Christopher Marlowe once coined a phrase…”infinite riches in a little room”…and this is perhaps the best description for the continent of Europe. This is the world’s second smallest continent and it contains a treasure of cultural, historical, natural and spiritual wonders that is without parallel.
What to expect
Geographically the western portion of Eurasia is commonly referred to as Europe and it is bordered by oceans on all three sides giving it an amazing variety of coastal beauty. While the Arctic Ocean envelopes Europe on the North, the Atlantic hugs it from the west and the Mediterranean lies to the south. This particular position gives Europe a kind of insulation that led to the development of a distinctive culture and robust art forms.
From the beginning Europe has branded its existence in the world with a landscape that’s a class apart. It’s intriguing to know that the largest country in the world Russia which takes up 40% of the total land area in Europe and the smallest country the Vatican are both a part of Europe. The most populated urban city in Europe is Paris but the most densely populated town is Istanbul. The largest city is also Istanbul followed by Moscow and then Paris and London.
Bulgaria is the oldest country in Europe and it hasn’t thought of changing its name since a pretty long time i.e. 681 AD. Also just for Trivia the town with the longest name in Europe is Lanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and is in Wales.
The twin seas i.e. Black Sea and Caspian Sea along with the gigantic Ural River and the Turkish straits separate Europe from Asia on the eastern boundary and the border may be termed porous rather than rigid. There are some fascinating European countries like Russia and Turkey that offer decidedly euro Asian fusion experiences….earning them the name transcontinental countries.
There are 50 sovereign states in Europe with Russia being the largest and most populated while Iceland is the least populated. There are amazing formations of archipelagos and islands in Europe like Franz Josef Land Iceland, British Isles, Islands of Faroe, Corsica, Malta, Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus. There are peninsulas like Italia, Scandinavia, Jutland and Iberia. The coastline of Europe is more than 38,000 km long so there are plentiful beaches to explore.
There are incredible natural wonders in Europe….right from the dreamy Tuscan countryside of Italy to the exotic UNESCO Heritage site, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia to the gigantic Moher Cliffs in Ireland to the wildly popular Swiss Alps and the untouched Artic Archipelago of Svalbard…there is so much of diversity.
Look out for Santorini in Greece and the Amalfi Coast in Italy (this is where the glitterati holiday) and dip into the fairy-tale (think Brothers Grimm) Black Forests of Germany. Feast your eyes on the turquoise Gorges du Verdon river Canyon in France, Northern Lights of Finland, Isle of Skye in Scotland and experience the “Lands’ End” in west Cornwall in England.
If you have studied world history then you will understand the concept of Europa and the importance of the ancient Roman and Greek empires which laid the foundation of modern civilisation. Some of history’s greatest puzzles like the Age of Migrations when tribes like Lombard’s, Saxons, Goths and Vandals migrated to Europe (just at the onset of 500 AD) are present here.
More than 44% of the world’s fine wines are made in Europe, the largest Island in the world…Greenland is in Europe and one of the fiercest active volcanoes in the world (Mount Vesuvius) is found here apart from one of the biggest glaciers in the world i.e. the Vatna glacier which hides many volcanoes underneath. Many world heritage sites are present in Europe.
Some of the greatest luminaries in the world of art & literature like Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet, Dali, Mondrian Renoir, Munch, Cervantes and Shakespeare were born and flourished in Europe. It’s no surprise that the world’s best museums are in Europe like the British museum and Tate Modern in London, Pompidou Centre and Louvre in Paris, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Prado in Madrid and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
There are landmarks in Europe that every traveller has on his/ her wish list like the Eiffel tower in Paris, Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel, Rome’s Colosseum, Greece’s Acropolis and Paryenon, Pisa’s Leaning Tower, Spain’s inter religion icon the Mosque Cathedral, Switzerland’s Chateau de Chillon and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
Apart from its incredible natural beauty and man-made landmarks, Europe is remarkable for being the birthplace of the glorious western civilisation. The decline of the Roman Empire back in 476 AD, the following Migration Period are both remarkable phases in the ancient history of the world. The Renaissance humanism movement here and the burst of luminaries in the fields of art, science and philosophy occupy a prominent position in the pages of the middle ages and the modern era.
