Tag Archives: Happy Planet Index

Thursday Doors, Wroclaw in Poland

 

Four Palaces and a Bar…

Wroclaw Door 01Wroclaw Door 02Wroclaw Door 03Wroclaw Door 04Wroclaw Door 05Wroclaw Door 06

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favourite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

European Capital of Culture 2016, Wroclaw in Poland

Wroclaw Dwarfs Postcard

In 1985, Melina Mercouri, the Greek Minister of Culture came up with the idea of designating an annual Capital of Culture to bring Europeans closer together by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures and raising awareness of their common history and values.

The European Union enthusiastically endorsed the idea and as a consequence The European Capital of Culture is a city designated for a period of one year during which it organises a series of cultural events with a strong pan-European dimension.

The first city chosen was Athens which was fair enough I suppose.  In 2016 it was Wroclaw in Poland.  A very good choice in my opinion, I have visited the city twice and would gladly go back again.

Read the full story here…

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

If you want to know about the Dwarfs you can read about them here…

Dwarf Spotting

Poland and Wroclaw, Statistics and Shifting Borders

History Teaches us Lessons but we do not Learn…

I should have been in everyone’s interests (in 1803) to keep Poland as a cheerful. thriving buffer but instead, for careless, short-termed reasons the Prussians and the Russians carved Poland into non-existence.” – Simon Winder, ‘Germania’

Wroclaw it seems to me is a friendly, honest city, proud but not boastful, ambitious but unpretentious and as we walked I thought about the statistics that I generally use to get the measure of a country or a place.

Poland is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty of most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated nineteenth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United.

Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of the nineteen is the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which was built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig and is included as an early example of the use of reinforced concrete.

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2013 achieved the status at twenty-eight beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea.

But some things are not going so well, in football, Poland has finished third twice at the Football World Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages.

If you think that the football statistics are disappointing however, consider this, Poland has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for rehearsing in English!

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic and unfortunate last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its geographical position on one of the dangerously volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.

For a thousand years the borders of central Europe have expanded and contracted like a piano accordion as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they found that they had a particular liking for.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1946 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today and I mention this here because this review of the borders had a significant impact on Wroclaw.

Prior to 1946 Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of greater Germany and one of the important Imperial cities of old Prussia, by all accounts an elegant city of spires and canals.  The Germans were fond of Breslau and it survived most of the war pretty much intact but in 1945 as the Red Army advanced Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man.  There was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked as bands of ill-disciplined Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant and brutal justice to those who resisted.  Abandoned to anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, a city lost in human catastrophe.

With Germany defeated the Allies set about agreeing borders for new Poland and had to accommodate the desire of the USSR to push their western border as far into central Europe as possible to re-establish a series of buffer states that would protect Russia from further western aggression and another invasion – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all served this purpose.  So while Poland retreated in the east it was compensated for this loss with lands in the west – principally the old Prussian/German states of Pomerania and Silesia and a new border was agreed on the Oder-Neisse line with what was to become temporarily East Germany.

Now the trouble really began because the Soviets didn’t want the disaffected and troublesome Poles living in their annexed territories so they were forcibly expelled and sent west and replaced with Russian citizens in a process called Russification.  The Poles not unsurprisingly didn’t want the Germans living in new Poland so in turn forcibly expelled the Germans of old Breslau and sent them west as well  to make room for the Poles who had been displaced in the east.

The Poles arriving from the east didn’t much care for the Germanic appearance and infrastructure of the place (even though it had been largely demolished) and the end of the war signalled a belligerent campaign to de-Germanise the city.  Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wroclaw’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to an iconoclastic whirlwind of destruction including an equine statue of Kaiser Wilhelm that once stood in the Market Square whilst other German structures that had survived the Russian siege were introduced to the Polish wrecking-ball.

By the end of 1946 as many as three hundred thousand Germans were still in the city and this was a problem for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wroclaw was officially declared to be free of German inhabitants.

Today occupies a significant position in central Europe, has borders with seven other States and is the tenth most visited country in Europe.

