Tag Archives: Hiking

“Europe’s high points” – another man’s view on “what is Europe”

First of all, yes, I actually read books like “Europe’s high points” for pleasure. Briefly, its “A guide to reaching the summit of every country in Europe – driving, walking and climbing routes to the tops of 50 countries in Europe”. I’ve been to some of these high points, and am a hiker and mountaineer experienced enough to enjoy reading descriptions of routes to peaks. Its a bit like I’m hiking there myself, but while laying home on my couch. I find reading passages like “Cross the stream and follow a pleasant shady path through the forest” (Bobotov Kuk, Montenegro) rather soothing. Of course, the book has other qualities beyond the soothing effect – it contains great photos, some interesting background information, and can actually be used as a guide for some of the easier high points. Plus, I intend to use it as an inspiration in choosing travel destinations.

Mont-Blanc - not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps

Mont-Blanc – not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps (that’s me there!)

This book is more controversial than you may think. The exact height of some points is debated, borders are disputed and new countries keep emerging. The section in “Europe’s high points” I find most most curious is the one in which the authors make an attempt to resolve “what is Europe”? It is much the same question I’ve had when I started this blog and defined Europe as all those countries that are a member of UEFA (a definition mentioned in the book). The definition of Europe offered by the authors of “Europe’s high points” roughly coincides with mine. But our definitions vary in some points and these are of course the differences that are most interesting.

Bobotov Kuk - contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

Bobotov Kuk – contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

“Europe’s high points” excludes Israel and the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from their definition of Europe on geographical grounds. This argument is a rather peculiar one. Cyprus and Malta are also not “Europe” geographically, Cyprus lying on the Asian plate and Malta on the African one. But Cyprus is included citing cultural arguments and Malta’s geographical belonging is not discussed at all. Iceland’s inclusion can be disputed as well, as Iceland is nowhere near the continent of Europe and is as European as the Azores, for example (see below) Parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan are inside Europe’s geographical definition, being North of the Caucasus watershed, so it would be reasonable to at least include the high points of those areas, like the authors have done for Turkey.

A view on Mount Hermon - Israel's "disputed" high point from Mount Meron, Israel's "undisputed" high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

A view on Mount Hermon – Israel’s “disputed” high point from Mount Meron, Israel’s “undisputed” high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

Speaking of Turkey! Kazakhstan, like Turkey, has a portion of its territory in Europe, the part West of the Ural river. That part is rather flat, I agree, but there must be a high point somewhere. I can’t imagine the authors not being aware of Kazakhstan’s geography, and have the impression they (literally) cut a corner there. The miss is even bigger considering that for the sake of completeness “Europe’s high points” also lists mount Ararat, the highest point of all of Turkey. Including Khan Tengri, the 7010 meters high highest point of Kazakhstan (called “undoubtedly one of the most beautiful peaks in the world” at SummitPost.com) would surely add an extra edge to the book.

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

Further, the highest points of the Azores and Canary Islands, that lie outside of geographical Europe are included in the “disputed” section. The reason is that the highest points of Portugal and Spain are actually on these islands, and not on the mainland. If the book will be updated, the highest point of Saba will have to be included. Saba is, since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, officially a part of The Netherlands. Its highest point, Mount Scenery, is 887 meters high and almost 3 times higher than the previous high point of Vaalserberg (aka Drielandenpunt).

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands, so me (left) and Erik (right) will have to go to Saba some day to conquer the top with an iron and a board

Last but not least, I was delighted to read that “Europe’s high points” lists the high marks of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately. The listing is more due to the Britocentrism of the authors and less due to them sharing my UEFA-membership definition, but its always a pleasure to get an independent confirmation of one’s views. They even provided an entry for Faroe Islands (another UEFA member that I count as a “country”) in the “disputed” section. Djeravica, Kosovo’s high point, was deemed worthy a fully separate entry, despite Kosovo’s debatable status, but I’ll let that one pass.

Ben Nevis - highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

Ben Nevis – did I iron on the highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

I’m glad to have “Europe’s high points” in my possession and I’m sure I will have a great time reading it and following the routes it describes. My adventures around Europe’s high (and low) points will continue being posted here, so stay tuned! And if you have a tale of an adventure on one of the peaks, disputed or not, I’ll be happy to publish it here as a guest post.

