Central Europe is a region in the heart of Europe. It includes the German-speaking countries, four former Warsaw Pact member states that have joined the European Union, and Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic, now also a member of the EU. Only Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein are not EU member states but share close economic and cultural ties with the region. Central Europe countries are all land-locked with the exception of Germany and Poland which have access to the Baltic Sea, and Slovenia which has access to the Adriatic Sea.
Central Europe has some of the oldest and best preserved cities on the continent. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
Berlin - The capital of reunited Germany since 1990, it was divided for 45 years during the Cold War. It has emerged as an important cultural center and an area of rapid development since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Budapest - The capital of Hungary has a wealth of grand architecture and culture, as well as one of the oldest metro systems in the world.
Geneva - The largest city in Francophone Switzerland. This urban banking center is home to many international agencies like the Red Cross and the United Nations.
Kraków - The cultural center and former capital of Poland. It is famed for its charming medieval architecture and one of the largest old-town market squares in Europe.
Ljubljana - The charming capital of Slovenia. Can be seen as a "smaller, alpine version of Prague".
Munich - The capital of the southern German federal-state of Bavaria. This gateway to the Alps is famous for Oktoberfest, the world's largest beer festival.
Prague - The world-famous capital of the Czech Republic is one of Europe's most attractive and well preserved cities and an expatriate melting pot.
Vienna - The elegant capital of Austria. This imperial capital has countless classicist sights.
Warsaw - The political and business center of Poland with a completely re-built old-town and castle square.
Alps - probably one of the most important winter destinations in the world. Home to summer resorts too.
Tatra Mountains - beautiful and unspoilt mountain range peaking at 2600 meters above sea level in located on the Polish-Slovak frontier.
Baltic Sea- Germany and Poland share the Baltic Sea coast of Central Europe with hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and resorts.
North Sea- Germany has many tourist islands in the North Sea.
Black Forest- smalller mountain range in southwest Germany known for its scenery and history.
Harz Mountains - low-lying mountain range in central Germany home to the legend of the witch.
Adriatic Sea - Slovenia has a relatively small, but beautiful coastline on the north-eastern tip of the Adriatic.
While ethnically different, the countries of Central Europe share a similar culture and history throughout the ages. Two of the most important political units in the region were the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Ethnic conflict was a major problem for hundreds of years in Central Europe and culminated in the horrors of the Second World War. With the peaceful reunification of Germany and the recent expansion of the EU to encompass the former Warsaw Pact states in the region, this problem finally seems to have been solved.
It is a common mistake by outsiders to label all the former Warsaw Pact states in the region as being in Eastern Europe. Almost uniformly, inhabitants of Central Europe will be flattered and pleased if you correctly describe their countries as "central European". Conversely, they may be upset if you lapse into Cold War stereotypes. East and West Germany were countries so better to call it eastern and western Germany. Reunification is all but a thing of the past and seen in a positive light by most there and in all of Central Europe so try to avoid labeling Germans by their recent past. Lastly, Remember Germans are Germans but Austrians, Liechtensteiners and most Swiss speak German, but are not German!
While they are not currently considered part of Central Europe, Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and Alto-Adige province (Italy), are sometimes also considered Central European either due to their current and or past ethnic makeup and previous political histories.
Central Europe, because of its rich heritage of nationalities, likewise is home to many languages. Some languages enjoy national status and thus are taught in schools and used widely in the media. Others however are only regional languages or minority languages and thus are sadly in danger of eventual extinction even though efforts are underway to try to preserve them.
German has the largest number of native speakers in the region and is the official language of Austria, Germany, and Liechtenstein, as well as the dominant language in much of northern, central and eastern Switzerland. There is a small German speaking minority in Poland and Hungary. It is also spoken outside Central Europe in eastern Belgium and France, and northern Italy. South the Main River, spoken German becomes very diverse and appears in many different colorful dialects.
Czech and Slovak are very closely related and are mutually intelligible.
Polish is the dominant language in all regions of Poland and in a tiny border region of the Czech Republic. Kashubian, a regional Slavonic language, is spoken in the region around Gdansk in northern Poland.
French or Italian are spoken by the majority of the population in the southern and western regions of Switzerland, while Swiss German is commonly taught as a second language.
In the Swiss Canton of Graubünden or Grison, Romansh is spoken as a regional language. It is closely related to Ladin which is spoken in northern Italy. Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages for other Europeans to learn, as it originates from a different language family and is related to Finnish and Estonian. A Hungarian speaking minority can also be found in southern Slovakia.
Slovenian is the official language of Slovenia, but it is also spoken by the Slovenian minorities in southern Austria, northeastern Italy and western Hungary. There is also a small Croatian minority in Austria's Burgenland. Sorbian, Frisian and Low German are Germany's three native minority languages. Sorbian is related to Polish and Czech and can be found spoken in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg. Frisian is related to English and Dutch and is spoken by tiny communities in Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen.
Lastly, Low German is spoken by rural communities or as a second language in most federal states of northern Germany and still has a significant role to play in the city states of Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin and in the states of Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. All three are endangered languages. Efforts are underway to preserve the languages and their culture.
Finding people who speak and understand English is not a problem in most regions of Central Europe, especially in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. In Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, English is widely spoken in the larger cities and by younger people; German and Russian are also spoken and understood by many older people in these countries. Russian, since the end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe is in steady decline. Today German remains important, more for financial and economic reasons instead of cultural or political reasons, as was the case in the past.
The largest gateway for airline travel is Frankfurt Main airport.
All of the countries located in Central Europe are now signatory to Schengen Agreement, which means that you can cross the borders unimpededly, much as you'd cross the U.S. state borders, save for random police checks. One remaining, and important exception, is the Swiss airports, which are not expected to implement schengen procedures before March 29th, 2009.
The English Garden and the huge Deutsches Museum in Munich
Beer -The golden beer drunk throughout the world was developed in this region, and arguably it is here that it is still at its best. The Czech Republic has a grand brewing heritage and Pilsen is the place were the technique was pioneered, creating the Pilsner style that is reproduced around the world. The low cost of beer in the Czech Republic makes it easy to get a taste of many of the beers, from the well known Pilsner Urquell, Budvar (Budweiser) and Staropramen, to local favorites such as Kozel, Bernard and Gambrinus. Many have a few different varieties and a Cerny Pivo (Black Beer) these can be as good if not better than the standard beer. Slovakia has many beers of high quality with Zlaty Bazant being highly regarded. Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia all have very good national examples sometimes on a par with those from the Czech lands.Germany, Austria and Switzerland have a similar brewing heritage, but can throw in several different types of beer. Weissbier (Wheat Beer) is a refreshing style popular in summer but drunk year round. There are a huge amount of varieties and local specialties are nearly always worth seeking out. Gernerally, the further north one travels in Germany, the more bitter or hoppy the beer becomes adding to the north-south cultural divide. Bavaria, "the Holy Grail of Brewing", located in southern Germany, has over 600 breweries alone and even more accompanying beers to sample!
Wine- The region produces a wide range of wines from superb world famous regions, down to inexpensive local plonk. Possibly the finest region in the area is Tokaj, world reknowned for it sweet desert wines as well as more standard whites. Germany has several wine regions the Rhine, and Mossel Valleys are well known for their fragrant white wines. Austria and Switzerland also produce some very high quality products. In the other countries like Hungary and Slovenia local wines can throw up some very good varieties and it is always worth investigating local produce.
Vodka- A Polish specialty, the quality of Polish Vodka is amongst, if not the, best in the world. The high quality product can be very different to the industrial stuff you may buy in your local shop and is well worth a try. Zubrowka is a variety of vodka flavored with a cinnamon like grass and is delicious when combined with apple juice. Some claim it to be so good it produces no hangover!