A small ship cruise to Western Europe is a chance to check off a good portion of your bucket list in one fell swoop. Some of the world’s most famous cities, landmarks, artwork and historical sites are found in this region in relative close proximity to one another.
Northern Europe presents you with Norway’s dramatic fjords, brightly painted towns, the midnight sun, Viking longboats, massive icebergs and varied birdlife. While you’re in the neighborhood, a visit to Britain’s Shetland Islands allows for puffin watching, archaeological exploration, or photographing the windswept, nearly treeless landscapes.
Another popular adventure cruise circuit includes Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. Best accessed by sea rather than land, this itinerary offers travelers authentic cultural experiences and stunning costal landscapes. The coastal towns will be “portals” through which you’ll pass into history, art, architecture and cuisines. Highlights include visits to some of Amsterdam’s many museums, walking the beaches of Normandy, the Gothic Mont San Michel abbey, and the cathedral at the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. You’ll also enjoy small island communities far away from the large tourist crowds.
If you seek a taste of the exotic, you’ll be enchanted by the natural wonders, culture and art of Spain, Morocco and Portugal. Portugal’s coasts beckon birdwatchers. The ancient laurel forests of Spain’s Canary Islands will stun you. The rhythm of a traditional flamenco dance performance will ring in your ears long after you’ve returned home. For the adventurous souls looking to truly get lost in their travels, a shopping trip to the souks of Marrakech is a must (bring a compass!).
As an added bonus to your Western Europe tour, you’ll enjoy amazing culinary delights and famous wines—May we suggest a Port? Champagne? Bordeaux? Rioja? Each destination city presents countless opportunities to sample the local fare. And don’t forget the wonderful locals—many speak at least three languages and are eager to share their local treasures with visitors.
History has blurred the exact boundaries of Western Europe. Ancient conquests and modern border disputes have resulted in a mix of cultures and people too big to contain on one continent.
History buffs can’t help but be drawn to Western Europe’s extensive and storied past. Since ancient times, Europeans have been on the forefront of intellectual, social and economic endeavors. Navigators, explorers, colonists and missionaries traveled to—and dominated—much of the far corners of the globe since Europe’s early history. Their influence then and now on the world’s technology, values, society, politics and even fashion was, and still is, far reaching.
Significant events have shaped Europe over the centuries and influenced the world. During the Renaissance period beginning in the 14th century, literature, science, art and architecture flourished. At about the same time, the bubonic plague—transmitted throughout Europe by rodents—is believed to have killed 50 million people, including one fourth of Europe’s population. (The population of Europe is lower today because of this occurrence).
The 15th century saw the Age of Exploration, when voyages primarily from Spain, France, Portugal and Great Britain went off in search of the edge of the map, the Spice Islands, and colonization. In the 18th century, forms of modern industry appeared and the Industrial Revolution was soon underway. Two world wars punctuated the 20th century.
Originally limited to Europe, World War I and World War II quickly earned the entire world’s attention and much of the world’s participation. World War I resulted in the loss of over 8 million European lives. World War II caused the deaths of over 18 million Europeans in battles, the bombings of key cities, and the Holocaust. In addition to the loss of human life, innumerable cultural and historical treasures were lost during the wars—including art, books, religious artifacts and architecture—to bombings and pillaging.
After World War II, talks began to emerge in Western Europe about European Unity. By the early 1990s, the idea of a United Europe included Eastern Europe as well. On November 1, 1993, the European Union was officially founded to coordinate justice, home affairs and social policy among member nations. At inception, 12 countries were members. Today, 27 countries comprise the EU, 17 of which adopted the Euro as their official currency.
Culturally, Western Europe has given the world some of its most famous works of art and architecture. Spain’s Reina Sofia Museum houses Picasso’s Guernica and troves of other remarkable works. Paris is a museum-lover’s paradise—while the Louvre is certainly the most famous, the D’Orsay Museum and Pompidou Center provide literally weeks’ worth of art viewing from the past up to modern day. Amsterdam, which has the most museums per square meter of any city in the world, boasts the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and many others.
Western Europe’s grand cathedrals—Notre Dame, Chartres, Mont San Michel, Sagrada Familia and Cologne, to name a few—are testament to the industriousness and architectural savvy of the Western Europeans of yesterday. Ultra-modern structures like the Louvre’s glass pyramid and the appearance of skyscrapers in some of the larger cities indicate this spirit is alive and well today.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER