stop fearing it. Without fear, it has so much less to feed on, and recovery begins. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve suffered for a short time or if you’ve been struggling for years, recovery is possible for anybody. But you have to lose that fear and allow yourself to feel rough at times. Anxiety and panic can’t and won’t hurt you. See through the lie and you’ll begin to beat it.

E) Worry is a waste of time: Again, Paul David is my guru here. It’s human to worry, of course. It’s all part of our make up. But how often do the things we worry about come true? And when they do, how often is it as devastating as we anticipate it to be? I’ve always been a worrier. I can’t always put my finger on what my worries really are, but I’ve always lived with one eye on what could go wrong. You can’t live your entire life on guard like that and not expect your in-built defences against threats to ignore it forever. That is what has happened to me. I’ve triggered that ancient part of us that prepares us to fight or to run away, and it won’t go away unless I allow it to. The way to allow it to do that is to stop living as if there’s a threat around every corner. I’m not going to start bungee jumping and I do still plan to look when I cross the street, but I don’t plan on seeing distant life events or minor issues as something to spend hours trying to figure out.

F) Trying to chase anxiety away only makes it worse: I absolutely believe in seeking help when you need it, and there are plenty of treatments for anxiety, from various forms of therapy to medications. I take anti-depressants and beta blockers and have been having a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I have found the pills useful in so much as they have given me the space to see so much of what I’m explaining in this post. The therapy has helped me to see how thought triggers emotions that trigger behaviours that trigger physical sensations. However, I have no interest in chasing around hundreds of therapists trying to find the one who’ll say the things that make it all go away. Nor do I find the constant burden of carrying pills around, trying to remember to take them, especially helpful. Ultimately, I can see how this creates behaviours that actually teach your mind that something is wrong, which only sustains anxiety. And that is why this is my last post on the subject (unless I feel very strongly I have more to say on the matter).

G) What people think about you is not the be all and end all: I’ve had to wait until 31 years of age to finally realise this. No matter who you are, you’ll never suit one hundred percent of the people you meet. If you get over fifty percent you’re doing quite well. Obviously, if you’re going for a job interview, you should be trying to give your prospective employer a good impression and you won’t win many friends if you’re not a half-decent person (is that true? Some of the most popular people I’ve known have been absolute shits).But the point is, stop worrying about what people think. This is especially important if you have anxiety, because it means you’ll stop fighting to keep control and you can drop the veneer of calmness and allow however you feel to just be. I’ve always hated situations in which you have to make a first impression. I never feel comfortable and this makes me feel awkward and brings unpleasant sensations. It makes it hard to concentrate on what someone is saying to you if your focus is entirely on yourself. I find that it triggers a real slowing down of my cognitive functions, to the point where I’ll slur my words and suddenly struggle to think of a single interesting thing to say. I guess you could call it Chandler Bing Syndrome. All of this is caused by nothing more than worrying too much what people think.

H) Just because you think something doesn’t make it true: This is a really important realisation that everyone with anxiety needs to have. Anxious people tend to make everything into a catastrophe. We over-analyse and worry what certain thoughts could mean about us. We sometimes feel a loss of control in our thinking that makes us worry we are experiencing something more serious such as psychosis or Schizophrenia. Or it could just be that you turn every sensation or blemish or symptom into its most dire possibility. A freckle you’ve never noticed before (or even one you have) becomes melanoma or your churning digestive system means cancer. This is one of the ways in which anxiety bullies us, and if you don’t break the cycle that begins with these unhealthy thought patterns, you’ll do yourself no favours. I was heading in this direction until I saw through the anxiety lie. Too many people – even those without anxiety – give their thoughts too much credibility. And by doing this, you can make things worse. If I have a worry or a thought I don’t much like, I examine it for what it is and now I just let it go. Instead of worrying about every little feeling, convincing myself I have a brain tumour and letting Dr Google ‘confirm’ it, I accept that almost everything you’ll ever feel will be benign and that, if one day I do have to receive bad news, I’ll find out the old-fashioned way – through a doctor. In the meantime, my mind is allowed to create whatever fictions it wants because I’m no longer listening.

The key to my progress has clearly been the message of understanding and acceptance. This is not some kind of newfangled method I’ve hit upon that is going to change the world. Dr Claire Weekes, who passed away in 1990, was writing about it for decades before her death and her work continues to help people to this day. Paul David, a former anxiety sufferer who spent ten years in the absolute mire, follows up on that message. I don’t believe sufferers need much more than the work of these two people and then to truly buy into what they have to say. That’s what I’ve done, and it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that what I’ve said here proves helpful to someone and I can go back to writing about my holidays. No, I am not anxiety, and neither is anybody else.

A week in the frozen north

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The passengers on the right-hand side of the aircraft have a fantastic view, apparently. The captain’s typically warm, authoritative voice comes over the PA system: “if you look out of the windows on the right, you’ll get a spectacular view of the Icelandic landmass.” I assume ‘Icelandic landmass’ just means Iceland. However, I’m sat on the left as we fly north toward Keflavík International Airport, which means I won’t get my first glimpse of our destination until we’re much closer to the ground. No matter – I have a pretty spectacular view anyway. Far below the Airbus A319, the choppy seascape inspires quiet awe as I observe the ice floes bobbing on the bitter North Atlantic waters. It’s late February, and although the temperature in the cabin is as comfortable as you’d expect, I feel cold as I take in that wintry oceanic scene. I stare out to the horizon, straining my eyes to see if I can make out Greenland in the distance – that vast glacial island nation of polar bears, a population of just 56,000 hardy souls and a national anthem called Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit. I can’t. I’m sure we’d not need to fly much further west to bring it into view, but I’m happy to settle for Iceland at this stage.

And then I get to see it. Iceland – is there a country in the world with a more evocative name? The runway is lined with grey slush, some of which has encroached quite far towards the centre. And beyond, everything is white. Everything. In the fading light, I can only make out so much, but there’s no mistaking the sheer amount of snow. A few specks of dark rock are visible towards the coast, but otherwise, Iceland is white, buried under a winter’s worth of Arctic precipitation. I’m just not used to it. Of course, I fully expected it, but I suddenly begin to wonder if the boots I’ve bought are going to be sufficient. I feel like I’m embarking on an expedition, naive and underprepared. I’ll soon learn that it’s not the snow I need to be wary of, but the coating of packed ice, as smooth and slippery as a skating rink, from which no boot in the world could save me.

Keflavík airport to Reykjavík is one of the longest airport transfers I’ve ever been on, if not the longest. It was built by the Americans during the Second World War and went on to become the main point of entry to Iceland, despite being a good 90 minutes’ drive from the capital. The highway is relatively clear, but patches of ice and snow remain. The landscape looks pretty barren from what I can tell as the coach speeds along, making short work of the potentially treacherous roads thanks to its trusty winter tyres. Iceland is one of the most sparsely-populated countries in the world (there’s a good chance your home town or city has a bigger population) and this is brought home by the fact that we barely see a car or pass a building of any note until we reach Reykjavík’s outer suburbs, despite being on one of the country’s most important routes. One poor passenger – a woman in her 70s, I’d say – slips as she disembarks outside her hotel. At first I think she has broken her ankle, but she is then able to walk gingerly to the lobby. The look of anguish on her face suggests two things: her holiday to Iceland may well be ruined before it’s begun and I’d better be careful where I put my feet.

