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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sweden


Sweden is a land of cultural contrast, from the Danish influence of the southwest to the nomadic Laplanders in the wild Arctic north. And while urban Sweden is stylish, modern and sophisticated, the countryside offers many simpler pleasures for those in search of tranquillity.Sweden's scenery has a gentler charm than that of neighbouring Norway's rugged coast. Much of Sweden is forested, and there are thousands of lakes, notably large stretches of water between Gothenburg and the capital, Stockholm. The lakeside resort of Östersund, in the centre of Sweden, is popular with Scandinavians, but most visitors opt first for the cities and the Baltic islands: the largest island, Gotland, with its array of ruined medieval churches, is a particular highlight. Another major attraction is the so-called ‘Kingdom of Crystal', a forested area between Malmö and Stockholm boasting many fine glassworks

Switzerland


Small, mountainous and wealthy, with a population of just 7.5 million, Switzerland is renowned for its enviable quality of life in a country that ticks along like clockwork. Its products are sought after the world over, from its delicious cheese and chocolate to luxurious watches whose timekeeping is as sharp as a Swiss Army Knife, another popular export from this sophisticated Alpine nation.Switzerland's famed political neutrality, financial power and isolated location, ring-fenced by breathtaking mountains, have enabled it to play a safe but central role in European affairs. The conveniently central location in the middle of Europe has also made Switzerland a favourite meeting place for conventions and international conferences - Geneva, for instance, is home to the United Nations.Switzerland is not only a place for professionals, though. As a stylish tourist destination it offers such top ski resorts as Zermatt, Verbier and celebrity-studded St Moritz, while the white peaks of mountains set against blue skies make a wonderful backdrop for summertime hiking. The ancient capital of Berne provides superb opportunities for sightseeing, shopping and traditional folk entertainment while the largest city, Zürich leads the way in arts, design and nightlife, from opera and world-class theatre to stylish bars and nightclubs.Switzerland's unique political model is based on consensus-building, and, considering that the country consists of several culturally different groups speaking different languages (Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansch), its peaceful domestic situation is admirable. And while the Swiss in practice have been neutral in foreign affairs for several centuries, they are increasingly willing to get more involved in world affairs and deploy the skills in democracy and diplomacy they have developed domestically on the international stage. Switzerland finally joined the United Nations in 2002, and signed the Schengen treaty in 2005, showing their support for the European Union

Turkey


Turkey proudly sits astride two continents: a position that has given rise to a culture that reflects both East and West. It is a country where European aspirations sit comfortably alongside Asian traditions and the volatile atmosphere of the Middle East morphs seamlessly into the relaxed outlook of the Mediterranean world.Turks have only lived here since medieval times when they arrived as land-hungry nomads from Central Asia. Before that it was Byzantine territory and Istanbul - then Constantinople - was the political centre of a vast Christian empire. Romans, Persians, Lycians and Phrygians were former occupants of the same territory, and earlier still, Hittite tribes had built an Anatolian empire before collapsing around the time of the Trojan Wars.Such a rich history has left an indelible mark and Turkey abounds with historic sites and archaeological wonders set in a varied and beautiful landscape. The Mediterranean coastline is punctuated with well-preserved Greco-Roman cities such as Pergamom and Ephesus, while the austere and rugged Anatolian plateau has cave churches hidden away in the improbable fairytale landscape of Cappadocia. Istanbul, still very much the pulse of the nation, has even more to offer, with Roman aqueducts, Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques and palaces.With history at every turn, it is tempting to portray Turkey as a quaint, time-locked country that adheres to tradition but this is far from the truth. The modern republic's first leader, Kemal Atatürk, saw to it that Turkey was reinvented as a modern secular state following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. What you see today, thanks to Atatürk's comprehensive modernisation, is a healthy combination of ancient tradition and contemporary outlook. This outlook sees little contradiction in having modern European ways tempered by Islam and time-honoured traditions of hospitality

Ukraine


One of the largest and most varied countries in Europe, Ukraine takes in the spectacular Carpathian Mountains in the west, the history-rich central plains and the stunning Black Sea coast in the south. The Crimean Peninsula, ethnically more Russian than Ukrainian, remains a huge draw for holidaymakers from Russia every summer. Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, is the origin of the Kyiv Rus state, founded in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the origin of the Russian state. Striking examples of baroque and Renaissance architecture can be found in Lviv, one of Europe's oldest cities, while Odessa is probably best known for the Potemkin Stairway, but is also home to one of the world's largest opera houses.Historically part of the Russian Empire since the 1650s, and later incorporated into the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 following the failed Moscow coup of August that year. The country came to international attention in late 2004 when 10 days of mass protests over electoral fraud led to a re-run of the presidential election and the eventual declaration of Viktor Yushchenko as president. The people's Orange Revolution undoubtedly raised Ukraine's profile abroad and the country is beginning to find its place on the tourist map.

United Kingdom


Despite its relatively small size, the United Kingdom is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, peopled by four main ‘native' nationalities, plus later arrivals from all over the world. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), plus Northern Ireland. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (principally Jersey and Guernsey) are also parts of the British Isles, but somewhat confusingly not officially part of the UK.The UK is also a topically diverse country, with such landscapes as the rolling moors of Yorkshire, the lakes and mountains of the Lake District and Scotland, and the ancient forests of Nottinghamshire or the stunning beaches of Wales. All this, as well as genteel villages with chocolate-box cottages or vibrant cities at the forefront of modernity, means the UK has something to offer everyone.London is the natural starting point for visitors and is a great introduction to this varied country, with famous sights such as the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye and renowned exhibitions in the National Gallery, Natural History Museum and Tower of London.

Vatican City


The Vatican City is situated entirely within the city of Rome, sprawling over a hill west of the River Tiber, and separated from the rest of the city by a wall. Vatican City comprises St Peter’s Church, St Peter’s Square, the Vatican and the Vatican Gardens. The Vatican City is famous for its magnificent St Peter’s Basilica. Near St Peter’s stands the Vatican Palace, the Pope’s residence. Among the principal features of the Palace are the Stanze, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, containing major works of art and valuable pictures.

San Marino

In whatever part of this 61-sq km (24-sq mile) territory you go, in particular at the peak of its mountain, your gaze is lost over a unique, dazzling panorama: the fertile soils of Emilia Romagna and the soft rolling hills of the Marche and Montefeltro, and on to the placid Adriatic sea. The Sammarinese territory is made up of nine ancient citadels, including the capital, San Marino.The tiny city holds a wealth of history, museums and priceless architectural monuments, while a wealth of assorted crafts and souvenirs provide a vast, pleasant shopping experience.The origins of San Marino are based on the charming legend of Saint Marinus who founded the community and the republic, when, in AD301, he took refuge on Mount Titano.Apart from the Vatican City, it is the only city-state that is completely surrounded by another country

Serbia

Following civil war and the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbia has survived international sanctions and NATO bombing to emerge as one of Eastern Europe's hottest ‘undiscovered' destinations. The capital Belgrade has plenty to offer, with excellent museums and galleries, a wide range of restaurants and cafes, and some of the best nightlife in southeast Europe.Away from the capital, Novi Sad is an attractive, lively city with an elegant centre and picturesque fortress overlooking over the Danube. In the far north, Subotica has an array of secessionist architecture and a notable Hungarian character.The province of Vojvodina, north of Belgrade, has some excellent wetland habitat that is home to numerous bird species, while south of the capital, the countryside consists of lush, wooded valleys with hidden-away Orthodox monasteries. Scattered among the country's more mountainous regions are a number of vast national parks

Slovak Republic

The Slovak Republic is no mere adjunct to the Czech Republic. It is well deserving of attention in its own right. It is a country that sweeps from the mighty Tatra Mountains through lowlands, canyons, caves and meadows. There are year-round activities, from hiking in the summer to skiing in the winter, and its capital, Bratislava, is a highlight amongst a sprinkling of appealing towns and cities.The Slovak Republic may have been the ‘junior partner' throughout its alliance with the Czech Republic, but it is now emerging as part of the expanded EU and is an increasingly popular business and leisure destination. The separation of Czechoslovakia into its constituent parts (the Czech and Slovak Republics) on 1 January 1993 in the ‘Velvet Divorce’ was achieved peacefully. It had not been a long marriage as at the end of WWI, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, came the birth of Czechoslovakia. WWII brought Nazi occupation with the Russians moving in during the aftermath to make Czechoslovakia part of the Soviet Union.

