What Is The Highest European Capital?

I’ve lived in Spain part time for eight years now and I’ve been under the impression that Madrid is the highest European capital at 667 meters (2,188 feet) above sea level. You see the “highest capital in Europe” claim everywhere, including city tours, travel websites and even the second edition of “City Guide Madrid” by Blue Guides.

A friend who just came back from hiking in Andorra, however, told me that’s not true. Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella, stands at 1,023 meters (3,356 feet) and takes the prize for highest European capital. While its population is only a bit over 22,000 and the city governs one of the smallest countries in Europe, size doesn’t matter in this contest.

Andorra la Vella is nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. My friend tells me there are numerous day hikes from town that take you into spectacular valleys and peaks past alpine streams and waterfalls. The winter ski season is justly famous. The city is pretty cheap too. Sounds like I’ll have to do an Andorran series sometime soon.

Defenders of Madrid can nitpick, though. Andorra is a co-principality and you could make the case that it isn’t a fully independent country. The President of France and the Bishop of Urgell in Spain act as co-princes. Like other European monarchs, however, they don’t have much power in the day-to-day running of the country. Andorra is a parliamentary democracy with an elected Prime Minister. Andorra has all the other trappings of nationhood as well, such as a flag, diplomats and membership to important international bodies such as the EU and UN. So it looks to me that the common statement that Madrid is the highest capital in Europe is wrong.

It just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you hear and read.

[Photo courtesy Gertjan R]

Photo of the day: Pyrenees camping

Camping in the Pyrenees Mountains. Backpacking in the Pyrenees Mountains. This image transports you there. It shows you what it’s like to tuck yourself and your tent into a valley and to wake up there in the mist in the morning. It’s beautiful.

The Pyrenees Mountain Range is in southwest Europe. The mountains form a natural border between France and Spain. The small country of Andorra is also witness to these beautiful mountains. The Pyrenees are popular for winter sports, but plenty of people flock to them during warmer months, as well. Photographer Christoph Sahle spent part of his summer a couple of years ago exploring the mountain range on foot, with his tent and camera in tow. His photos from this trip can be found on his Flickr and they’re breathtaking. I’d love to visit these mountains.

Have you visited the Pyrenees? What was your experience like?

And, as always, if you’d like to submit a photo to us for our Photo of The Day, just upload it to the Gadling Flickr Pool.

Top 20 countries for life expectancy

“Old people” – we all hope to live long enough to earn this distinction. In some countries, the probability of living well into your eighties is much better than in others. The worldwide average for life expectancy is just a smidge over 67, with the highest and lowest countries fluctuating by over 20 years in each direction. 39 of the bottom 40 countries are located on the African continent, and 3 of the top 5 are European micro-states. The United States ranks in at number 50, boasting a life expectancy of 78 years old.

At the bottom of the list is Angola, a country in southwestern Africa with a machete on its flag. The average life expectancy in Angola is almost 39 years old. At the other end of the spectrum is Monaco (pictured above). Monaco is a micro-state in Europe with an extremely high standard of living. The average person there lives to be 89 years old. The 50 year gap between these two countries represents the difference between yacht ownership and subsistence farming, and every other country falls somewhere in between. For the full list, check out the world fact book at cia.gov.

20. Bermuda – 80.71
19. Anguilla – 80.87 (at right)
18. Iceland80.90
17. Israel – 80.96
16. Switzerland – 81.07
15. Sweden – 81.07
14. Spain – 81.17
13. France – 81.19
12. Jersey81.38
11. Canada – 81.38
10. Italy81.779. Australia – 81.81
8. Hong Kong82.04
7. Singapore – 82.14
6. Guernsey82.16
5. Japan – 82.25
4. Andorra82.43
3. San Marino83.01
2. Macau – 84.41
1. Monaco – 89.73 (at top)

flickr images via needoptic and adomass

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

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.

Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

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.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Minicountry Skiing. Hello, Andorra!

Some people say that Spain is the California of Europe: you can beach it in the morning and ski in the afternoon. Not that Spaniards would ever try to attempt such a packed schedule…

While you can ski in the Spanish Pyrenees, some people say that skiing is better in Andorra, one of those tiny countries in Europe, stuck between France and Spain. It only has 60,000 people (and the world’s highest life expectancy). You could probably meet all of them on the slopes. Everyone else will be in the stores…Andorra is a tax haven and tourists like to come here to buy booze and cigs.

This site offers good information on skiing. Sounds pretty affordable, too. Plus, it adds another easy country to your list. Not that you care about lists, of course.