When you look at the world political landscape…Europe always had a strong role in it right from the Age of discovery….it is well known that a large part of the Asian continent, America and a major portion of Oceania and Africa were controlled by Europe.
Europe falls in the temperate climatic zone and has a mild relatively warm climate if you compare it to other places that have similar latitudes. This is majorly because of the Gulf Stream that’s lightly referred to as the central heating system of Europe. The Gulf Stream carries warm coastal waters to European shores and increases the temperature of the strong winds from the Atlantic Ocean that blow across Europe. However there are areas in Europe like Finland, Iceland etc. which have arctic temperatures and remain snowed for most part of the year.
When you are travelling to Europe remember that there isn’t a defined “European Culture”…every country in Europe has its specific mannerisms, way of life and cultural identity. The British are known for their stiff upper lip and the French for their romantic nature and the culture of Finland and Poland is (just an example) a sharp contrast to that of Germany and Spain.
There is a perception about time that differs from country to country….for example when you visit Netherland you need to remember that the Dutch have their dinner pretty early by 7 pm as a rule. Go further south down to France and you will see that dinner happens around 8pm. and then further south is Spain where dinner is usually between 9.30pm to 10pm. If behaviour and culture of the Europeans interest you and you happen to travel extensively across the continent then you will be able to recognise the broad groups of people here.
There are the Islanders i.e. the Welsh, Scottish, British and Irish who all hail from the United Kingdom. When you travel to UK you will observe that the British, Scottish and Welsh all are more or less formal in their interactions and usually avoid gestures of overt friendliness like name swapping and calling at late hours. The Irish on the other hand form casual friendships more easily and you may find the country in general more open and friendly.
There are Mediterranean’s i.e. the Spanish, Italians, French and Portuguese apart from the Greek and Macedonians. If you are from America then the term Mediterranean probably means ‘Italian’ to you but from the European perspective the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian all offer distinctly different experiences. In the broader perspective the Mediterranean culture is healthful (cuisine tilts towards seafood rather than fatty meats), warm (they are prone to romances and sudden friendships) and very tourist friendly (the bulk of tourists to Europe are attracted to the Mediterranean).
There are the North West Europeans i.e. Germans, Belgians, Austrians etc who are distinguished by their inherent pride in their heritage. Then there are the East Europeans i.e. Polish, Hungarians, Czech Republicans. There are still striking differences within categories but the broad groups of people display certain common characters, cuisine preferences, cultures and traditions. More than 250 different languages are spoken all over Europe but English and French are mostly accepted everywhere though the accents will vary widely.
Getting to Europe from your country
Europe has great flight connectivity from all major continents. If you are considering flying into Europe from Asia then the most well connected Asian cities are New Delhi (India), Mumbai (India), Singapore, Bangkok (Thailand), Beijing (China), Manila (Philippines), Hong Kong, Hanoi (Vietnam), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Seoul (South Korea), Tokyo (Japan), Shanghai (China), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bali (Indonesia) and Taipei in Taiwan.
If you are flying in from America then catch a domestic flight to Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, Miami, Chicago as these cities offer the cheapest and maximum number of flights to Europe. Flights from cities like Los Angeles may take longer but they are cheaper than from smaller east coast towns of USA (which are nearer Europe). From USA specifically, you are better off flying into Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, London, Dublin, Milan, Paris and Berlin first before going off to other places.
The busiest air travel hubs in Europe in general are Paris, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid and these have strong connecting flight networks to almost all areas of Europe. If you are approaching Europe from Middle East then the connecting city will probably be Vienna. If you are approaching from East Asia then you will probably fly in via Helsinki.
It’s possible to travel to Europe from Asian countries and America by cruise ships and these are a luxury and lengthy experience. Many transatlantic cruise lines go from America to Europe and there are many ports of embarkation for such cruises from Miami to Maine…on an average it will take 6 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean that separates the two continents. You can also choose to travel via cargo ships which is slightly more expensive than air travel but far less expensive than going on a cruise…obviously the amenities offered are moderate.
Cruises from Asia to Europe go via the Suez Canal that’s referred to as the world’s greatest shortcut (this 101 mile long canal eliminates the option of navigation around Africa and saves a lot of time). You can chose from many themed cruises like family cruises, art cruise, history cruise, romantic cruise, celebrity cruises etc.