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The view from Centric Guesthouse room 13…

I’m the last of the party to be dropped off. My hotel – the appropriately named Centric Guesthouse – is on Lækjagata , right in the middle of Reykjavík . The perfect location. I allow myself to feel the chill in the air for the first time, to breathe it in. So this is Iceland. The streets and footpaths of the city centre are, for the most part, mercifully clear of ice and snow, but anywhere that doesn’t receive heavy vehicle or foot traffic is covered in pure, white fluff. The street lights shine down, their beams reflecting back up, giving the city a strange, almost otherworldly amber glow. I get to my room and take in the view of downtown Reykjavík – of the attractive Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík , a sort of preparatory college for future university students, with its front lawn hidden beneath snow so deep you could belly-flop onto it and not make an indent, and featuring a flagpole without a flag (a common occurrence in Reykjavík , it turns out). I can see traditional Nordic houses on the hillside, juxtaposed with touristy-looking restaurants and pedestrians taking great care over where they walk, just in case. It’s different. I like it already.

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Althing – The Icelandic parliament, seen across Austurvöllur

My first morning in Iceland dawns bitterly cold. Tiny grains of snow blow about on a brutal wind, making one degree celsius feel more like minus ten. I’m booked on a walking tour of the city – a tour that runs in all weather conditions, all year round. A gaggle of frozen tourists – their eyes poking out from between hats pulled down low and scarves covering numbed mouths and noses – assembles in the middle of Austurvöllur, Reykjavík’s central square where the country’s parliament – Alþingi- is located. I reflect on how dainty it seems, a national legislature smaller than many local council buildings you’d find back home in the UK. This is not entirely surprising given that Iceland has a population roughly the same size as Coventry. Austurvöllur also features the city’s oldest church and several restaurants and bars. I will go on to become well acquainted with the burgers served at the imaginatively-named American Bar. Icelandic burgers are never too big, but they pack plenty of flavour. You also need to take out a mortgage to buy one.

The tour winds through the compact streets of central Reykjavík . There is little respite from the icy wind and I’m glad for my thermal socks, thick gloves and woollen jumper. I’m as Iceland-ready as anyone else in our group. I fall in love with the little houses that dot the city, as Nordic as they come, built from wood and painted in vibrant reds, greens and blues – perched on concrete foundations designed to hold them together during earth tremors. Iceland is one of the most geologically active places in the world, but its earthquakes are usually mild. We clamber through thick snow to the statue of Ingólfr Arnason – Reykjavík’s founder – positioned at the top of a hill from where one can see out over the bay to the peaks of Esja and down to the brand new concert and conference venue. In this exposed spot, my Southport Football Club scarf offers little protection to the flesh beneath it as the wind and hard pellets of snow blast their way in off the sea.

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The frozen surface of Tjörnin

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Frozen lakes don’t suit everyone

Relief from the force of the Icelandic winter comes in the shape of the Ráðhús – Reykjavík city hall – where our guide ushers us inside for a lesson on the city’s history and hands out liquorice. The most unpleasant of all the sugary treats, liquorice is inexplicably popular in Iceland. Indeed, I later learn that sweets (or candy, if you’re one of those people) are a big deal in Iceland. Children expect bags of the stuff as weekend treats. Adults aren’t much better. Paradoxically, Icelanders consume some of the highest quantities of sugar in the world, yet also manage to have one of the planet’s highest life expectancies. I choke down the foul tasting liquorice, apparently too British to decline on the basis that it turns my stomach, and observe the array of tourists and locals stomping their way across the frozen surface of Tjörnin, the urban lake that stretches from the Ráðhús to Reykjavík airport, where domestic flights take off and land. At the end of the tour, I consider taking the opportunity to walk on a frozen lake for the first time in my life, but I can picture the headlines after I put my foot in the wrong place and have to be rescued by whoever does Iceland’s rescuing: ‘Englishman is stupid’, or something to that effect. Later, I realise how stupid I really am when I see a group of teenage girls playing football on the lake, the goalkeeper throwing herself to the ground to make a succession of pretty good saves, none of them looking like they expect the ice to crack any time this side of the final whistle. The lake has been frozen since November. I’m not going to fall though it without applying a blowtorch to the ice or attempting to land an aircraft upon it.

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A sunny Hallgrimskírkja

To the east of Tjörnin and Ráðhús , a short walk past an array of souvenir shops, restaurants aimed squarely at the tourist trade and even a tiny, functioning prison, is Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s impressive, imposing Lutheran church. I find it on my first night and vow to return in the daylight. Icelandic churches tend to be modest affairs, built in the same charming, understated style that most of the houses are. But here in central Reykjavík stands one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen, designed to evoke images of the country’s lava flows and visible for miles around. I don’t hesitate to fork out 900kr to share the lift to the top of the bell tower with nine excitable Americans, certain it will be worth the outlay. It is. The viewing area in the upper section of the bell tower offers panoramic views of the whole  of Reykjavík, far out to sea and to the mountainous interior. A ferocious wind – barely perceptible on the ground but raging at this altitude – threatens to liberate me of my iPhone and all pictorial evidence of my trip to Iceland. One day I might invest in a camera with a strap, but it might take the total destruction of my phone to convince me to do so. I feel inclined to spend the rest of the day up there, oblivious to the icy wind, happily watching Reykjavík going about its business far below. Plus, I’d get my 900kr’s worth.

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A view from the top

These days, the Reykjavík shoreline is dominated by Harpa, the gleaming new concert hall and cultural centre. In a nod to the centrality of the fishing industry to Iceland, the building is designed to resemble the scales of a fish and is quite widely acknowledged to have made a major contribution to the country’s cultural life since its completion in 2011. However, Harpa has had something of a fraught history and stands as a reminder of the folly of the Icelandic banking industry and its devastating crash in 2008. According to my tour guide, the building was originally not meant to cost the Icelandic taxpayer a penny (or a króna). The long-awaited dream of a world class concert venue would finally be realised through private funding at a time when the Icelandic economy was booming. State-of-the-art office buildings began to rise around Reykjavík, as fancy new homes and apartment buildings rose from the volcanic rock. The “UAE of the north” was bubbling along nicely. Harpa was to be the crowning glory, an indicator of Iceland’s prosperity and confidence in itself.

