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European Culture

The Mediterranean Sea, which connects three continents, has an unparalleled wealth of history and culture. Societies inhabiting the Mediterranean have contributed widely to the philosophy, music, art, architecture, religion, cuisine and science of the modern world. The remnants of ancient civilizations along with stunning natural beauty and strong traditions draw people to this uniquely varied region.

In Athens, the stomping grounds of ancient Greek gods, the towering Parthenon sits atop the rocky Acropolis. Ruins of the Roman Empire are on display throughout the region, especially in Rome and Ephesus, the Turkish site that holds the remains of the Library of Celsus.

The Viking Age shaped much of Northern Europe’s history. The Vikings were Scandinavians who traded and settled in the continent’s northern reaches and North Atlantic islands from the late eighth to the mid-11th centuries. They traveled and raided as far east as present-day Turkey and Russia, and as far south as the Andalusian region of Spain. In Oslo, Norway’s capital, the Viking Ship Museum displays three blackened-wood vessels dating to A.D. 800.

Many of the majestic castles of Germany and France also trace their beginnings to this period. It is believed that the structures evolved in the ninth and 10th centuries from the practice of fortifying a lordly home against attacks. They were introduced in England, Wales and Ireland shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066 and eventually spread throughout Europe, from Russia to Portugal.

Each country of Europe features distinctive food and beverages that incorporate local ingredients and traditions. We have Italy to thank for Neapolitan pizza, Milanese risotto and Ligurian pesto sauce, and Germany for bratwurst and sauerbraten. Spain gave us paella and gazpacho, the Belgians paired mussels and French fries for a dish called moules-frites, and haggis is uniquely Scottish.

But while European gastronomy is as diverse as its many countries, there also are shared features. For example, pickled herring is an important part of Scandinavian, Russian and German cuisines. After the fish is cured, the salt is removed and flavor (onion, sherry, mustard and dill are traditional choices) is added. Meat always has been prominent in Europe, as well as dairy and wheat-flour products.

With the establishment of trade routes to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Europeans became familiar with a multitude of new spices, such as black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg and cloves. The demand for these spices led to the discovery of the New World, and, in turn, the introduction of new foods from all around the globe like corn, potatoes, chili, cocoa, vanilla, tomatoes, coffee and tea.

Europe’s winegrowing regions draw visitors to their scenic settings and ancient wine towns. Learn about the port wine trade in Portugal, hearty Tuscan favorites in Italy or the vintages of France’s Bordeaux region, whose viniculture dates to ancient Roman times.

Beer is another important part of European mealtime. While countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Czech Republic are well-known for their mastery and consumption of beer, Germany is unrivaled. Today, it is home to some of the oldest and best brews in the world. In some areas, such as Bavaria, you can find at least one brewery -- from large-scale industrial establishments to local family-run companies -- in nearly every village.

Art and Music
More so than any other country in Europe, Italy is recognized for the astounding art it has produced over the centuries -- a UNESCO study placed 40% of the world’s art in Italy. Italy’s history can be traced through archaeological sites, architecture, museums and public art displays that are found throughout the country, from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to the Vatican Museums in Rome.

In France, Paris beckons art lovers to world-famous museums such as the Louvre -- home to Leonardo da Vinci’s famed “Mona Lisa” -- as well as the Musee d’Orsay for its Impressionist collections and the Rodin Museum for its indoor and outdoor sculptures. Artists long have been influenced by the French aesthetic, and Paris drew some of the world’s most acclaimed talents, like Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray.

The architectural legacy of France also is incomparable. Many styles, such as Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque, arrived from elsewhere but soon were adapted and refined by the French. Art nouveau frequently is associated with France, having emerged as an improbable mixture of Baroque design and the nascent cast-iron industry.

Spain celebrated its own artistic revolution in Barcelona in the mid-19th century with the spread of an art nouveau style of architecture known as Catalan modernism. The city is dotted by the elaborate designs of Antoni Gaudi, including his unfinished masterpiece, the cathedral known as Sagrada Familia.

And don’t forget about Europe’s rich musical history. The likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and many others composed and performed for European audiences of centuries past. From the chants of the Middle Ages to the celebrated melodies of the classical era and beyond, music has played an important role in European culture and its influence on the rest of the world.