A Brief History of Hungary

  • The west of Hungary was formerly a part of the Roman Empire, the province of Pannonia. After its fall, the Hun tribes, invading the Carpathian Basin, gave the country their name as we know it - Hungary. Hungarian is the direct descendant of the language spoken by the Huns. It's unusual, nay unique, in that Hungarian is not related to any other major European language - except Finnish. It's believed that the Finns and Huns originated from the area - the Ural Mountains.
  • This is one of the oldest countries in the world. It was founded in 895 and the Christian Kingdom of Hungary was established in (exactly) 1000, under King Saint Stephen. He was crowned on Christmas Day and Pope Sylvester II gave him his crown, which became one of the most powerful symbols of Hungarian nationhood. It's on the coat of arms. The Árpád dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years. During this time, the kingdom expanded to the Adriatic coast and entered into union with Croatia.
  • After that, Hungary had a torrid time. It was invaded by the Mongols, lost significant territory during the Ottoman Wars and had to submit the remainder to Austrian Hapsburg rule.
  • Eventually, fortunes improved. The land lost to Turkey was restored and the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 created a joint monarchy.
  • The Habsburg monarchy was dissolved after World War I. There was a very brief Hungarian republic, then another kingdom. During this time Hungary shrunk dramatically again. In all, it lost almost two thirds of its area to neighbouring countries. What was left, came under German occupation in 1944, then under Soviet control, until the end of the war and then a communist republic, a satellite state of the USSR.
  • Hungary became an independent nation again in 1989, and joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Facts and Factoids

  • Hungarians,call themselves Magyars and the country Magyarország, ‘The Land of Magyars‘. They write their last name first and first name last. You may only give your child a government approved name. You can choose from an extensive list of names or submit a form for approval.
  • The world’s highest denomination notes ever, were issued in Hungary, with a face value of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 Hungarian pengos (one quintillion pengo).
  • The car industry generates the country's biggest income Audi Suzuki and Mercedes-Benz all have production units here. Labour is relatively cheap. Agriculture (fruit and vegetables) contributes the second largest amount. Tourism is third.
  • There are cowboys (called csikos) in Hungary. (Read more here.)
  • Hungarian inventions include the ballpoint pen (Biro was Hungarian/Argentinian), holography, the thermographic camera, digital computing the first functional helicopter and (of course). the Rubik’s cube.

Is Hungary Expensive?

I thought Hungary was supposed to be cheap. The cost of living is relatively low. Labour is not hugely well paid. The tourist areas definitely are not cheap. The funicular - a one minute journey is 11 euros. Cakes Five euros. Toilet one euro. Entry to many of the numerous museums up to €28 (converting from the local forints, though costs are often displayed in euros and even USD.) And Hungary has the highest rate of VAT in the world - 27%.

Hungarian Food and Drink

Hungary's most famous food is the meaty goulash soup - served thinner than it is in British versions, which tend to turn into stews. Other mid/eastern European favourites appear, duck, sour cherries (combined is good), dumplings, pickled cabbage, schnitzels, salamis and strudels. Until we got into Indian food, Hungarian cooking was the spiciest in Europe - this is where they grow paprika. Lots of cake and Palatschinke (like crepe suzettes with lots of walnuts doused in chocolate. And, as in the Czech Republic, plenty of chimney cakes. The chimney shapes are made of sugared dough, not cake, and filled with anything from fruit to ice cream.

The wines of Hungary are also very well known. Possibly the most famous is the red Bulls' Blood. This is what the Hungarians told the Ottoman Turks they were imbibing - with predicable consequences. Sweet, Tokay white wine was promoted by a surprised French king, Louis XIV. More recently, it's won the wine of the century award. I also mustn't forget palinka - fruit brandy.

And don't clink your beer glasses. This is what the Hapsburgs did every time they executed a Hungarian General. So, it doesn't go down well.

What to Do In Hungary?

Hungary is a small country, so it is possible to see in day trips from Budapest, if you don't want to move your base. The Great Hungarian Plain, to the south, and especially, the puszta area, to see the endemic domestic animals and the local cowboys (Csikós). Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and a tourist destination for the Hungarians. And the cities and towns along the Danube bend: Esztergom, the home of the church, in Hungary, Visegrád, for its (partially ruined) castles and pretty Szentendre, the home of Hungary's artists.

Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. There's been a lot of renovation. It is a great city and could consume several days on its own. Gorgeous architecture (the House of Nations - Hungarian Parliament is stunning and a challenge to maintain). Budapest lays claim to several 'most beautifuls', plenty of museums, edgy and cheap nightlife (Ruin Bars) and more thermal springs than anywhere else in the world.. Read about my trips here.

Budapest Revisited

I was last in Budapest just after The Wall came down. (I wrote this on Facebook and someone demanded to know where the wall in Budapest was. In case anyone is in any doubt I'm referring to the Berlin Wall.) The photos are brown scanned prints - I think four survived and have been propping this post up, so it's definitely time to revisit. This is a small country and there are plenty of tours out of Budapest. So, you can see a lot from one base. I've booked my excursions - I'm going to be a proper tourist here.

Getting to Budapest

Air Traffic Control to Manual

On days like this, I decide I’m never going to travel again. I'm on Wizz Air out of Gatwick to Budapest. I've been given dire warnings about how unreliable they are, but today, so far, the problem is not their fault. The whole of air traffic control has gone down. They're processing flight plans manually and about three planes an hour are leaving. There are 43 waiting at the gates. We're number 10.