The Official Travel Guide in Wrocław – visitWroclaw.eu

 

Ireland – Cork to Cobh in Ten (Irish) Minutes

Ireland Postcard Map

There is a pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong, which is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.

We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast and a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast.  Despite Ireland’s reputation for Atlantic storms, dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed blue skies  on both occasions.  So good was the weather that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so we arranged to go again this year and this time chose the city of Cork, the county of West Cork and the south coast of the country as our destination.

West Cork Route

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Most impressive is that Ireland is placed seventh in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five!  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

The economic crisis has had a bit of a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom.

Ballyvaughan Ireland

Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, lets be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake!  The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!

But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?

It was an early morning flight to Cork and by mid morning we were in possession of the keys to a silver Volkswagen Golf and making the short drive to the city and to our hotel.

It was a brand new car and had some features that I was not altogether familiar with and in particular I had rather a lot of trouble getting to grips with the electric handbrake.  The hotel was at the top of a hill and the car park sloped down towards the reception and I had so much bother with the brake and made such a dog’s dinner of parking that we almost checked in a few minutes earlier than anticipated while Kim kept shrieking “It’s not a Drive-Thru, It’s not a Drive-Thru”

Cobh Postcard

After booking in and approving our rooms the plan was to leave the car in the safety of the car park and take a train to the nearby town of Cobh (pronounced cove).  It used to be called Cove (pronounced cove) but in 1850 the British renamed it Queenstown (pronounced Queenstown) to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way and the Irish obviously agree with me because shortly after independence they renamed it Cobh (pronounced cove).

The Irish I find generally measure journeys in units of ten minutes and the helpful lady at hotel reception told us that it would take about ten minutes to walk to the train station and that the ride to Cobh would be another ten minutes or so.  It took half an hour to walk there and then another thirty minutes for the train to make the short journey around the harbour.  I made a mental note to be sure to make generous allowances for Irish timing estimates for the rest of the week.

Kilmer Ferry County Clare Ireland

Once out of the industrial suburbs of Cork the tracks followed the shoreline of the generous harbour which is said to be the second largest natural harbour in the World after Sidney in Australia.  As always you need to be careful with these sort of claims because at least a dozen or so more make exactly the same assertion including Poole in England, Valletta in Malta and Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.  I suppose it might depend on whether the tide is in or out!

So, we arrived in Cobh and walked along the waterfront and debated our itinerary and by a majority decision agreed to find a pub for a first glass of Dublin Guinness even though we were told that we should really be drinking Cork Murphy’s.

Have you got any thoughts about place names?

Ireland Guiness

Morocco, Essaouira – Background and Research

Morocco Postcard Map

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Morocco is in North Africa which geographically and politically is included in the United Nations definition of the area comprising  seven countries or territories; Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara.  It is the twenty-fourth largest country in Africa out of fifty-four and is one of the most developed with the sixth largest economy of the continent (after Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, and Angola).

Of all the countries in Africa it is the closest to Europe and technically Britain because it is just twenty miles or so from the Overseas Territory of Gibraltar and along with France and Spain it is one of only three countries with both a Mediterranean and an Atlantic coast line.

Morocco is placed one hundred and twenty-sixth in the Human Development Index which isn’t especially good and means that it is categorised as having only medium human development in an index that ranks countries by data composed from life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is sixty-sixth in the OECD Better Life Index and forty-second in the Happy Planet Index which is one place behind the United Kingdom but way ahead of the United States which is as low down as one hundred and fifth.

I wonder however if they consulted absolutely everyone.  There is an awful lot of poverty in Morocco and with no welfare state payments or safety net there a lot of street beggars.  Even for those in work it is not so wonderful and Morocco is in the top three countries in the World where workers are dissatisfied with their jobs, the other two are Nigeria and Japan. Japan?

Essaouira Derelict Doors

Morocco has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites but the chances of visiting more than one or two in a single visit is very remote because they are spread evenly right across the country.  This time we were visiting the Atlantic port of Essaouira which is included in the list.  Previously we had visited three others at Marrakech, Fez and Meknes.

