It’s hard to disagree with the fact that European history was dramatically influenced by the great geographical discoveries, which took place between the 15th and the 17th centuries, and spread across the world. It’s hard to track down all the new cities discovered by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in their search for trade routes. Nevertheless, we can easily name the place where the discovery of the Indies began. It’s located in a fabulous area of Lisbon, near the parish of Belem, in the impressive Manueline-style Jeronimos Monastery. In 1497, Vasco da Gama spent the night here before embarking for the East, praying in the monastery’s tiny chapel. When he returned, he thanked the monastery for his successful trip by generously donating money, earned by selling spices in the East, for additional monastery construction. Apparently the earnings were significant, because the Gothic building grew to gigantic proportions. You can judge for yourself by taking a look at the building façade, which is almost 300 meters long. In addition to the church, where Vasco da Gama is buried, the monastery houses the National Archaeological Museum and the Maritime Museum. The latter is definitely worth visiting as an unequaled source of learning about the era of discoveries.
Thingvellir National Park
Who would have thought that something could be built, by fault, on a place where tectonic plates are moving apart? More than a thousand years ago, Icelanders founded the Althingi, the oldest parliament in the world, on a site where the North American and the Eurasian Plates constantly move apart. In the year 930 AD, the warlike and freedom loving Icelanders, descendants of Viking settlers, proclaimed the site of Logberg (literal translation “Law cliff”) as their democratic legislative body. In the years that followed, the fragmented nation “came together” there for annual meetings, during which the first attempts to create laws took place. This was also the place where unfaithful wives were brutally punished and where people made small talk, if it can be called so. In the year 1000 AD, pagans and Christians met at the bottom of the cliff, agreeing on the first landmark decision for the country: conversion to Christianity. The second major event on this site occurred on June 17, 1944, when the Althingi declared Iceland’s independence from Denmark. Today, the gray rock is marked by a flagpole, a bright blue-red national flag fluttering at the edge overlooking Thingvallavatn, the country’s largest natural lake (84 square kilometers). In 1928, Logberg became part of Thingvellir National Park, the oldest in Iceland. While people from all over the world take pictures of the ancient Parliament, tectonic plates underneath slowly drift apart by 7 mm each year.
Republic of San Marino
Mount Titano stands out, both geographically and politically, against the backdrop of a flat valley in the Italian Romagna. The boulder, rising from the foothills of the Apennines, has become the home of the oldest European state, San Marino. The tiny 60.57 km2 enclave is surrounded by Italy. The microstate has miraculously managed to maintain its independence, which many countries have tried to infringe. Its history began with a mason named Marino. He came there in the year 301 AD, hiding from the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was followed by other fugitives, who found a secluded refuge on Mount Titano. Over time, this almost inaccessible cliff turned into a mini-country with its own rights and freedoms. It’s not hard to guess in whose honor the state was named San Marino (“San” – saint). The Government of the world’s oldest republic occupies the Town Hall on Freedom Square. This site was chosen for a reason: the Palazzo Pubblico is at the top of the cliff, overlooking the entire country. It’s a good place to govern from and to protect public values, including preservation of one of the oldest constitutions of the world, adopted in 1600 AD.
Unfortunately, few authentic landmarks have survived in the extreme eastern point of Estonia. A turbulent history and an oft-contested border can be blamed for this. As active trade developed and the city of Narva flourished, it belonged at different times to Sweden, Denmark, and Russia. Narva can be recognized by its fortress, founded in 1223 on the banks of the Narva River. The stone structure has, for many hundreds of years, faced the even larger Russian Ivangorod fortress, located across the river. Narva town is situated adjacent to the two fortresses, along the Estonian-Russian border. Since 2004, when Estonia joined the European Union and NATO, its most eastern city has been the easternmost point of the EU. Since then, Narva Castle has marked the boundary between two seemingly distinct economic realities, although in many ways Narva and Ivangorod are more alike than different. Both cities have mainly Russian-speaking populations, and both attract tourists by offering a unique opportunity to see the border of the Russian Federation and the European Union.
A small part of Italy can be found on the southern coast of the Crimea, not far from Yalta. Livadia Palace fits this place quite naturally: the sea and the sub-tropical climate suggest a Mediterranean country. Just as in every other Italian palazzo, real drama took place behind the walls of this snow-white building. It all started with an ambitious construction project for which the Romanov imperial family allowed only 17 months. During this time, the architect Nikolai Krasnov had to deal with several major unexpected problems. At the initial stage, due to the high level of groundwater, the entire area where the construction was planned had to be drained. When the time came for finish-out, cold temperatures, which are very atypical for Crimea, delayed the construction once again, as it took a very long time for the palace to dry out. By working on weekends and holidays, the architect was able to complete the project on September 14, 1911. Who would have thought that the Livadia summer residence would be the last palace to be built in the Russian Empire for the Romanov family? Even more amazing is the fact that the fate of the post-war world was decided in this building. From the 4th to the 11th of February 1945, the Yalta conference, hosted by Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill took place in the palace halls. The leaders of the three allied nations: the USSR, the USA, and Great Britain fiercely debated the new national boundaries in Eastern Europe and the post-war world order. When the dust settled, the U.S. president praised his temporary quarters and announced that he wanted to settle down in Livadia Palace at the end of his term. The symbolically festive snow-white building, built in the style of the Italian Renaissance, was the starting point for the revival of the world after a grim and brutal first half of the 20th century.