Western Europe

By Karoline Czerski

The year is 50 BC and a Gaulish village in the west of France is still holding out against the Roman conqueror. Thanks to the druids’ magic potion, a little group of undaunted Gauls succeed–among other things–in irritating Caesar and his proud legions to the utmost degree. Their only fear is that the sky may fall on their heads…

The year is 2004, it is certain that the sky will not fall and the Roman Empire has faced significant military cutbacks. Much has passed since the time of Asterix and his friend Obelix–more than 2,000 years of tumultuous struggle, triumph, tourism and great cuisine in this Western cultural hub.

Western Europe is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the shifting borders of Germany, Austria and Greece, extending north to Scandinavia and the British Isles. It houses an array of Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Francs, Normans, Romans and others, each conquered and victorious in turn, wandering, exploring and marking their ground.

What fills the Western part of the European continent cannot be lumped into one pot, one book, one language, let alone 1,000 words. It is a rich history of diverse culture, citizenry, government and thought, compounded into the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that form its breathtaking environment.

Today, Western Europe aligns itself in an expanding political and monetary organization, the European Union. Although the euro makes traveling currency homogenous (save for a select few countries), no two European states are alike.

The culinary line marks the most general separation, cutting north of France, to the Netherlands through Belgium and extending to Denmark, Scandinavia and, of course, the British Isles. Everything south of this line marks culinary culture, everything north marks blood pudding, haggis and oatmeal. This line also divides drink. The southerners savour fine wine, while the Nordics favour good old fashioned beer and cider. Due north, we find the appeal of English tea, Swedish vodka and Dutch cannabis. Those of Nordic descent are somewhat more reserved than their Southern kin. It is easy to relate to these folk however, as they think much in the same way we do: protection from the cold requires good beer, warm food and a hot sauna.

Although they look big, tough and cold, give them time and they become the warmest people in the world. Genuine, inviting and quaint, they stand in stark contrast to the northern seas; the rougher climes quite at odds with their tender hearts.

True gems in this part of the continent are, among others, the French region of Britanny: a beautiful coastal landscape where crepes, cider and Celtic heritage allow a short visit to fill a lifetime of memories. Visit St. Malo, a fortified Northern coastal town overlooking the English Channel, and Mont St. Michel, a castle island only penetrable at low tide.

Further north, Scandinavia charms the traveler with natural landscapes, familiar climate and beautiful people. Belgium, a linguistically divided country houses brick structures, cobblestone pathways and, of course, the world’s finest chocolate.

Traveling to the center, we encounter Germany, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Lichtenstein.

Germany is a land divided, between High and Low Germany, between East and West. Knowing these divisions, one can choose between the richer (North-West), the natural and Black Forest (South-West), and the former Warsaw-Pact (East). Bratwurst, Bavarian beer (Bavaria is a South-Eastern region, bordering Austria) and sausage can be found throughout.

Next is Switzerland, the neutral, non-EU state, mixing four languages (German, Italian, French and Romansh) and many dialects under one common border, housing United Nations headquarters in Geneva, fine skiing in the Swiss Alps and, most importantly, possibly finer chocolate than the Belgians. This country may require deeper tourist pockets but is well worth the exchange rate.

Oh, la France! Where does one start? Paris, or smaller regional centres? Landscapes, extending from rugged northern shores to western surfing towns to the central wine strip to the beautiful French Riviera to the sea-ports of old Marseilles, provide a large diversity for all tourist types.

The south of France holds many charms, like divine Avignon, where nine popes ruled in exile from 1309 for almost 100 years, or Nimes, a Roman epicentre housing the world’s only fully intact coliseum. Visit the quaint fishing towns toward Bordeaux and you will find a true breed of French sailors.

And we have yet to discover the warmth, the food, the wine, the open, lively and welcoming Mediterranean regions.

First, Italy. In the north lies Venice, where the lover Casanova escaped the prison facing Piazza San Marco, and Florence, where the statue of David bears the Renaissance memory of Michel-angelo. In the south, Naples thrives with great food and a priceless climate, while further south, Sicily marches to the beat of its own drum. Rome straddles the middle, swarming with life, a magnificent juxtaposition of ancient Roman ruins and modern building structures: Versace meets bathhouse in a magically Italian way.

West of Italy is Spain, peopling a wholly different culture, spirit and architectural design. Occupied by the Moors for over 500 years, southern Spain is home to many beautiful mosques and a visible ethnic and cultural melange heavily influenced by the Arabic era. Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, all cities that never sleep, filled with people whose party will last a lifetime.

Our Western European tour ends in Portugal: the ancient explorer, the westernmost point on the continent, where Vasco da Gama set sail for the New World. This feudal, highly Catholic state is the antithesis of its rowdy Spanish neighbour. It is a quaint, peaceful and a markedly poorer region than its western counterpart. To the north are Porto and Braga, the former the world’s port-making headquarters, the latter a beautiful city housing the most magnificent cathedrals known to man. To the south lies popular tourist destination Lagos, resembling a small-scale Cancun. The real beauties, however, are in the center. Evora, a UNESCO protectorate, is a clean, quaint university town, housing the eerie Chamber of Bones–to be left to individual exploration. There is also Lisbon, an unusually calm capital worth every moment of tourist time.

Tourists may travel the whole, a part or a single point and be equally filled with the essential diversity, culture, history and beauty. Bring a dictionary, a camera, and a healthy appetite and enjoy the wonders of the Old World.

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