Europe in a Nutshell
Perhaps best explained as the cultural epicenter of the global community, the continent of Europe holds inherent a diverse array of cultural depth and historical significance. With over 50 countries comprising the region, and an astounding 200 languages spoken throughout these nations, it is no wonder why Europe has become a top travel destination for individuals around the world.
Although the distinctions between the Western and Eastern regions of Europe are apparent to all, visitors have found their dreams fulfilled on either end of the massive area. From the Eastern coasts of Asia to the Western waters of the Atlantic, the European continent stretches roughly 3,930,000 square miles (or 10,180,000 square kilometers).
Depending on the preference of atmosphere, and the sights that are sought after, travelers can experience nearly whatever their hearts desire. The artistic magnificence and architectural wonders of cities such as Paris and Barcelona provide insight into the very beginnings of human civilization, while still maintaining the more progressive social environment that many enjoy. For those looking for remnants of recent history, traveling to the Eastern nations of Romania and Prague present a stark contrast of a society that has only recently emerged from the confines of communism.
Modern day humans, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, around 45,000 to 43,000 years ago, and eventually traversed the entire continent during the Mesolithic. New research is suggesting homo neanderthalensis interbred with Modern humans (homo sapiens) based in Northern Europe pushed south towards the middle east by the last ice age, but disappeared around 40,000 years ago. Some historians attribute their demise to an inability to adapt to rising temperatures at the end of the last ice age.
The first major civilization in Europe - the Minoans - arose and flourished from 2600 to 1400 B.C. Minoan culture had many characteristics of complex and developed societies: their own language and writing system, domesticated animals, an agricultural system, overseas trading, water and sewage facilities, and transportation systems. Their trading networks extended from Greece, Cyprus, and Syria to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia.
Few concrete facts are known about how Minoan culture came to an end. Some historians believe that a large volcanic eruption was responsible for end of Minoan civilization. The largest volcanic explosion in modern day history occurred on the island of Thera, only a 100 kilometers from Crete. Volcanic ash from this explosion could have hindered plan growth, and ultimately starved the Minoans. The eruption could have also produced a catastrophic tsunami. Regardless of the details, archaeologists commonly agree that the volcanic eruption on the island of Thera left the Minoans vulnerable to the antagonistic advances of the Mycenaeans.
The subsequent emergence of the city states of ancient Greece marked the start of a new cultural era: classical antiquity. This period was followed by the rise of the Roman Empire, which dominated the Mediterranean basin until its fall in 476 AD marked the start of the Middle Ages.
Feudalism and social hierarchies solidified during this period. Kings occupied the pinnacle positions of power, followed by the nobility, and then the peasantry. Social mobility was limited. Warfare was prevalent due to small geographical boundaries and distribution of rich resources throughout the fairly small region.
Conflict ultimately greatly accelerated advances in warfare and technologies to support that. In other cultures that spoke the same tongue -- a lot less bloodshed occurred and a lot less technology to kill each other was invented. Europeans societies became more politically and economically complex as they strove to conquer and rule each other. The expansion of scientific knowledge and economic development was fueled by the huge population (In 1900 roughly 500 million of 1.7 billion on earth were European) and tension between different groups and nations, which produced both incredible advances in human development and human cruelty.
The Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance during the 14th century. This period was characterized by new modes of scientific and theological thought that challenged traditional doctrines. Religious doctrines were also challenged by the Protestant Reformation, which grew popular in Germany, Scandinavia, and England.
The subsequent Industrial Revolution in the 1800s led to economic prosperity in Western Europe, particularly England, and helped fuel colonial expansion across the Americas, Africa, and Asia. A series of wars followed the colonial period: World War I, World War II, and then the Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1989.
The massive scale of human suffering and casualties produced by World War II compelled leaders to feel Europe needed greater socio-economic and political integration. This led to the inception of the European Coal and Steel Community, which ultimately because the European Union.
After 1967, the European Union grew rapidly to include many different nations over the years: Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia. Nations like Norway, Switzerland, the Vatican, Monaco have close ties with the European Union but have not yet joined.
The Balkans are a region in Eastern and Southeastern Europe that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Kosovo, and Serbia.
This region has was the first part of Europe in which farming cultures arrive from the Middle East during the Neolithic era. The area was long known as a crossroads of different cultures, such as Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, or Islam and Christianity. The Ottoman empire ruled and controlled the area starting in the 16th century. Balkan nation states emerged from the Ottoman Empire (or the Austro-Hungarian empire) during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting with the First Balkan War (1912-1913), the region experienced heavy conflict, ethnic strife, and devastating losses.