The country has one thousand eight hundred kilometres of coastline and twenty-three Blue Flag Beaches.

Essaouira is only one of five place names in the World that contain all five vowels in just one single un-hyphenated name.  The others are Donaueschingen in Germany, Dogubeyazit in Turkey, Berrouaghia in Algeria, Alexandroupoli in Greece and Mediouna which is also in Morocco.  So, with two  Morocco is the clear winner in place names with all five vowels in the name.

Football is the national sport and the national team have appeared four times at the FIFA World Cup finals and fifteen times at the Africa Cup of Nations where they were winners in 1976.

I have been to Morocco before.  The first time was in 1989 when I went not to Africa but to the USA and visited World Disney World!

Epcot World Showcase

Of all the countries at the EPCOT World Showcase the Morocco Pavilion was the only one in which the country’s government aided in the construction and they did this so that they could retain some measure of Islamist control over the design of the mosaics and to ensure that everything was as authentic as possible in the representation of the Muslim faith.

The Disney Web Site introduces Morocco like this: “A realistic Koutoubia Minaret leads the way into this faraway land of traditional belly dancers, intricate Moroccan architecture and swirling mosaics made by native craftsmen. The Morocco Pavilion has two fascinating sections: the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and the Medina (old city). Discover a bustling plaza with a variety of shops and be on the lookout for some familiar Arabian Disney friends throughout the day.”

Well, one thing that I can confirm is that they have certainly got the shopping bit completely right because Disneyland and the Souks of  Morocco certainly have a lot in common when it comes to trying to part visitors from their money as I found out when taking a guided tour of the Fez souk.

Fez Colours

Malta, Preparation and Research

Malta Map Postcard

I have been to Malta before.  I first went there in 1996 and liked it so much that I returned the following year.  Both times I stayed at the Mellieha Bay hotel in the north of the island.  These were family holidays with two teenage children, beaches, swimming pools, banana boat death rides and Popeye Village.

I liked it so much that I have always wanted to go back.  I have repeatedly told Kim that Malta is special and that I am certain she would like it as much as I did.  Late last year the opportunity arose and I was able to find a combination of cheap flights and a hotel deal at Mellieha Bay for just £200 for four nights and five full days!  A bargain not to be missed.

During the gloomy winter months I continued to try and convince Kim that she was going to really, really enjoy Malta but as the departure date grew closer I began to worry that she might not be so blown away with the place as I had been previously…

Malta Mdina

Malta is a small country stranded in the Mediterranean Sea part way between Europe and Africa, it is close to Italy but it is not Italian, for a long time it was part of the British Empire but it is not British, it has an African influenced language but it is not African.

It is the tenth smallest country in the World and the fifth smallest in Europe after Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino and Liechtenstein.  At only three hundred and sixteen square kilometres it is smaller than England’s smallest county and there are only twenty counties (out of 3,144) in the whole of the USA smaller than the total land area of Malta.   Because of its tiny dimensions it is the seventh most densely populated country in the World and the overcrowding gets worse in the Summer because it is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations.

Malta is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty or most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated twelfth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index, which may not sound very impressive but is three places above the United Kingdom.  Denmark, Norway and Switzerland are all walking on sunshine, having placed first, second and third respectively in the happiness index. The Central African Republic, Benin and Togo are the least happy nations according to the report as they ranked in the bottom three places.

Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites which is a small total compared to Italy which has the most in the World with fifty but please bear in mind that tiny Malta is only .1% of the size of its next door neighbour! To be honest with you I was not that bothered about visiting the megalithic temples but I was looking forward to visiting Valletta, the city of the Knights of St John.

Being in the Mediterranean the country has always participated in the Blue Flag Beach scheme.  The Blue Flag beach award was originally conceived in France in 1985 where the first coastal municipalities were awarded the Blue Flag on the basis of criteria covering standards relating to sewage treatment and bathing water quality.

Two years later, 1987 was the ‘European Year of the Environment’ and the concept of the Blue Flag was developed as a European initiative by the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe to include other areas of environmental management, such as waste disposal and coastal planning and protection and in that first year two hundred and forty four beaches from ten countries were awarded the new Blue Flag status.