Wizz keep sending alerts telling me the flight is delayed, whilst I'm sitting on board the plane. Naturally, they boarded us all even though they knew there were issues. The first message helpfully tells me to call the airport before I leave. Ha. As if anyone would answer the phone anyway. My flight is supposed to leave at 13.00. The second message arrives at 3pm and tells me the flight has been delayed until 2pm. The next message, at 4 pm, tells me it’s been delayed until three. You get the picture.

Meanwhile, the national news helpfully talks about 12 hour delays and massive cancellations all week. The captain tells us that the crews' duty time is up at 16.20. It’s now half past four. We still don't know what's happening, though we've been given a bottle of water and a mini tub of Pringles.

Home and Back Again

And fine, we all have to disembark. No instructions. Nothing.

Once through passport control, I go to the check-in desk to ask for information. The flight has been rescheduled for 6 a.m. next day they tell me. Go home. Wait for information. What about a hotel? There are so many people delayed they won't be able to provide accommodation. Make your own arrangements and claim.

I take the train back to Brighton. When I arrive, I get an email from Wizz Air, saying the flight has been rescheduled to 4 pm. It's 5.30pm. Then another email saying it’s been rescheduled, to 6 a.m. tomorrow (confirming what check in told me a while ago). And then a message asking if I would like a hotel. I'm too shattered to deal with that. (With hindsight it might have been better to accept and go back to the airport). But I'm heading home. Except there's no taxis.

Not so Wizzy

More taxi fun and games, trying to track down someone willing to do a next morning 3.15 am pick up. Eventually, to bed at nine, ready to get up very early. It's difficult to sleep, when there’s so much that's unsettled though. I check my phone at 1 a.m. Wizz Air have rescheduled to 9 a.m. With trepidation, I phone the taxi company, and to my relie,f they're able to reschedule my pick up. More time to sleep. Except I can't.

Back at Gatwick, at 7 a.m. Mine is the only flight still showing on the board from yesterday. Presumably, the others all went or were cancelled. My boarding pass won't let me through, into security. The scanner knows it's seen it before. But the ladies on duty sort me out. Gate info at 8.15 the board says. Though presumably it's the same gate as yesterday. There's been no crew to move it. So I'm waiting with bated breath, to see if we actually go. Though I've had a reverse invoice from Wizz which is a little perturbing. Why are they refunding me the flight if it's still going ?

The airport is full of grumpy delayed passengers. Even the water fountain doesn't work. And yes, it is the same gate. But in their wisdom, they are reseating everyone on the plane. Rescanning boarding passes and passports. Despite having charged everyone to choose where to sit and for leg room seats. There's only one, very stressed guy, on the gate entry system. Everyone, including me, is angry that we haven't got the seats we paid for. I don’t understand the logic. Same plane. Same passengers. So things move exceeding slow. It's now 8.35. There's no way we are taking off at nine.

Budapest or Bust

9 55. The plane is still only half full. A Hungarian guy, seated in front of me, is offering advice about Budapest.

'Don't get a taxi. They will rip you off. Check out the restaurants online. They will rip you off as soon as they hear your accent. So will the shopkeepers. Watch out for pickpockets on the buses'.

Do I really want to go after all? Too late to get off now. The plane pushes off at 10.30. It's a third empty. Confusion reigns. My boarding pass, the new one, says 13.00 departure. Apparently, some people have been told to go away and check in again at 10, for this flight. Needless to say, there isn't another plane today.

Budapest, Capital of Hungary

And, I'm finally in Budapest. My minder does at least help me buy an airport bus ticket, so I'm not tempted to get a taxi. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, straddles the River Danube, which flows south, at this point. (The Danube, one of the most fascinating of rivers, is 2,880 kilometres long and traverses 10 countries.) The nineteenth-century (newly restored) Chain Bridge connects the hilly old town of Buda with completely flat, modern  Pest.

Budapest dates back to the Celts, who lived on what is now Gelert Hill, to the west of the Danube. Today, it holds the Citadella and has great views over Pest. The Romans came next. Ruins by the river, under bridges (spa baths) and up on top, testify to the fortress and town of Aquincum, from about AD 100. Then, they moved Aquincum out to the plains, as capital of what was called Pannonia Inferior. Surely, enough to give you an inferiority complex. Especially, as in later times, under the Habsburgs, the city, Buda (intermittently the capital over the years), was very much ignored, in favour of Vienna and Bratislava.

Budapest's fortunes improved after uprisings against the Austrians and renegotiated treaties, alongside an incentivised tax scheme. (Yes, even in those days).Today's city, Budapest was formed, in 1873, with the merger of three cities: Buda, Óbuda (old Buda - so old, old town) and Pest. Until World War I, Budapest was able to rival and even outshine Vienna. Most of its grandest architecture dates from this Belle Epoque.


And indeed, Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. The main sights in the extensive Buda Castle grounds (a World Heritage Site, since 1987) are accessed by the Castle Hill Funicular, from the riverbank. Though there are steps if you're feeling fit and/or don't want to pay. And extensive is the word. But maybe half of the buildings are parcelled up. Major renovations are underway and cranes proliferate.

I'm happy to see that the main palace, on the southern tip, is mostly intact. No one seems sure whether to call it a castle or a palace, and there have been several incarnations over the years. However, this area has been home to the Hungarian kings, since 1265. The first home probably was a castle. The structure on show today is in theory, an immense Baroque palace, dating from the mid eighteenth century. But, like most of Budapest, it emerged from World War II in ruins and has been 'rebuilt in a simplified Stalinist Baroque style'. So, this grandeur is simple? It's now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Historical Museum, statues, fountains and coffee shops.

The area around the castle/palace is known as Várnegyed (Castle Quarter). Here, to the north, I'm wandering (once I'm through the fenced off building site) past a medley of medieval, Baroque, and neoclassical palaces, churches, public buildings, and monuments. Winding cobbled streets with immaculate pastel coloured houses, shops and restaurants. Now it seems, I'm back in Vienna. Alongside, tantalising glimpses of glowing tiles, from under canvas. Especially notable, the so called Buda Tower, though it's actually the only remaining part of the Church of Mary Magdalene. Most of the ministries are still under wraps, but the imposing National Archives (another slightly elusive patterned roof) is unclothed. Next to that, there's the Vienna Gate, one of the medieval entrances. You could spend days up here, if you went in all the publicly accessible buildings.

And, thankfully, also visible, towards the centre, is the the iconic thirteenth century St Matthias Church, with its diamond patterned, multihued towers and roof, in Trinity Square. It has been heavily restored, in a style described as 'florid' on the world wide web.

In my opinion, the crenelations and turrets of the Disneylandesque Fisherman's Bastion are worthy of more criticism. But they serve up spectacular views, down across the Danube, to Pest.


My recollection of Pest is of intimidating grey buildings, with dubious looking restaurants, every one of of them serving goulash soup. I'm not sure why I didn't notice the French style boulevards and huge basilicas. The buildings have been beautifully restored and it's now all very grand.

There are shopping galleries, a dedicated Fashion Street, numerous squares with statues and fountains (and a Ferris wheel in one), tree lined parks. Further out, huge stadia and brickwork chimneys. There are still a smattering of cranes.

And there are still plenty of sombrely brutalist soviet era apartments, both in the middle of town and further out. What used to be called the Jewish Quarter (now District VII) is more as I remember Budapest. It's still grey, but now it has edge and is vibrant, hip. Tourist or Party Central. There's the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, orange and gold, with its twin towers and cemetery. More cafes and bars and street food, than you can throw a stick at.

Ruin Bars

And the Ruin Bars. As the name suggests, they emerged in derelict buildings - the ultimate in upcycling and a place to buy a cheap drink. The oldest, largest and most famous is Szimpla Kert. This one is a veritable labyrinth. You just wander in and out of all the fabulously themed and garishly lit nooks and crannies and choose the bar you like the look of. Plenty of cocktails.

New York Café

Whilst I'm looking for Szimpla Kert, I chat to two Americans, who tell me that the New York Café is the place to go. That's on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, so it's up next. It turns out that the New York Café boasts that it's the most beautiful café in the world. As always, it depends on your taste. It's certainly magnificent. Opulent. Restored Italian renaissance, every inch gilded or covered with frescoes.

Sadly, the toilets aren't as entrancing. There are only two and one is out of order. Service is hard to come by, as is the change when you've finally got the bill and paid. The food - cakes and Hungarian stalwarts is fairly pricey and just about acceptable in quality. But it's historical and apparently, where Budapest meets for coffee (and always has done.) Somehow, I've managed to escape having to queue. (You can pay 5 Euros to skip the line.) But perhaps early evening isn't coffee time.

The New York Café is not the only most beautiful thing in the world that Budapest boasts. Apart from this, and the Parliament building (see below), there's the most beautiful McDonald's at Nyugati Station, in a building designed by Eiffel, and the most beautiful book store. Budapest is rife with these and their gorgeously adorned reading rooms. There's a cluster of modern bookshops, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, (Budapest is still keen to indulge in and promote culture), as I head down towards Váci Utca. This is the famous pedestrianised shopping street, which wanders parallel to the river. It's home to all the usual chain stores and cafes and more.

As if that wasn't enough, Budapest has the highest number of thermal springs in the world. Seventy million litres of naturally heated water rise to the earth’s surface daily.

The House of Nations, The Parliament of Hungary

The Hungarian Parliament Building, The Országház or “House of Nations”, with its 365 neo Gothic spires and huge burgundy dome, is stunning. This is the world’s third largest parliamentary building, the tallest building in the capital city, and the largest building in Hungary. It was designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl, for a competition, and opened in 1902. Sadly, the architect first went blind and then died, before it was finished. Wikipedia thinks it took about 100,000 people, 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilogrammes of gold to complete.

Inside, are ' lavish and sumptuous interiors, imposing staircases (over 21 kilometres of them), massive frescos, recounting the history of the country, and 88 statues of prominent Hungarian rulers'. You can do tours. The most precious exhibit is the Holy Crown of Hungary, (St Stephen's Crown),as seen in the coat of arms of Hungary. It's been has been displayed in the central hall since 2000. It was smuggled out by the Americans, during World War II, and taken to Fort Knox for 'safekeeping' from the Germans and Soviets.

Constructions consumed many millions and upkeep consumes even more. Due to its extensive surface and detailed handiwork, the building is almost always under renovation. The façade is made of soft limestone, which is in frequent need of cleaning, possible only with extensive scaffolding. It's gradually being replaced, with harder, more durable limestone.

Up and Down the Danube from Budapest

Up river, from the House of Nations, yet more monuments and public buildings. The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial movingly commemorates the Jews, who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia, during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes (which were valuable and could be resold), and were shot at the edge of the river, so that their bodies fell into the water and were carried away Beyond that Margaret Island dividing the Danube.

