Nine New Countries

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

I’m disappointed if I don’t visit a few ‘new’ countries every year and this year the total was nine out of the 20-or-so countries I got to.

Well perhaps two of them – Macedonia and Kosovo from ‘Former Yugoslavia’ – shouldn’t have counted since I’d been to them, or where they are at least, in their former incarnation. And perhaps one of them shouldn’t count because nobody apart from the Russians and the Transnistrians themselves recognize Transnistria. And perhaps I could add one more if I wanted to split the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus into two. Which I don’t.

The capital Asmara is noted for its colonial era Italian architecture like the Fiat Tagliero building. Soon after my March visit Eritrea and Ethiopia finally sorted out their long running border (and otherwise) dispute and as a result perhaps Eritrea may be becoming a little bit happier place and getting a little bit easier to visit. For years it’s been one of the biggest suppliers of refugees to Europe despite not suffering war or famine – just miserable government. And for foreign visitors visas have not been easy to obtain. Remarkably Melbourne in Australia has been one of the better places for Eritrean visa collection, a result of a large Eritrean diaspora and a friendly consulate. The London-based friend I was travelling to Eritrea with never got his visa.

I’d been to Czechoslovakia, many years ago, when it comprised both today’s Czech Republic and today’s Slovakia. Now I’ve been to both. Slovakia’s capital Bratislava has a lot in common with those other Danube River capitals – Budapest, Vienna and Belgrade. This is the New Bridge over the Danube, it actually dates from the Iron Curtain period so it isn’t that new.

I’d been to Skopje a couple of times – many years ago – when it was part of Yugoslavia, but the capital of Macedonia is a very different city today. It’s a city of amazingly tacky, shonky, kitsch architecture and statuary and rather fun. It’s also a capital city in search of a country since the Greeks absolutely will not accept it should be named Macedonia and there’s an ongoing search for a name that satisfies both the Greeks and the citizenry of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or Northern Macedonia or whatever it finally ends up being called.

◄  The Greeks won’t accept that this is a statue of Alexander the Great either.


I travelled by train from Macedonia to Kosovo and was pleasantly surprised to find Pristina – the new capital – was a much brighter and more liveable city than I’d expected. Of course the Serbs grumble about Kosovo even more than the Greeks complain about Macedonia. I puzzled if I’d been to Kosovo before and found a photo from 1969 that proved I had.

◄  My co-driver and my Mini-Marcos heading inland to what is today Kosovo, back in 1969






My fifth new country of 2018 was Moldova, yet another country with direct flights from London thanks to Europe’s low cost carriers, in this case Wizz Airlines. In fact I didn’t fly to Chişinău, the Moldovan capital, I came in by bus from neighbouring Romania and departed by car to Transnistria.

checking our watches in Chişinău ►

Does it exist? Only according to the citizens of this sliver of unreconstructed post-Soviet territory sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine and, of course, Putin’s mob. I spent an interesting 24 hours there before continuing on to the wonderful Black Sea city of Odessa.

▲ Lee Harvey Oswald’s very nice apartment building in Minsk

I was pleasantly surprised by Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, it was a much friendlier and more interesting place than I’d expected and I hadn’t realized that Mink was where Lee Harvey Oswald lived during his spell in the USSR.

My late-in-the-year visit to Cyprus was another pleasant surprise and it’s a country I could easily revisit and explore in more detail. I’d start with the Troödos Mountains and their collection of Unesco world heritage status frescoed churches.

◄ Church of Archangelos Michail in Pedoulas in the Troödos Mountains

The final visit for 2019 was to oil rich Azerbaijan on the west coast of the Caspian Sea. Baku, the capital city, is noted for its often dramatic architecture so it has got a bit in common with Turkmenistan on the other side of the Caspian Sea. Without ever being as unfriendly or as dramatically unreal.