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Over the years Europe has had many different faces. The continent, probably more than any other, has been tugged and reshaped by politics, religion, culture and war. This has given the continent an exciting and energetic feel. The following is a list of some of the major historical events that helped shape the continent and its culture.
For this article I will try and outline some of the cultural groups that exist in Europe. Like most countries in the world, culture cannot be easily determined by political boundaries (although Europe has it a lot easier then say, Africa) language, tradition and religion all spread out with little regard for boarders. However, a general understanding of these will make your trip all the more enjoyable.
Ireland and The British Isles:
Floating there all alone in the North West corner of the continent, the English speaking destinations share a common history, although you'd rarely hear them say it. Originally populated by Celtic tribes, these islands were often insulated against some of the ore tumultuous aspects of the continent, but all the same they were colonized by the Romans, suffered through the plague and had to deal with a general lack of resources. However these lack of resources have made them an ingenious people.
While the Scottish and the English chose Protestantism, the Irish held out and maintained their Catholicism. This is one of the reasons they were left out of much of the benefits that England enjoyed from its vast colonial Empire…and in many ways they simply became part of it.
This is the name given to the peninsula that includes the nations of Andorra, Spain and Portugal. They are Catholic nations that speak a Latin language. Generally warmer and more Mediterranean than the rest of Europe, the pace of life in Iberia is truly great for any sun-seeking traveler. Primarily due to their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, both countries were massive naval powers.
Another major element of Iberian culture is the 700 years or so they spent under the rule of the Islamic Empire. This occupation has left an indelible mark on the peninsula and is one of the major reason they emerged as such a powerhouse after they expelled their occupiers. The occupation also left the nations with some great castles, including Alhambra one of the most magnificent forts in Europe.
While it is sandwiched between some of the biggest powers on the continent, France emerged as the continents major land power for most of the colonial period. They did their fare share of overseas colonization, but it was their consolidation of their own landmass that ensured that French culture was almost unassailable. Besides being Catholic, the French hold their culture in the highest regard. With a dedication to education and equality that sprung from the revolution and the modernism that followed, the French see themselves as the torchbearers of the enlightenment…and they'll never forget to mention that.
France has a reputation as charming destination, but truth be told, much of France is an industrial wasteland with small pockets of uncompromising beauty. It is well worth a visit, just be sure you at least try and learn a little French before you go, it'll go a long way when you are dealing with the locals.
Belgium and the Netherlands
How these two small countries managed to survive the big shake-up of European nationhood is a mystery. Belgium for all intents and purposes is a French country with some Dutch influence. The Dutch on the other hand are a culture all to themselves, but their language and culture is like a mash of Scandinavia, Germany and England. With a language that sounds half German and half English they are Protestants like their neighbors to the north and east.
While Belgium has never really been a powerhouse on the continent, they are benefiting from their neutrality right now, as the host nation for the European Union. The Dutch on the other hand were a massive colonial power; less interested in colonization, than trade, they made a lot of money during the colonial period and spread a lot of influence around the world. Today these countries are known for their delta like climates and mayonnaise…just kidding.
Scandinavia is the term used to describe, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. These cold countries have a long tradition of colonizing each other and fending off invaders. Tough as nails, Scandinavians were once the harassers of the continent, but soon they settled down and started getting on with their lives. While these countries are protestant they generally tend to be agnostic and religion is rapidly disappearing from the lives of people there. In many ways, Sweden was the powerhouse of the group and exerted her influence for many centuries. But lately there has been no reason to fight.
Today, these countries are known for their high standard of living and social services. People in Scandinavian countries pay more in taxes then any other county…but they also have the highest standard of living, this should be a lesson to countries obsessed with lowering taxes…but it isn't.
Germany and Austria and Switzerland
Without discussing any of the nasty business that happened in the 20th century, Germany and Austria are massive European powers, but it wasn't always that way. For most of its history Germany as we know it did not exist. A concept known as German particularism resulted in a fragmented nation for many centuries. The people here shared a common language, religion and culture, but they saw no need to come together as a state. It wasn't until just before the First World War that they got their stuff together can consolidated their power. With the exception of Austria and Switzerland of course. Today, Austria is it's own independent nation but it shares most of its culture with Germany.
Switzerland on the other hand is much like Belgium, fiercely independent Swiss culture is a pastiche of French, German and Italian, but the folks here separated by their neighbors by steep mountains, have survived intact, partly because they are very good at making money.
Well, what to say about Italy. Birthplace of the Roman Empire that spread civilization around Europe and laid the groundwork for the successful civilizations that we know today. And if that wasn't enough, they almost single handedly brought the world out of the dark ages with the Renaissance. But due to a particularism much the same as Germany's they only recently coalesced into a viable state, and today still different parts of the country have a hard time agreeing on anything.
This has a lot to do with the power that individual city-states wielded during the dark ages. For instance, Genoa and Venice were powerhouses all throughout the middle ages. This obviously made them feel above their neighbors and to this day many Venetians still see themselves are Venetian not Italian. Other than that, you would be hard pressed to find a more sunny and vibrant culture in Europe.
This term usually describes Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland and Hungary. None of these culture shares that much in common with each other, but they are often lumped together. For instance, Czechs have a much higher German influence than Slovaks whose culture is closer to that of Russia. Hungarians are completely different then any other nation on earth, with language is nearly impossible to understand and shares very little with any other nation. Slovenia is part south-Slav; part, German, part Italian and part Hungarian…although it is distinct from all of these. And Poland is a massive country that is distinct culturally, but has rarely been a sovereign country.
What these countries share is a common love of hearty food. While I am kidding a little bit, it is still true. Generally these countries have been fought over so many times that they are experiencing their first decades of independence with great relish. Currently they are the most recent additions to the EU and they are poised to become part of the European family as we know it.
Fifteen years ago, it would have been easy to describe the Balkans, but right now, the region seems to add a new country every other day. Right now you can bank on Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bulgaria. I don't want to get into an argument about Kosovo. While recent events may have tarnished their image, the Balkans is probably the most mysterious and beautiful country on earth. With all of the great weather of Italy and Spain., they are not nearly as industrialized and the Muslim occupation that gripped the region for centuries has dotted the region with Muslim enclaves with mosques and minarets.
Generally the people of the Balkans are of Slavic decent and they share a language that is closer to Russian than any other. The Balkans are truly like no other place on earth.
Greece and Macedonia
A world unto itself, we all know about the contribution the Greeks made to the world through their ancient culture. Once a collection of city-states like Italy, Greek culture is now harmonious and proud. But don't be deceived each island has its own idiosyncrasies that will delight any traveler.
As far as Macedonia is concerned, never, ever call them Greek. They are a people all to themselves and they take great pride in this. In fact great is the word to describe it. Macedonia is home to Alexander the Great, the man who conquered 90% of the known universe by the age of 33. He is THE national hero.
Romania, Moldova and Transdenistria
When you think of Romania you think of a dark place full of superstition. And if this were true, you'd be totally right. Romania has a proud history that dates back to a Roman settlement (hence the name), and the people there are very proud of their heritage. Romanians speak an interesting language much different then their neighbors. Romanian is a Latin language, which surprises many people when they first get there. If you speak French or Italian you'll have an easier time learning the language here. As for superstition, just ask a Romanian why they have yet to take down the construction masonry that surrounds their unfinished imperial palace…the People's Palace.
Moldova and Transdenistria on the other hand are people floating lost in the sea of Europe. Once the home to the Russian 5th Army, the vanguard of that force these countries are the poorest by far in Europe, all but abandoned by Romania and Russia. The societies here rely smuggling and farming.
These are what you might call Scandinavian Slavs. They are a pastiche of their neighbor's countries, with Estonia bearing some resemblance to its neighbor Finland, Latvia tends to lean towards Russia and Lithuania sharing its culture with the Poles. There is also the tiny seaport of Kalliningrad, which is still officially a part of Russia. But, don't be fooled, these countries have a proud history of sovereignty and conquest.