Yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels have been immediately described as “terrorism in the heart of Europe“, “an attack in the centre of Europe” and so on. Is Brussels really the centre of Europe? And if the centre of Europe is not in Brussels, where is it? Previously, I’ve looked into the definition of “Central Europe” but I think that is not the same as the “Centre of Europe”.
Numerous attempts were made to define the geographical centre of Europe. The difficulty in agreeing on the “centre” is due to the unclear definition of Europe – the Eastern boundary is simply arbitrary. Other questions are whether islands are to be included or just the mainland. As one can expect, the EU has its own “midpoint”, the location of which is also not undisputed. But if you want to know more about this, just read the Wikipedia page about the topic.
The political centre of Europe is a completely different story. Brussels is often described as the political centre, since many European institutions are located there. However, the European parliament divides its time between Brussels and Strasbourg, the European Central Bank has its headquarters in Frankfurt, Europol is in the Hague, Frontex is in Warsaw – I guess its clear what I mean. Or not, but its Europe, so get used to it.
I propose a different view on the “centre of Europe”, a more statistical one. Where is the centre of a country? In its capital, naturally. Europe does not have a capital, despite all attempts to create one (previous contenders include Paris, Berlin, Rome and Moscow). Therefore, I looked up the location of the capitals of European countries, and calculated the median and mean of their latitude and longitudes. The median and mean are both close to where the borders of Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic meet.
The exact location depends on what counts as “European country”, but will not shift by much. Personally, I find this location quite fitting my expectations of the centre of Europe. It also simplifies the definitions of Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern Europe. This definition will not satisfy everyone, but at least it’s obvious that the centre of Europe is not in Brussels. Ain’t that a relief.
A while ago, I’ve written a post in my Europe by Region series about the areas of the former Austria-Hungarian Empire. And to be honest – I was never entirely happy with that post. Not with the definition of the region, nor with the content. So I’ve decided to revise the post, and re-brand these parts as Central Europe.
Where is Central Europe actually? In another post, I’ve defined Central Europe in a broad sense, as “members of the EU that have been behind the Iron Curtain“. This definition of Central Europe would make it too big of a “travel region”, spreading from the Baltic to the Adriatic and including a dozen of countries. Making a more limited definition of Central Europe would be easier by just saying what Central Europe is not. Since I’ve already defined the regions of the Russian Empire, the Balkans, the Alps and will write on the Baltic States, Central Europe is all that’s left in between – Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungaria and perhaps the non-Alpine parts of Austria and Germany, for good measure.
Bratislava’s charm (source: Wikipedia)
Czech Republic has the highest density of rail in the world
Winter in Central Europe
The Ampelmännchen is a symbol of Berlin
A typical square, somewhere in Central Europe
- Why go there?
This is the picture card Europe you’ve dreamed of visiting. Castles, cobbled streets, villages hidden in dark forests and beer- lots of beer. And Central Europe is, well, central, which means you can easily make your escape to another region or visit it en route elsewhere.
- What’s it best for?
Central Europe is popular for city trips (think Prague, Kraków and Berlin), but I think it is also the best budget option in Europe.
- When is the best time to go?
With a pleasant spring, a warm summer and a colourful autumn, any season is good to go. Wintertime is probably the best though – winters in Central Europe are snowy but not as cold as in the East and even hotspots like Prague and Vienna are virtually tourist-free. December with its Christmas markets is extra special.
- How to get around?
In a region where rail infrastructure is the densest in the world getting around by train is obviously easiest. The connections are excellent, distances are mild and the views are spectacular.
- Why is it best to avoid?
As I said, this is the mild, classic Europe. If you’re looking for more exotic parts, I’d suggest the Caucasus.
- Where to go if you just have one week?
Give Slovakia a try. It got a bit of a bad rep thanks to a horror film set in Slovakia, but don’t let a silly Hollywood movie discourage you! Bratislava, the capital, is a charm, the Tatra Mountains are great for easy hiking and skiing and the Slovakian countryside is as cheap as can be.
December is an expensive month. The gifts, the travel, the meals, the party’s all cost a bunch. Come January and you’re left with a huge financial hangover on top of the common one, with the European vacation you’ve been eyeing for this summer further out of reach than ever. Europe as a continent does not enjoy the reputation of being a “budget destination”. Totally undeservedly, if you ask me. I’ve spent years roaming around Europe as a penniless student and I can tell you that if you do it right, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to tour this beautiful continent from end to end on a reasonable budget. And over the next few weeks, through this weblog, I am going to tell you how. Assuming you don’t go on an organized tour but want to travel on your own schedule, taking your time, I promise you that if you keep reading, you will discover that Europe too can be a budget destination.
When travelling, or thinking of travelling there are a number of topics to consider. Usually, these can be divided into the following: “Where and when do I go, how do I get around once I am there, where do I sleep, and what do I do while I am there”. There is, of course, the “how do I get there” question, but my guess is that you’ll be perfectly able to figure that out by yourself once you’ve settled your mind on the “where and when”, so I’ll just ignore the “how to get there” part and start with “where do I go”.
If you are going to Europe on a budget, first of all, don’t go to “Europe”. Its just too big and too diverse to cope with, especially on a budget. Go to “Europe” and you’ll end up getting lost in the maze of countries, currencies and customs, “seeing” a lot but experiencing only frustration and lack of time. Is there anything you can do? Yes, you can!
- Go to a big European country
Big European countries, like Spain, Italy or France are home to a great diversity of landscapes and regional cultures. If you spend most of your time in a big country, not only will you save on buying one guide book instead of many, you’ll profit from getting familiarized with the local transportation system, knowing which supermarket chain is the cheap one and so on. You may even learn some of the language and if you get bored – most big countries have many neighbours, making day trips to other countries a piece of cake.
France is the most diverse European country. If you get bored in France, you’d get bored anywhere
- Go to the Eurozone
Maybe not the cheapest part of Europe, but staying in the uniform currency area will save you the hassle and costs of changing money at every border. Getting used to the exchange rate can prevent costly mishaps, saving you more than you would think. And a Eurozone country is not necessarily expensive – Estonia, Slovakia, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and as of 1st of January also Latvia are all using the Euro and are comparatively cheap.
Not all countries that are using the Euro are in the EU – like Montenegro
- Go to Central Europe
The West and North of Europe are rather expensive and travelling in the East is difficult (and expensive) due to large distances and language barriers. Plus, countries like Russia or Ukraine lack facilities for the budget traveller such as hostels and campings. Staying in the “golden middle” will keep you from overspending while allowing you to enjoy excellent facilities and relatively short travel distances. The only problem is – what is Central Europe? I think it can be limited to members of the EU that have been behind the Iron Curtain. Just check any list of “cheapest European cities” and you’ll find most of them fit the definition of Central Europe I propose.
- So where to?
Seemingly, the advice I just provided is contradictory, as there are no large countries in Central Europe that use the Euro. But I never said you should fulfil all the conditions at the same time. Besides, perhaps you’ve forgotten a country? What about Germany? Its big, it uses the Euro and its as Central European as it gets – even the geographical centre of the EU is in Germany. And, of course, a large part of Germany was behind the Iron Curtain – the Berlin wall must count for something! Plus, don’t forget that Berlin is one of the most affordable cities in Europe.
Berlin, one of the most affordable European cities, has plenty of iconic sights
Hope this gives you inspiration and confidence that Europe is doable even on a tight budget. Next time I’ll share some tips about where to sleep cheaply (or even for free). And if you have budget tips of your own, your comments are welcome! Happy travels!