Nonetheless, today all Balkan nations have expressed interest in joining the EU or NATO. The region also still exists as a meeting point of different religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Roman Catholic Christianity. The Balkans are also very linguistically diverse, continue to keep their rich folk music traditions alive, and are known for thier beautiful forests, lakes, and beaches.
The Baltic States include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These states were previously occupied by the Soviet Union but were among the first to declare independence in 1990 and 1991. Today, they are members of both the European Union and NATO. Most people in the Baltic countries are either Lutherans or Catholics, though many in Estonia are atheists. Each country has their own language, but most people also speak Russian and increasingly, English.
The Benelux Union is a political and economic union between Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Belgium is a federal constitutional monarchy with a parliament system. Most Belgians speak French or Dutch. The Netherlands has an advanced agricultural economy and is the world’s second largest exporter of food and agricultural products. This country has been run as a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy since 1848. The Netherlands are very socially liberal - they were the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. Luxembourg is a country characterized by a mix of French and Germanic culture. It is one of the smallest sovereign states in Europe, but also has one of the highest population growth rates. The country is run as a representative democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the world’s only remaining grand duchy. All three countries were founding members of the European Union.
The United Kingdom and Ireland
The United Kingdom and Ireland are two nations inhabiting the islands of north western Europe. The United Kingdom includes four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is a separate state that seceded from the Union in 1922. Partially a result of its history of colonialism, Britain contains a culturally diverse population. London in particular is a major cosmopolitan center home to immigrants from around the world. Ireland is a hub of Celtic cultural traditions that are preserved in Irish music, dance, jewelry, and graphic art.
Central Europe includes the nations of Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. These nations share many common social, historical, and cultural characteristics and qualities, but nonetheless are characterized by high disparities in wealth. Most Central European states lost their sovereign status to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but regained independence in the early 1990s. Many countries in Central Europe are known for their beers, forests, fairytale-like castles, picturesque farmlands, and mountain ranges, including the Alps and Carpathian mountains.
France and Monaco
France is the world’s most popular travel destination, due to its rich gastronomy, history, culture and fashion. France is a semi-presidential republic which includes several highly culturally and geographically diverse regions, ranging from the Alpine culture of the west to the Celtic culture of Brittany. Monaco is a sovereign city-state located on the French Riviera and governed as a constitutional monarchy. It is the second smallest state in the world, but also the most densely populated. Monaco is also known for being home to the rich and famous.
Greece, Cyprus and Turkey
Greece is considered by many historians as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. Greece is still known as a country with a rich historical legacy and beautiful beaches that draw great quantities of tourists. Cyprus is an island on the Mediterranean that gained independence from Turkey in 1960, though a separate Turkish state in the north was established in 1983 and continues to exist as a matter of dispute. Turkey is a highly diverse nation with a historical legacy of linking the East with the West. The nation is highly geographically diverse: there are open beaches in Pamphylia, snowy mountains in the east, misty mountains near the Black Sea, and steppe landscapes in Central Anatolia.
The Caucasus invoiced Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This region is known for having beautiful alpine landscapes, include Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain peak in Europe. Similar to the Balkans, the Caucasus are home to a culturally and linguistically diverse population, and sits at the crossroad of Christianity and Islam. The region has been characterized by ethnic conflict that continue to be significant in the long term, but no longer affect day to day life as much as they once did.
The Iberian Peninsula
Iberian countries include Andorra, Gibraltar, Portugal and Spain. The largest of the four, Spain, is the only European country to share a border with Africa. Spain is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Spanish culture is strongly shaped by its strong historical ties to Catholicism and its Roman heritage, as well as the cultures of foreign invaders. Portugal was a major player in the colonial explorations of the 15th and 16th century, and established the first global empire. This empire came to a final end in 1999, when the island of Macau was handed over to China. Portugal is now has a semi-presidential republic government. Andorra is a small nation, but linguistically diverse. Inhabitants speak Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Gibraltar is a small British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. Spain has a claim on the territory, but Gibraltarians have rejected Spanish proposals of Severity and, since 2006, over their own affairs.
Italy, Malta, San Marino, and the Vatican City
Italy is a unitary parliamentary republic with the fourth most popular territory in the European Union. Like Spain, Italy is heavily influenced by it’s latin roots and historical ties to Catholicism. Like France, Italy has rich culinary and artistic traditions that continue to draw steady crowds of tourists.
Malta is a small island country in the Mediterranean Sea. Inhabitation on Malta goes back to the Neolithic Era. Several invaders have invaded and held the island due to its strategic importance as a naval base. Malta has a long history as a Christian nation, and is popular as a tourist destination because of its warm climate, and historical monuments.
