Travel Trivia: 11 facts about Georgia

This Travel Trivia post will be all about Georgia, the small South Caucasian country at the intersection between Europe and Asia. Georgia is indeed a very proud country: her people seem to share a quiet, apparent dignity and they have always struggled to remain autonomous. The origins of Georgia can be traced back to the ancient times, with Georgians claiming to originate from Noah’s great-great-grandson Kartlos. Its history is quite fascinating, so this time the facts will be a bit more historically coloured than usual:

  • As mentioned, Georgia is quite small and there are only 3.7 million Georgians. It is in fact not called Georgia, but rather Sakartvelo by the locals (Kartveli), which can be roughly translated as the land where Kartveli live. The more modern name Georgia likely comes from the country’s fascination with St. George.

  • The first Europeans, i.e. the very early humans who crossed over from Africa, likely came through Georgia. Archaeologists found 1.8 million years old skulls of a couple in Dmanisi and they named them Zezva and Mzia. Those two have rekindled the debate of where exactly modern humans come from and it’s still raging.
  • In addition, Georgia also has two of Europe’s oldest cities: Kutaisi, the capital of today’s Imereti region, which dates back to 2000 B.C., when it was the main city of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis; and Mtskheta, the former capital of the kingdom of Iberia in 1000 B.C..
  • Georgia is also the home of winemaking, as they were producing wine as early as 8000 years ago, gold mining (6000 years ago) and thread. They found the world’s oldest thread in Georgia and it is supposed to be 34.000 years old.
  • Surprisingly, despite all that history, Georgia is also full of futuristic architecture and their main dream is to become western enough to join the European union, so they could cement their freedom from Russia.
  • Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia, so their relationship towards him is rather complicated… You can find tons of Soviet era memorabilia at the local flea markets.
  • Georgia is situated in the Caucasus region, so it has plenty of breathtaking mountain areas and is extremely diverse in terms of terrain.
When God apportioned the Earth to all the peoples of the world, the Georgians arrived late. The Lord asked them why they were tardy. The Georgians replied that they had stopped on the way to drink and raise their glasses in praise of Him. God was so pleased with their response that He gave the Georgians the part of the Earth that He had been reserving for himself. A visit to Georgia will confirm that this legend is indeed true: Georgia is a natural paradise. (a Georgian legend, photo from Akhaltsikhe)
  • In terms of language, Georgia has its own unique language and alphabet with 33 letters, which is intelligible and unpronounceable to anyone except Georgians.
  • They also have their own version of the Orthodox church, are majorly religious and considerably homophobic, despite the abundance of physical contact between people. Most things in Georgia stay within the family and they greatly rely on their relatives for help.
  • Georgia is famous for its brutally generous hospitality: a guest is a gift from God and it shows. A traditional dinner feast can last up to 6 hours and liquor must be drunk in large shots every time someone says mshvidoba! (for peace).
  • They are equally famous for their polyphonic music, which made it on the UNESCO list. More here and their folk songs are quite beautiful too.

Also, Georgia is full of impressive monasteries – they are literally at every corner, UNESCO and non-UNESCO ones, so I dare you to spend a day there without seeing at least one. As you can see, there’s quite a lot more to Georgia than you might expect and since they’ve only started with tourism efforts about 20 years ago, it is still relatively undiscovered, so there aren’t many visitors tramping about yet. It is also quite cheap by Western standards, which makes it a great destination for anyone who isn’t afraid of visiting an authentic place where they don’t speak perfect English (or any at all).

P.S.: Georgian public toilets are an experience in itself…

Travel Trivia: 10 facts about Germany

Visiting a new country or a certain place is all about expanding your horizons, so my next Travel Trivia post here is going to be all about Germany. Let’s learn something new about the land of industry and lederhosen:

  • The Federal Republic of Germany is one of the largest countries in Europe – its population is about 81 million and it is the 7th largest by area. Despite that, 1/3 of Germany is still somehow covered in forests and woodland.

  • Germany in the form of a nation exists since the 19th century, when the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck united the German speaking lands into the Second reich, which Adolf Hitler later tried to emulate with his Third Reich. More on Germany’s history here.
  • German is Germany’s official language and also the language spoken by the most native speakers in Europe.
  • It is one of the stranger languages, as it allows the formation of long compound words such as Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, the longest word ever published, acc. to the Guinness world records book from 1996. It means the Association for Subordinate Officials of the Main Maintenance Building of the Danube Steam Shipping Electrical Services, which was allegedly an organisation in Vienna, Austria, before the 1st World War, although it is not entirely clear whether it actually existed.
  • Furthermore, German can be quite tricky: in 1963 the U.S. president J. F. Kennedy visited Berlin and gave a famously blundered speech, where he said “I am a jelly doughnut” instead of “I am a citizen of Berlin” and I bet the Germans had a good laugh about it. Ich bin ein Berliner… You can check it out here.
  • There are over 2100 castles, 300 types of bread, 1000 versions of sausages and 1500 kinds of beer in Germany.
A detail from the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin.
  • On a related note, beer is considered food in Bavaria, Germany’s largest state – Germany consists of 16 largely autonomous states.
  • However, they also gave us books, as press printing was invented there. The first book ever printed was the Bible in 1455, by J. Gutenberg.
  • Additionally, the first magazine, Kepler‘s laws of planetary motion, the Christmas tree (Tannenbaum), telescopes, heroin, clarinets, many poets and writers like F. Schiller, H.Heine and B. Brecht, bacteriology, SIM cards and SMSs all came from Germany, as well as of course the Nazis and the Holocaust.
  • German’s capital city changed 7 times, finally settling in Berlin, which used to be divided by the Berlin wall from 1961 until 1989.

Now you know a bit more Germany, the country where people love to wear Tracht, the traditional German costumes, which include lederhosen (leather pants). These days it has mostly been replaced by Dirndl dresses, the stereotypical industrial made versions, particularly in Austria, where some people wear them even in everyday life.

The facts I shared this time were probably not as exciting as in the previous Travel Trivia posts, but Germany is known for their ordnung und disziplin (order and discipline) approach to life after all. Their history is pretty bizarre though, particularly the World War eras, and their engineering feats are more than worth a look if you’re looking for some more interesting reading. 🙂

Travel Trivia: 14 facts about Svalbard + a history crash course

Every time I plan a trip I always read a bit about the place I’m visiting and learn some interesting facts, which is what my Travel Trivia posts are about. This one is going to be all about Svalbard, the Arctic realm of polar bears and its history, so let’s dive in:

  • The largest island is called Spitsbergen, i.e. pointy mountains. It was so named by the Dutch explorer William Barents, the Barents sea guy, who discovered the island in 1596 and did not realise that he had in fact discovered a whole archipelago.
  • Svalbard boasts the world’s northernmost permanent settlement with more than a 1000 people, the town of Longyearbyn, located 78° north on Spitsbergen. The total population of the town is around 2000 people of about 40 different nationalities.
  • Even though Svalbard was officially assigned to Norway with the Svalbard treaty in 1925, it is considered an independent administrative province with its own governor and is NOT part of the Schengen area. Similarly, Svalbard is visa free and anyone from the countries who signed the treaty is allowed to come live and work there tax-free, in an effort to encourage migration. Lots of people I met came to work there for a few years to experience the wilderness and save up some cash, as the wages are very good.
  • Under the treaty Norway is obligated to protect the environment in Svalbard and prohibited from collecting taxes or using the land for military purposes. It is also forced to acknowledge the rights of the Russian mining company to coal mining in certain areas of Svalbard, like Barentsburg, the second largest town in Svalbard, controlled by Russia.
The true natives of Svalbard.
  • There are more polar bears living in Svalbard than people: the total population of Svalbard is about 2700 people altogether, while the number of polar bears is estimated to be up to 3500.
  • Because of that you are required to carry a rifle or a flare gun when leaving the town area. Even though polar bears mostly stick to the East coast of Spitsbergen, they can venture anywhere on the island, particularly when hungry. There are a few polar bear attacks every year, mostly due to human stupidity, so carrying a firearm to protect yourself is a must. Since the bears are considered internationally protected animals, you are not allowed to hunt or lure them, so if you do kill a polar bear, you must alert the governor of Svalbard and face an investigation.
  • You are however not allowed to carry a loaded firearm within the town area or enter any public buildings with it, so you must store it in the locker provided. Despite that a Russian man apparently rented a rifle at the sports store and robbed a bank with it a few years ago. No one knows what he was thinking though, as you can only leave Svalbard on a boat or through the airport, so he was caught immediately after.
  • Nobody dies or is born in Svalbard: due to an old law, all deaths occurring in Svalbard are recorded on the mainland, as people could not be buried in the frozen soil. All births must also occur on the mainland, as the hospital in Longyearbyn in not equipped for more than emergency care. Because of that, there are technically no natives of Svalbard.
  • Svalbard is considered to be an Arctic desert, due to the low humidity and precipitation. However, it is becoming wetter due to the climate change and has recently recorded 100 months with above average temperatures.
Nordenskiöld glacier in Svalbard.
  • About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers and Spitsbergen even has its own type of glacier. The Svalbard reindeer are also a special sub-species of the regular reindeer found around Scandinavia.
  • You can see the Northern lights during the day in Svalbard, as the archipelago is so far north, it has an annual period of 100 days of total darkness and about 4 months of polar summer, when the sun does not set at all.
  • Such long periods of depressing darkness gave rise to rampant alcoholism in the past, so the sale of alcohol is restricted. The locals are allowed to buy 24 bottles of spirits and 12 cases of beer per year, which is enforced with an alcohol stamping card. However, since the law is so old, table wine can be bought in reasonable, unlimited quantities, as it was not readily available when the law was made, and the bars can also sell any amounts of alcohol. If you are just visiting and arriving by plane, you can buy alcohol using your boarding pass, but not if you arrive with a cruise ship.
  • The Global Seed Vault or Doomsday Vault, where all sorts of seeds are stored in case humanity were to face a disaster, is located in Longyearbyn. It can store a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds and has recently been used by Syrian scientists to safeguard the seeds threatened by the war there.

Bonus facts: a very brief crash course in Svalbard’s history

The early years: Svalbard was likely first discovered by the Vikings and had quite a turbulent history after its second discovery by Barents and his team, which can essentially be summarised as the Russians, Norwegians, Dutch, French and English hunting the local wildlife (Arctic foxes, walruses, seals and particularly whales) nearly to extinction up until the second half of the 19th century (you can read more about the early history here).

19th century: As the main island of Svalbard, Spitsbergen was at first populated only by trappers and hunters, but became the base for Arctic exploration towards the end of the 19th century and a coveted coal mining spot. The coal found in Svalbard is of premium quality, so primarily Americans, the British, Norwegians and Russians attempted to establish coal mines in various locations.

The closed coal mine in Longyearbyn.

20th century: The coal rush on Svalbard came to an end in the 1920s after the Svalbard treaty was signed and eventually Norwegians bought out the Americans, so only Norwegian and Russian coal miners remained, working for the rival coal companies of Store Norske and Arktikugol. Their efforts were interrupted by both World Wars, particularly by the Second World War, when the Germans bombed both major towns, the Russian Barentsburg and the Norwegian Longyearbyn, and established their own stations on Svalbard. After the end of the war both Russia and Norway drove out the Germans and resumed their coal mining operations, but were forced to close down some of the mines due to accidents and depletion, which resulted in one of today’s most popular tourist attractions, the Russian ghost town Pyramiden.

