The Shard, London’s Tallest Skyscraper, Opens To Public Today

Today London officially opens its newest landmark, a 1,016-foot skyscraper that has been under construction since 2009. As you can see above, the irregular pyramid-shaped building is entirely covered in glass, and resembles an icicle or chip of glass – hence the name, The Shard.

At 87 stories, the building is the tallest in the European Union. From the 68th to the 72nd floor, the new skyscraper has a viewing gallery and an open-air observation deck called The View from the Shard. Thanks to the fine folks at Visit London, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the new attraction just a few days before it opened to the public. Although it was a snowy, overcast morning, the panoramic views from the top were impressive. From the 72nd floor, it was easy to let your eye follow the dramatic curves of the Thames River and spot many of London’s famous landmarks. Officials said on clear days, visibility could reach up to 40 miles.

For those who are not familiar with London’s cityscape, The Shard has made things easy. Several telescopic viewfinders not only let you zoom in to various spots around London, but have also been programmed to point out historical and otherwise important places and monuments. As you point the viewfinder in any direction, the names of certain landmarks pop up on a screen. If something is unfamiliar, just tap the name to learn more. It’s a great way to orient yourself and learn more about the city – and even if it ends up being an overcast day, the markers can indicate what isn’t visible beyond the clouds.

Besides the observation galleries, the building will house 600,000 square feet of office space, 10 luxury residences valued at $50 million each, a Shangri-La hotel, and three floors of restaurants and retail space.

The building marks a new phase for an improvement plan in the surrounding area, which will soon be known as the London Bridge Quarter. In addition to The Shard, a shorter building called London Bridge Place will be built nearby, and major updates are underway in the London Bridge rail and Underground station.

Reports from London say Mayor Boris Johnson officially cut the ribbon for The Shard earlier today, and a couple has already gotten engaged at the top. Now that it’s open, the attraction is expected to draw more than two million visitors a year, and comes with an entrance fee of £24.95, or about $39, for adults.

[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]

Rooting For The US Dollar

I’m a huge sports fan and no matter where I am in the world, my morning routine always involves combing through box scores, standings and tournament draws. But as soon as I get my sports fix, I turn my attention to the fate of the U.S. dollar. Nearly every weekday, I check to see how our currency is faring against the Euro, and other currencies of countries I might be heading to.

I’m currently in the middle of a three-month trip to Italy and Greece, two of the sickest economies in Europe, so Wednesday’s news that the Euro had sunk to just a 25 percent advantage over the U.S. dollar, a two-year low, had me in a celebratory mood. Yes, I do feel bad for people suffering from the economic crisis that has paralyzed Greece and threatens to do the same to Spain, Italy and perhaps other European countries, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was rooting for the Euro to crash just as vigorously as I root for the Bills, Sabres and all my other favorite sports teams.

I still remember the good old days when the U.S. dollar traded higher than the Euro, and as someone who has lived in and spent quite a bit of time on the continent over the last decade, I’ve been frustrated by the U.S. dollar’s slow downward spiral in recent years. When the Euro dipped below 30 percent recently, I assumed it would creep right back up, as this has been the usual pattern over the last year, but it keeps going down and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Yes, I know that a strong dollar is bad for U.S. exports and for our economy more broadly. But I’m still rooting for our currency. Am I selfish? Absolutely, but here’s hoping the dollar continues its comeback.

(Image via Eric Caballero on Flickr)

Denmark reintroduces border controls

In a move that shocked European Union officials, Denmark, citing the need to fight organized crime, unilaterally reintroduced border controls on its land borders with Germany and Sweden on Wednesday. The Danish decision chips away at one of the central principles (and privileges) at the center of the project of the European Union, namely, the free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital.

This principle is put into practice by the Schengen Agreement, which applies to 22 European Union countries as well as four others: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. (De facto, it also applies to Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican.) Within this enormous territory, across many national borders, there are no border controls whatsoever.

The Danish government has argued that this decision applies only to border and customs checks and will not extend to passport control, and that it is therefore not a violation of the Schengen Agreement. This argument disingenuously ignores the fact that the border checks will be performed by border control officers who do not have the clearance to act as standard police officers. However this policy change is couched, it amounts to a disengagement with the principles of the Schengen Agreement.

There are also signs that the free movement principle is on the brink of being rethought. At a meeting of EU interior ministers yesterday, several ministers stated their growing willingness to consider rescinding elements of the Schengen Agreement. This movement, spearheaded by the Italian and French foreign ministers, is a response to expectations of a major influx of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East in the coming months.

As it currently stands, EU countries are permitted to introduce border controls in response to discrete events deemed to demand greater security measures. A number of EU countries (Spain, Germany, France, and Finland, among others) have done so at various points over the past decade, but only temporarily.

In the meantime, border control has returned to the Schengen Area. Tourists entering Denmark by land from Germany or Sweden can fairly expect some new scrutiny as long as these checks are enforced.

[Image: Flickr | celesteh]

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.

Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

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]