Europe is one of the most favorite places to travel for many people in the world. London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Vienna- all these places are dreams for millions of tourists. Of course, undoubtedly you know that there are many other popular, less popular and almost unknown places in Europe. But are you sure you know how big is Europe and how many more interesting places exist somewhere on its surface? You will be surprised, unless you are good in geography, or live in some of those places. So, let’s make a journey to the off the beaten path boundaries of Europe, the so-called “Old Continent”.
Let’s define Europe
If you think you know Europe well geographically, think again- this is the “continent” (yes, continent in quotes!) with the most unclear shape, and the most difficult borders to identify. Do you know that in the physical geography, Europe is not a continent, but only a “semi-continent”? Yes, it is called “continent” mainly for cultural, historical and political reasons. It is the same situation with Asia. But from natural point of view, both Europe and Asia are part of a larger piece of land, called Eurasia, and this is actually the real and complete continent.
Anyway, let’s talk only about this part of Eurasia, called Europe. Let’s dive into geography, and define its borders. Europe can be your favorite part of the world to travel, but do you know where it begins, and where it ends? There are several points of view, and depending on them, Europe has different shapes.
If we divide the Earth’s land into continents and islands, then Mainland Europe would be without countries like UK, Ireland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Malta and Cyprus, as well as without many popular islands like Mallorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Sicily and many others. At the same time, its eastern border with Asia still remains unclear in some sections. It is officially defined to pass on the summit of Ural Mountains, then on Ural River and the Caspian Sea. But there are different opinions whether it includes Caucasus Mountains or not, hence the three countries located there- Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are considered European by some, and Asian by others.
Let’s add the islands
From geographical and geological point of view, the continents don’t finish at their coastlines, but they still proceed underwater. In other words, some parts of the continents are just lower than the sea level and they are submerged. These underwater parts are called “continental shelf”. And there are many pieces of land, that rise from this shelf above the sea level. They are the continental islands. Thus, they belong to the continent, so, let’s add them to Europe.
Now, in this way, Britain, Ireland, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and many other islands are natural parts of Europe. But the shelf also finishes somewhere underwater, and the bottom of the ocean suddenly drops deep below the surface. There are still other islands located further, but they are completely separated from the continent and its shelf. Among them, we can see Iceland, and the Azores. They are located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which doesn’t belong to any continent. Other islands like Madeira and Canary are not on this ridge, but still separated from the shelf of Europe- in fact, they are closer to Africa. Then, the only thing that makes all these separated islands „European” is the politics.
The connection with Asia
It is not clearly defined even until today. But in general, it passes on the watershed of Ural Mountains, then on Ural River and the Caspian Sea. From there it passes on the watershed of Caucasus to Black Sea. But again- although this line follows natural things like watersheds and rivers, it is more cultural, than natural. As a result, there are several „trans-continental” countries, divided into European and Asian parts: Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and even the Central Asian country Kazakhstan- yes, this country also has its small European part.
Europe’s most off the beaten path places
So, let’s accept the „largest version” of Europe- including not only the mainland and the islands belonging to its shelf, but also some other islands which are completely separate from the continent, but culturally and politically belong to Europe. Then, let’s look at the map. What places are we looking for? The popular destinations are everywhere in Europe and can be found in most of the countries. Even the not so popular places in the middle of the continent- „hidden gem” villages, lakes, valleys, caves, are still too „European”. But we are looking for something more different, something that is in Europe, but doesn’t look „European”, and at the same time- less popular, almost unknown and even difficult to reach.
Iceland? Yes, its nature is not just “non-European”, but almost otherworldly. But its breathtaking beauty has become too popular in recent years, so it is no longer “off the beaten” place.
Faeroes? The same, although not as popular as Iceland. Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands? They have a different beauty, and are not so “European” too. But their popularity is growing every year.
Of course, not every corner of the above islands is touristy and popular. But here we are looking for whole lands, large territories, where you can go and can’t believe that you are in Europe. So, let’s make an adventurous journey to these lands.
Have you heard about this land? It is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, located north of the Caucasus Mountains. It is far from the tourists and quite unknown by them. But here is what makes it “non-European”: if you go there, you will see that everything looks Mongol. People, culture, buildings- everything looks like you are in the heart of Asia.
The Kalmyks are a people from the Oirat-Mongol family, and they arrived here in the 17th century. They are Buddhists, and this is the main religion in this European land today. The whole land is plain, with a large semi-desert areas, reaching the coast of the Caspian Sea. And yes, this is another „non-European” feature in Kalmykia- there are sandy deserts.
Kalmykia’s capital is Elista, and do you know what is this city best known for? Chess! Yes, it is the favorite game of the Kalmyks, and it is their national sport. There are monuments, dedicated to this game, and even a Chess City- a place in Elista where the chess events are held.
How to reach Kalmykia
Kalmykia is relatively easy to reach. It is not directly connected to abroad, but there are flights, trains and buses from Moscow, St. Peterburg, Rostov-na-Donu, Volgograd and Astrakhan. Once you arrive in Elista, you can explore the city, then by local buses or rental car you can reach its beautiful national parks, some monasteries and resorts. And most of the time you can enjoy its almost always sunny weather and fresh air.