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Adventure starts just across the border

One often hears generalizations about Europe and Europeans. “All Europeans are…” people go. Not all stereotypes are even negative – so, Europeans are supposedly all riding bicycles and are fit. Undoubtedly, some Europeans are, and maybe the average European is skinnier than the average American, but about half of the population of Europe is overweight nevertheless. Well, these stereotypes are just what they are – wild generalizations that may or may not be partially true.

Often, the same people that make generalizations about Europe are surprised how the EU members can’t agree on a common policy on this or that issue. Truth is, that Europe, even seemingly very similar countries, is far from a uniform place. Take the Dutch-Belgian border, for example. If you can find it, of course – it doesn’t even exist! Well, technically, it does, but the border is divided into two very distinct sections that take you to two completely different countries – Flanders and Wallonia.

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium - our first stop - are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium – our first stop – are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

Wallonia has been our first stop on the Grey Wave surfing trip. Every time I cross this border I am surprised how different two countries so close in geography and history can feel. Travel over the highway from the Netherlands into Flanders and you’ll have a hard time noticing you crossed the border. Cross into Wallonia, on the other hand, and even in the dead of night you’ll immediately notice you’re in a different country just by how your car is almost rattled to pieces by the dreadful Wallonian roads. Fortunately, the kind Wallonians notice you about the road perils by signs announcing that “Route dégradée”. Even in Spa, probably the wealthiest community in all of Wallonia, the roads look as if they were carpet-bombed just the other night.

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Of course, the language changes instantly to French, and due to the Belgian language divide you won’t find any sign in Dutch in Wallonia. Nor will you see any French in Flanders, by the way, even Lille is referred to as Rijsel on the highway. Furthermore, I am quite used to wide range of beers in Dutch stores, but the Belgian beer shelves are simply overwhelming, including local Spa beer, unknown to the rest of the world (for a good reason, I assure you). And the supermarket music is not the Top 40 drab I am accustomed to – no, its electronic music, and good one, too. Perhaps that’s the Belgian (or should I say Wallonian?) Top 40? Speaking of supermarkets and food – its tough enough being a vegetarian in the Netherlands, but at least they don’t label fish courses as vegetarian food on the menu, like they do in Wallonia. But the main difference is undoubtedly the landscape. Just across the border they have hills, and steep ones, too! In short, even in Western Europe, your adventure starts as soon as you cross the border.

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Is Luxembourg the biggest microstate or just another small European country?

Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City are usually counted as European microstates. As you may know, I don’t consider Monaco and Vatican City as “countries” or “states”, since they don’t have their own football team, which I view as the basic necessity to be considered a country. On the other hand, Faroe Islands and Gibraltar are members of UEFA, so naturally I do count them as a microstate, too. But some people, including authors of books about microstates, consider Luxembourg a mircostate as well. In addition, Iceland, Montenegro and Cyprus are sometimes considered microstates, although having been to Iceland I don’t know how you can call anything about it “micro”.

Luxembourg is the odd one though. While the “real” microstates in Europe are really tiny, all of them being smaller than 500 km square, Luxembourg is more than 2500 km square, bigger than all the others combined. You can’t really walk through it in a day, like you can do in Andorra or Gibraltar (well, OK, walking 50 km across Andorra is going to be tough but I am sure it can be done). In addition, Luxembourg has a population of about half a million, which I find rather big for a “microstate” (same applies to Malta, but its an island so other rules apply). On the other hand, Luxembourg, as well as the other countries on the list, participates in the Games of the Small States of Europe. So sportswise, Luxembourg considers itself small enough to play in the “Little League”, but does it make it a “microstate”?

Most Dutch only know Luxembourg as the place to buy cheap gasoline on the way to France. I filled up there, too, and gas is seriously cheap there (its about the only thing that’s cheap in Luxembourg). But I’ve been to Luxembourg on other occasions as well, and I think, eventually, I wouldn’t call Luxembourg a microstate. And the reason is – it has what other microstates don’t have. The thing about microstates is that they are rather uniform – they are just not big enough to have a variety of landscape, culture or climate. Luxembourg is diverse. There’s the capital, which has the vibe of a big city with all the banking going on. There are the wooded hills of the Ardennes, which, compared to the rest of the BeNeLux are about as densely populated as the Sahara. And of course there’s the wine-growing valley of the Mosel, which is absolutely charming. As a holiday destination Luxembourg is pretty ideal. Its small enough to get around easilly, big enough to have a little bit of everything and even if its a bit expensive, you can shop for cheap groceries just across the border, like all the locals do.

The biggest of the tiny countries, or the smallest of the small countries, Luxembourg is absolutely worth a visit.

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Great hiking, too

Great hiking, too

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