San Marina is a small state surrounded by Italy that claims to be the oldest constitutional republic.
Vatican City is similarly surrounded by Italian territory. Located within the city of Rome, it is the smallest state in the world - both in terms of area and population. The territory is ruled by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Important religious sites within Vatican City include St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums.
Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus
Russia is the largest country in the world, in terms of surface area. The Russian empire became a significant political player by the 18th century, after which it became the largest entity leading the Soviet Union, which eventually fell apart in the early 1990s. Today, the country exists as a federal semi-presidential republic. Like Russian, the Ukraine is an epicenter of Slavic culture. Ukrainian territory has been regularly contested, divided, and ruled by different nations, such as Russia and the Ottoman empire. The Ukraine has maintained independence since separating from the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters and exists as a unitary republic under a semi-presidential system. Belarus is a heavily forested country north of the Ukraine. Belarus first declared independence in the aftermath of 1917 Russian Revolution, but was eventually conquered by the Soviet Union. Sovereignty was recovered in 1990, though both Belarus and Russia have since made moves towards greater mutual cooperation.
Nordic countries include Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.
The Nordics include mainly Scandinavian or Finnish peoples. They speak Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese, all of which are North Germanic languages with roots in Old Norse. However, Finish, Greenlandic, and a few other local languages are non-germanic. These countries share a long history of close relations, and share much in the way of culture, religion, history, social structure, and language. Almost half of these territories is made up of uninhabitable glaciers.
Living in Europe can either be extremely affordable or incredibly expensive, depending the region, country, and region. Eastern Europe tends to be the most affordable, but big cities in Western Europe have a higher cost of living. The average standard of living in Western Europe is also higher than anywhere else in the world.
Immigration to Europe has increased substantially in the later 20th century and immigrant populations across Europe have grown rapidly. However, negative attitudes towards immigration have also grown over the last few decades. Within Europe, the term ‘immigrant’ tends to refer to non-EU citizens, although this is not always the case.
Proficiency in English varies greatly from country to country. Nearly everyone speaks a passable degree of English in the following countries: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Malta, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In other countries, English speaking abilities tend to depend on age, education, proximity to urban areas, and employment (e.g. those in the tourism industry are more likely to speak English).
Traveling from country to country within Europe is usually fairly easy. Most countries are within Europe are in close proximity to each other, and many do not have border controls (if they are part of the Schengen Agreement). They tend to be easily accessible by train, bus, car or flights, many of which are short and inexpensive. Wizzair or Ryanair are popular budget airlines. Buying a train pass like the Eurorail Global Pass allows travelers to take unlimited train rides for up to three months through up to 24 countries.
Traveling within major cities is also usually fairly simple and affordable. For instance, the London Underground can be used for only a few pounds. Some lines even operate twenty four hours a day. The London Underground, first opened in 1863, was the world’s first underground railroad system. Though not all major European cities have an underground railway system, most have buses, taxi systems, and increasingly ride share program like Uber.
Europe has the largest continental economy on Earth. As of 2016, assets under management total to over $32.7 trillion, which represents a third of the world’s wealth. Germany has the largest national economy in Europe, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Russia, and then Spain.
Nonetheless, there are large economic disparities between European countries. Most wealth has accumulated in Western Europe. Many Central and Eastern Europe are still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Many countries also experienced economic decline after the global financial crisis of 2008, especially economies in the south, like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Nonetheless, at present, Europe is predicted to continue experiencing economic growth. The economic status of Greece is still somewhat uncertain, but more stable than it has been in the last few years.
If entering a Schengen country, you can travel at will to other countries and only one visa is necessary to visit other Schengen country. If you are a citizen of the United States, you do not need a visa to enter the Schengen area, though if you wish to remain for more than 90 days, or if you wish to work in a Schengen country, you are required to obtain a visa.
Europe is a popular destination for skiing and snowboarding. The Alps, and the Scandinavian mountains are the most famous destination, but the mountains of Eastern Europe are increasingly popular as a cheap alternative to Western Europe. Europe is also a popular destination for hiking, cycling, and paragliding.
Europe is the largest wine producing continent in the world. The biggest wine producing countries in Europe include France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Europe, although nearly all European nations have some degree of wine production. Beer is also a libation of significance in Europe, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic, where lagers originated from. Britain and Ireland are known for their production of stouts.
Traveling in Europe is usually fairly safe, but dialing 112 in any EU members nations will connect you to emergency services if necessary. The biggest risks of living in Europe tend to be pickpockets and muggings.
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