Malta has nine Blue Flag beaches but it only has two hundred and fifty kilometres of coastline and applying a test of ratio of blue flag beaches to length of coast line then Malta would easily slip into the top ten countries in the World which are included in the scheme.  We were going to be staying at Mellieha which is one of the nine.

So before departure we made our plans – there is a lot to see in Malta.  Three full days of sightseeing seemed like a good idea, a day in Valletta, a ferry ride to Gozo and a bus ride to the ancient capital of Mdina in the rocky interior of the island.  I was confident that we were going to enjoy it.

Bristow Ceramics Malta Boat

Turkey, Preparation and Arrival

Turkey Postcard 3

The end of the Summer usually means the Greek Islands for our travels but this year we were breaking with tradition and although close by to the Dodecanese we were visiting mainland Turkey instead.

The flight to Bodrum was with Monarch airlines and this reminded me that my first ever flight was with Monarch when I went to Sorrento in Italy in June 1976.

Shortly before take off this time the pilot introduced himself as Captain Rupert Mattox and I couldn’t help thinking that there is something reassuring about a pilot called Rupert because it’s a fair bet that he has been to Public School and served in the RAF.  What you don’t want is a pilot called Wayne or Brandon because that sort of introduction is rather like seeing a single magpie – a bit of a worry.

Briefly though now, back to 1976 because on that occasion the pilot didn’t introduce himself by name until after we had safely landed when he revealed his name to be Captain Skidmore – I kid you not.  I was travelling with my dad and he thought that was so funny, so funny he told the story for the rest of his life.

00 Monarch Airlines

It was late when we arrived and quite dark but the prearranged transport was there to meet us and took us on the one and a half hour journey to our accommodation in Altinkum.  We found the place and then climbed three flights of stairs to the top of the apartment block.  It was dark in the hallway and there were light switches which were on a timer and had an annoying habit of going out too soon to be completely useful.  The light switches were placed next to the doorbells to the apartments and Kim managed to push everyone during our ascent bringing residents to open their doors and to several apologies for disturbing people but I suspect this happens quite a lot.

After settling in we went in search of a shop and on the way down the stairs Kim managed to press most of the door bells again.  There was a shop next door so we bought some beer and wine and some snacking food and returned to the apartment and Kim managed to press the door bells for a third time so I was glad when we reached the top and got inside and locked the door so that we couldn’t annoy anyone anymore this evening.  We weren’t going out again because we were unsure of our location and anyway it was getting late so we spent an hour or so on the balcony and reviewed our plans and itinerary.

In preparation for travel I had carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Turkey is the thirty-fifth largest country in the World, out of two hundred and six (give or take a few disputed states) and is one of five European/Asian transcontinental states (the others are Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan).

Turkey is placed sixty-first in the Human Development Index which means that it is categorised as having high human development in an index that ranks countries by data composed from life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is sixty-first in the OECD Better Life Index and forty-fourth in the Happy Planet Index which is three places behind the United Kingdom but way ahead of the United States which is as low down as one hundred and fifth.

Turkey Souvenir Shopping Bag

Turkey has thirteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites but the chances of visiting more than one or two was very remote because they are spread evenly right across the country.  Like Greece and Egypt it has two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and due to their proximity to Altinkum it seemed quite likely that we would be able to see them both while we were here.

The country has seven thousand two hundred kilometres of coastline and an impressive three hundred and seventy nine Blue Flag Beaches which according to the Blue Flag website means that this is the second highest after Spain.  There is some dispute about this however because although the website is quite clear that neighbouring Greece (having carelessly lost thirty-three awards between 2013 and 2014) now has only three hundred and sixty and has dropped from second to third place, the Visit Greece website stubbornly claims four hundred and eight.  I think the Blue Flag website is probably correct!

My final benchmark is always the  Eurovision Song Contest and Turkey has taken part since 1975, it won the competition in 2003 but it has come last three times and on two occasions didn’t score any points at all.  It pulled out of the competition in 2013 because it disagreed with some voting rule changes.  Sour grapes it seems!