Spain


The straw donkey and sombrero image of Spain is now largely consigned to the bin - along with the paella and chips. In its place comes a sheaf of sparkling and evocative new images, as the visitor trend turns from sun-and-fun package holidays to individually tailored, more sophisticated themes. Spain is a country on the move, a place of rapid change. High-speed railways have conquered the country's mountainous terrain and many cities now have modern metro and tram networks, testifying to a vibrant and growing economy. But here, too, you will find a country where time stands still, where Roman columns rise into a clear blue sky, where crumbling Arab watchtowers maintain a lonely vigil over vast and magnificent landscapes, and city plazas where the baroque jostles with the modern to strike a uniquely Spanish harmony.The historic cities of Spain are drenched in the atmosphere of the past, but well equipped to meet modern needs as well. The countryside is infinitely varied, from the ‘Green Spain' of the rugged Atlantic coast to the parched plains of Castile and La Mancha. The open roads across endless open spaces produce a steady stream of surprises, with hidden villages and unexpected castles, shepherds roaming with their flocks and hilltop windmills appearing unexpectedly. It is a great country for touring.

Norway


The breathtaking fjords of the southwest are Norway's most dramatic scenic features, but there are many other reasons to visit this sparsely populated land on the northern fringe of Europe. The North Cape's midnight sun is rightly famous - here, far above the Arctic Circle, lies the spectacularly situated town of Tromsø, where the sun never rises in winter, nor sets in midsummer.Each of Norway's four major cities offers distinct appeal - Oslo is present-day capital and financial centre, Bergen is a picturesque former Hanseatic trading port and ‘gateway' to Fjordland, Stavanger is focal point of the Norwegian oil industry, and Trondheim is a long-established centre of Christian pilgrimage, and more recently, technical research.In the sparsely populated wilderness that lies between the main urban centres are such delights as Jostedalsbreen, Europe's largest glacier. There are opportunities to indulge in outdoor activities including skiing, fishing and rock-climbing. Even the less energetic can simply marvel at the awesome beauty of much of the Norwegian countryside, with its countless steep-sided valleys, high mountain lakes and unbelievable views.Norway is foremost a land for those who love nature. However, it also offers a rich cultural experience, as would be expected of such varied history, from the Vikings of the eighth and ninth centuries, to later luminaries such as artist Edvard Munch, author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and composer Edvard Grieg, whose centenary Norway celebrated during 2007.The nation, one of the world's richest on a per capita basis since the discovery of oil in the late 1960s, has been independent since 1905, when it devolved from Swedish rule, and remains outside the European Union. Norway has developed an important role in international politics over recent decades, and is rated as the world's most peaceful nation by the Global Peace Inde

Poland


Situated at the centre of Europe, and the largest of the former Eastern European states, Poland's position is crucial. Poland has become one of the major destinations for travellers. Its beauty can be admired in both its old cities and in the wild scenery of its national parks and nature reserves. The country's regions are largely divided into horizontal bands: the Baltic Coast and the hilly post-glacial lake district. Central Poland is split into northern lowlands and southern uplands, including the Kraków-Wielun Upland with its limestone areas, caves and medieval castles. The Carpathian Mountains, including the Tatras, lie in the extreme south; their mountain scenery, folklore and sports facilities contributing to their charm.Poland is a nation with a proud cultural heritage, and theatre, music and opera companies abound. The former textile city of Lodz is proud of its film school, alma mater to directors Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski. There is also a strong tradition of graphic design and glassware.Although the native soil for composer Frederick Chopin, scientist Marie Curie (neé Skladowska) and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, Poland is best remembered for being the birthplace of the former Soviet bloc's first officially recognised independent mass political movement when strikes at the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980 led to agreement with the authorities on the establishment of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union. Elections in summer 1989 ushered in eastern Europe's first post-Communist government. Poland is a member of the European Union and has achieved success in creating a market economy and attracting foreign investment. Growth is slow-moving and growing pains are apparent in the high unemployment rate and mass exodus of qualified people to other countries in search of a decent wage, but the potential exists for a healthier economy

Portugal


Though overshadowed by its more popular neighbour to the east, Portugal remains one of Europe's unspoilt gems. This land of traditional villages and vibrant cities has a countryside strewn with historical treasures and a wide assortment of World Heritage sites - natural and cultural wonders that offer a window into this once great seafaring nation. Lively citiesPortugal's lively capital, Lisbon, and its northern sibling, Porto, are magical places for the wanderer, with picturesque neighbourhoods, broad plazas and old-fashioned trams still rattling through the streets. Both cities have their share of enticing urban life, with eclectic restaurants, colourful boutiques, bohemian cafes and stylish nightclubs that make good use of the waterside setting. Smaller towns offer their own enchantment, with well-preserved medieval quarters that invite exploring in towns like Évora, Coimbra, Guimarães and Braga .

Romania


Romania is the largest of the Balkan states, sitting at the crossroads of Europe, whose nationals are proud of being ‘an island of Latinos’ in a ‘sea of slavs'. The country has seen several empires come and go - Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, all leaving their legacy.Romania has a rich cultural and natural diversity. Its dramatic mountain scenery includes the densely forested Carpathian Mountains, the Danube Delta (the largest wetland in Europe) and 70km (43 miles) of fine white sandy beaches on the Black Sea Coast. In picturesque valleys and on mountain slopes are many health and winter resorts. Romania's cultural heritage can be experienced in the Saxon towns of Transylvania, also home to Bran Castle, of Dracula fame, the painted monasteries of Bucovina and the rural village idyll of Maramures.The capital, Bucharest, earned the nickname ‘Paris of the Balkans', but it is the stunning medieval city of Sibiu in Transylvania that was crowned European Capital of Culture 2007. Since the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist dictatorship in 1989, Romania has been working towards the twin goals of gaining admission to NATO, which it joined in 2004, and the European Union, which it achieved in January 2007, behind some of its neighbours

Russian Federation


The history of the Russian Federation is long and brutal. It is apparent on every corner of the country's awesome cities, such as Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as in its lesser-known towns such as Novgorod, Kazan and Tomsk. But it also dwells in huge and remote expanses such as Siberia, filled with ancient forests and the world's largest lake. Everything exists here on an inhuman scale.Since the 15th century, when the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III (the Great), annexed the rival principalities of Rus, Russia's ambitions have been as great as this first national sovereign's appellation. It took Ivan the Terrible's capture of the Tatar capital Kazan in 1552 and his subsequent annexation of Siberia, followed by Peter the Great's expansion to the Baltic and the building of St Petersburg as his ‘window on Europe' in the early 18th century, to create the vast nation we know as Russia today.Modern Russia came bloodily to life in 1917 with a popular revolution followed by a coup that brought the Bolsheviks and Lenin to power. The repressive downward spiral that followed was one of the 20th centuries great crimes, with millions killed in the gulag labour camps

Malta


The Maltese archipelago, situated almost at the centre of the Mediterranean, includes the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto and Filfla. It has made it an important strategic base since the earliest days of navigation, and thus has been visited by many cultures.The first significant civilisation here flourished in the third millennium BC, leaving behind fascinating megalithic temples. Later the island was occupied by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans.The Maltese islands have indeed been described as one big open-air museum. It is easy to delve into the islands' mysterious prehistory, retrace the footsteps of St Paul or see where the Knights of St John defended Christendom. Visitors can explore medieval walled citadels and splendid baroque churches and palaces.

Moldova

Rich with history and fertile soils that produce abundant vineyards, Moldova is an unjustifiably forgotten tourist destination, as yet untouched by the budget airline brigade. In this land-locked eastern European country, you can wander round vast monasteries, sample the local wines, or trek through ancient forests. Despite remaining one of the poorest countries in Europe, the people are friendly and welcoming, and the main centres, such as the capital Chisinau, have everything a visitor could need. Chisinau's cathedrals, monuments and museums survived severe WWII bombings to the city, including the house where Pushkin spent his days in exile penning some of his most famous works.

Monaco


Although the second-smallest independent state in the world, Monaco benefits from an excellent climate and beautiful settings on the Côte d'Azur. From the heights of the Tête de Chien or Mont Agel, or from lower down from the Moyenne-Corniche at the level of the entrance to the Jardin Exotique, there are a number of panoramic viewpoints looking out over exceptional scenery. Gamblers flock to the Place du Casino in Monte-Carlo and every May the principality hosts the renowned Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco is also well located for exploring both Provence, the French Riviera and Italy.In the main harbour, expensive luxury yachts and boats, which are a permanent fixture, corroborate Monaco's reputation as a glamorous destination for the rich and famous. Monaco's pleasant climate, reputation and environment as well as the absence of income or inheritance tax and lack of financial reporting requirements all contribute to this situation. Tourism is also a major source of revenue, contributing about 25% of government revenue, as well as being the mainstay of local retail

Montenegro

Montenegro is one of Europe's hidden secrets, but that could be all about to change. The country became the world's newest sovereign state in 2006 when its population voted for independence, bringing to an end the former Union of Serbia & Montenegro. Now this tiny republic plans to put itself firmly back on the map. Visitors can relax on one of 117 sandy beaches along the Adriatic coast, wander through the Old Towns of Budva, Kotor or Bar, climb the peaks of Durmitor National Park, raft down Europe's deepest canyon, explore Europe's last virgin forest or sail into the continent's southernmost fjord

Netherlands


The Netherlands, is a lively mix of tradition, in the form of windmills and tulips, and fast-paced modern European life.The Dutch are an affable race, with a good sense of humour and a keen sense of how to enjoy themselves, whether it be relaxing in the countryside or partying hard in the big cities. Despite their country's puritan past, they are known for tolerance, or at least turning a blind eye.Known as being largely flat (much of the country lies below sea level, and another great swathe is made up of ‘polder', or land reclaimed from the sea), The Netherlands is an ideal destination for those who enjoy pursuits like cycling or walking without over-exerting themselves. But it is a cultured land as well, as the seemingly endless list of great Dutch artists testifies. The Netherlands' roots in the arts stem from the 17th century, the so-called ‘Golden Age', which placed this tiny but rich country at the forefront of European culture. The gaining of the upper hand by imperial influence and the annexing of The Netherlands to the far-flung empire of the Hapsburgs in the 16th century resulted in the rebellion of the largely Protestant northern provinces of the Low Countries, led by William of Orange and Nassau - this struggle for independence would last until 1648. This was compounded by a remarkable growth in Dutch sea power, as many Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the New World and East Asia were seized. This reached its acme in 1689 when William III of Orange became King of England - although the association was severed on his death in 1702.

Kosovo

The world's newest nation state, Kosovo is an eye-opening destination for adventurous travellers. It offers many historic landmarks, beautiful mountains and traditional towns, which are all within easy reach of the capital, Pristina.The tiny, impoverished territory unilaterally declared itself independent from neighbouring Serbia on 17th February 2008 to great jubilation within the country but mixed reactions abroad. Located in the heart of the Balkans, Kosovo is populated by 90% ethnic Albanians, and has for many centuries been the stage for tension between its Serb and ethnic Albanian inhabitants.A landlocked and largely agricultural country, Kosovo is now one of Europe's poorest nations. It was administered by the UN for many years following conflict in the 1990s and fears that Slobodan Milosevic was planning ethnic cleansing. Some 100,000 Serbs remain following a post-war exodus of non-Albanians.Serbia, which regards the region as its historic birthplace and reminiscent of a Serbian ‘golden age', has vowed never to accept Kosovo's independence

Latvia


Latvia is a small country on the Baltic Sea with ancient history and traditions. If you want to enjoy nature, there is not only the serene Gulf of Riga and the open Baltic Sea, but also nature parks, lakes and beautiful forests.Old Riga offers not only fabulous architectural monuments, but also various nightclubs and pubs. According to legend, once every 100 years the devil rears his head from the waters of Riga's River Daugava and asks whether Riga is ‘ready’ yet. If the answer is ‘yes’, the now nearly 900-year-old city will be condemned to sink into the waters.For now, however, there is no chance of Latvia being 'ready' to sink. Long the Baltic favourite, Latvia is now also beginning to emerge as a tourist destination further afield, championed as one of Europe's hidden treasures. Those who visit will appreciate the small picturesque medieval towns, country castles, museums and folk parks, ruined fortresses and, occasionally, grand palaces. They will also appreciate the little Latvian quirks still entrenched in customs, crafts and cultu

Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein seems to be the forgotten corner of Europe; tucked in between Switzerland and Austria, this beautiful country is often overlooked, despite being more than a fair match for its neighbours.In the summer, hikers and cyclists can traverse the stunning mountain ranges or valleys, while in winter these same areas offer skiing, ice skating and sledging.Pretty villages with quaint chapels dot the land, while the capital Vaduz, with its stunning hill-top castle, has plenty of history, and shops, to explore.With its intrinsic links to Switzerland and low tax, Liechtenstein's population is one of the most prosperous in the world, so you won't be the only one smiling when you're there.

Lithuania


Lithuania is a land of castles, lakes and forests. Its landscape consists of vast plains parted by hills and sand dunes along the Baltic shore. Its capital, Vilnius, is one of Europe's most enchanting cities, owing especially to its Baroque old town.Lithuanian independence came soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By 1995, the transition to a full market economy had been completed. The long-running border dispute with Poland was settled with the signing of a friendship and co-operation treaty in January 1992 and negotiations with Russia led to the withdrawal of the remaining Russian troops in Lithuania in August 1993.It is the largest of the three Baltic states. Since gaining EU membership in 2004, the country has been placed on the global stage, encouraging more visitors than ever.

Luxembourg


Diminutive Luxembourg owes its continued existence to a mixture of good fortune and good diplomacy, which have prevented it from being permanently absorbed into the territories of its larger neighbours.By the time that Luxembourg's independence was finally confirmed in 1867, however, the Grand Duchy was left with such a tiny territory that its people had to look across its borders for economic survival. This has resulted in a cosmopolitan attitude, exemplified not only by the fact that the nation has the highest percentage of foreigners of any EU country, but also by the trilingual ability of its people.It is an attractive country with a green and picturesque landscape of rolling hills and valleys, and many closely packed historical sites. Visitors will also discover forests, vineyards and striking sandstone rock formations here. The capital, Luxembourg-Ville, is split into two districts: the delightful old centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), complete with fortress towers, turrets and winding, cobblestone streets; and the modern downtown area on the Plâteau du Kirchberg, home to Luxembourg's renowned international finance businesses. Proud of its role as a founding member of the EU, Luxembourg sees itself as playing a prominent position in European affairs and there are a number of European Union institutions based in Luxembourg-Ville

Germany


Wherever you venture in Germany, there is something interesting to see or do. It is a goldmine for the adventurous tourist in search of something different to the norm.The country has now firmly shaken off the shadows of its 20th century past, regained a sense of national pride, and breathed a sigh of relief at its new-found ability to express its distinctive national character again. Modern Germany has come of age, and while it is still suffering the economic consequences of reunification in October 1990, Europe's most populous country is clearly a nation coming to terms with itself. Massive investment in the long-neglected infrastructure of the former East is paying off, as cities like Dresden once more begin to shine like the jewels they were in the past.The country is the product of a long history of division, first as a loose collection of independent (and often warring) states before original unification during the 19th century, and latterly as West and communist East Germany following WWII. For this reason alone, it is a country of remarkable diversity, with cultural differences clearly evident as one travels around the various states that make up the modern Federal Republic.