The banks of the river are lined with modern expensive hotels. The Intercontinental, the ugly Sofitel (quite rightly being demolished). My hotel nestles in the next street back. The cleverly named D8 (say it Date) is trendily modern, with iron frames and denim pockets on the bedhead. Yellow pegs, to hang up guides and the hairdryer bag. There's a nice little bar, where the friendly man knows how to make a decent cocktail. Sadly, however, the mattress offers no support whatsoever and the polyester in the pillows has disintegrated. I'm exhausted, from all my walking, but it's impossible to sleep well.

The Danube Bend

I'm sort of replicating a trip I made last time I was here. That time, I did the Danube Bend (it's a huge loop), by boat, the whole way to Esztergom and back. Today, I'm going by coach and coming back on the boat.

There's plenty of traffic leaving Budapest. The motorways (the M roads, like at home) are in reasonably good condition and free flowing. The E roads are patchy and deteriorating at the edges. (Also like home then.) There are hoardings advertising every European/Western brand here: Tesco, Auchan, Aldi, Lidl, KFC, McDonald's.


We start by driving into Slovakia, the town of Sturovo, for a view of Esztergom Cathedral, from across a dull and brooding Danube. (Strauss would be very upset). Lengthy cruise ships sit on the water beneath. There's even a Happy Train, taking tourists over the bridge. They don’t seem to be complying.


The city of Esztergom, today, is known for being home to a very large Suzuki factory. My guide says the name means 'eastern border', but that doesn't make any sense at all. It's in the north. And this explanation doesn't feature on Wikipedia, which seems uncertain as to etymology. Historically, it was the capital of Hungary, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. It's where the first king, Saint Stephen, was born.

The basilica is the seat of the Catholic Church of Hungary, and the largest church and tallest building in the country. This neo-classical building  was preceded by several other churches, the earliest of which was the first cathedral in Hungary. This version was begun in 1856 and opened in 1886. Liszt composed a mass specially. It is stately, rather than beautiful, possessing  three impressive domes, with an  altarpiece reputed to be the largest painting in the world,  on a single piece of canvas.

Once back at the huge basilica, it's clear the restoration gang have arrived before me. Much of it is undercover. The nave is busy with workers and resounds with the thump of metal tools. The statues and altar reliquary and tombs are shrouded in plastic. I haven't got much to add to the photos I don’t have from my last visit. My memories of that relate much more to the treasury. Case after case of orbs, gowns and crowns.


We're lunching at a 'panoramic view' restaurant at Visegrád. The view in question is of the ruined old castle on top of the hill. At least it would be, but we've been seated in the middle of the restaurant, and there isn't a hope of any panorama. When I scramble out on to the terrace, I can make out the remains of the Early Renaissance summer palace and medieval citadel of King Matthias Corvinus.

Then, there's a heated debate with the guide. I have this old photo (see below) that I'm sure I took here. She insists I didn't. Google confirms I'm right. This is what the lower castle, the Salomon Tower, looked like, after the wall came down.


Szentendre is the ultimate tourist village. Cobbles, quaint churches, shops, cafes and galleries with bobbing umbrellas and giant lampshades. Where there are tourists, there must be museums. At one end of the village, there's a marzipan shop and museum, with models made out of the sweet stuff. At the other end, there's a retro museum, whichthat takes me nicely back to my childhood and beyond. Relics of life behind the Iron Curtain. Toys, electric appliances, a whole kitchen, bikes and cars. Including Trabants, like the ones I saw on my first visit. And a pink sports car. Time to do my Lady Penelope impression. Barbie would love it.

The boat trip back to Budapest takes one hour and that's plenty. There's very little to see until we reach the city, and it's exceedingly chilly, on the water.


Today, it's out onto the Puszta, a grassland area, mainly around the River Tisza, on the Great Hungarian Plain. It is very, very flat and sandy. I suppose it's the smaller equivalent of the Argentinian pampas, as it's famous for ranching. Though animal husbandry has been in decline for many years - there's been bad soil erosion due to overgrazing. Instead, the sunny plains are increasingly used to grow vines and the fruit and vegetables which both support the population and are exported. It's also home to the paprika red pepper. The fields are surrounded with acacia trees, planted as their lengthy and convoluted root systems hold the sandy soil in place. They also make good honey.

On today's coach the guide is called, appropriately, Attila. and for some reason, nearly all the passengers are Italian.


First stop, is the town of Kecskemét . Its name means "goat district" and it's famous for its Art Nouveau ( Hungarian Art Nouveau is known as Cifrapalota). Kecskemét was virtually destroyed by Habsburg hordes in the eighteenth century. They set the town alight. but it survived and continued to make its fortune by keeping livestock and trading with animals. Wine and apricot brandy came next, especially after the vine-pest destroyed most of the vineyards in the hilly regions.

Wealth brought redevelopment and the Art Nouveau buildings, surrounding Kecskemét's main square. Today, the town is another car industry hub and thriving. It's home to Mercedes-Benz and Daimler as well as several other manufacturing plants. Unemployment is very low -3%.

I'm off to tour the buildings, of course. They're undoubtedly pretty. Art Nouveau is one of my favourite architectural styles. There are plenty of scarlet shields, depicting upright goats, paying homage to the town's name. Shops with decorated façades and facias, all down the main street, in keeping with the theme. Churches, palaces, schools and colleges. A domed and imposing, but repurposed, synagogue. (The Jews in Kecskemét were rounded up and treated with exceptional brutality, even for the Hungarian SS. Seventy of them committed suicide, by taking poison. Those remaining were sent to Auschwitz and only a small proportion returned.) Today, this is the technology centre.

The pièce de résistance is the Town Hall, another amazing and massively complicated turn of the century 'triumph', with another tiled roof. You can hear its main bells from 10 kilometres away, I'm told. But they only ring once a year. The lesser bells ring the hour, and at noon, there are string of bells, above the entrance, which supposedly play melodies, such as those composed by local man, Zoltán Kodály. (His school is here.)

In practice, the various clocks on the surrounding churches all take it in turn to ring in 12 o'clock. depending on how slow the time piece is running. and at about ten past twelve music emanates from the town hall. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but those bells are not moving. There's a central monument here, with a fountain. The local children have discovered it's a very good slide.

The Csárda of Hungary

Then we're off to a local ranch or csárda. Another lunch of 'typical' poorly cooked goulash soup and fried meat with chips. The flan for dessert isn't bad though. It's sprinkled with (a tiny amount) of brandy and lit. Attila says it's Hungarian crepe suzette, but it's more like crème caramel.

Then, a touristy horse cart ride out 'into the plain'. There's nothing to see, and we basically just circumnavigate the farm buildings. At least I get to sit up front and flourish the driver's whip. He's very gentle with it, just tickling the beasts' backs. There's a variety of equines here, in the stables and on parade. Most of the ranches are also stud farms. We are introduced to a Lipizzaner stallion who, we're told, has had 32 girlfriends, this year. The local horses are the shining chestnutty nonius breed.

There's also a farm zoo, with more domestic breeds. including the huge horned Hungarian Grey cattle, Mangalitsa woolly pigs, donkeys, mules and Racka sheep with curious unicorn like horns (except they have two of them.)

The finale is a very very touristy horse show. It derives from the traditions of the csikós, royal blue costumed herdsmen, who round up a herd of 'wild horses', drive the cattle and horses in various carts, do dressage, persuade their steeds to lie down and perform other contortions and ride bareback. The star performer works with five horses at once, straddling the two at the rear. Throughout they whirl whips just above the animals' heads, creating a constant cracking sound. I'm glad I'm not one of the poor horses.

The audience are invited to whip an empty bottle off a post and win some wine. A few succeed. I think the farm can afford it. It's capacity is huge; there are tables in every corner. And souvenir stalls. A whip is 50 euros. It must be a gold mine.

Hungarian Ending

And now, very sadly, this visit to Hungary has come to an end. It's been cruelly reduced. I can't see Lake Balaton, as planned. Maybe next time. I've had a lovely time. And, to my knowledge, no-one has even attempted to rip me off.

Read more about Hungary here.

On my first trip, next stop, on the train, Prague, via Vienna.

A Brief History of Georgia

  • Georgia has a long history. During the classical era it was divided into two main kingdoms, Colchis, in the east and Iberia, to the west. This is exciting. Colchis was where Jason ventured, with his Argonauts, to fetch the Golden Fleece. Apparently, fleeces were used to sift gold dust from rivers at that time. The people here were known as "Gurj". They were devotees of St George. Theory has it that the crusaders made the connection and named the country Georgia. The flag definitely represents St George too.
  • Georgie emerged from the World Wars, as a Soviet republic, and then an independent republic, under Soviet style leadership. President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in 2003, in the (bloodless) so called Rose Revolution. Since then Georgia has strongly pursued a pro-Western foreign policy, aimed at membership of NATO and integration into the European Union. Unsurprisingly, this led to worsening relations with Russia and, at one point, a brief war. It's all peaceful now, I hope.

Facts and Factoids

  • Georgia on my Mind, though not the American state, which is what Google overwhelmingly throws at you, if you type Georgia into the search engine. But the country of Georgia sits right at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is a part of the Caucasus region, bounded to the west by the Black Sea. Debatably - in Europe. In Asia, if you count the Caucasus as the boundary. Ask the Georgians? They want to be European. Well, the ones in capital, Tbilisi, do.
  • The Georgians don't call their country Georgia - that's the western name - see above. They call their country Sakartvelo.
  • Joseph Stalin was born here and there are a multiplicity of portraits of him around. The people aren't sure whether to be proud or ashamed.
  • This is a religious country. Most of the people say they belong to the Orthodox Church of Armenia. And there are plenty of churches.
  • The Georgian language is very different. Georgians have their own alphabet, possibly (like the Armenian one) based on the Ethiopian. Mama means daddy and dadi means mummy. (Honestly.)

What To See in Georgia?

Read about my train trip here.

Armenia - A Very Brief History

  • Armenia has an ancient cultural heritage. This is one of the oldest countries in the world. The first Armenian states dates back to 860 BC(Urartu), and the sixth century BC (the Satrapy of Armenia). The Kingdom of Armenia reached its height under Tigranes the Great, in the first century BC. In the year 301 Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. It lays claim to the oldest cathedral in the world. Over time, the ancient Armenian kingdom was split into western and eastern sections divided by different empires. this culminated in the rule of the Ottoman and Persian empires, with both parts repeatedly ruled by either of the two over the centuries.
  • By the nineteenth century, Eastern Armenia had been conquered by the Russian Empire, while most of the western parts of the traditional Armenian homeland remained under Ottoman rule. According to Wikipedia, 'During World War I, 1.5 million Armenians, living in their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire were systematically exterminated - the Armenian genocide.
  • Eastern Armenia became the First Republic of Armenia after the Russian revolution, but was then subsumed into the Soviet Union. The modern Republic of Armenia became independent in 1991 during the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

Facts and Factoids

  • The total number of Armenians in the world is 10-12 million, whereas the population of Armenia is around 3 million. Many Armenians fled their homeland after the genocide in 1915.
  • Armenia is the home of the apricot
  • The village of Areni is home to the world's oldest winery. It has produced wine for over six thousand years.
  • Armenian cognac is also famous.
  • Armenian Lavash bread is on the UN culture list.
  • There were lots of storks, their nests on the top of telegraph posts - they're the national bird and they're sacred.
  • Armenia is is known as The Land of Stones, as there are a lot of mountains and a lot of stones...

