The concept of riding a unicycle down the street makes me nervous, so I am fully incapable of understanding how the three men in this video managed to live after unicycling down a mountain in Liechtenstein. David Weichenberger, Marco Schmidt and Lutz Eichholz impressively rode their one-wheel bikes down the Gaflei Trail in Liechtenstein. There’s some beautiful footage of the hills in this video, but more inspiring is the act itself. Have any of you ever tried this? Would you?
The Alps is a beautiful mountain range. Spanning through Austria and Slovenia all the way through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France and Monaco, the Alps are a go-to spot for mountain-loving folks living in or passing through these areas in Europe. Taken from the Latin word Alpes, which may have been derived from the word Albus, which means “white,” the Alps are certainly that. If you enjoy perusing jaw-dropping photography, you’ll be happy to know that Nature Pictures has an Alps series up on their website here. This stunning collection of photos features the snow-capped peaks in several scenes. Whether partially lit from the sunrise, towering over a lake or contrasted against green pastures, this photo collection is worth the look.
The world’s ten smallest countries in terms of area fall into two general categories: European microstates (Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican) and small island nations of the Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Caribbean (Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu.) Some of these countries are quite new as independent nations: Tuvalu gained independence from the UK in 1978, while the Marshall Islands gained full independence from the US in 1986. Others have been around for a very long time. San Marino dates its founding as a republic to 301. These countries vary greatly from one another along other axes as well: population, income, life expectancy, industry, tourist facilities, and membership in various international organizations.
[Image of Tuvalu: Flickr | leighblackall]
In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.
Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.
The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.
The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.
In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.
Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.
There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.
Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.
With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.
Europe has lots of tiny countries. The rest of the world reminds itself of this fact periodically, almost as a running joke. How Vatican City is the smallest “independent” state, but (come on people), is it really a country? Andorra sounds charming, too, until you go there and discover it’s only the European Union’s largest outlet mall. Likewise, Monaco‘s just a casino with a racecar track, and Liechtenstein‘s a drive-thru bank for dodgy Russians with Austrian passports.
Despite the less-romantic realities of present-day Europe, we travelers still get a kick out of these nifty, little hold-out principalities and monarchies. Somehow, they’ve prevailed in the tempest of European history, avoiding absorption into their larger neighbors all the way into the 21st century when we can ironically celebrate quirky existential nationhoods in the face of supranationalist sentiments.
I first visited Luxembourg on a whim–hopped a train in Brussels and three hours later, stepped off somewhere deep in the Ardennes. I was young, brave, and poor and it was late at night. I walked away from the one-room station in Arlon and disappeared into the forest, bumbling in the woods until the sounds of passing cars disappeared. When I found a comfortable spot, I pushed away the pine needles and lay down on the cold ground, using my lumpy canvas backpack as a pillow.I woke up well past midnight to the softest sound–approaching footsteps? A gentle, rhythm-less pit-pat all around me. It took me several minutes to figure out that all I was hearing were leaves–dead autumn leaves falling from ancient trees and hitting the ground, one by one. That is the silence of Luxembourg–you can hear each leaf hitting the ground.
A louder rustling woke me a few hours later–a little louder, a little closer, and a little more disconcerting. Panic, then peace set in: it was only a doe in the forest, rummaging, peeling bark from the pine trees and stepping timidly closer and closer to my little clouds of breath rising from the ground.
I shivered in the forest until dawn, then hiked back to a road where I fell asleep at a bus stop like a grungy homeless person. I woke up bleary-eyed and asked one of the more respectable citizens nearby if this was Luxembourg. It was.
This was long after the EU but also long before Google Maps. Nowadays you can just google Luxembourg and see how a thin grey line–an international border–simply traces the length of a road, jumps a stream and cuts corners through some farmer’s field (“Well, nine-tenths of my wheat’s right here in Luxembourg but the other tenth is over in Belgium”).