Today: Even though some coal mines are still active in company-owned industrial towns like Barentsburg and Svea, where almost all Norwegian mining operations stopped in 2017, most of Svalbard’s income nowadays comes from tourism and research, such as in Ny-Ålesund, which is primarily a research town. The only fully “normal” town in Svalbard right now is Longyearbyn. It became the central settlement in Svalbard in the 1990s, when it was sold to the government and normalised, i.e. provided with all the services and institutions needed for regular life. It is now a cultural, touristy town with a University centre, which organises the world’s northernmost blues festival called the Dark Season Blues, and also the seat of the governor of Svalbard.

The distance sign at Longyearbyn airport, taken at 3am during the polar summer.

As stated, this was a very short crash course in Svalbard’s history, just enough to get you started. The whole history of the archipelago is in fact quite interesting, so I encourage you to read all about it here. Otherwise, I hope you liked my second Travel Trivia post and let me know in the comments if I missed something or made a mistake somewhere. .)

Travel Trivia: 16 facts about Austria

Before visiting a country or a particular destination, I like to learn a bit about it. After all, travelling is supposed to be about learning something new, so I always do my research and become my own tourist guide. I’ve found that every country has its own unique juicy fun facts, so this will be the first post of a series that I am calling Travel Trivia. I’ve tried to keep it light, but there is of course some official information in the beginning.

Without further ado, let’s learn something about Austria, the land of mountains and castles:

  • The Republic of Austria is a Central European country, which regained its independence after the 2nd World War in 1955 (more on the history of Austria here).

  • The name Österreich essentially means the Eastern realm.
  • In 1955 Austria swore premanent political neutrality, so although it is a part of the EU, it is not a part of NATO.
  • The official language is German, but Austrians have their own dialects and quite an accent.
  • The Austrian capital is Vienna, which is home to about 1/4 of the whole population (estimated at around 9 million).
  • Vienna or Wien in German is also the home of the famous New Year’s Concert, the annual and prestigious classical music concert on the 1st of January, and the Sacher cake.
  • Austria literally has a castle around every corner, with the majority of them located in Lower Austria. Here is a list of all Austrian castles by province and many of them are still owned by their original noble families. My favourite so far is the Hochosterwitz castle.
  • When toasting with an Austrian, make sure to maintain eye contact – not doing so brings bad luck and seven years of bad sex.
  • We can thank Austria for plenty of classical music, as Mozart, Schubert and Haydn were born in Austria, and also for the Sound of Music film.
Austrian flag flying at Hohenwerfen castle.
  • The Austrian flag is among the oldest in the world: legend has it that duke Leopold V fought in the Battle of the Acre during the Third crusade in the 12th century and got some blood splattered on his white shirt, which looked like a white band on red. Whether it is true or not, the flag has another peculiarity: when flown by the state, it has the coat of arms displayed on it, but not when flown by the citizens.
  • Austria also gave us Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, the waltz, Volkswagen and Porsche cars (Ferdinand Porsche was the engineer who designed both), the Doppler effect, Mach numbers (velocities above the speed of sound), Arnold Schwarzenegger and Red Bull, among many other things…
  • Catholics and Protestants must pay a membership fee to their church based on their income and every child above 14 is free to decide on their religion.
  • Austria is considered one of the best countries to live in, in terms of the living standard, and is among the wealthiest in the world in terms of BDP.
The majestic Austrian Alps in Mühlbach.
  • Most of the country is located in the Alps, the main Central European mountain range, so they have about 150 mountain peaks above 3000 meters (obviously the most popular sports are hiking, climbing and skiing).
  • Austrians are very big on protecting the environment: 1/3 of their forested areas are protected territories and their procentage of waste recycling is among the highest in Europe.
  • The best preserved Stone Age man to date was discovered in a glacier in the Ötz valley and named Ötzi – he died around the age of 46 about 5300 years ago and his last meal was bacon.

My bonus fact: the Tirol region is also a part of Austria and they’ve produced one of the worst apres-ski songs in the history of mankind. You don’t believe me? Give it a listen: Anton aus Tirol.

I hope you liked my first Travel Trivia post! Let me know in the comments if you know any other interesting facts about Austria or if I’ve made a mistake somewhere. 🙂