What to See in Armenia?

A scenic overload of mountains and monasteries, accompanied by herby salads and lavash bread. here are my two trip:

A Brief History of San Marino

  • San Marino supposedly derives its name from Saint Marinus, a stonemason from the then Roman island of Rab, in modern-day Croatia. According to local legend, Marinus had become a Deacon in Rimini, but he was accused by and was ordained by 'an insane woman' of being her estranged husband. So, he fled to Monte Titano to live the life of a hermit. He built a chapel and monastery in AD 301.
  • When, inevitably, the hermits were discovered, Felicissima, a kind lady from Rimini, who owned the land, gave it to the refugees. land. The State of San Marino evolved from there. It lays claim to being the oldest extant sovereign state in the world.
  • San Marino has expanded since those early times. but its borders have remained unchanged since the early fourteenth century. By diplomatic means it has, remarkably, managed to stay neutral and escape invasion (bar the odd short term encroachment) by various popes, cardinals and other nations. Even Napoleon was fobbed off.

Facts and Factoids

  • San Marino is surrounded by Italy (an enclave, one of only three in the world), but is not in the European Union. It has, however, adopted the euro as its currency
  • The landscape is mainly hilly. The country's capital city, the City of San Marino, is located atop Monte Titano (739 metres), whilst its largest settlement is Dogana, within the largest municipality of Serravalle.
  • San Marino's official language is Italian.
  • The constitution is modelled on ancient Rome. San Marino is ruled, concurrently, by two Captains Regent. who have equal powers and are elected by the Grand and General Council, every six months.
  • The country's economy is mainly based on finance, industry, services and tourism. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in GDP per capita.
  • The official title of San Marino is The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.
  • The people of San Marino are referred to as Sammarinese.

How to Get to San Marino?

  • There's no airport - the nearest is in Italy, at Rimini. Though if you're rich you can come by helicopter. There are helicopter tours.
  • Rimini is only six miles away, most people travel by bus from there. But beware. Read my story here.

A Brief History of Turkey

  • Turkey's history goes back a long way. Turkey, as we know it today, is one of the world's earliest permanently inhabited regions, the setting for a whole series of invasions and empires. The stones found at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey mark it as the world’s first temple and one of the most important archaeological sites ever discovered. Carbon dating shows they may be as much as 13,000 years old. The region was conquered by Alexander the Great, leading into what is known as the Hellenistic period. This overlapped in to the Byzantine Empire, later the Latin Empire, which was the successor to the Roman Empire in that region. After the Mongol invasion in 1243, the area disintegrated into small Turkish principalities.
  • A tribal leader called Osman began to gain power in the fourteenth century and his followers (apparently knowledge about actual events is a little hazy) evolved into the peoples known as the Ottomans (from Osman, it's thought). The Ottomans proved to be an efficient fighting unit, united the principalities and conquered the Balkans. So, Hellenism gave way to Turkification and Islam, as the Ottoman Empire expanded. During the World War I, the Ottoman government committed genocides against its Armenian, Greek and Assyrian subjects and after its defeat in the war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned.
  • Turkey was proclaimed a secular, unitary and parliamentary republic, on 29 October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the inspirational reforming leader of Turkey as its first president. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the father of the modern Turkish nation. When he rose to power in 1921, he lifted the ban on alcohol, adopted the Gregorian calendar instead of the Islamic, made Sunday a day of rest instead of Friday, changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Roman, and mandated that the call to prayer be in Turkish rather than Arabic. He even banned the iconic red Turkish fez hat. Ataturk also developed links with the west and Turkey joined NATO as early as 1952. The economy strengthened. And the capital was moved from Istanbul, to Ankara, the second largest city, in the centre of Anatolia, the crossroads of Turkey

Facts and Factoids

  • Turkey is almost unique in that it straddles two continents. It is located mainly in what is known as Anatolia in Western Asia, but there’s a portion in the Balkans in Southeast Europe (Thrace). So it's an exciting fusion of east and west.
  • The name of Turkey is thought to come from Turchia, the word Italian observers used to refer to Anatolia.
  • With such a huge landmass, Turkey enjoys a variety of climates. It's been dubbed 'The Land of Four Seasons'. It's also being marketed as 'The Largest Museum in the World'.
  • The first ever Christian church was located in Antioch, Turkey.
  • While nearly all of the Turkish population is Muslim, Turkey is not officially a Muslim country. Nevertheless, Turkey has 82,693 mosques, more than any other country per capita in the world.
  • Most Turks did not have surnames, until a law was passed requiring it in 1934.
  • Turkey is the birthplace of such historical figures as Aesop; Homer; St. Paul; King Midas; Galen, noted physician, surgeon, medical researcher, and philosopher in the Roman Empire; and Herodotus, the father of history.
  • Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, was born in Patara, Turkey, in the 3rd century A.D.
  • Tulips were first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire - not the Netherlands.
  • Turkish Delight, or lokum, is one of the oldest sweets in world history, dating back 500 years.

What To See in Turkey?

This is a great country to visit, with a huge amount of history and incredible scenery, not to mention the beaches and sophisticated ports.