Somehow in the night I had entered this new country and now I was determined to explore it to the fullest extent. Using my finger and a map, I determined that Luxembourg’s fullest extent was around 30 miles–the length of road between Belgium and Germany. Thirty miles is nothing, really. I could walk that in a day, I thought. And so I did. I started that morning and ended at sunset when a bridge crossed the Moselle and I came to a polite, little square sign (chest-high) that barely announced “Deutschland”.
To figure out my to total walking distance across Luxembourg, I retraced my steps online. After punching in my start and end points, Google Maps shouts a stern warning in a yellow box: “Use Caution–This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.” Indeed. My jaunty one-day trek across one of the smallest countries in the world was performed without the assistance of sidewalks or pedestrian paths (or a compass or a map). Most of the time I spent walking in open fields, loving the quaint freedom of fenceless Europe.
By walking, I saw tiny Luxembourg up close and personal. As countries go, it’s a good one. Much of it is very green, divided into forests, fields, and hills. Light yellow stone cliffs and the deep gorges offer a sense of wild landscape, untamed even by these most European of Europeans. Perky castles stand out in the countryside–real life castles where people live and a mailman still delivers the mail. Palaces fill the capital–grandeur and pomp without any particularly urgent purpose. (Remember, this is a country run by a duke, a nobleman who’s latest headlines involve his birthday party and a tumble dryer catching fire in his palace basement.)
Only half a million people live in this country–an odd mix of imported Eurocrats, happy farmers, tax refugees, rich people with titles, and polyglot investment bankers. Maybe it’s not the twee world we had hoped for (black-booted princes on horseback or whistling peasants sticking pitchforks into haystacks), but even in the midst of today’s bland supermarché EU Europe, Luxembourg retains its heirloom personality in its customs, unique government, thousand-year old culture and its even odder language.
In the city of Luxembourg, I attended a Catholic mass read in Luxembourgish (aka Lëtzebuergesch, Luxembourgeois, Luxemburgisch) and found myself delighted by the strange mashup of French and German pronounced like guttural Dutch. Geez, I thought, it’s a whole different language spoken by fewer people than live in the Tallahassee metropolitan area.
Luxembourg’s national motto is Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn or “We want to remain what we are.” The meaning is clear and pretty much sums up every country’s deepest patriotic longing. Because Luxembourg, too, is the red, white, and blue. Well, the red, white and light blue (turquoise?). This is a Grand Duchy folks–the only sovereign duchy left in the world–and the average American traveler to Europe overlooks it like they overlook high-fructose corn syrup. In the rush from Paris to Amsterdam to Munich and back, Luxembourg is the no-name brand of Europe that fails to inspire the uninitiated vacationer.
It’s a terrible mistake though, because honestly, nowhere is Europe more alive than in little Luxembourg. There is no Eiffel Tower or Oktoberfest or legalized marijuana but there is a glint of Europe as it once was–as it still is. Where quiet and pastoral comforts are much valued, where Sunday strolls pass over stone bridges and alongside flowered hedgerows, where no matter where you’ll look, you’ll find a tiny castle poking above the treeline in the distance. It’s nice.
In a time of megacities and mega-construction, we should be glad for a country like Luxembourg. Downtown Shanghai is larger than Luxembourg–Los Angeles County is four times as large. A lot of places are bigger than Luxembourg . . . and yet Luxembourg is the perfect size for travelers: big enough to be an actual country but still small enough to walk across in a day. Epcot Center attempts a similar feet with their 11-country World Showcase, but even your kids aren’t fooled by that set-up. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is the real deal.
I will be going back to Luxembourg–someday–and this time it won’t be for bragging rights. I can already say that I’ve walked across the entire country, but there is still so much of the country I have yet to see, for example, the North. Perhaps I will find a new route using Google Maps–a new, wandering path down the length of one of the smallest countries in the world; a long-winded itinerary that comes with a stern warning, “Caution: This Route May Be Missing Sidewalks.”