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Harpa concert hall and the mountains of Esja

The Icelanders I speak to about this period still seethe. 2008 was this tiny country’s “annus horribilis”. In Iceland, they call it the Kreppa. As the world economy tanked, the country’s banking system collapsed. It became apparent that the Icelandic boom was built on shifting sands, a ticking time bomb that would inevitably detonate. Construction work across the country came to a halt as brand new apartment blocks either stood empty or were abandoned before completion. Harpa went from being a sign of the country’s ambition and wealth to a scar on the seafront, little more than a giant hole in the ground, about which nothing could be done. I get the feeling that this period in Icelandic history was a profound shock to the nation’s sense of itself. In a country without much of a history of political scandal or protest, it had been easy to pretend that the rules of the world didn’t apply here – that somehow Iceland was better. Now, the people had woken up to reality. They were confronted with corruption and betrayal, the consequences of which were profound and even brought Iceland into conflict with other countries. One tour guide I meet tells me of her passionate desire to join the European Union, believing it the only way to guarantee a prosperous future for Iceland. Another, slightly older lady, recoils at the idea, convinced EU membership would sink the country again and increase the risks of future economic strife. The Kreppa seems to have left Icelanders less sure of their place in the world and less confident in their nation’s politics.

Things are different now. Famously, Iceland’s response to this crisis was to jail its bankers. Public demonstrations brought down the government, and Icelanders are now expert in the art of vociferous but peaceful protest. Meanwhile, the country has rebounded economically. Government investment ensured that Harpa was eventually completed, and how splendid she looks. So how has Iceland managed to turn things round so impressively? The answer is because of people like me. Iceland is teeming with tourists. American English seems more common on the streets of Reykjavík than Icelandic does. One local I speak to tells me how much of a shock it is to suddenly have to jostle for space on crowded Reykjavík pavements in this once isolated corner of the world. Walking tours of Reykjavík run all year round, even in the depths of winter, when the deep dark and frightful cold is offset by the majesty of the northern lights. Icelandic roads are groaning under the weight of tour buses ferrying eager visitors from the city to the spectacular sights of Þingvellir national park, Geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall. The Blue Lagoon has become a sort of aquatic UN. Getting a table in a Reykjavík restaurant is no easy feat. Hotel and guesthouse capacity is being stretched. The sheer beauty of the country, coupled with the swarm of tourists, almost makes it feel a bit like a theme park – perhaps one built by God out of lava and powered by geothermal energy. The explosion of tourism in Iceland has driven a period of economic growth similar to that which preceded the Kreppa. But will it last? Can Iceland weather any downturn in visitor numbers? Only time will tell.

The fishing town of Hafnarfjörður lies a half-hour bus drive south of Reykjavík city centre. The capital’s expansion means that it has developed into a suburb, but it retains its own separate identity. I pick up the yellow Strætó bus on Lækjargata and secure a window seat, determined to see what an Icelandic public bus journey has to offer. The route from central Reykjavík to Hafnarfjörður calls at the University of Iceland, the hospital and a large out-of-town bus station, allowing people from all walks of Reykjavík life to get around. University students clutch trendy bags and piles of books, their ears covered by headphones – just like their counterparts anywhere else in the western world. An elderly couple board at the hospital, having struggled through a mound of snow to get to the bus. A man and his children chatter in Icelandic, about what I will never know.

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Colourful Hafnafjordur

I disembark at the main bus stop in Hafnarfjörður, just across the road from the seafront. It’s a cold day, and most of the town is covered in snow. The streets are eerily quiet. I assume the majority of people are at work in Reykjavík or keeping warm indoors. Still, it really is eerie. I’ve come to Hafnarfjörður for a pleasant stroll around the old town, a cluster of traditional colourful Nordic houses on hilly streets overlooking the bay. The steep inclines and frozen ground makes for a more challenging walk than I’d anticipated, but the cuteness of the setting makes it all worthwhile. I stumble upon a rocky hill in the centre of town, a vantage point offering views of the whole town and the mountainous landscapes beyond. The bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is visible below the peaks of Esja to the north. The combination of pure white snow and dark, volcanic rock makes for a bleak but beautiful scene. Nobody else is around. The air is cold but fresh and clean. The skies are grey, but reluctant to snow. Seabirds circle the harbour. I feel a deep sense of peace.

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Searching for elves in Hellisgerdi

I stumble upon Hellisgerði by accident. Stomping around the old town, I begin to wonder if I’ll be able to find it, and then it appears, tucked away in an otherwise ordinary housing development. The Elf Garden, has Hellisgerði is known, is one of the main reasons tourists venture to Hafnarfjörður . The park features numerous lava formations and provides a pleasant stroll at any time of year. During my visit, the snow is thick, giving the place a magical air. Magic is a pertinent theme in Hellisgerði. The lava park plays a central role in Icelandic folklore as a home for the Huldufólk – the hidden people. These elf-like creatures are an important part of Icelandic identity. Indeed, during my Reykjavík walking tour, a member of the group was told to step away from a boulder on the edge of someone’s front garden, lest he upset the Huldufólk that dwell within. I don’t meet any Icelanders who believe in the Huldufólk, but they all seem to know somebody who believes, and there are Icelanders who claim to encounter them on a regular basis. It’s bad form to poke fun at this, even around those who don’t personally believe. I don’t come across any trace of the Huldufólk in Hellisgerði. Like the rest of town, it’s deserted, save for two boisterous boys of about nine or ten busily beating a large stone with two sticks. They briefly put a stop to their shenanigans as I pass by, grinning sheepishly as if caught in the act of some misdemeanor. Personally, I consider beating a rock with sticks in a cute little park quite wholesome, compared to what kids sometimes get up to. But then, this is Iceland – a country so safe that our Reykjavík tour guide got very excited at the sight of a police car and told us to take advantage of this rare opportunity and to get some photographs.

Back at the seafront, I take a seat and check the local temperature according to my iPhone app. Two degrees. It’s strange how used to things you become. Normally I wouldn’t dream of stopping for a sit down in weather this chilly, but today, two degrees feels comfortable. In Reykjavík, there’s a bar that promises to open its outdoor terrace whenever the temperature exceeds five degrees. Perfect beer garden weather if you’re Icelandic, I guess.

One of the main reasons people like me are drawn to Iceland is the Golden Circle, a trio of natural wonders an hour or so’s drive inland of Reykjavík. As is so often the case with Icelandic excursions, I’m picked up by a bus at my hotel, then transferred to a larger coach in the suburbs. Even the airport transfer companies operate this way. It seems odd to me, given that Reykjavík city centre is hardly inaccessible for coaches. In any case, the coaches are all modern, comfortable and relatively new. They’re also full to bursting point with tourists from the US and Canada, the UK, continental Europe and even as far away as China and Southeast Asia. Iceland is where it’s at right now.

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Thingvellir national Park

Þingvellir national park gives visitors the chance to walk along the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The movement of these plates is pulling the island apart and will one day result in it splitting in two. It is Iceland’s proximity to this plate boundary that results in its mountainous terrain and geological activity. The pathway winds for about a mile between the two plates. On our left is North America, while Europe lies to our right. Waterfalls tumble from the cliff faces on either side. A place of stark, remote beauty, Þingvellir no longer feels isolated, as literally hundreds of tourists trudge along the stony path, selfie sticks at the ready. However, the park offers ample opportunities to explore, to ramble and to be amazed if you have the time. On a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavík, you’ll only see the main attraction, and it’s not long before we’re on our way again, snaking along a road that climbs and plunges through mountains, the only traffic being other tour buses and hire cars.

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Gulfoss waterfall, frozen in time

Stop number two is Gulfoss, the epic waterfall that crashes into a ravine in the Hvita river. At this time of year, parts of the waterfall are frozen, suspended in time, as if somebody in Iceland has stopped a clock. The scene is jawdroppingly spectacular – a vivid mix of icy water, shimmering snow-covered terrain and air so fresh it seems almost alien. The excitable hordes fall silent in awe. It seems somehow inappropriate to make noise while mother nature puts on such a show.

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Strokkur being a show-off

The last leg of our Golden Circle tour is arguably the most exciting of all. The first geysir – known as… Geysir – is just a steamy hole in the ground. Eruptions occur every few years or so, meaning the likelihood of seeing one is slim to none. Fortunately, only a few metres away is the more exhibitionist Strokkur, which erupts in spectacular fashion roughly every ten minutes. Strokkur is Cristiano Ronaldo to Geysir’s Gareth Barry. The ground under foot is treacherous, with sloping pathways coated in an icy sheen. To stand still and watch the display is no guarantee of not sliding away into oblivion (or at least into the car park). I manage to find a patch of gravel and plant my feet firmly in place, mentally ticking Strokkur off my bucket list as another jet of boiling hot water spews out of the ground and the ring of onlookers lets out a collective ‘ooh’. I hear ‘ooh’ a lot in Iceland. It’s a very ‘oohy’ country.

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Eyjafjallajökull emerges from the mist

Eyjafjallajökull. Yes, it’s a mouthful. But back in 2010, it was more than just an obscure Icelandic word. Thousands of European holidaymakers fretted over their summer getaways as a north westerly wind brought a plume of ash across the continent, grounding flights. The volcano, in Iceland’s south west, had erupted, bringing chaos to the aviation industry in the process. In late February 2016, under an azure sky, I stand at the side of the road and admire Eyjafjallajökull , casting my mind back to those anxious days in 2010 when I thought my trip to India might be in jeopardy. The volcano stands there before me, quiet as a very large mouse, as if butter wouldn’t melt. However, while things are peaceful for the time being, it might not stay that way for long. Eyjafjallajökull has a bolshy big sister, known as Katla. As far as we know, eruptions of the inconvenient but relatively small Eyjafjallajökull are always followed by a Katla eruption. Except, of course, this time. Katla is considered to be much more dangerous, owing to her relative size and the sheer volume of ice that makes up the glacier under which she broods. A Katla eruption could cause just as much disruption to air travel across Europe and North America as Eyjafjallajökull did. But the risk to life is also much greater. All that ice would have to go somewhere. And even if local lives were spared (this is a sparsely populated area, after all), the consequences for farmland and infrastructure in the region could be devastating. Houses would almost certainly be wiped out. Roads would probably have to be rebuilt at considerable cost. The expulsion of all that ash could cause potentially dangerous environmental changes, not just in Iceland, but across the northern hemisphere. Katla has been bubbling away for a while. The eruption of her little brother in 2010 suggested she would have something to say sooner or later. Nothing so far. For now, she remains a silent ice-capped treasure. For now.

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The wild Atlantic at Vík

Further down the coast from the volcanic siblings is the village of Vík. This small settlement draws tourists to its wild shores and black volcanic beaches. The waves are enormous, crashing down at the edge of the beach as if trying to trigger a Katla eruption. The police have recently been patrolling this area due to several tragic incidents involving naive tourists and the power of the North Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, today is the first day they haven’t been there in weeks. I can see why their presence was required. Swarms of visitors take leave of their senses, climbing onto rocks that jut out into the perilous sea, the risk of being swept into the freezing, violent waters apparently worth taking in search of the perfect selfie. I stand well clear. As an anxiety sufferer, I’ve no interest in making my condition worse by putting my life in danger. But the scene is as beautiful as anything else I’ve seen in Iceland so far. The plunging cliffs provide the backdrop, sweeping down to meet the coastal plain on which Vík sits, with its traditional Nordic church perched on a hill – the only building in town that would likely not be swept away by lava should Katla finally blow her top. The black ‘sand’ gives the beach that otherworldly feel that Iceland does so well.

Not for the first time this week, I find myself boarding a tour bus. Only this time, the sun has gone down and the skies are dark. It’s nine o’clock in the evening and we’re off to see the Northern Lights. Theoretically. The chances aren’t good. Although a few stars can be seen, much of the sky is obscured behind stubborn clouds. Our guide remains optimistic, however. Sometimes it’s cloudy until you get out of the city, and then everything falls into place, he tells a hopeful crowd. I’ve chosen a smaller tour company for this excursion and learn that, by coincidence, our driver is the younger brother of the owner of my guesthouse. They share the same enthusiasm for their line of work, their pride in showing off their country, and the outgoing eccentricity that is quite rare in Icelanders.

The air in Reykjavík has dipped below freezing and is dropping all the while. A fair breeze makes it feel even colder. By the time the bus reaches the suburbs, the temperature gauges are reading minus ten. The guide breaks into song, beckoning the Northern Lights to be kind to us this evening, to emerge from behind the cloudy blanket and come out to play. The forecast is not good, and I can see only one star out of the window. We drive about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík, stopping in an icy lay-by off a deserted mountain road. Light from the moon illuminates my breath in front of my face. The clouds have begun to disperse and clear sky is visible. In the distance, above the clouds, is a strange light – a mysterious glow that generates an excited hubbub among frozen onlookers. After much deliberation, it’s decided that this is just a trick of the moon. How cruel.

Giving up on our first location, we drive on to Þingvellir. Far from any sources of artificial light, the mountains surrounding the winding roads are visible only as jagged silhouettes. It feels like civilisation could be days away. By this point, the clouds have gathered again. Þingvellir has nothing to offer, so we push on again. Arriving at Geyser, it occurs to me that I’m now getting the Golden Circle tour again, only this time at night. It’s fascinating to see Strokkur in action in the dark – a bonus of the trip. If only the skies could have matched Strokkur’s penchant for showmanship. Three times now I’ve disembarked a comfortable, warm bus to stagger around in the dark, slipping on unseen icy hazards, frozen to the bone in the lowest temperatures I’ve ever experienced.

Our guide plays the situation as best he can. His optimism is undimmed till the end. His repetoire of Northern Lights-themed songs keeps the troops happy. Alas, we run out of options. We make one final stop, and although the clouds have parted a little, the skies above are not performing. A couple of weeks later, the Northern Lights become visible across a large swathe of Britain and Ireland. However, I manage to miss this display. My wait to encounter this breathtaking phenomenon goes on.

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Fishing and whaling vessels in Reykjavík Harbour

Icelandic cuisine turns out to be quite interesting. Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is whale meat. A controversial industry, I’m told early on in my trip that Icelanders rarely eat whale and that there is nothing especially authentic about eating whale while in Iceland. Almost all whale meat sold in the country is served in restaurants catering for tourists, who wrongly assume they are having an authentic Icelandic experience. He doesn’t suggest that we don’t try it, but knowing this is enough to make me think twice. I also think twice about trying kæstur hákarl – fermented shark. A common snack food in Iceland, it seems to divide opinion. Some love it, some cannot stand it. A shopkeeper in a Reykjavík supermarket peels back a plastic lid so I can have a smell. The fact I didn’t deign to taste the stuff should tell you all you need to know. I’m all for new cultural experiences, but I just… I just couldn’t. It’s not all ethically dubious whale meat and oddly-preserved shark, though. Icelandic lamb is special. I’m no lover of lamb, but I vowed to give it a go, and I was not disappointed. Succulent and tender, Icelandic lamb lacks the chewiness and stringiness I often associate with cuts back home. It may have been one of the most expensive plates of food I’ve ever had, but I could never regret it. The local mussels are also a must-try on a visit to Iceland. It’s no surprise that seafood should play such a key role in Icelandic cuisine, of course, but I would go so far as to say that these are the best mussels I have ever tasted. I sampled a huge bowl of them in a Belgian restaurant in Reykjavík as part of a guided culinary tour, and my guide explained to me how the clean, lively waters off the west coast swill and swish the mussels around in a motion that seems to contribute to their unique flavour and quality.

If fancy mussels and extravagantly-priced cuts of lamb don’t tickle your fancy, how about a hot dog? In the centre of town, just off Austurvöllur is a hot dog stand operated by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, bedecked in cheerful-looking red and white paint. Serving hot dogs at a rate of about 40 a minute, the servers’ arms helicoptering at a hundred miles an hour to assemble eager tourists’ orders, this venue took on a new significance in 2004 when Bill Clinton visited and declared it the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. In late February, the dining area is reminiscent of the Keystone Cops as people try to maintain their balance on the icy asphalt without losing too much filling from their hot dogs. It’s a challenging eat in such an environment. Surprisingly, the sausage itself seems to be a regular frankfurter, such as you might find preserved in brine and encased in a can at your local supermarket. However, the chefs prepare the onions and mustard in a way that injects magic into what would otherwise be a very ordinary hot dog. I will never know how anyone makes a hot dog in which the onions and mustard are the star attraction, but these guys do.If it’s good enough for the former President of the United States, it’s good enough for me.

By the time I leave Iceland, I’ve already vowed to come back. I need to see the Northern Lights. That goes without saying. But I also want to return in the summer, when the nights are too light for aurora borealis, but the more clement weather conditions might make for a safer road trip under my own steam. Iceland is under something of a tourist siege right now. But it’s not hard to see why. In one week, I’ve walked on a frozen lake, seen a police car, scared two boys in a park full of elves, walked along a rift valley, braved the elements on a black-sand beach, seen an active volcano, been entertained by a geysir, declined the chance to eat fermented shark, chased the Northern Lights (albeit unsuccessfully), sampled the same hot dog as Bill Clinton, and met some wonderful people. Not bad for a country with a population the size of Coventry.

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My New Friend

This is the first in a series of pieces about my experience dealing with anxiety. If anyone suffering with anxiety/panic attacks comes across it and wants to comment or contact me, please do.

I recently made a new friend. I say ‘friend’ – I actually mean callous, mean-spirited, wearying and troublesome bully. But I guess I’m going to characterise him as a friend anyway. Perhaps it will make things a little easier, because we’re going to have to get along.

A couple of weeks ago I was sat at my desk at work, doing what I do on a daily basis, probably feeling quite happy with where I found myself in my life. It was Monday lunchtime, I was tired from my usual Sunday night lie-awake-athon, and was just getting ready to go to the canteen. The next thing I know, I’m calling out for an ambulance. I’d felt a strange feeling or tingling in my left arm which somehow got to me. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t in fact having a heart attack and that it was probably just the position I’d had my arm in all morning, or perhaps my blood pressure was low. Sadly, my sympathetic nervous system didn’t get the message.

So I end up hyperventilating, feeling as if I’m grappling to stay conscious and, by this point, causing plenty of concern for my colleagues (who I’m sure could do without all this drama on a Monday). As dire thoughts of my imminent and permanent demise flashed across my mind, I could just about make out the presence of those around me as they placed me on the floor and raised my legs. I don’t recall actually losing consciousness at any point, but I’ve never felt so lightheaded and everybody’s voices just sounded so far away. My brain filled with the most intense fear – I really did believe I was dying. I’m only 31. I’ve never even been to Ibiza! I’ll never forget the moment of instant relief when the paramedics showed up and I was suddenly able to get up and walk to one of our side offices. Looking back, that should have been a sign.

To try and cut a long story short, I was checked over by the heroes in green and given a clean bill of health. They didn’t even see a point in taking me to hospital. I found this odd – I’d just collapsed, for god sake! Fifteen minutes ago I was wondering what my funeral was going to be like! And now you want to take your expertise and your fancy kit and tootle off into the afternoon! Needless to say, the whole episode repeated itself as soon as they were gone.

The next few days saw me living in a state of perpetual, bone-chilling terror: lying in bed shaking like a leaf in a blizzard, running through scenarios of what could be wrong with me. Did I have a brain tumour? Some other kind of cancer? Had I had a heart attack? Was I developing a serious mental illness? So many symptoms, so much fear. I’d never known anything like it and I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so little inclination to help me. I took myself to A&E twice and was told that I was in rude health. Well that’s great,  I thought, but I feel like every cell in my body is about to explode.

I eventually managed to get myself admitted. Who knows why they finally decided to do this? Perhaps they thought it better than having me constantly bothering them at A&E. I was observed overnight and my vital signs all checked out. I was hooked up to a heart monitor for about 30 hours and had blood tests taken and some poor soul was even given a perspex pot of my urine to have a think about. I was given a CT scan – a procedure which doesn’t help when you’re wrestling with generalised feelings of doom. But no, everything looked fine. Funny really, that everything should look fine, while I feel like I can’t walk, like I’m losing feeling throughout my body and trying to decide whether I’d rather be told I had Multiple Sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease. Several times I was tested for a stroke for no other reason than my brain thought I might randomly be having one. I also entertained the idea of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I didn’t even know I knew all these things existed.

And then, the next afternoon, a junior doctor who contrasted a pretty smile with a professional, stern tone, came along and told me it was time to go home. I think she could tell this was a shock to me because she paused at this point, broke from her brusque demeanour and placed her hand on my arm. “We wouldn’t release you if we thought it unsafe. I know it’s not easy, but try to stay positive. Are you someone who feels anxious a lot and worries a lot?”

