Tag Archives: Human Development Index

Warsaw, Research and Travel

Map of Poland

I have visited Poland before, twice to Krakow some time ago and last year to Wroclaw.  I liked it and this year there was an opportunity to travel to the capital city of Warsaw.

I had never really thought seriously about going to Warsaw before and I put this down to the fact that when I was younger I always associated it with two things.  Firstly, word association and the town of Walsall, which is a dreary unattractive, industrial town in the Black Country in the United Kingdom which is a place that few people would visit by choice.  Secondly the term Warsaw Pact, which was the name of the Soviet military alliance in Eastern Europe which during my early years seemed to be the sinister organisation responsible for plotting to wipe us of the face of the map in a messy nuclear strike.

Anyway, I have overcome these objections now and when cheap air fares and a good hotel deal coincided on the same dates I needed no convincing to go there and I set about carrying out my usual research.

Warsaw Old Town and Royal castle

Poland 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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of these sites is the historic centre of Warsaw which was rebuilt after the German army destroyed it as they retreated in 1945 and this one of the sites that I was really looking forward to seeing.

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2014 achieved the status at seventeen beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea, although that represents a loss of eleven from the previous year.

Warsaw Old Town

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 and if you think that is disappointing it 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 the curious reason of rehearsing in English!

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its unfortunate geographical position on one of the 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 its borders have expanded and contracted and moved this way and that as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they took a liking to.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1945 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today.

Poland Border Revisions in 1945

It was an early morning flight to Warsaw Modlin airport and as the Ryanair flight was called we lined up ready to board the plane. Ryanair has a reputation as being a pretty shabby airline but has improved recently but this morning it was back to the bad old days.  For this flight someone at the personnel department had assembled the rudest possible team of people to administer the departure gate and I can only assume that there must be a special selection process to achieve this sort of ill-mannered combination of staff.

They began with the baggage check and pulled out a couple of young girls for the ritual humiliation of testing the bag size in the dimensions checker.  While they struggled to rearrange the contents the sour faced rottweillers looked on smugly waiting for them to fail and to present them with a £50 bill each – a nice little earner!

Generally speaking I think it is people’s own responsibility to ensure that the baggage complies with the rules but this morning I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the two victims. Why? Well, because I cannot understand the selection process in the bag witch hunt and there were plenty of others that would so obviously have failed the dimensions test as well.  As I struggled to comprehend this the answer became blindingly obvious – most of the other oversize bags were being carried by six foot brawny Polish builders and I imagine that it is a whole lot easier to pick on a young girl than a towering man mountain!

And then on the plane one of these giants came and sat next to me.  Most people know that Ryanair seat space is not very generous and this man was huge in both height and girth and he had a massive padded coat that smelled of salami and stale cigarettes and he seemed strangely reluctant to remove it.  It was a very uncomfortable journey and I was so glad when we landed in Warsaw and I could get some space and some fresh air.

Palace of Culture Warsaw

Budapest, Research and Preparation

Budapest Travel Group

During the first six years of my life, Hungary was one of the most important components of the Habsburg dynasty’s vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after World War I it became an independent national entity”  – Georg Solti

In November we visited Budapest in Hungary with our regular travelling companions.  I have been chastised before for not introducing them to you in my opening post so here they are in the picture above – Mike, Christine, Kim, Margaret and Sue.

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.

Wedged in between Iceland and Portugal, Hungary is the eighteenth largest country in Europe, which means that it is really rather small.  It used to be a lot bigger but in 1914 the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had the misfortune of being allied to Germany in the Great War and the heavy price it paid for defeat in 1918 was a significant two-thirds loss of territory.  Slovakia in the North became part of Czechoslovakia, Transylvania in the East was given to Romania and in the South-West, what are modern day Slovenia, Croatia and some other South Slav lands were handed over to the new State of Yugoslavia.

Partition of Hungary 1919

Hungary is placed forty-third 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 classified as average in the OECD Better Life Index and only one hundred and third in the Happy Planet Index which is way behind the United Kingdom but two places ahead of the United States.  I had no idea that the USA is so unhappy!

Hungary has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites including a selection of sites in Budapest parcelled together as one entry in the list so we would be seeing a lot of these over the next few days.

One of my usual research measures is the number of Blue Flag Beaches but it would be unfair to use this for Hungary because it is a land-locked country with no shoreline.  It is situated in central Europe and has borders with Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.  It does have the largest lake in central Europe, Lake Balaton which is sometimes called the Hungarian Sea but even this doesn’t appear to have any Blue Flag marinas.

My final benchmark is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Hungary has taken part twelve times, it has never won the competition but unlike Norway it has never come last and it has always been awarded some points.

Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and the country’s principal political, cultural, commercial and industrial centre and is one of a number of European destinations that have been on my to-return to list for some time not least because the country is in the top fifteen visitor destinations in the world and is the sixth most visited capital city in Europe, behind London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin, which by my logic means that there must be something there worth seeing.