As we sat under the stars trying to make sense of the geography we knew that this was going to be a different sort of travel experience for us because we were going to be based in the same place for two whole weeks something that we hadn’t done for ten years or so because normally we like a few nights in a place and then move on so this fortnight was going to require some adjustment and before bed we considered the guide books and the travel company brochures and drew up a short list of places that we would probably like to go and visit.

Turkey Postcard 1 (2)

Poland (Wroclaw), Statistics and Shifting Borders

Wroclaw Poland Market Square

Even within a short time of arriving I was beginning to form an impression that Wroclaw is a friendly, honest city, proud but not boastful, ambitious but unpretentious and as we walked I thought about the statistics that I generally use to get the measure of a country or a place.

Poland is placed 39th in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty of most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated 19th out of thirty in the European Happiness Index which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United Kingdom so when people complain about Polish immigration I say perhaps it is a good thing and more Polish people might cheer us all up!  Iceland, by-the-way remains way out in front.

Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in 19th place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of the nineteen is the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which was built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig and is included as an early landmark example of the use of reinforced concrete but we didn’t really have any plans to go visiting there as it is a little way out of the city. 

Wroclaw Postcard

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2013 achieved the status at twenty-eight beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea.

But some things are not going so well, in football, Poland has finished third twice at the Football World Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages. It is an interesting coincidence that in England we still smart over the failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals because we were unable to overcome Poland in a final group match and in particular the goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski (who Brian Clough faously wrote of as ‘a clown’) who just happens to have been a citizen of Wroclaw and who began his playing career at the football club Śląsk Wrocław.

If you think that the football statistics are disappointing however, consider this, Poland has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for rehearsing in English!

Wroclaw Dwarfs Postcard

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic and unfortunate last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its geographical position on one of the dangerously volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.

For the entire period that there has been a place called Poland occupying a part of central Europe its borders have expanded and contracted like a medical ventilator as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they found that they had a particular liking for.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1945 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today and I mention this here because this review of the borders had a significant impact on Wroclaw.

Prior to 1945 Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of greater Germany and one of the important Imperial cities of old Prussia, by all accounts an elegant city of spires and canals.  The Germans were fond of Breslau and it survived most of the war pretty much intact but in 1945 as the Red Army advanced Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man.  The defending Germans loyally obeyed their orders but there was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

Historical Museum Wroclaw Poland

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked. Fuelled by alcohol, drunken bands of Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant justice to those who resisted their looting and rape. Trapped in Dante-style anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, the city lost in human catastrophe. It was into this hellish vision that Polish settlers from the East arrived, desperate to find a new home.

With Germany defeated the three main allied leaders set about agreeing borders for new Poland and had to accommodate the desire of the USSR to push their western border as far into central Europe as possible to re-establish a series of buffer states that would protect Russia from further western aggression and another invasion – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all served this purpose.  So while Poland shrunk in the east it was compensated for this loss with lands in the west – principally the old Prussian/German states of Pomerania and Silesia and a new border was agreed on the Oder-Neisse line with what was to become temporarily East Germany.

Now the trouble really began because the Russians didn’t want the disaffected and troublesome Poles living in their annexed territories so they were forcibly expelled and sent west and replaced with Russian citizens in a process called Russification.  The Poles not unsurprisingly didn’t want the Germans living in new Poland so in turn forcibly expelled the Germans of old Breslau and sent them west as well  to make room for the Poles who had been displaced in the east.

Poland Border Revisions in 1945

The Poles arriving from the east didn’t much care for the Germanic appearance and infrastructure of the place (even though it had been largely demolished) and the end of the war signalled a belligerent campaign to de-Germanise the city.  Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wroclaw’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to an iconoclastic whirlwind of destruction including an equine statue of Kaiser Wilhelm that once stood in the Market Square whilst other German structures that had survived the Russian siege were introduced to the Polish wrecking-ball.  

By the end of 1945 as many as three hundred thousand Germans were still in the city and this was a problem for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wroclaw was officially declared to be free of German habitants. 