And there it was. I could have said ‘no’, but I would have been lying. And then the time came to detach me from the various medical paraphernalia that was stuck to me or stuck in me, and I took my papers and shuddered off out of the ward in a brain fog to the hospital foyer to try and figure out what to do next. Preliminary diagnosis: anxiety/panic attacks.

It’s just over a week since I left hospital and I’m having to deal with the way I feel on a daily basis. I still have an MRI scan to attend, just to be on the safe side, but it looks like I’ve had my first panic attack. I’ve also since had my second, third and probably fourth. Most recently, I ended up back in A&E because I thought I was literally going mad. Needless to say I wasn’t, and if you have anxiety and feel like you’re going mad, you’re not either.

I’ve since allowed my GP to prescribe me some medication, although I can’t escape my own scepticism in this area. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t. I’ll take it for the time being, even though it means I can’t drink, which seems like as good a reason to panic as any.

I have no idea if this will be a long or a short journey. I’ve already discovered Paul David’s book ‘At Last A Life’ and feel very lucky to have come across it so early on. I find his arguments and suggestions very persuasive and would advise anyone with anxiety or panic to at least give it a read. In the last 48 hours it’s already given me a new outlook on this condition I’m stuck with for the time being. Crucially, I understand that I can’t allow anxiety to control me or make decisions for me. And that means trying to live my life as normally as possible, bringing the symptoms along with me if I have to. I guess that’s what I mean by a new friend.

I feel like the internet and this blog gives me the perfect place to put down my thoughts and feelings as I deal with this. Even just sitting here writing about it has proven therapeutic. Anxiety happens to have struck at a point in my life where I couldn’t be happier. Now I could curse that fact and retreat into myself and away from my life and the people who make it so great. But I won’t. I have too much to lose.

West Belfast by Black Cab

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The incongruous but colourful peace line on Cupar Way on the Shankill side of the divide.

This post is about an event that took place about a year ago. Any inaccuracies or obvious errors should be interpreted in that regard. Thanks!

Our driver greets us outside City Hall with a beaming smile and a firm handshake and leads us to the black hackney cab that is to be our “tour bus” for the next hour and a half. But we don’t pull away. Instead, our new friend turns to the three of us crammed into the back– all English residents of Belfast with an interest in the city’s history – and introduces himself. He then gives us a flavour of what we will see, explains his own background as a Belfast man who grew up on the Falls Road and experienced the full force of The Troubles, and primes us on the history of west Belfast. I can almost imagine a lectern where the handbrake resides. His enthusiasm for his work is immediately apparent. He describes how wonderful he feels it is to see the changes that have come to Belfast over the past 20 years and how pleased he is that tourists are now embracing the city. Interestingly, he shares with us several times his view that the likes of myself and my two friends, coming to the city to live and work, bring “normality”. Belfast has seemed pretty normal to me from the moment I arrived. It’s hard to picture the security checkpoints that used to screen entrants to Royal Avenue. It’s even harder to imagine the place where you live, work and play as a warzone. But he is adamant that we are signs of the new normal in the city.

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King William of Orange and his trusty steed

I’d been living in Belfast for about 18 months by this point and had become familiar with its landmarks and its geography. Indeed, I’d already toured the west of the city by open-top bus and had even strolled down the Falls Road one cold and wet afternoon. But I’d promised myself that, at some point, I would take an iconic black cab tour. Plus, I’d not yet visited the loyalist Shankill. Upon leaving City Hall, we arrive first in that Protestant bastion of west Belfast. On a freezing cold afternoon, the streets are like a skating rink – so much so, we’re told to mind our step. I briefly wonder how a life-long resident of the Falls feels, standing in the middle of the Shankill, at the foot of murals depicting gun-toting loyalist paramilitaries. “This is my living. I do this every day, sometimes four or five times”, he explains. “But back in the day, like many people from Belfast, I had friends from the other side and we socialised and worked together in the city centre. But then I’d go back to the Falls and they’d go back to the Shankill.”

As he walks us round the surrounding streets of the Shankill, I’m struck by how quiet it is. We have the whole estate to ourselves, it seems. Everywhere are indicators of the locals’ pride in their British identity – I’d never seen so many union flags in one place. I also observe how close the Belfast Hills seem, shrouded in mist at their summits despite the blue sky over our heads. I can’t help but feel a twinge of unease at how close a mural featuring a figure in military fatigues wearing a balaclava and aiming a firearm is to a primary school. I think about what impact it has on the little ones who walk past it five days a week. Do they even notice it, I wonder. Some would say it’s part of the local culture and that the mural might not even be there if the likes of myself and my two friends didn’t want to come and look at them. Our guide jokingly suggests we consider purchasing the house for sale opposite the provocative artwork in question. My Geordie friend balks at the idea, unsure how his Catholic girlfriend would react.

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A Loyalist mural on the Shankill

Back on board, we cross the Shankill Road itself, with its bunting and its traffic and small businesses and tour buses. I wonder how many other cities in the world draw tourists into their housing estates. If The Troubles had never happened, I guess the Shankill Road, and indeed the Falls, would just be an unremarkable arterial route connecting west Belfast to the city centre. Our next stop is the Peace Line on Cupar Way, separating the Shankill from the Falls. It’s a surprisingly functional-looking structure, fashioned mostly from dark green corrugated steel. However, it is livened up somewhat by various images, works of art, graffiti and messages of hope. Our guide hands us all a black marker pen and suggests we write something on it. I’d read warnings online that leaving messages on the Peace Line was not welcomed or advised. Looking at the hundreds of thousands of signatures, exhortations to greater cross-community understanding and inane observations, I assumed that the locals had gotten pretty used to well-meaning rubber-neckers like myself leaving their insignificant thoughts behind and that no harm or offence could come of it. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it’s been weathered away or inked over by now. Peace Lines like the one on Cupar Way aren’t just a relic or a tourist attraction. The majority on both sides seem keen to keep them, reassured by their silent, towering presence. Our guide explains that there are moves afoot to start bringing them down and sounds optimistic about the idea one day coming to pass. But it’s hard to envisage it happening any time soon.

On crossing the Peace Line, we leave the union flags, the Ulster banners and loyalist murals behind us as we enter the Irish nationalist Falls area. Our first stop is Bombay Street, an ordinary-seeming cul-de-sac where homes jut up against the other side of the Peace Line. The street is infamous for the 1969 Burning of Bombay Street, and also features the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, dedicated to IRA volunteers who were killed during the conflict. Once again, I’m fascinated to be stood in a mundane residential street that wouldn’t feature on a tourist itinerary anywhere else but in Belfast, jostling for space with visitors from other parts of Europe and beyond. Our guide pulls some rubber bullets from his pocket and we marvel at just how much they differ from the image we had in our minds, especially in terms of size. It’s easy to imagine the damage they could cause, and it’s safe to say none of us will be volunteering to be target practice any time soon.