Read about my Turkish travels:

A Very Brief History of French Polynesia

  • It's believed that the islands now known as French Polynesia, were settled as part of the Great Polynesian Migration, which began around 1500 BC. (Austronesian peoples navigated by the sun and stars to find other islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled, were the Marquesas Islands (in about 200 BC). The more southerly Society Islands were discovered around 300 AD.
  • European encounters first began in Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago, in 1521, with Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, sighted Puka-Puka in the. The Spanish were followed by the Dutch. In 1722, Jakob Roggeveen (for the Dutch West India Company), charted six islands in the Tuamotus and two in the Society Islands; one of these was Bora Bora.
  • The first European navigator to visit Tahiti, was British explorer Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He was followed by James Cook. The first actual European settlers (but not for very long) were Spanish, followed by Protestants from the London Missionary Society and then French catholic missionaries. The island kings and their subjects were converted and France annexed the islands, gradually expanding, despite resistance form the kings and the odd skirmish with the British.
  • The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l'Océanie (Establishments in Oceania). In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia).

Facts and Factoids

  • French Polynesia is now an overseas collectivity of France (which means it is semi autonomous) and its sole overseas country - a special designation.
  • It consists of 121 islands and atolls, which stretch an astonishing 2,000 kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean. Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. The islands are divided into five groups: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands.
  • In the 1960s, the overwater bungalow (as seen below) was created on the island of Moorea
  • It is thought that the word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word tatau.
  • About 10% of the population of French Polynesia today is Chinese. The Chinese were brought to the area in the mid-1800s to work in the plantations.
  • Tahiti is home to the Pearl Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to pearls. Pearl diving was staple industry. So, French Polynesia's nickname - Pearl of Polynesia - is doubly suitable.

Flying into French Polynesia

I'm visiting the Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, starting in Papeete (and going on to Bora Bora and Moorea. The 'big island plane' from Rarotonga has 48 seats, but fewer than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.)

Papeete - Pardonnez Moi

Papeete (Water Basket) is the capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti, the most populous island (69% of the people live here). Tahiti is known for its black volcanic sand beaches. The city developed, primarily, because the French moved their French nuclear weapon test range from Algeria, (which had won independence), to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, some 930 miles to the east of Tahiti. The two detonations were both followed by rioting, on Tahiti.

And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight. And I walked straight through immigration, without even a stamp in my passport.

My hotel, for the one night, has given me a 'lagoon view' room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.

French food and sophistication and stunning tropical scenery. Sublime. Though there are local twists, of course, Poisson cru, for example, is fish marinated in coconut milk.

Next up, Bora Bora and Moorea.

Facts and Factoids

  • Officially called the People's Republic of China (PRC), this is the world's second most populous country, exceeding 1.4 billion (just recently overtaken by India).
  • China is the world's third largest country.
  • China is the world's largest economy by GDP, at purchasing power parity (around one-fifth of the world economy),the second-wealthiest country and the world's largest manufacturer and exporter, as well as the second-largest importer.
  • It has the world's largest standing army by military personnel and the second-largest defence budget.
  • The Chinese flag was chosen via a competition - there were 2992 entries. The red colour represents the Chinese Communist Revolution. The stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people. The four small stars around one big star show that unity should revolve around one centre.
  • China spans the equivalent of five time zones (but only recognizes Beijing time)  and has land borders with fourteen other countries (tied for most with Russia). The country is divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The national capital is Beijing, but the most populous city and financial centre is Shanghai. Wow.
  • Football was invented in China - but table tennis (or ping pong), one of the national sports, actually came from Great Britain
  • As in Japan, the number four is widely avoided - it sounds too similar to the word for death

What's in a Name?

Trawling the internet throws up several nicknames for China. Perhaps most common is the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese believed that China was the centre of the world, surrounded by inferior cultures and civilizations. But the name “Land of Dragons”, also emerges. The Chinese believed that dragons are sacred creatures, symbols of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon also represented the emperor, who was believed to be a descendant of the mythical creature. Closely related is the alternative epithet,“ Land of the Red Dragon”. (Though Wales also lays claim to this one.) Red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Finally, China is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Empire”. The emperor was seen as the son of heaven, related to the divine beings who were in charge and gave rise to divine culture.

An Exceptionally Brief History of China

  • The Chinese have a long history.  They  trace their origins to a cradle of civilization in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. This the only culture in the world to have a continuous recorded history of 5,000 years, beginning withthe The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors - a group of mythological rulers and sheng (sages). The first was the wise, Yellow Emperor. He promoted the Tao (or the Way).
  • A long series of dynasties followed ensuring the development of Chinese culture, writing, literature, philosophy and  inventions like gunpowder, paper and paper money. It  began with the  Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC and ended with the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The empire’s fortunes waxed and waned, but the Qing nearly doubled the empire's territory and established a multi-ethnic state. This was the basis for modern day China, as the Qing found themselves at increasing odds with European colonial powers.
  • Buddhism reached China from India in 67 AD and also had a profound effect on Chinese culture.
  • The Chinese monarchy finally collapsed in 1912, a result of  the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. The warlord era gave way to civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in World War. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CCP establishing the People's Republic of China on the mainland while the Kuomintang-led ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Today, both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
  • The CCP went through several manifestations and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in much hardship for the people. Today, China is governed by a UN recognised CCP,as a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

What to See in China?

If you’re a traveller, there can be few words more evocative than China. It's not the easiest or most welcoming of places to visit and it's huge. But solo travel is much more possible than it was. The choice of sights, both cultural and scenic, is exciting and overwhelming. The food is a gastronomic experience too. It varies widely across the country (you'll need to practice with chopsticks or you'll go hungry in some places), but in essence the Chinese eat everything. Rats, snakes, dogs, and many other less-consumed animals (pangolin anyone?) form some of the iconic Chinese dishes. Mostly with rice, of course. (N.B. Fortune cookies originated in San Francisco).