Gibraltar

Known as the the 'Rock', Gibraltar contains 143 caves, over 48km (30 miles) of road and miles of tunnels. From rock touring, to sailing, diving, fishing and birdwatching, visitors will be pleasantly surprised with the diverse range of attractions on offer in Gibraltar.Located at the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, where Europe meets Africa, visitors are also assured of breathtaking scenery, wildlife and architecture, that captures the unique flavour of this Mediterranean city. As a VAT-free jurisdiction, Gibraltar's popularity with visitors is further enhanced by its value added shopping experience in famed Main Street. Gibraltar derives from Gibel Tariq (Tariq’s Mountain) which is named after Tariq Ibn Zeyad who led the eighth-century conquest of Spain by a combined force of Arabs and Berbers crossing from Africa. Gibraltar’s unusual status was not acquired until almost 1,000 years later, long after the Islamic invaders had been driven out by the Spanish, as a consequence of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which brought to an end the War of the Spanish Succession and gave the territory to Britain.The British interpretation of the treaty moreover holds that the territory was ceded to them indefinitely. The presence of a foreign-owned mini-state on the Spanish mainland has been an irritant to Anglo-Spanish relations ever since.In response to the latest round of talks between London and Madrid which began in 2001 and explored in detail possible joint sovereignty models, the Gibraltar government led by Peter Caruana organised a referendum in November 2002 to assess the popular mood. As expected, it returned a huge majority in favour of the status quo.

Greece


Often cited as the birthplace of European civilization, Greece offers a heady mix of ancient archaeological sites, chic design hotels, rustic tavernas, family-orientated seaside resorts and hedonistic dance clubs. Ancient Greece reached its zenith in the fifth century BC when Athens became the cultural and artistic centre of the Mediterranean, producing magnificent works of architecture, sculpture, drama and literature.There is no denying that the historical and cultural heritage of Greece continues to resonate throughout the modern Western world - in its literature, art, philosophy and politics. In fact, many travellers come here specifically to explore Greece's ancient wonders, from Athens' Parthenon and Delphi's Temple of Apollo, to the ruins of the Minóan city of Knossós on Crete. Scattered throughout the calm blue waters of the Aegean and the Ionian are Greece's 1,400 islands - each with its own special story. The serenity of islands like Kefalonia and Amorgos contrasts with the hedonistic party islands such as Mykonos and Páros. Those interested in architecture should visit the medieval fortified towns of Rhodes and Corfu (both UNESCO World Heritage sites), and the whitewashed cubic houses of Thira and Oia on Santorini, typical of the Cyclades.

Hungary


The small country of Hungary (Magyarország), surrounded by a sea of Slavs, is unique for its language, culture and ability to survive. Settled by the Magyars (a Finno-Ugric tribe who arrived via Russia in the ninth century), the country and its people have remained true to their heritage despite Mongol invasion in the 13th century, Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries, Austrian rule in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and communist domination in the mid 20th century.The pride locals have for their nation is immense, but it doesn't spring solely from the stalwart strength of their nation. Hungary is also home to historic urban centres and evocative landscapes, not to mention quality wines, rejuvenating thermal springs, and a thriving arts and music scene.Budapest, the capital, is a fantastic city split in two by the Danube. Buda is older, hillier, and more graceful, while Pest is the commercial centre dotted by gorgeous art nouveau buildings. Budapest contains the country's best bars and clubs, and has been a long time haven for writers, artists and musicians. Other centres, such as Eger, Pécs, Szentendre and Sopron, to name but a few, are vibrant cities with rich histories and stunning architecture

Iceland


Wild, rugged and colourful, Iceland, ‘the land of ice and fire', is a country like no other: a contrasting landscape of black lava fields, red sulphur vents, boiling blue geysers and green valleys. Bays and fjords dot the coast, while in the interior rivers and waterfalls abound.Iceland's volcanoesA large island in the North Atlantic close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world. Hekla, in the south of Iceland, has erupted no fewer than 16 times, and was once described by clergymen as the gateway to Hell. Certainly, Iceland's seething mountains contribute to this sense of otherworldliness.ReykjavíkAround the coastal regions, Iceland is a bustle of activity, particularly in the capital city, Reykjavík, where more than half of Iceland's population lives. Reykjavík is set on a broad bay, surrounded by mountains, and is in an area of geothermal hot springs, creating a natural central heating system and pollution-free environment. It is a busy city combining old-fashioned wooden architecture and modern buildings. Despite being a relatively small capital city, Reykjavík has managed to forge a reputation for partying, and its nightclubs and bars are regularly filled with hordes of fun-loving citizens.

Ireland


As far as tourist appeal goes, the small island of Ireland punches far above its own weight. The country is so packed with delights that visitors are often reduced to describing its charms in hyperbolic clichés: it is the greenest country, full of the friendliest people, all of whom would be geniuses if they weren't distracted by the lure of the pub.Ireland is indeed a green country - so much rainfall must have its benefits - and the people are justifiably renowned for their friendliness. As for the geniuses, well, the Irish will proudly point to their four Nobel Laureates for Literature and declare that the success rate is unmatched in any other country of its size, all the while ensuring that the sacred 'round' system (where everyone buys a drink for everyone else in turn) is strictly adhered to.Yet Ireland's charms run far deeper than the legendary craic of the pub or the accomplishments of a bunch of (mostly) dead writers. It has a remarkable history that is woven into virtually everything, from the prehistoric stone monuments of the Boyne Valley to the monuments honouring its fallen patriots, men and women who dared challenge the imperious might of its longtime occupier and contemporary friend, Britain.

Italy


Stylish, cultured, good-humoured and volatile - Italy, with its golden light, stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage, has inspired poets and painters for centuries. Perhaps more than any other country, it has influenced the course of European development, particularly in culture and political thought. Today, besides the renowned cities of Venice, Florence, Siena and Naples, each with its own unique identity and architecture, Italy features romantic medieval hill towns, such as San Gimignano in Tuscany, and unspoilt fishing villages, like Positano on the Amalfi coast. Operatic productions are staged in Verona's ancient amphitheatre, while the influence of Federico Fellini is celebrated in Turin's museum of cinema. Throughout the country visitors can find vineyards and cellars to taste fine regional wines, workshops where crafts are produced by hand, and friendly trattorie where simple but superb dishes are served.The most important early settlers were the enigmatic Etruscans, but by the third century BC their culture had been displaced by the mighty city state of Rome.

Croatia


With a coastline that stretches thousands of kilometres, more than 1,000 offshore islands, and where a mild Mediterranean climate eases you through the worst ravages of autumn and winter, Croatia's appeal is obvious. Throw in chocolate-box pretty Venetian old towns, whose terracotta roof tiles find themselves in the starring role of many an iconic photograph, rugged mountain ranges and melt-in-the-mouth Adriatic seafood, and the cocktail becomes even more intoxicating.Although the coast is undoubtedly the shining star of Croatia tourism, off the beaten track the country also boasts undulating hills in inland Istria, where ornate hilltop towns, great food, good domestic wine and a proliferation of black and white truffles has earned it favourable comparisons with Tuscany. In the north of the country the historic castles of the Zagorje and more rolling green hills await. The oft ignored region of Slavonia, in the east of the country, rewards a visit with the stately riverside city of Osijek and the unquashable spirit of Vukovar, which is still fighting back from the worst ravages of the Homeland War, as well as vineyards and castles of its own. First-time visitors to the country's capital, Zagreb, quickly shrug off anachronistic images of communist era deprivations, as they are greeted by a vibrant and grand metropolis complete with all the trappings of modern day life, an attractive old town and lush green spaces

Cyprus


Fall in love with Aphrodite's isle, where legend has it the goddess of love arose from the waves, and discover ancient UNESCO-listed sites, wonderful beaches and crystal clear waters. Although compact, this attractive island offers a rich variety of landscapes from pine-clad mountains to golden sandy beaches.The best holiday beaches are found around Ayia Napa and Protaras, where warm turquoise seas lap gently shelving sands and watersports abound. Thrilling waterskiing and even kite-surfing are offered at the main resorts along with fun-filled water parks and boat trips.There's a buzzing neon-lit nightlife scene in the main towns and a burgeoning cafe culture in Nicosia, Limassol and on Larnaca's mile-long beachfront promenade.Cypriots are happiest when eating so join them for a mezze, a slow banquet of Cypriot delicacies such as grilled halloumi, dolmades and kleftiko, lamb slowly baked till it drops off the bone.