The Falls Road bears one immediate and striking difference to the Shankill. Whereas the Protestant estate is a sea of red, white and blue, the Falls is not equally bedecked in the colours of the Irish tricolour. Indeed, were it not for the Irish language on the road signs and the occasional nationalist mural, you might not even realise where you were. We stop again at the Falls’ junction with Sevastopol Street and join another throng of international tourists to get a snap of one of the most famous murals of all – a giant portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The colourful image adorns the side of a Sinn Fein office, and our guide points out the concrete bollards that line the front of the building, explaining, as if it were needed, what purpose they serve.

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The famous Bobby Sands mural on the Falls.

A little further down the road, closer to the city centre, we arrive at our final stop, the international wall in Divis. Rows of tourists stand on the opposite side of the road and wait for gaps in the traffic to take a photo of the various murals, many of them in solidarity with political causes around the world with which the Republican movement sympathises. Our guide explains how some are permanent, while others are only temporary and will soon be replaced by something else. My eye is drawn to the striking black, green and red section calling for the release of imprisoned Basque separatist Arnaldo Otegi and to a similar message of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

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A section of the international wall featuring a variety of political messages 

At this point, our tour ends. Our guide declares with surprising vehemence that we’d be welcomed into any of the nearby pubs. None of us is willing to put this to the test, so we stroll back into the city centre, and back to the new normal of which I feel lucky to be a part.

I Love Berlin: Part II

Fernsehturm Berlin (or Berlin TV Tower) seen from Museum Island.

Fernsehturm Berlin (or Berlin TV Tower) seen from Museum Island.

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A broad statement it may be, but isn’t history fascinating? I was quite good at it at school, and nowadays it plays a huge part in why I travel. As I’ve eluded to elsewhere, I enjoy any opportunity to get under the skin of Northern Ireland’s past when I can, though I acknowledge it remains a very painful part of the present here, too. The things is, I’m not actually that brilliant at history – well, not at pre-1945 history, anyway. I’m no good at dates and even placing events or artifacts in their relevant time periods is not my strong point. But I like museums and Berlin’s Museum Island I really like. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Berlin’s Spree river, there are five museums on the island and I’m pretty sure an enthusiast could spend a whole day exploring them all. Maybe even more than that.

Alas, we had nowhere near that long. City breaks are all well and good, but in actual fact, how often do you come away thinking you wish you’d have had more time? With a shedload of sightseeing still to do, we plumped for the Pergamon Museum, dedicated to reconstructions of significant buildings from various time periods and civilisations, as well as Islamic art. It was the latter that especially caught my eye. But I’d be lying if I said I fully understood everything I was seeing. And this is the flaw in the city break – the museum does everything it can to inform its visitors through information next to each exhibit and headsets to guide you through, but if you don’t have time to absorb it all properly and take it all in, you’ll never get everything you can out of it. Museum Island is a world of culture and of history so if this your thing, make sure you have plenty of time to indulge in it because you’ll need it.

From the viewing area in the TV Tower.

From the viewing area in the TV Tower.

Leaving the culture to one side briefly, no trip to Berlin is complete without ascending the 203m to the viewing floor of the Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. Built in the 1960s by the German Democratic Republic, this is the tallest building in Germany and apparently the tallest in the European Union as well. The lift climbs from Alexanderplatz to the top in about 40 seconds and has a viewing window in the roof so you can take in the mechanics of your ascent (and subsequent descent) should you wish to. The views from the top are as magnificent as you’d expect, though in one sense they do bring home the fact that Berlin is not always the most aesthetically pleasing city. We were also a little let down by the haze that rolled in while we were there which obscured the distance to some extent, but even on a cloudy day, it’s a view not to be missed. It has a revolving restaurant too, if you like to combine your dining with steady rotation.

Confused, we found the back of the Brandenburg Gate well before we found the front...

Confused, we found the back of the Brandenburg Gate well before we found the front…

Visible from the Fernsehturm, but considerably more impressive close up, is another iconic symbol of the city – probably the best-known of Berlin’s sights and equivalent to, say, London’s Big Ben or Paris’s Eiffel Tower – is the Brandenburg Gate. This stunning triumphal arch buzzes with tourist activity as everyone tries to make sure they can tick it off their list. We got so excited when we arrived that we got more pictures of the rear than the front. Not that any of our pictures of the front turned out that well – my iPhone was no match for the glare of the sun. I couldn’t help reflect, as the German afternoon sun toasted parts of my scalp I didn’t know were exposed, was how hassle-free Berlin’s heavily-touristed areas are. I have no idea if this is the norm, but you rarely feel corralled or overly-crammed in anywhere, and you’re mostly left alone to go about your business. It’s not that I don’t crave hustle and bustle or enjoy mixing with the locals, but it’s great not to feel like you could be alleviated of the contents of your pockets at any moment. Or is that when they get you? Anyway, the Brandenburg Gate, done.

Checkpoint Charlie, not exactly as it was during the Cold War.

Checkpoint Charlie, not exactly as it was during the Cold War.

One of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall.

One of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall.

Returning to the theme of history, I want to talk about a particular kiosk in the middle of the street. I imagine Checkpoint Charlie would underwhelm those without an interest in 20th century history. In a literal sense, it really is just an off-white shack flanked by a museum and a McDonald’s. But of course it’s so much more than that. The original building is now in a museum, but I don’t think it takes away from the feel of the place that the current structure is a copy, anymore than the presence of the Golden Arches might extract from it. Places of great historical significance have a strange effect on me. Mostly, I feel a sense of privilege at being lucky enough to see them. At Checkpoint Charlie, I tried my hardest to imagine what it once would have been like. Surrounded by tourists and with the blaring sound of car stereos and modified engines from a Turkish wedding procession in nearby Kreuzberg ringing in our ears, it wasn’t easy. But it was a worthwhile visit. I loved being at Checkpoint Charlie, just to be able to say I was there. Of similar significance are the remaining pieces of the former Berlin Wall that still stand today. There’s nothing overtly remarkable about them, but they scream history. In places, bricks built into the street below your feet mark where the wall once would have run. Nothing I experienced in Berlin struck me more than the ease of which one can criss-cross these non-descript lines as if they weren’t there, because of course there isn’t really anything there. But there used to be – and you crossed it at your peril.

Pratergarten - I wish there were more places like this in the world.

Pratergarten – I wish there were more places like this in the world.

Also of a degree of local historical significance is Pratergarten, the city’s oldest beer garden and a wonderful place to spend a few hours in the evening, especially when the weather is on your side. But perhaps ‘beer garden’ is too modest a moniker. It’s far bigger than your average British beer garden, with a restaurant at one end and, at the other, stalls selling, well, beer.. but also simple German snack food such as pretzels and various forms of sausage. The atmosphere here is truly special and a visit to Pratergarten should be considered an essential part of any Berlin itinerary. If I could, I’d move it to Belfast.