My first Chinese visits were to Hong Kong, then a British Overseas Territory. But you can read about my other trips:

A Very Brief History of Japan

  • Evidence for human inhabitation of the Japanese archipelago dates back to the Palaeolithic, around 38-40,000 years ago.
  • Around the 3rd century BC, the Yayoi people from the Asian continent immigrated to the Japanese archipelago. They brought with them iron technology and agriculture. overwhelming the native Jōmon hunter-gatherers.
  • Between the fourth and ninth centuries, kingdoms and tribes were formed and gradually unified under an Emperor. This imperial dynasty continues to this day, although now the role is almost entirely ceremonial.
  • Power gradually passed first, to great clans of civilian aristocrats – most notably the Fujiwara – and then to the military clans and their armies of samurai warriors. The Minamoto clan, under Minamoto no Yoritomo, emerged as the strongest Yoritomo set up his capital in Kamakura and took on the title of shōgun.
  • Their rule lasted until 1333, when it was toppled by the Muromachis. This was the time of the regional warlords called daimyō and eventually, Japan descended into civil war.
  • During this feudal period, wealthy Japanese lords built homes with deliberately squeaky floors (known as Nightingale Floors) as a defence measure against ninjas. The highly trained, legendary mercenaries of feudal Japan were so steeped in myth and folklore, they were said to be capable of walking on water, turning invisible and controlling natural elements. That’s got to be motivation to put down some new flooring.
  • Samurai would offer tangerines or melons to their shogun as a token of appreciation. So,, these precious fruits play a large role in the country’s gift-giving culture today and are specially cultivated, by hand. They can cost up to 200 USD.
  • In the late sixteenth century, Japan was reunified under the leadership of the prevailing daimyō Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was followed by another shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. by the emperor. The Tokugawa shogunate, governed from Edo (modern Tokyo), , and was a prosperous and peaceful era, with Japan cutting off almost all contact with the outside world.
  • Portugal managed some limited interaction, in the sixteenth century introducing firearms to Japanese warfare. The American Perry Expedition in 1853–54 more completely ended Japan's seclusion, contributing to the fall of the shogunate and the return of power to the emperor.
  • The following Meiji period transformed Japan into an empire which more closely followed Western models. Democracy developed but Japan's military remained powerful and invaded Manchuria in 1931, leading to a prolonged war with China.
  • Japan's joined the Axis powers in World War II, attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. Emperor Hirohito finally announced Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
  • The Allies occupied Japan until 1952, leaving behind a constitutional monarchy. Japan prospered and became a world economic powerhouse.

Facts and Factoids

  • The western word Japan actually derives from the Mandarin for Japan - Cipan. The Japanese call themselves Nippon. Japan is known as the Land of The Rising Sun, as the sun seems to rise there, from the west (China).
  • Japan is an archipelago of nearly 7000 islands (421 of these are inhabited)
  • Around 70% of Japan is made up of forest and mountains, which aren’t suitable for farming or habitation. Hence the pressure on land, to house the population, the propensity for small rooms and the embarkation on World War II, in an effort to expand territory
  • Japan is on The Pacific Ring of Fire. There are over 100 active volcanoes, and its tallest mountain is the famed Mount Fuji, (3,776 feet). Japan experiences around 1500 earthquakes every year.
  • The number four (‘shi’) is widely avoided in Japan -it sounds too similar to the Japanese word for death
  • The traditional Christmas Eve meal here is KFC
  • In Japan, people don’t have signatures – they have their own seal, known as a Hanko.
  • Life expectancy in Japan is 84, the second highest in the world (after Hong Kong). It's highest in some of the islands of Okinawa, where the seaweed diet is being studied.
  • Japanese Kongo Gumi is the oldest operating business in the world, established in 578.( It specialises in the construction of temples and shrines).
  • Japan produces half the world's zips. They are mainly made by YKK (Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha of Tokyo). They manufacture about 7 billion zips each year.
  • Japan is well-known for its weird and wonderful TV and festivals non-stop festivals, At Hadaka Matsuri, for example, thousands of Japanese men strip naked, in public, to secure a fortune-filled year.

What to See in Japan?

  • Japan is an utterly fascinating country, overwhelming on first impression, but actually very easily navigated alone. You buy a train pass at a very reasonable price, (only available to foreigners). The trains arrive on the dot (the average delay is 18 seconds) and there are a multitude of apps which tell you exactly which platform to go to and where to stand. Walking directions on Google are given in minute detail. It's difficult to get lost. and even if you do. the reserved Japanese will help, willingly, once approached.
  • Eating out is expensive, but feast on sushi (and assorted fried goods) from the many corner shops (mainly 7-11s) and booths or vending machines (one for every 24 people). The food is probably the most alternative, in the world, for a western palate. when properly explored. There are, of course, the widely travelled noodles, sushi and sashimi and Yakitori barbecue or Tepanyaki grilling. But how about tea or eel flavoured ice cream, sea urchins, pickled jellyfish and other slimy beasts from the ocean, or basashi (raw horsemeat slices with ginger and onions)? N.B. Slurping your noodles is a sign of enjoyment and also cools down the noodles as you eat.
  • Stay in ryokans, Japanese traditional inns with paper walls and tatami mat bedding and sample a hot spring (onsen) at least once.
  • Amazing scenery, historic cities, vibrant technology, blossom (cherry, wisteria and more), monkeys and more. Read about what I did:

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