Czech Republic


A historic jewel hidden away at the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic packs a lot of punch for such a small country. No bigger than Scotland or South Carolina, it's crammed with fairytale castles, medieval towns, elegant spa resorts and scenic national parks. And on top of all that, it's the birthplace of the world's finest beer.Part of Czechoslovakia until the 'Velvet Divorce' of 1993, the Czech Republic encompasses the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia, and boasts a rich cultural heritage represented by the likes of classical composer Antonin Dvorak and writer Franz Kafka.Almost everyone who visits the Czech Republic goes to Prague, with its imposing castle, great museums and galleries, jazz clubs and concerts and other attractions. Many day trips are possible from here, including the spa resort of Karlovy Vary, the historic towns of Mělník and Kutná Hora, and castles like Karlštejn and Konopiště.But the rest of the country has just as much to offer the independent traveller, with no fewer than 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites including the picture-postcard town of Český Krumlov, the chateaux and landscaped gardens of Lednice-Valtice, and the Renaissance architecture of Telč.

Denmark


Jutland and its 400 surrounding islands form one of Europe's smallest countries. Denmark has an abundance of picturesque villages and towns, historic castles and monuments, and a coastline that varies from broad sandy beaches to small coves and gentle fjords.Throughout the country, low rolling hills provide a constant succession of attractive views; there are cool and shady forests of beech trees, extensive areas of heathland, a beautiful lake district, sand dunes and white cliffs resembling those of Dover; nor should one forget the Danish islands, each of which has its own unique attractions.The Danes have taken strong measures to keep their coastline clean and tidy, keen for visitors to sample the many unspoilt beaches. Inland from the 4,800km (3,000 miles) of beaches and unspoiled islands, you'll find a landscape eminently suitable for cycling. Ferries ply between the mainland and the islands, competing with awesome bridges like the 16km (10 miles) Øresund link to Sweden. Ranks of huge white wind turbines are a feature of the modern Danish landscape.Amidst such tranquillity, it now seems almost surreal to consider that this country once spawned a notoriously violent seafaring race of people, the Vikings, feared throughout northwest Europe. Today, visitors to Denmark find a country that is peaceful, introspective, neutral and egalitarian. Its hallmarks are world-class design and uniformly high standards that apply equally to its accommodation and transport. Cuisine is excellent, especially in the realm of dairy products and scrumptious pastries. Add to this a people both amiable and helpful, with a facility for languages, and the result is an overwhelming sense of welcome.

Estonia


Estonia, bordered by the Baltic Sea, the Russian Federation and Latvia, and the most northerly of the three former Soviet Baltic republics, is a country of great scenic beauty with many forests, lakes and islands.Estonia is an unspoilt, sparsely populated country, nearly half of which is covered with forests. Wetlands, together with primeval forests, represent preserved communities which have for the most part been destroyed in Europe. More than 1,000 lakes (5% of the Estonian territory) dot the countryside, which is relatively flat - almost two thirds of the territory lies less than 50m (164ft) above sea level. While 7,000 rivers and streams carry rainwater to the sea, bogs and wooded swamplands of different types cover over one fifth of the country - a world index topped only by the northern neighbour, Finland. The history of Estonia (and indeed of the other Baltic States) has been one of constant struggle to maintain independence and national integrity against the predatory instincts of larger neighbours. The Russians who were determined to secure a ‘window onto the Baltic’ for economic as well as strategic reasons acquired Estonia from Sweden, at the Treaty of Nystadt, in 1721

Finland


Finland, the quiet sibling of the Nordic countries, has a down-to-earth natural purity that makes it an exceptionally rewarding place to visit.Across the south, cultural differences reflect a turbulent history. The picturesque Swedish-speaking wooden towns of the west coast and the onion-domed Orthodox churches of Karelia in the east speak of Finland's oft-repeated role as the rope in a tug of war between Sweden and Russia. In the middle were the stoic Finns, a loyal and warmhearted people with a gloriously independent and idiosyncratic streak. Even the urban technocrats love to get back to basics, chopping wood or hunting for mushrooms from their lakeside cabins.In far-northern Lapland, the Sámi people still herd their reindeer in the vast swathes of sparsely populated wilderness - at least when they're not podcasting: Finland is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It is also renowned for its design and architecture, particularly strong in the capital Helsinki, a clean, modern and buzzy place, with a strong tradition of artistic and musical innovation and a beautiful coastline and harbour.Finland is shaped by its climate, and Finns take advantage of their short but intense summers. The country explodes into life with a bewildering array of festivals and celebrations, ranging from Savonlinna's prestigious opera extravaganza to the tongue-in-cheek humour of the Air Guitar World Championships.Fabulous forests and lakes cover almost 80% of the country and this, plus the excellent network of national parks, makes it a tempting destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Trekking and canoeing are obvious choices, but a trip in winter can offer cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snowmobiling or a sled safari with a team of huskies or reindeer. And it is hard to beat a traditional wood-fired sauna at the end of the day

France


The world's number one tourist destination, France is a country of contrasts with a multitude of landscapes, offering holidays to suit all tastes and budgets.Whether you fancy a spot of shopping on the chic boulevards of Paris or a winter sport break on the sparkling ski slopes of the Alps, a relaxing beach weekend on the sun-baked Riviera or a holiday exploring the fairy tale castles of the Loire Valley on a bike, the choice is vast.Indeed it's the many attractions of this compelling country that draw millions of visitors back year after year, an increasing number of whom (not least Brits) purchase property there.Undiscovered FrancePerenially popular Provence, with its lavender fields and warm climate, and Paris, arguably the most romantic city in the world, top the list in terms of visitor numbers, but other less well-known regions are also well worth exploring.Delightful Franche-Comté, Gascony or Berry, deep in the green heart of France, are firmly rooted in the land, with sleepy villages typical of provincial France, while unspoilt and rugged Corsica, also known as ‘l'île de beauté' ('the island of beauty'), offers all the charm of the Mediterranean without the crowds.Gastro FranceFrance is also famous for its culinary traditions, and the French take pride in their food. From freshly baked bread and croissants for breakfast, to a five course dinner in a gourmet restaurant (at a fraction of the price you'd pay back home), this savoir-faire is a way of life. A trip to France is also a trip for the tastebuds.

Albania

It is mainly people that have never been to Albania who are responsible for the country's bad press. Those who discover Albania for themselves usually return singing the praises of its friendly, tolerant people, its fascinating Ottoman cities and other historical sites and its magnificent mountain scenery and charming villages.Albania has something to offer almost everyone. Hikers will love the Albanian Alps or the Tomorri massif, whilst cyclists will find a network of ancient tracks criss-crossing the country. Those who are interested in archaeology can spend hours in the complex sites of Butrint and Byllis. History-lovers can explore ancient castles, Ottoman fortresses and the museum cities of Berati and Gjirokastra. Art connoisseurs should visit the little-known medieval churches, with their beautiful frescoes, and the icon collections in Tirana, Korça and Berati. And gourmets will enjoy the delicious seafood, mountain lamb, organic fruit and vegetables and, of course, Albania's excellent wine

Andorra

Almost hidden in the eastern Pyrenees, the tiny Principality of Andorra is a land of narrow valleys and mountainous landscapes, bordered by France and Spain.Most of the settlements can be found along the main road that traverses the country - many villages or hamlets are filled with Romanesque churches and houses built in the local style. Others, off the main road, are even more unspoilt, and provide spectacular views across the rugged countryside.Andorra is one of the oldest nations in Europe, originally established by Charlemagne as a buffer state against the Iberian muslims. As a result of the Paretages of 1278 and 1288, control of the country was split between the Spanish Bishop of Urgell and a nominee appointed by the King of France (initially the Count de Foix) and subsequently by the French emperors and presidents. This unique power-sharing arrangement lasted until the late 20th century when the present constitution formally enshrined Andorra as a principality.

Austria

Austria is a country of startling contrasts, from the Alps in the west to the Danube Basin in the east. One of the world's premier skiing regions, it is also noted for its historical buildings, world-class museums and galleries, and breathtaking mountain scenery.The country's glorious architectural riches include reminders of the once-powerful Hapsburgs, who dominated central Europe for seven centuries. The capital, Vienna, is magnificent with its ornate Opera House and the imperial Hofburg. Austria's other cities are similarly infused with historical magic, notably Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, with stunning baroque churches set before a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, and Innsbruck, in the centre of Austria's Alps.Austria has produced and inspired a catalogue of cultural figures. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Austria - and, in particular, Vienna - became a focal point of the cultural renaissance. Remnants of Mozart's legacy are everywhere. However, Austria has also yielded people such as artists Klimt and Schiele, composers Mahler and Schubert, psychologists Freud and Rank, and philosophers such as Husserl and Wittgenstein.

Belarus

Previously known by the name Belorussia (White Russia), the name Belarus was adopted when the country became independent from the Soviet Union as the USSR disintegrated in 1991.The post-independence leadership was keen to maintain political and economic links with Moscow and was a leading proponent of the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States – a loose alliance of ex-Soviet republics that came into being shortly afterwards and whose headquarters were in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.Belarus’s close links with Russia has led the country into deeper international isolation. Today, the majority of all industry remains under the control of the state and is heavily regulated. Foreign investment has been limited due to an unfriendly business environment. Belarus’s human rights record since President Lukashenko came to power in 1994 has been poor.Despite this, Belarus does not deserve its reputation as a transit area on the way to or from Russia. Wide plains, picturesque villages, ancient castles and monasteries, deep forests, scenic landscapes, and thousands of lakes await nature-lovers, culture fans and sport enthusiasts. One-third of the Belarusian territory is covered with forests where birches, oaks, maple and pine trees dominate with a rich and diverse fauna: here one can find European bison, elk and deer, wild boar and wolf, bear and fox, beaver and lynx — not to mention myriad birds. Belarus also has a unique history and a rich cultural heritage, with hundreds of architectural monuments dating back to the 12th century

Belgium

Belgium always had a lot more going for it than the faceless political and bureaucratic buildings that litter the outskirts of its capital, Brussels, would have you believe. A string of engaging historic cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Liège, Namur (and Brussels itself) offer impressive architecture, lively nightlife, first-rate cuisine and numerous other attractions for visitors. Today, the anachronistic images of ‘boring Belgium' have been well and truly banished, as more and more people discover its very individual charms for themselves.There is reinvented Antwerp, a hotbed of fashion and slick modern design, along with the more bucolic charms of the beautiful mountainous Ardennes region to the east, and the delightfully picturesque Meuse Valley as well as the sweeping sand of the coastline resorts of the western seaboard. Belgium is also a land whose specialities include ubiquitous beers, delicate chocolates, moules frites and Belgian waffles.Easy to both access and to travel around, pocket-sized Belgium is divided into the Flemish north (Flemish-speaking) and the Walloon south (French-speaking). Brussels, the capital, is the heart of both the country and the European Union, as well as the headquarters of NATO.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

When thinking of Bosnia & Herzegovina, it is difficult not to focus on the Yugoslav wars that blighted the Balkan region for much of the 1990s. At a loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, huge landmass was shredded into civil combat. Much of Bosnia & Herzegovina's landscape is still riddled with mines, and ramshackle buildings loll across its towns and villages. However, the country remains beautiful, and its winding aqua rivers have lost none of their lustre.Although economic stagnation and international isolation is yet to be overcome, there is positive history in abundance, from stunning old mosques to amphitheatres and Catholic shrines. Countryside varies from woodland to mountains to rolling hills. Perhaps most wonderful is the rebuilt bridge in Mostar - what used to be a pre-war ancient overpass. Now re-opened to the public, it is hard not to walk across it and hope it symbolic of new beginnings

Bulgaria,

Bulgaria, one of the EU's newest members (joining in January 2007), has been through mammoth changes in the last few years. Many of the cities and resorts have been undergoing construction booms galore, tempting buyers from Western Europe with relatively cheap property.Bulgaria's beach and ski resorts are expanding quickly as a result. The main cities have shrugged off their weary Communist-era image and have become vibrant and attractive, with well-kept boulevards, varied shopping and lively nightlife. Spectacular mountains occupy half the country's territory and the swathe of golden beaches along the 370km- (232-mile-) long Black Sea bring in hordes of tourists from around the world.Visitors can stay in towns and villages that have aimed to preserve the authentic Bulgarian spirit and hospitality. Bulgaria is especially proud of its rich folklore traditions, and folk dances, music, national costumes and traditional rituals play an important part in the life of Bulgarians.Bulgaria has had a turbulent history and recently experienced radical political changes. Having been a satellite of the Soviet Union for nearly half a century, Bulgaria chose its first democratically-elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev, in 1990. A constitution was adopted in 1991, the political parties were restored, and privatisation and restitution of the land started. Such changes escalated in the run-up, and subsequent accession, to the European Union in 2007

Kyrgyzstan

The main attraction of Kyrgyzstan lies in the breathtaking landscape of mountains, glaciers and lakes; their isolation ensures that they have been almost forgotten by the crowds. The lakes and mountainous terrain provide excellent opportunities for trekking, skiing, climbing, sailing and swimming.For more ambitious travellers, it is possible to follow the route of the old Silk Road to Kashgar in China, crossing the border at the Torugart Pass, near Lake Chatyr-Kul. Trekking tours and adventure holidays in this region are offered by a growing number of companie

Mongolia

Mongolia is far-flung and little visited yet has much to offer in terms of scenery, wildlife, and historic and cultural sites.Outside the main cities, Mongolians continue to live the traditional life of malchin (herdsmen), and many are nomadic. With one of the world’s lowest population densities, Mongolia’s vast areas of wilderness, desert, lakes and mountains offer plenty of scope for adventurous outdoor enthusiasts. Although independent travel is now becoming more common, travel outside the capital is usually by tours.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan's mountainous terrain is ideally suited to the adventurous trekker, while the ancient Silk Road routes, incorporating some of the country's most stunning landscapes, offer a glimpse into a more prosperous era.The Tajiks come from an ancient stock – the inhabitants of the Pamir Mountains claim to be the only pure descendants of the Aryan tribes who invaded India over 4,000 years ago, and that the Saxon tribes of western Europe also originated there. Tajikistan’s inaccessibility has protected it from most invaders, although Alexander the Great founded a city on the site of modern-day Khojand, calling it Alexandria Eskate (Alexandria the Furthest).Tajikistan was established as a sovereign state in 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The ensuing power struggle led to civil war in late 1992, resulting in about 30,000 deaths. In 1994, Russian troops were brought in at the request of the beleaguered regime. Moscow also brokered negotiations between the government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). It is now some time since the opposing parties signed a 1997 peace agreement that brought the Tajik civil war to an end, and the political situation is currently stable.Tajikistan was never well-equipped with a comprehensive infrastructure for tourists, and some sites were destroyed in the civil war, but there is still much to see.

