A patchwork of peoples, nations and cultures, Europe’s diverse history provides countless reasons to explore the continent, says Ben Lerwill
Europe certainly doesn’t lack selling points. Its art and architecture are extraordinary, its fashion houses break new ground and its cuisine has gastronomes in raptures. When you factor in old-world hospitality, glorious landscapes and some of the planet’s best coastal resorts, the appeal grows further. Perhaps most integral of all, however, is that element that rarely fails to thrill, educate and absorb — its long, multilayered history.
Today’s Europe has been shaped by the passage of empires, the shifting of powers and the centuries-old influence of monumental events. Thousands of eventful years have left an indelible mark on the people and nations that call it home. From Ancient Greece to Tudor Britain, and from Caesar’s Roman Empire to Lenin’s Russia, the combined cultural legacy is as epic as it is diverse.
There are various strands to the historical appeal. Travelers might be drawn by a particular artistic passion, family links or an interest in past military events. According to Steven Graning of WWII tour specialist Beyond Band of Brothers, these strands all have one common theme. “First and foremost, historical travelers come to visit places to see it for themselves,” he explains. “It’s something of a pilgrimage.” The fact that so many Americans have ancestors from the continent, combined with the youth of our own history, only add to the sense of enchantment.
Faced with a long and costly flight to get there, it’s often assumed most US travelers bundle different European destinations into one visit. Yet a 2011 report by the European Travel Commission and World Tourism Organization showed 70% of US travelers visit just one country per trip. Most still travel as a couple, although the report also gives evidence of increased multi-generational travel and a greater interest in venturing off the beaten track. In many ways, history-themed vacations can provide the perfect solution.
“History is everywhere here,” says Celeste Bruno of Italian tour specialist Art Viva. “It’s in the architecture, the renaissance art, and the food and wine. It’s about the whole culture of the place, and the richness of the beauty.”
Merchants & Monarchy: UK
In a nutshell: Shaped by Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans — not to mention today’s glittering multicultural population — Britain remains a nation of diversity.
Don’t miss: London rightly draws international plaudits, but for many travelers it’s the Scottish capital of Edinburgh that really wins them over. And with its bluff-top castle, poetic past and its timeless, whisky-hued atmosphere, it’s not difficult to see why.
What else: The UK’s thick patchwork of different histories can make for a mesmerizing visit, whether the focus is on royalty, folk traditions or art and architecture. Among England’s choicest urban jewels are Oxford, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Durham, all of which balance storybook architecture with a vibrant cultural scene. Thanks to the Olympics, London is at the center of even more attention than usual, and its world-class museums, regal shopping streets and endless amounts of historical detail are a highlight of the continent. For off-the-beaten-track attractions, visit the quirky Sir John Soane’s Museum or learn more about one of the Founding Fathers at Benjamin Franklin House. Elsewhere in the UK, Belfast is also of real note this year, having recently unveiled an excellent Titanic-themed museum to mark the centenary of the sailing (the ship was built in the city). The capital of Northern Ireland has plenty more gripping history to share too, from its days as a wealthy merchant port to the more modern legacy of the Troubles. Out of town, meanwhile, the Giant’s Causeway is shrouded in folkloric legend.
Politics & Power: Russia
In a nutshell: History comes supersized in the world’s largest country, whether it’s tsarist opulence, colossal wartime struggles or communist masterplans.
Don’t miss: At the symbolic heart of Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin evoke the scale and drama of days gone by better than anywhere in the country. From Lenin’s mausoleum to the Kremlin’s mighty enclosures — not to mention the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral — the capital gives testament to the far-reaching power of the imperial era and the inescapable influence of the Bolshevik Revolution.
What else: The history of the nation famously described as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ is every bit as intriguing as that would suggest. In Moscow, Russia’s artistic and cultural legacy can be explored at attractions such as the State Tretyakov Gallery and the Bolshoi Theater, dating back to the 1700s. Away from the capital, it’s the canals and avenues of St Petersburg that draw most attention. The iconic Hermitage Gallery is the biggest set-piece attraction, but elsewhere there are cathedrals and myriad monuments paying tribute to everyone from Catherine the Great to the defenders of Leningrad against Nazi attack in 1941.
Art & Empire: Italy
In a nutshell: The homeland of la dolce vita has known the might of the Roman Empire, the artistic heights of the Renaissance and the not-so-glorious regime of Mussolini.
Don’t miss: Rome is brimming with sights but the Colosseum is probably its pinnacle. Sure, the Vatican might have the spiritual grandeur and the Forum still has ghosts of triumphal processions, but for bold, bloody history, there’s nothing quite so stirring as the nearly 2,000-year-old arena.
What else: If it’s living history you’re after, look no further than Venice. Travelers can explore the piazzas and palaces of the former city-state, delving into a story dating back 1,200 years. There’s ancient history to explore in every corner of Italy. In the south, Naples provides a jump-off point to the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri, which boasts an imperial palace from the reign of Tiberius. North of Rome, heritage highlights include Siena, where the Palio horse race has been held since 1656; Florence, which still stands as a totem of the Renaissance; and the coastal city of Genoa, birthplace of Columbus.