It’s possible though difficult to travel to Europe from Asia by land and the more adventurous of you will only consider this means. The first route is the age old Silk Road that begins in India and will pass through Pakistan and Iran before reaching Turkey….however exotic this may sound the political climate of this route doesn’t allow safe travel. The Trans-Siberian Railway provides a long beautiful series of train rides from Beijing to Moscow (9000 km).
The trans-Siberian train journey is on the bucket list of many travellers but it’s not easy to coordinate as many countries require exact dates of entry and exit (like Russia) and many South east Asian countries are troubled (like Myanmar). Also you need to gather many suitable transit visas and that means added paperwork. On a realistic time frame it will take you two months to complete the whole exploration if you stop and tour the places that interest you in between.
Getting around Europe
Once you are inside Europe you can choose from various intercity Transport options like bus and train (there is a lot of price difference between slow and high speed train service) and ferry. If you take a short train ride of under 3 hours in any country in Europe it’s likely to cost you under 30 Euros.
Trains are faster and more expensive than buses. In general though every tourist who wishes to tour Europe thoroughly invests in an Eurail Pass Basic…this is a train pass that allows pass holders to travel in 28 countries on almost all European rail lines and a few shipping lines too. The pass grants passengers free passage on Euro city trains and regional trains. Trains that need reservation are known as premier trains and those are TGV, Eurostar, AVE, Thalys, Swiss Scenic Trains and Eurostar Italia…you need to pay a reservation fee for these trains over the pass cost.
Whether or not you decide to buy a Eurail Basic Pass depends upon the number and type of countries you wish to visit in Europe. Italy and Spain have cheap daily train services and the pass cost plus reservation fee may not be cost effective. France on the other hand is best explored via the pass. The UK apart from North Ireland is not covered by the pass.
The basic Eurail pass covers Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, France, Germany, Spain, Romania, Finland, Ireland, Italy, North Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Turkey, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Montenegro, and Bosnia Herzegovina.
There are other kinds of Eurail passes too….The Eurail Select Pass will allow the option of choosing from 1, 2, 3 or 4 different bordering countries and its possible to plan the trip in a customised way. The Eurail One Country Pass is for exploring one country thoroughly….total number of travel days allotted in the pass will depend upon specific country rules.
The Euro lines bus service which dominates Europe is something that every tourist has heard of thanks to its excellent performance and vigorous appearance in movies. Euro lines covers nearly all of the continent and is a great affordable option for inter Europe cross country travel. In central and East Europe and the Baltics…the bus service called Eco lines is very popular. The Flexi bus service operates in 20 countries.
Ferries are a beautiful way to explore Europe particularly when you want to go Island hopping in Greece or on Fjord tours in Norway or for travel across destinations in specific countries like Scandinavia. You can avail either a ferry or a catamaran….a ferry can carry your car along with you and is decidedly slower while a catamaran will only carry human passengers and is pricier and faster. In European countries ferry schedules are also posted online so you can do a quick check.
Uber Taxi service operates in most countries in Europe though every country has its list of own preferred taxi services. If you aim to go backpacking through Europe then you will find that hitchhiking (getting rides from locals for free) is another interesting option.
It’s quite difficult to quote a general price range for full day tours in Europe as the prices swing widely from country to country. However wine tours are the most expensive activity and museum and city tours are moderately priced. Prices of tours, accommodation, travel and all other things are lesser in Eastern Europe. Most European cities offer free walking tours which are a great way to learn about the country, culture and save money.
Each country in Europe has its own eccentricities that you can best understand when you go there or as the next best option read my separate page on that country (you can find them through the menu options).
When you go to Switzerland you are not welcome to flush the toilet after 10pm in the night and you can’t mow lawns on Sundays. If you go to France and buy a pet pig then you can’t name it Napoleon. In the United Kingdom it’s a criminal offence to die inside the Parliament house and if you go to Greece you cannot play electronic games…not even solitaires on your mobile phone!! It will also interest you to know that the most visited destination in Europe is neither the Swiss Alps nor the Eiffel Tower nor the Big Ben…its Disneyland in Paris!!
Invest some time to go through the posts that follow. Each post reveals something new about Europe, its countries, attractions & activities, cuisine, hotels and lot more.