Turkmenistan

The territory of what is now Turkmenistan provided the bedrock for many of the most powerful empires of their age. The Parthians, the Seljuks and the Khans of Khoresm all based their empires at various points on the edge of the Kara-Kum Desert, while Alexander the Great conquered the region during his epic campaign of the fourth century BC. The influence of Islam dates from the seventh century AD, when the region was under Arab control. Modern-day Turkmen are descended from tribes that migrated to the area in the 10th century from the northeast.Almost all the attractions lie around the fringes of the desert and in ancient ruins such as Merv (now Mary). The capital, Ashgabat, is a modern city. It replaced the one founded in 1881, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1948. The Sunday market here is the best place to buy Turkmen carpets. Mary, due east of Ashgabat, is Turkmenistan's second city and lies near the remains of Merv, which was once the second city of Islam until Ghengis Khan's son Toloi reduced it to rubble in 1221.Turkmenistan's harsh desert conditions and terrain mean that tourism has been relatively undeveloped. Another reason is that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has remained largely closed to the outside world under the rule of President Niyazov, who died in December 2006. It is effectively a one-party state, governed by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which comprises mostly former communists. Although the country benefits from from its oil and gas deposits, its economy remains underdeveloped due to the low presence of foreign investors. It remains to be seen whether Niyazov's death will bring about the changes needed to encourage foreign investment and tourism.

Uzbekistan

The country boasts some of the finest architectural jewels among the Silk Road countries, featuring intricate Islamic tile work, turquoise domes, minarets and preserved relics from the time when Central Asia was a centre of empire and learning. Good examples of this architecture can be found in the ancient walled city of Khiva in Urgench, the winding narrow streets of the old town of Bukhara and Samarkand, known locally as the ‘Rome of the Orient'. The Ferghana Valley, surrounded by the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains, still produces silk and is well worth visiting for its friendly bazaars and landscape of cotton fields, mulberry trees and fruit orchards. Uzbekistan's mountain ranges attract hikers, cyclists and backcountry skiers, while experienced mountaineers come to climb some of the world's highest peaks.The territory of modern-day Uzbekistan and its close neighbours have seen many empires rise and fall. The Sogdians, the Macedonians, the Huns, the Mongolians, the Seljuks, the Timurids and the Khanates of Samarkand, Bukhara Khiva and Khorezm all held sway here at one time or another. Central Asia really came of age with the development of the Silk Road from China to the West. Samarkand and Bukhara lay astride this, the most valuable trading route of its day. The riches that it brought were used to build fabulous mosques and madrassars, most of which were destroyed by the Mongol hordes in the 13th century. Much of the damage was repaired and new cities were built by Timur the Lame in the 14th century.

Afghanistan

Once an essential part of the hippy trail, friendly, beautiful Afghanistan has sadly been destroyed by years of war and neglect. Home to plentiful countryside and the rugged Hindu Kush mountain range, travellers came for the clear mountain air and to see attractions like the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. However, the statues and many other monuments were destroyed under the catastrophic reign of the Taleban, a party of Islamic militants. After 9/11, Afghanistan was accused of harbouring Osama Bin Laden and faced a heavy bombardment from the US which destroyed much of the country's infrastructure. With thousands of peace-keeping troops still occupying Kabul and pockets of fighting continuing in the south, it seems it will be some time before Afghanistan is restored to its former glory. Travellers are strongly advised against all travel to Afghanistan, as the threat from terrorist or criminal violence is extremely high. There is also a widespread danger from mines and kidnap throughout the country.

Armenia

Armenia is a trove of history, littered with crumbling churches perched in spectacular settings. Landscapes transition rapidly from lush forests to shimmering lakes and stark deserts. But the best thing about Armenia is the Armenians themselves - ever welcoming and eager to show off their country to visitors.Christianity arrived in 301AD and Armenia proudly calls itself the world's oldest Christian nation. Its kings once held lands as far away as Syria and the Black Sea coast. Lying on the Silk Road and wedged between Persian, Turkish and Russian empires, the country has seen its share of passing merchants, holy men and armies. Since the break up of the Soviet Union Armenia has seen a revival of nationalism and traditional culture.The capital Yerevan is the nation's hub of cultural activity and progressive thought. The city sports impressive museums and a lively modern arts scene. Cafe culture has been perfected and it's de rigueur to spend inordinate amounts of time lingering over bottles of Armenian cognac. Armenian food is another treat - always served hot and fresh you can expect mounds of grilled meats and vegetables straight from the nearest garden

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is an Islamic former Soviet Republic on the Caspian Sea, an oil rich and strategically important nation that is the key geopolitical power in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan's location has always made it a gateway between east and west, and the country was an important stop on the Silk Route. Over the centuries, Azerbaijan has been incorporated into most major regional empires, including the Russian, Turkish and Persian and has been an independent republic since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.Taking in the stunning Caucasus Mountains to the north, the lush green valleys of the south and large swathes of arid semi-desert in between, Azerbaijan is a beautiful country with superb scenery, although it remains virtually unknown to the average traveller. Visitors usually base themselves in the capital Baku, from where it is easy to visit most of the country's biggest attraction

Georgia

Formerly the holiday haunt of the privileged elite of the Soviet Union, Georgia is blessed with stunning scenery, a balmy climate and a rich variety of flora and fauna. Enclosed high valleys, wide basins, health spas with famous mineral waters, caves and waterfalls combine in this land of varied landscapes and striking beauty.With its stone houses built around vine-draped courtyards, and winding streets, the capital, Tbilisi, has a lively, Mediterranean atmosphere. Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia in the far northwest of Georgia, was until civil unrest began a relaxed, sunny port/resort, renowned for its beaches fringed with palms and eucalyptus trees, lively open-air cafes and cosmopolitan population. Peace has been restored since the city was involved in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the early 1990s, but the city is less ethnically diverse than it once was.Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union after an overwhelming majority voted in favour of independence in a referendum held in April 1991.Apart from the dire state of the Georgian economy, the country's main problems have been the secessionist revolts in the outlying Georgian provinces of Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast (where Gamsakhurdia was located) and South Ossetia in the north.In 1994, after two years of sporadic fighting, South Ossetia was brought back into the fold, but the Abkhazia problem has proved quite intractable. The only existing mediation effort, on the part of the UN, is at a standstill and Abkhazia is now effectively isolated from the rest of Georgia. The government also faces problems in the Pankisi Gorge region, which is reputed to be a haven for Islamic militants.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is bordered by the Russian Federation, the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. For centuries, Kazakhstan's vast plains were home only to nomads and they are still virtually empty. Most settlements are concentrated in the southeast and the east of the Republic. South Kazakhstan is a focus of Central Asian history and there are many famous monuments in the region. It is a scenically diverse region where the snow-capped peaks, lakes and glaciers of the Tian Shan range give way to steppe and desert. The desert is home to the Singing Barkhan – a sand dune 3.2km (2 miles) long, which, as it crumbles, produces a peculiar singing sound. Almaty was until very recently the former capital of Kazakhstan and it enjoys a beautiful setting between mountains and plains. It is a city of modern architecture, cool fountains, parks and spectacular mountain views

Monday, January 12, 2009

Honduras


Honduras is a country of lowlands and fertile valleys and, indeed, La Ceiba (a major banana port) even looks to tourism as a future major industry. There are good hotels and beaches, and an international airport to boot. Trujillo itself was once a thriving port, with a fascinating pirate history and superb tropical beaches.Hurricane Mitch devastated much of the country in 1998 but an international effort quickly rebuilt much of the country's infrastructure. However, the economy is still very weak. Many people live in poverty and crime levels and drug trafficking have soared.

Nicaragua


Volcanoes to climb, waves to surf, tropical rainforest to trek and colourful, colonial cities to explore. Nicaragua has no shortage of attractions. Yet the country remains undiscovered by the tourist hordes, with misconceptions still lingering in the popular consciousness.Nicaragua has suffered its fair share of human and natural disasters in the past century: a brutal military dictatorship, civil war, earthquakes and the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. But after decades of turmoil, this former no-go area is at peace and is emerging as a potential regional travel hotspot.While the tourist infrastructure is by no means completely developed, for some travellers this adds to Nicaragua's ‘off the beaten track' appeal. Add to this the country's friendly, welcoming people, outstanding scenery and beautiful colonial architecture, and the attraction is evident.