I returned to Northern Ireland with the usual heavy heart of the enthusiastic traveller. I missed the buzz of the place, and I missed the weather! I missed the people we met, however briefly, who treated us with kindness and went the extra mile to be of assistance. You really do leave little pieces of yourself in the places you visit, and there’s a bit of me left behind in Berlin, probably waiting for the Carnival of Culture to come back around. I also miss my friends, who made it a special few days. I love Berlin, I really do.

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I love Berlin: Part I

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I’ve decided to split this entry into two parts. Part I shares some general thoughts about the city, recalls our experiences of its nightlife and covers our alternative tour and the carnival of culture.

Although a sizable chunk of my fellow Brits might disagree, I’ve always been happy to think of myself as a European and I consider myself fortunate to live in Europe. One of the best things about it from my perspective is that, on a continent the size of some larger countries elsewhere in the world, you have myriad cultures, peoples, languages and cuisines all on your doorstep. In the age of budget air travel, I can immerse myself in a different world for the price of an affordable ticket on a short flight (even if that does mean flying with Ryanair every now and then). Even a weekend away in a new country is a viable option.

And so it is that I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Berlin for a friend’s 30th, my first ever visit to Germany – another new country ticked off with relative ease thanks to an admittedly cramped flight with Ryanair from Dublin. Whether I’d have chosen Berlin as my next foreign travel experience is a moot point – that was the birthday boy’s call. But I’m glad I went, because it’s a truly brilliant city.

Living in Belfast, and having been raised in northern England, it’s a fair bet that, wherever I go, and for whatever reason I go there, in the back of my mind I’ll hope to be blessed with good weather – at least outside of the year’s colder months. Regardless of where you go, a bit of sunshine can bring a place to life and you often see places at their best under azure skies. Of course, nobody goes to Berlin for the weather, but we certainly got lucky. With temperatures reaching the mid-twenties centigrade, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions in which to explore the city. Although I did receive a pink and ever-so-slightly painful reminder that I am in fact losing my hair.

At first glance, Berlin is not a particularly beautiful city. Much of it is boxy and functional and dominated by incongruous apartment buildings. But it does have its hidden and not-so-hidden gems. But what we came to love about Berlin was not, as in, say, Rome, the breathtaking majesty of the place, but rather, its open, inclusive, tolerant and fun-loving air. Its restaurant and bar scene could take weeks to truly explore. We managed to find everything from high-end dining experiences to convenient street food – and I have to say that, not for the first time, I found kebabs that put my home country’s to shame, a legacy of the city’s large Turkish population.

Bar-wise, Berlin has everything, as you’d expected from a large and cosmopolitan capital city. It has cosy places to have a drink and a chat; sports bars for the so-inclined; more upmarket and stylish hangouts and lively establishments open into the night and the next morning. We found that the outside of a bar was no indication as to the atmosphere inside – and several times we were surprised by what we found on entering. Some of the best memories I have from my travels so far include stumbling on somewhere less used to tourists, full of locals having a really good time – and it seems Berliners of all ages know how to let their hair down. We came away especially fond of Gainsbourg bar, which we happened upon on our final night, tucked away under a railway bridge and emitting vaguely party-like bright colours into the dimly-lit street outside that made us somewhat curious. What started out as a quiet drink ended up becoming one of our fondest memories of Berlin as we watched a local band perform long into the early hours in what appeared to be some kind of private function. We never managed to ascertain exactly what was going on – was it a birthday party or a leaving bash or just what they do there? – but not one person suggested we might consider moving and, when it was time for us to go (about 3am and with the festivities still in full swing), the bar staff were sure to call us a taxi without us having to ask. It’s the kind of gesture that leaves a positive impression and reminds you why you travel. Gainsbourg is in the trendy Savignyplatz area on a narrow-ish street between Grolmanstraße and Uhlandstraße, and you’re sure of a warm welcome.

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  YAAM Beach Bar – Berlin as a number of ‘beach bars’ that have sprung up in recent years.

Berlin's creative and artistic scene is thriving.

Berlin’s creative and artistic scene is thriving.

But there’s more to Berlin than bars, of course. It’s also a city to see and to do things in. We began our adventure with a rather unique walking tour of the city focusing not on the obvious points of historical interest, but on what the organisers call the ‘real’ Berlin. This was a brilliant way to see aspects of life in the city that you otherwise would not get. Without doubt, such a tour would not be to everyone’s taste, and at four hours long, you need comfortable shoes! But we found it compelling. We were introduced to Berlin’s underground and alternative street art scene (graffiti, if you insist) in Prenzlauerberg, to the creative spaces near Hackescher Markt (where I also tasted my first currywurst), and to the more down-at-heel Kreusberg district. A long the way we learned about the history of the districts and were given an insight into the alternative living communities that are a feature of modern-day Berlin. I was fascinated in particular by the former Russian army vehicles that have been turned into permanent homes.

A monument to Berlin's firefighters in Kreusberg.

A monument to Berlin’s firefighters in Kreusberg.

We also touched on the city’s darker history, including a site connected to the Night of the Long Knives which has been turned into an attractive public space with children’s play area. It’s a stark thought to contrast the playful din of boisterous children with the elimination of Hitler’s political enemies and adjudged threats to his regime in the most brutal fashion. Urban renewal also plays a major part of the tour and is far more visible in Prenzlauerberg than it is in Kreusberg. Indeed, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable Scottish guide informed us that the latter would have been off-limits to us only fifteen years ago, and that it is still the scene of sometimes violent protests. On a lighter note, our tour concluded with an entirely unscheduled but also unavoidable meander through the city’s annual counter-cultural carnival, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to admit to being a little unnerved at having to force my way through a throng of anti-capitalistic black-clad German punks in my middle-class British attire on my rather mainstream European holiday. But there was nothing to worry about. The tour ended, perhaps rather predictably, at a bar – but not just any bar. Berlin might not be by the sea, but they like a beach bar. We stopped by the river at YAAM – a Rastafarian and Caribbean style setting with stalls selling Jamaican dishes and, most importantly after a long tour in the warm sun, plenty of beer to go round.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Doesn't do justice to how delicious this was.

Doesn’t do justice to how delicious this was.

If Berlin is a city that knows how to have a good time, then we had our best time at the Carnival of Culture. Under a blazing late-May sun, up to a million people piled into Blucherplatz for a celebration of culture from all around the world, expressed through music, art and, most importantly, food. I’ve never seen so many stalls in one place. I suspect we caught only a fraction of what the day had to offer as we soaked up the life-affirming atmosphere, kept ourselves hydrated with beers served in actual glasses (you pay a deposit which you get back if you return the glass) and sampled a variety of food from around the world. The undoubted favourite was the salmon cooked over an open flame and served in a bread roll with a choice of sauces. Simple, but heavenly. The carnival is an annual event that makes this time of year the absolute right time to be in Berlin. It’s almost impossible to convey how fortunate we feel that our time in the city coincided with the carnival, and that the weather chose to be so kind to us. That magnificent day is now a week away, and no thought gives me stronger holiday blues than that one.

Part II focuses on sightseeing, including the city’s most famous landmarks.