After a short walk we passed directly into the square which like so many others in Europe has been expertly and sensitively restored and betrays an eclectic mix of the principles of original medieval town planning and a combination of Germanic and Polish architectural styles that perfectly complement one another. 

Here was an elegant reconstruction based on a late eighteenth century Baroque and Classical style and so we set about walking around the square and its adjacent streets to try and get to know this city a little better in the short time that we had there.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

Iceland, Economy, Happiness and Statistics

Iceland Cover

My first trip to Iceland was in 2007 when the country appeared to be riding the crest of an economic  wave, top of the United Nations index on human development and according to a study at Leicester University the fourth happiest place to live in the world.

Iceland had one of the richest economies in Europe, but it had a problem nagging away below the surface of the wave because its three main private sector banks had become so large that their assets amounted to more than ten times the gross domestic product of the country and eventually things went spectacularly wrong.

The economy bombed, the krona has lost more than half its value.  GDP dropped by 10% (I am not an economist but apparently that is quite a lot) in under a year and unemployment hit a forty year high.  Following negotiations with the International Monetary Fund a massive rescue package of $4.6bn was agreed by a combination of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.  In addition, Poland offered to lend $200m and the little Faroe Islands offered 300m Danish kroner, which was roughly the equivalent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion Danish krona or 35 billion pounds!  How generous was that.

Six years previously I had found the country horrendously expensive but that turned out to be a bit of bad timing  because immediately after the crash and only a year later the krona lost fifty percent of its value against the Euro.  Even taking into account six years of relatively high inflation, which even now remains stubbornly high at over 5%,  I was rather hoping for cheaper prices this time because it has now dropped to only the nineteenth most expensive country in the World to live in.

1000 krona

You would think that this would make people happy but evidently not because from fourth happiest in 2007 it has plummeted to eighty-eighth in 2013 and from the top of the human development index it has dropped to only fourteenth but remains in a top twenty which interestingly includes all of the other Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

On the positive side and despite losing its happiness crown in 2013 the World Economic Forum named Iceland as the World’s most visitor friendly country just ahead of New Zealand and Morocco (Morocco?) .  The least friendly country by-the-way was declared to be Bolivia followed by Venezuela and then Russia.  Well, in my personal experience (and that is all that  it is) I certainly wouldn’t put Morocco in the top three and I certainly wouldn’t place Russia  in the bottom three either.

Other facts that might make Icelanders sad is that it is the only northern European country not to win the Eurovision Song Contest  despite competing in twenty-six competitions and it has never qualified for the football World Cup finals or the European Championship finals.  On the other hand it does now have three blue flag beaches  and four blue flag marinas.

The weather was a bit of a surprise because we had interpreted ‘Ice land’ rather literally and were expecting sub zero temperatures, snow and lots of ice.   What we hadn’t taken fully into consideration was the effect of the gulf-stream that delivers warm water from the Caribbean directly to the south of the country and thereby keeps the temperature unexpectedly mild.

Reykjavik is on a line of latitude 64° north which is approximately the same as Anchorage in Alaska and Arkhangelsk in Russia but whilst the average October temperature in these two cities is about -10° centigrade in Iceland it is generally a degree or two above zero.  Whilst you wouldn’t step out on the streets in Anchorage or Arkhangelsk without a warm coat, woolly mittens and a flask of hot soup it really wasn’t absolutely necessary here.   Iceland it seems is a most inappropriately named country.

Iceland Landscape

When we arrived it was dreary and overcast but to be fair there was now some weather improvement and although there were still impenetrable steel grey clouds it had at least stopped raining.  It was only a short walk to the seafront and we found our way to the promenade and walked along to the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side. 

Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the story goes that the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the comforting plumes of hot steam that were escaping from the nearby hot springs.

By early afternoon there were some promising pools of blue sky spilling through the clouds as we walked back from the sea and into the city centre and along the main shopping street of Laugavegur.  We were ready for a break so we stopped at a small café that we recognised from the previous visit and where on that occasion a coffee and a sandwich and a cake came to a very unreasonable 1,600 krona, or about £13 but this time it was way cheaper for four of us at about only £8 and I began to feel more comfortable about Icelandic prices.

Sólfar suncraft Reykjavik Iceland

Iceland – What Went Wrong?

1000 krona

The trip to Iceland was eighteen months ago when the country appeared to be riding the crest of a wave, top of the United Nations index on human development and according to a study at Leicester University the fourth happiest place to live in the world.  Iceland had one of the richest economies in Europe, but it had a problem because its three main private sector banks had become so large that their assets amounted to more than ten times the gross domestic product of the country and things have gone spectacularly wrong.

Today the economy is in unbelievably horrible shape and the three banks, Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glitnir are in receivership. The stock market has lost 90% of its value, the central bank is technically insolvent and a mountain of liabilities dwarfs its modest pile of assets.  The krona has lost more than half its value.  GDP is expected to drop by 10% in 2009, and unemployment will probably hit a forty year high.  The Government of the country is in meltdown and in January the Prime Minister resigned and called a general election.

Following negotiations underway with the IMF since October 2008, a package of $4.6bn was agreed on 19th November, with the IMF loaning $2.1bn and another $2.5bn of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.  In addition, Poland has offered to lend $200M and the Faroe Islands have offered 300M Danish kroner.  Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the European Union cash handout so it could probably afford to give a bit back but for the Faroe Islands it is the equivilent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion danish kronas or 35 billion pounds!  How generous is that.

Iceland retained its top spot in the index on human development in 2008 but it is doubtful it will still be there at the end of 2009 and I’m not sure just how happy they are now either.  In the New Economic Foundation’s 2009 Happy Planet Index Iceland came ninety-fourth.  The Icelandic króna has declined more than fifty percent against the euro.  Inflation of prices in the economy is almost out of control and interest rates had been raised to eighteen percent to deal with it.  The króna’s decline is reportedly only beaten by that of the Zimbabwean dollar.

The assets of Icelandic pension funds are expected to shrink by up to twenty-five percent and the Icelandic Pension Funds Association has announced that benefits will in all likelihood have to be cut in 2009.  Iceland’s GDP is expected by economists to shrink by as much as 10 percent as a result of the crisis, placing Iceland in an economic depression. Inflation may climb as high as seventy-five percent by the end of the year.  Unemployment has more than tripled with over seven thousand registered jobseekers (about 4% of the workforce) compared to just over two thousand at the end of August.

Borgarnes Iceland old ferry terminal

Iceland, which has previously always resisted membership, has also formally applied to join the European Union. The bid must now be approved by the EU, after which Iceland’s people will be asked to vote on it in a referendum.  Iceland, with its tiny population of just 320,000, has traditionally been sceptical about joining because some fear that quotas could hurt Iceland’s fishing industry but many people there have warmed to the idea of membership following the devastating economic meltdown, which saw the top Icelandic banks collapse in a matter of days.

With things this bad and Iceland crying out for customers this could be a good time to take advantage and visit again.  In the United States it is in the top five of bargain destinations because of the fall in the value of the Krona and as long as that keeps ahead of the prices in the shops and the restaurants that should make it nicely affordable.  I hope we would still be welcome there because it does have to be said that Iceland does partly blame the United Kingdom for its economic woes because we turned down requests for assistance and then invoked anti-terrorist legislation to seize Icelandic assets.

The Iceland national tourist web site is reassuring however and says:

While Iceland and most other countries are currently dealing with a serious financial crisis, business in Iceland is being conducted as usual. All services – including banking services – are functioning as on any other day. Hotels, restaurants, airlines, car rentals, currency exchange facilities, offices, shops, etc. are all open for normal business.”

Visitors can be assured that they will be treated with same friendly hospitality that Icelanders have become known for throughout the travel world. There is no reason to fear that a visit to Iceland will be anything other than an enjoyable experience’.

I think I would be prepared to risk it and so are lots of others because visitor numbers from the United Kingdom have increased by 20% since September 2008 .  We British know a bargain when we see one!

Iceland protest

http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3396.htm