I knew this but what I didn’t know was that the valuable list of Hungarian contributions to the world and human advancement include most importantly the ballpoint pen that was invented by László Bíró, the Rubik Cube, invented by Ernő Rubik, the theory of the hydrogen bomb (perhaps, not such a good thing) and the BASIC computer programming language.

A Hungarian chemist János Irinyi also developed the noiseless match, which is essentially one that doesn’t detonate with a bang when ignited.  This may not sound especially important but before this invention striking a match could be disconcertingly violent, a bit like firing a musket and due to a dangerous composition of chemicals the thing was liable to go off with a loud explosion and a shower of sparks with the potentially unfortunate side effect of setting light to people’s clothes or, even more dangerously, their beards.

One of the finest ever footballers in the world was the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás who in the 1950s scored eighty-four goals in eighty-five international appearances for Hungary, which is a very impressive strike rate indeed especially when you consider that England’s top goal scorer, Bobby Charlton, only scored forty-nine goals in one hundred and six games and even Pelé, who is generally reckoned to be the greatest footballer ever, couldn’t match this level of performance with seventy-seven goals in ninety-two games for Brazil.

In the middle of this goal fest Hungary lost a game against Czechoslovakia and Puskas was suspended for life by the National Football Association, for “laziness on the pitch”.  This was about as dim as suspending Jo DiMaggio for not making a home run or Jonny Wilkinson for missing a penalty.  He was pardoned just a couple of months later.

A bit of a shame that he didn’t get one more goal for a 100% record and at 98.8% I suppose that is very similar to Don Bradman, the Australian cricketer who retired with an international batting average of 99.94%.  Now that, it seems to me, is just about as close to perfection as it is possible to get.

Puskas-Ferenc-Statue

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)

Ireland, Preparation and Statistics

Ireland 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’.  Not surprising then that until now I have never visited the country.

Later this year of course, if the Scottish Nationalists get their way, then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!

2014 has been a big year for me as I reached the birthday milestone of sixty years and I was planning something special to celebrate the occasion and then some friends asked if we would like to visit Ireland with them and that seemed special enough so we set about making travel plans.

I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.

A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond and his dreadful deputy, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately want a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car.  So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!

Ballyvaughan Ireland

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 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 but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.

Ireland Ennistymon Bright Colours

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?

We flew to Shannon Airport early one Thursday morning and after arrival set about finding the car rental office.  Being a skinflint I had arranged a vehicle through ‘Budget Rent a Car’ and that should have been a warning in itself.  The cost of insurance doubled the original quote and then I was alarmed to find that we had been charged for a full tank of diesel at way above sensible pump prices but to be fair they did promise to refund the charge if we brought it back full but at this stage I have to say that I was not especially hopeful.

We left the airport on the very edge of the river Shannon (the longest river in Ireland and the British Isles) past the peat bogs of the estuary shoreline and headed north to Galway and then the first warning light came on.  It was the engine heater plug warning light so this did not concern me greatly and we carried on but then more lights started to appear until the dashboard resembled a Christmas tree in New York Times Square or Saturday night on the Las Vegas strip.

We carried on because these seemed only to be linked to the instruction to get the thing serviced and I decided to call the hire company later after we had parked up and checked in to our hotel.  And then the Engine Management warning light came on and I thought this might be serious but I didn’t want to spoil the day so on the basis that ignorance is bliss I placed a fold up map over the dashboard display so I couldn’t see it and just carried on while I mentally calculated how much I might be charged for a new engine if it blew up.

So we found the hotel and I was interested to check out this whole Irish happiness/friendliness thing and sure enough the desk clerk was happy and friendly but I remained sceptical and thought, ‘well, of course she is, it is her job’ and then we went into the city centre.  It was lunchtime so we found a pub and I went to the bar and ordered some beer and a man immediately started to talk to me and he was happy and he was friendly and as we enjoyed our first pint of Guinness in the sunshine I instinctively knew that Ireland was a special place to be.

Ireland Guiness

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

Norway – an Impressive World Performer

One of the reasons that we have tended to avoid travelling to Scandinavia is because of the notoriously high cost of living and the lofty prices relative to southern and eastern Europe. Read on…

Norway, A Land of Plenty – Some Facts and Figures

Haugesund Norway

In the morning by a minor miracle the rain had stopped and the pavements had been dried off by the piercing wind so when we woke and discovered this we were hopeful of a dry day.

Just to satisfy ourselves we searched the Norwegian breakfast television channels for a forecast and after a few minutes surfing eventually found one.  The weather man appeared in front of a map full of symbols and, I don’t know why she did this, but Kim turned up the sound so that we could hear what he was saying!  I think she failed to take into account that whatever it was he was telling it in impenetrable Norwegian.  I asked her why she did that and she said that she thought it might be helpful!

Read the full story…

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