Panama


Panama is a curious but exhilarating combination of cultural influence. It lies at the centre of the world, its isthmus constituting the last part of a natural land-bridge between the North and South American continents. Its strategic position and glorious terrain - from wildlife-rich jungle to sun-soaked beach - suggests that it will remain an important country for a long time yet.The country has been a pivotal trade route for 500 years, first under Spanish rule, then as part of independent Gran Colombia and modern Colombia, and in 20th century, as an independent nation. However, the Panama Canal Zone, completed in 1914, became an American Protectorate for many decades. It was only in 1977 that the Americans agreed to turn over the canal to full Panamanian control by 1999.In the 1980s, the country was run by Head of the Armed Forces, Manuel Noriega, who was very unpopular in Washington. In 1989, after an unsuccessful coup (thought to have US backing), US President George Bush authorised an invasion to remove the troublesome dictator.Today, Panama is more settled in its own skin and embarking upon ambitious new projects. The Panama Canal, which recorded its busiest year to date in 2007, is to expand substantially by around 2014

Belize


For the outdoor enthusiast, Belize presents unlimited opportunities. The country has a lot more in common with the Caribbean island states (its style of architecture, for example) than its Central American neighbours. Every destination in Belize has its share of archaeological and national parks, marine and nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. Mayan temples tower above rainforest canopies while an incredibly colourful array of marine wildlife finds protection in Belize's barrier reef.Belize is a country of various cultural, language and ethnic groups. Approximately 200,000 people in Belize consist of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, English, Mennonite, Lebanese, Chinese and East Indian heritage. Due to racial harmony, religious tolerance and a relatively non-violent political culture, all of these different elements have mixed and blended successfully, to give Belize a widespread reputation for its friendly peoples

Costa Rica


Costa Rica's national parks are its greatest glory. The Costa Rican authorities have set aside one-third of the country as protected areas, and dozens of private wilderness reserves have helped elevate Costa Rica to star status for ecotourism. The country has a stunning variety of landscapes, microclimates, and flora and fauna, and nature lovers will not be disappointed by the superb wildlife viewing. Visitors looking for an active holiday are spoilt for choice, with options from whitewater rafting to surfing. In urban areas, the country's Spanish heritage provides the main features of interest, although sites are relatively few.Columbus landed in what is now Costa Rica in 1501. Under the rule of General Tomas Guardia between 1870 and 1882, Costa Rica developed many of its principal modern characteristics, notably the minimal role of the Catholic Church in secular matters and an adherence to the principles of democracy. Throughout the 20th century, Costa Rica has enjoyed peace and a steady growth in prosperity, with the notable exception of a civil war in 1948, which followed a disputed presidential election. Significantly, Costa Rica is the only country in the region to have abolished the national army.

El Salvador


Most of El Salvador ('the saviour' in Spanish) is volcanic. The country has been racked by civil war and a succession of natural disasters which have left it physically devastated and psychologically traumatised.Despite this, visitors will appreciate the resilience and optimism such tragedy seems to have inspired in El Salvadorans. Poor communities such as Ilobasco and La Palma have become renowned for their handicrafts and folk art. Even though crime is still a problem for those visiting the country, the National Civilian Police (PNC), created in the wake of war, is working on improving safety.The country's major attractions include volcanoes, mountains (especially those in Cerro Verde National Park), beaches, tropical nature preserves and archaeological sites from the Maya civilisation

Guatemala


Antiquity is at the heart of Guatemala: the country incorporates many spectacular Mayan archaeological sites, and the pineforested hills of the highlands are home to Mayan communities that still wear traditional weavings. Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, speaking some 23 languages.Staggering Mayan monuments intensify a mystery that hangs in the air: the Mayan Civilisation dominated much of Central America from the fifth until the eighth centuries. The Spanish conquistador Cortés then overran Guatemala in the 17th century. The country enjoyed comparative stability after independence, but eventually slid into an exceptionally savage civil war between right-wing military governments and leftist guerrilla movements.Even Guatemala's cities have been subject to cataclysm. Three attempts to establish a capital, before Guatemala City was founded in 1775, were thwarted by battles with indigenous warriors and repeated earthquakes.

Saba

Saba sits majestically at the peak of a submerged extinct volcano. As such, the island abounds with stunning vistas of dramatic cliff faces and spectacular rocky shorelines. With only one road (‘The Road’) and a population of less than 1,500, Saba is the most unspoilt of the Netherlands Antilles, and the superb preservation of the island's unique ecosystem has earned it the nickname of 'The Unspoiled Queen'. In fact, until 50 years ago, Saba was a secluded oasis, having neither an airport nor a sheltered harbour.There are four villages, which until recently were only connected by thousands of steps cut into the rock. A road now links the airport with the island’s capital, The Bottom. The Bottom is situated 250m (820ft) above the ocean on a plateau surrounded by volcanic domes.

St Eustatius


St Eustatius, popularly known as ‘Statia’, was a thriving transshipment port during the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming known throughout the Caribbean as ‘The Golden Rock’. The subsequent decline of the island has only recently been halted by an influx of tourists. The foundations of the Dutch sea walls are now sunk beneath the clear waters of the bay. Scuba divers and snorkellers can see many of the submerged ruins. Other attractions on the island include walking up The Quill; surfing off the northeast coast; and fishing trips. The nightlife is centred on the main hotels and restaurants, including dancing and local live bands, which may play one of the two different indigenous blends of reggae and calypso – ‘Pim Pim’ and ‘Hippy’.

St Kitts And Nevis


The islands of St Kitts and Nevis were originally settled by Indians from South America. Although France and, to a lesser extent, Spain squabbled over possession throughout the 16th century, by 1623, the UK had prevailed and set about cultivating sugar on plantations worked by large numbers of slaves.It was not until September 1983 that the islands became an independent state within the Commonwealth. Since then, the dominant issues for the nation have been the relative positions of the two islands of St Kitts & Nevis. The possibility of a merger with other Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands has been debated, as has the growing problem of drug trafficking, in which St Kitts & Nevis, like most small Caribbean islands, has become involved. The people of Nevis are themselves deeply split, roughly between the population of the southern towns, which favour independence, and the rest of the island, which does not. Were Nevis to become independent, it would be the world's smallest sovereign state after the Vatican, which naturally gives rise to concerns about its economic viability.Commercialisation has not yet taken over and travellers will enjoy the easygoing, quiet way of life of the local people which remains almost unspoiled. The exotically beautiful island of St. Kitts seems to embody a kind of lush tropical paradise usually associated with the South Pacific. The atmosphere here is palpably luxuriant. It is an intoxicating blend of sunlight, sea, air and fantastically abundant vegetation. At the centre of St. Kitts stands the spectacular, cloud-fringed peak of Mount Liamuiga (pronounced Lee-a-mweega), a dormant volcano covered by a dense tropical forest.

St Lucia


St Lucia is a beautiful volcanic island with lush rainforests, undulating agricultural landscapes and unspoilt beaches. It is also one of the world’s breeziest places, as the trade winds blow in from the sea to the southern shore.Traditionally banana and sugar cane exports sustained St Lucia, however, the government is now focusing its efforts on the island's fast-growing tourism sector.St Lucia boasts more than enough to keep visitors enthralled, hosting a wealth of natural wonders from excellent beaches and mountain scenery, to the Qualibou Volcano with its boiling sulphur springs, as well as tropical flower-lined roadsides. The island's unique cultural heritage also proves a significant draw for visitors, with a considerable British and French influence still felt today. After fierce resistance from the indigenous Carib Indians, British and French colonists were kept away from the island for 50 years. Then, between the signing of a peace treaty with the French in 1660 and the British takeover of the island in 1814, ownership changed no fewer than 14 times. The British maintained control until 1979, when St Lucia was granted independence. This cultural diversity is still evident in St Lucia from the colonial-style plantations to the French influence felt in the patois spoken throughout the country