War & Peace: Germany
In a nutshell: Germany’s story leads from holy empire to wealthy federal republic, via one of the world’s most shameful regimes and more than four decades of being split in two.
Don’t miss: The center of vivacious capital Berlin is a must-see. Giving a sense of the country through the ages, its attractions range from the stately bulk of the Brandenburg Gate and the old-meets-new splendor of the Reichstag to the crumbling remains of the Berlin Wall, and the deeply moving Holocaust Memorial.
What else: The southern region of Bavaria is rich in tradition and plays home to a large number of old castles, including Neuschwanstein, which inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Similarly beautiful constructions can be found in cake-tin-perfect Heidelberg, which sprung up around a medieval monastery, and Cologne, whose 13th-century gothic cathedral is a high point of Catholic architecture. Meanwhile, the eastern city of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, gives a valuable window into Germany’s convoluted past.
Palaces & Battlegrounds: France
In a nutshell: Ancient Gauls, revolutionary heroes and Napoleonic soldiers have all played their part in creating today’s France, which still burns with a sense of history and tradition.
Don’t miss: The Palace of Versailles is more than just a breathtaking building. Sitting 14 miles outside Paris, the chateau’s 2,000-plus rooms, 6,000-plus paintings and exquisite gardens provide a captivating insight into the era that saw absolute monarchy collide with nationwide revolution, sowing the seeds of modern France.
What else: Paris’ historical sites warrant several trips. Period culture fans will love the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera, and the Musee d’Orsay, which draws smaller crowds than the Louvre but has impressionist art galore. Other treasures include the river chateaux of the Loire Valley, Brittany’s Celtic heritage, the culinary legacy of Lyon and the Franco-German beauty of Strasbourg. Elsewhere, the WWII battlegrounds have perennial appeal. Further south, the medieval finery of Avignon, time-honored glam of Cannes and maritime past of Marseille are just three key historical draws.
Eyewitness: An education in Oxford
Ben Lerwill recounts his experiences of the world’s most famous university town
First appearances can be deceptive. Walking expectantly out of Oxford’s main rail station, I half-thought I might have disembarked at the wrong city. I looked left. I looked right. Why couldn’t I see the dreaming spires? Where were the riverside meadows? Where were they hiding the honey-bricked colleges and the swarms of scarf-wearing students?
“You want to head that way, mate,” smiled the man selling bacon sandwiches outside the station entrance. He had the tone of someone who regularly had to give directions to new arrivals. I followed his finger, crossed a busy road, bridged a canal and within minutes found myself on Broad Street, a gorgeous wide thoroughfare full of cyclists and university buildings. The smell of coffee wafted out of arty cafes. The skyline was full of whimsical domes and turrets, and through arched gatehouses were occasional glimpses of perfectly manicured college lawn. I’d arrived.
I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well since that first encounter, and it still has the power to enthrall me. There’s a stillness about its mellow back-lanes and cobbled squares that somehow sets it apart from many of the UK’s other major tourist centers, and every corner seems to have its own story or intrigue — a legend-rich chapel here, a row of stone gargoyles there — all encompassed by what is the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Magical moments come thick and fast here. An early-morning stroll through Radcliffe Square, watching the sun glow gold on the 400-year-old Bodleian Library. A pint in the Eagle and Child pub, where JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll used to meet to discuss their material with other writers. A picnic lunch in Christ Church Meadow, listening to the splish of punts on the river while casting admiring glances at the college that has educated 13 of the country’s prime ministers.
If architecture’s your thing, there’s arguably nowhere better to explore. Within a relatively compact area, Oxford has examples of every single architectural period since the days of the Saxon invasion — that’s around 1,500 years of history. Take in the medieval stained-glass at New College, for example, or the baroque porch of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, then wander down the winding turns of Queen’s Lane and gaze up at the ornate windows and the Italian-influenced Bridge of Sighs.
The museums, too, are something special. The Ashmolean Museum was first constructed to showcase a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in the late 1600s and has since expanded into a world-class, large-scale collection of art and antiquities from around the world. My own favorite, however, is the far less extensive Museum of the History of Science. It’s packed with a priceless collection of astrolabes, spheres and medical instruments, giving a neat reflection of the brains and intellects that have helped Oxford become such a global institution. The museum is small but full of pleasant surprises and eye-opening historical detail — which, in many respects, is a fairly accurate picture of the city itself.
Amsterdam: Tulips, canals and art abound in the picturesque Dutch capital, where choice historical highlights include the Anne Frank House and Rijksmuseum. Cycle the waterways, admire the former merchants’ villas or visit on Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day, April 30) to experience the city’s festive traditions at their most explosive.
Prague: Looking like something straight out of a gothic fairytale, the Czech Republic’s principal city is a cobbled labyrinth of historic buildings, evocative old streets and medieval monuments. Its story, stretching from Bohemian kings to the Velvet Revolution, is thrilling. Bring a camera — and a taste for beer.
Budapest: One of the continent’s most beautiful cities, Hungary’s capital spreads across both banks of the wide Danube River (Buda to the west, Pest to the east) and boasts a fabulous array of baroque buildings, World Heritage sites and Ottoman-era thermal baths. Its communist past adds further historic flavor.
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork