The earliest concrete signs of written European culture can be found in Hellenic Greece. Homer (8th century BC), Hesiod (753 BC) and Kallinos (728 BC) are three of the oldest poets in Europe. The Romans believed that their city was founded in 753 BC Modern archaeologists and historians believe that the area of modern day Rome has been inhabited since at least 1000 to 800 BC
From 300 AD Christianity in Europe started to spread. Around 500 AD the Roman Empire collapsed, with France at that time coming under the rule of the Merovingians, Spain coming under occupation from North African Berber Muslims and other countries essentially invaded by various barbarian groups. In 714, the Carolingian Empire was founded and lasted until 911 occupying large parts of Western Europe. The period after this date is often called the High Middle Ages and lasted until around 1300 which saw a shift to urbanisation across Europe, initiating in Western Europe, and gave rise to universities. This was followed by the Late Middle Ages which ended around 1500, giving birth to a period of European history normally referred to as the Renaissance or the rebirth. The people of this period actively rediscovered classical Graeco-Roman culture and it was followed by a reformation of Christianity, with the rise of new sects in Europe, most notably Protestantism.
Between 1492-1972 many European nations (like Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Russia, France and the Netherlands) ruled or had ruled over most of the known world, with the exception of East Asia (Mainland China, Japan and Tibet) and parts of Antarctica. This was called colonialism and was stopped after World War II in favour of a more humane, liberal and cost-effective method called globalism.
Europe, prior to the conclusion of World War II, was a region ravaged by large-scale "total war". National leaders realized after World War II that closer socio-economic and political integration was needed to ensure that such tragedies never happened again. Starting with humble beginnings, Europe's first inception was the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. The founding group of nations were Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Impressed with the results of the union, the six countries pressed on and in 1956 signed the Treaty of Rome, with the ultimate goal of creating a common market — the European Economic Community (EEC). In 1967, the union was formalised further with a the creation of a single European Commission, as well as a Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
From 1945 to 1990 Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain which divided Eastern Europe with the exceptions of Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus from Western Europe. The Soviet Union controlled most of Eastern Europe along with Eastern Germany for 45 years; in 1989 protests occurred across Eastern Europe and the communist regimes were brought down by largely non-violent revolutions except Romania, which violently overthrew its dictator. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.
Post-1967 the EEC continued to grow rapidly; Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986 and Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995. To date, Norway and Switzerland have resisted membership for historical and economic reasons. The European Union pressed on with economic integration and launched the euro (€) across several nations on 1 January 2002. Currently, 18 nations use the euro as their official currency. In addition, San Marino, the Vatican and Monaco, which are not EU members, have been granted official permission to use the euro. Andorra, Montenegro and Kosovo use the euro without a formal agreement.
In 2004, a further 10 countries joined the EU. These were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. In 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, in 2013 Croatia joined the EU and, as of 2014, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are all official applicants.
Europe makes up the western one fifth of the Eurasian landmass. It's bounded by bodies of water on three sides: the Arctic Ocean to the north (the Nordkapp being its most northerly point), the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The Mediterranean Sea is a popular beach destination because of its climate. Europe's eastern borders are ill-defined and have been moving eastwards throughout history. Currently, the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian and Black Seas and the Bosporus Strait are considered its eastern frontier, making Istanbul the only metropolis in the world on two continents. Cyprus is also considered a part of Europe.
Europe is a geographically diverse continent. Europe's highest point is Russia's Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains, which rises to 5,642m (18,510 ft) above sea level. Western Europe's highest point is the Mont Blanc in the Alps with 4,810m (15,771 ft) above sea level. Other important mountain ranges include the Pyrenees between France and Spain and the Carpathians that run through Central Europe to the Balkans. Most regions along the North and Baltic Seas are flat, especially the Low Countries, Northern Germany and Denmark. The coasts of the North and Baltic Seas feature labyrinthine archipelagos and hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and resorts, albeit in colder climates.
Europe's longest river is the Volga, which meanders 3,530 km (2,193 mi) through Russia, and flows into the Caspian Sea. The Danube and the Rhine formed much of the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and have been important waterways since pre-historic times. The Danube starts in the Black Forest in Germany and passes through the capital cities Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade before emptying in the Black Sea. The Rhine starts in the Swiss Alps and caused the Rhine Falls, the largest plain waterfall in Europe. From there, it makes up the French-German border border flowing through Western Germany and the Netherlands. Many castles and fortifications have been built along the Rhine, including those of the Rhine Valley.
Europe's climate is temperate. It is milder than other areas of the same latitude (e.g. northeastern US) due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. However, there are profound differences in the climates of different regions. Europe's climate ranges from subtropical near the Mediterranean Sea in the south, to subarctic near the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean in the northern latitudes. Extreme cold temperatures are only found in northern Scandinavia and parts of Russia in the winter.
Average annual precipitation diverges widely in Europe. Most rainfall takes place in the Alps, and in a band along the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia to the west coast of Greece. Other regions with plenty of rainfall include the northwest of Spain, the British Isles and western Norway. Bergen has the most amount of rainfall in Europe with 235 rainy days a year. Most rain takes place in the summer, due to westerly winds from the Atlantic that hit the British Isles, the Benelux, western Germany, northern France and southwestern Scandinavia.
The best time to visit Europe is in the summer. In August, the British Isles, Benelux, Germany and northern France have average highs of around 23-24°C, but these temperatures cannot be taken for granted. That's why in the summer many flights go from northern to southern Europe as northerners flee the rain and possible lower than average temperatures. The Mediterranean has the highest amount of sun-hours in Europe, and the highest temperatures. Average temperatures in August are 28°C in Barcelona, 30°C in Rome, 33°C in Athens and 39°C in Alanya along the Turkish Riviera. A general rule is that the further south and east one goes, the warmer it becomes.
Winters are relatively cold in Europe, even in the Mediterranean countries. The only areas with daily highs around 15°C in January are Andalucia in Spain, some Greek Islands, and the Turkish Riviera. Western Europe has an average of around 4-8°C in January, but temperatures drop below freezing throughout the winter. Regions east of Berlin have cold temperatures with average highs below freezing. Moscow and Saint Petersburg in Russia have average highs of -5°C and lows of -10°C in January. North Scandinavia also has cold winters, with averages below -10°C. Some activities are best done in the winter, such as winter sports in the Alps, where the high peaks have perpetual snow.
The Network of European Meteorological Services has a useful website providing up-to-date information for extreme weather, covering most of the EU countries.
Europe is a continent of wildly different countries. A subset of these countries are in the slow and painful process of coming together as the European Union (EU).
Not all EU countries have adopted the euro (€), the European Union single currency (see Buy), while a few countries outside the EU have adopted it. Likewise, most — but not all — EU members and a few non-EU countries have joined the Schengen agreement, which abolished border controls between them (see Get in). Here is a ready reference table, up to date as of 2014: