Tag Archives: travel

Around in the world in five posts: H-J

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

 

Haiti flag

Haiti

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

What’s Haiti like?

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

Haiti map
Haiti

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

One cool thing about Haiti

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

One sad thing about Haiti

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

Haiti passport
Haitian passport

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

Haiti
Citadelle Laferrière, Cap Haïtienne

 

Honduras flag

Honduras

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

What’s Honduras like?

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

Honduras map
Honduras

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

One cool thing about Honduras

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

One sad thing about Honduras

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

Honduras passport
Honduran passport

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

Honduras
Roatán, Bay Islands

 

Hungary flag

Hungary

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

What’s Hungary like?

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

Hungary map
Hungary

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

One cool thing about Hungary

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

One sad thing about Hungary

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

Hungary passport
Hungarian passport

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

Hungary
Budapest

 

Iceland flag

Iceland

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

What’s Iceland like?

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

Iceland map
Iceland

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

One cool thing about Iceland

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

One sad thing about Iceland

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

Iceland passport
Icelandic passport

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

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

Iceland
Reykjavík

 

India flag

India

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

What’s India like?

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

India map
India

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

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

India2
Golden Temple, Amritsar

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

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

One cool thing about India

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

One sad thing about India

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

India passport
Indian passport

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

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

India
Me at the Taj Mahal, Agra

 

Indonesia flag

Indonesia

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

What’s Indonesia like?

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

Indonesia map
Indonesia

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

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

One cool thing about Indonesia

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

One sad thing about Indonesia

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

Indonesia passport
Indonesian passport

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

Indonesia
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Lake Bratan, Bali

 

Iran flag

Iran

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

What’s Iran like?

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

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Iran

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

One cool thing about Iran

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

One sad thing about Iran

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

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


What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Iranian passport

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

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The holy city of Qom

 

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Iraq

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

What’s Iraq like?

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

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Iraq

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

One cool thing about Iraq

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

One sad thing about Iraq

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

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


What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Iraqi passport

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

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Baghdad

 

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Ireland

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

What’s Ireland like?

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

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Ireland

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

One cool thing about Ireland

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

One sad thing about Ireland

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Irish Passport

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

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County Donegal

 

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Israel

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

What’s Israel like?

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

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Israel

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

One cool thing about Israel

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

One sad thing about Israel

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Israeli Passport

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

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Jerusalem

 

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Italy

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

What’s Italy like?

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

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Italy

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

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Florence

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

One cool thing about Italy

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

One sad thing about Italy

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Italian passport

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

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Cefalú, Sicily

 

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Ivory Coast

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

What’s Ivory Coast like?

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

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Ivory Coast

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

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

One cool thing about Ivory Coast

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

One sad thing about Ivory Coast

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Ivorian passport

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

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

 

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Jamaica

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

What’s Jamaica like?

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

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Jamaica

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

One cool thing about Jamaica

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

One sad thing about Jamaica

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Jamaican passport

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

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

 

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Japan

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

What’s Japan like?

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

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Japan

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

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Tokyo

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

One cool thing about Japan

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

One sad thing about Japan

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Japanese passport

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

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

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Mount Fuji

 

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Jordan

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

What’s Jordan like?

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

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Jordan

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

One cool thing about Jordan

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

One sad thing about Jordan

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

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

 

What’s it like for tourists?

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

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Jordanian passport

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

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Petra

 

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

A few thoughts on Flybe…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the World in Five Posts: Bonus Post

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

Bye bye Swaziland, hello Eswatini.

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

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

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King Mswati III of Eswatini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republic of Macedonia and Greece’s Macedonia region

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

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

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

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

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

A South Pacific Referendum

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

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The flags of France and New Caledonian

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

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

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

Not Another South Pacific Independence Referendum?!

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

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Papua New Guinea with Bougainville in the east

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

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

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Current flag of Bougainville province

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

 

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

Site Update

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

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

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Church near where I lived in South Ealing, west London

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

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


 

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,

Michael

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Formby Point, Formby, Liverpool – home

 

Oslo: the City on the Fjord

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

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

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

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Oslo city centre

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

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

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A view from the Anker Apartments roof terrace

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

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

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

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Grünerløkka

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

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

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

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

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Royal Palace

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

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National Theatre

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

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

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Oslofjord from Ekebergparken

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

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The Opera House

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

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

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

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

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Autumn on Hovedøya

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

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Ullevaal Stadion

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

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Looking from my seat toward the Northern Ireland fans

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

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

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

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

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A friendly welcome awaits at the train station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plovdiv: Europe’s best kept secret?

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

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

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Quaint Kapana (aka “The Trap”)

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

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

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The hazardous cobbles of Plovdiv’s old town

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

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

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

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Getting ready for a show at the amphitheatre

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

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Sunset over Plovdiv

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Neighbours Textbox
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.

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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.

ethiopia
Rock-hewn church, Lalibela

 

fiji-flag

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.

France map
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.

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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…

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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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 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.