You know Iceland- the island country, located between Europe and Greenland (in fact, closer to Greenland, but still considered a European country). But if you look the map of Europe, have you noticed another island, located again in the middle of the ocean, north of Iceland, and much smaller than this country? This Jan Mayen- a desolate piece of land with harsh climate, yet considered a part of Europe.
Jan Mayen is an island belonging to Norway. It was probably discovered more than a thousand years ago, but due to its isolation and harsh conditions, it was left unexplored until the 17th century. Even later, there was no human activity for at least 200 years. Only recently the island got the interest of the scientist and the army.
Today, its population is only 21 people (sometimes a little more)- military and meteorological staff. They live in two settlements, surrounded by wild arctic environment- a volcano, polar tundra, glaciers and polar bears.
How to reach Jan Mayen
It’s relatively difficult. First, you must obtain a permit from the station commander in advance. Then you can only use the non-tourist helicopters from Bodo, Norway, the cargo ships (landing on the island by rubber zodiacs only), or by Eco Expeditions company, which organizes expeditions from Iceland.
Ok, let’s look at another piece of Europe, which is not only politically a part of Norway, but geographically is an archipelago, belonging to the European continental shelf. Although it is north of Jan Mayen, which supposes an even harsher and colder climate, it is a little bit more popular than it. This is Svalbard (called also Spitsbergen).
As you can see on the map, Svalbard is located very close to the North Pole, and you can guess that it is a very cold place. And yes, the islands are covered by glaciers and arctic tundra only. But unlike other pieces of land, located in the same latitude, Svalbard is a bit warmer, due to some warm currents coming from the Atlantic.
Its population is a little more than 2000 people. Most of them are Norwegians, living in several towns scattered along the main island Spitsbergen. The largest town is called Longyearbyen, and is the capital of the archipelago, with its own shops, cinema, museums, sport centers and all other things that makes is a “town”. However, the other islands of the archipelago are uninhabited, and turned into national parks.
How to reach Svalbard
You can reach Longyearbyen by flights from Norway or Murmansk in Russia. There are also expensive cruises from several countries in the “normal” Europe. But have in mind that although Svalbard is a part of Norway, it is not a part of Schengen, so you may need visa. Anyway, check first!
Once you reach Svalbard, you can travel around the main island only by snowmobile, boat, helicopter or your own two legs, as there are no roads. As for the other islands- you need special permits to visit them, again only by boat or helicopter. But the breathtaking natural arctic landscapes are worth tasting!
If you have watched the map of Europe, you most probably have noticed something like a small “horse head without ears” looking eastward, on the northern coasts of the continent. This is Kola Peninsula, a strange and cold appendage behind the Scandinavia. It is a part of Russia, and its main city is Murmansk- one of the northernmost cities on the Earth.
Kola Peninsula consists of low mountains, hills and plains, and is covered by taiga and tundra. Again, although most of it lies behind the Arctic Circle, there are no extreme cold temperatures. Its population is sparse, and consists of Russians and the aboriginal Saami people. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union era remained heavy pollution around the area, which recovers slowly, but still need centuries to back to its pre-Soviet cleanliness.
This is the place of the deepest hole, made by humans on our planet. It is called Kola Super Deep Borehole, and is located near Zapolarny. The humans tried to dig a hole toward the center of the Earth, but reached only a little more than 12 km (7 miles), which is less than 0,1% of the distance to the Earth’s center. Then, in 1992, due to the increasing heat, they abandoned the hole. Now it remains empty and silent, veiled by a lot of legends.
How to reach Kola Peninsula
It is not difficult to travel to Kola Peninsula. You can do it by car, by train or by plane, mainly from St. Peterburg. Another way to reach it is from Finland and Norway. You don’t need anything more than a normal Russian visa. And if you travel to Zapolarny, you can visit the Kola Super Deep Borehole, it is still there. Just you have to do it on your own- there are no tours or any kind of public transport to the hole. And don’t expect anything spectacular- the hole is only 9 inches (23 cm) in diameter and is sealed by a lid with its written depth- 12,262 m.
Again, look at the far northeast of Europe. There is Russia, but focus behind Moscow. You will see the Arctic Ocean on the north, and the Ural Mountains on the east. And there is a large area, separated from the ocean, but reaching the mountains, which is mainly green, if you look at it through Google Earth. This is Komi- the largest administrative unit in the whole Europe.
Yes, Komi is really large, only slightly smaller than Spain- just like a large, but unknown European country, a part of Russia. But what kind of Europe? A little like Finland, however, far from any tourist stream. Endless taiga forests, curving rivers, wild tundra- this is the main landscape of Komi.
Its capital is Syktyvkar, a relatively large city. All other settlements are small towns and villages, scattered in the taiga. The main part of Komi’s inhabitants are the Komi people, from the same group with the Hungarians and the Finns. So, what can you see in Komi? First- you can enjoy wild forest adventures. But maybe the most mysterious spot in this isolated republic is Manpupuner (Seven Strong Men) Rock Formations. It is seven rock pillars, raising on the foot of Ural Mountains- high as 8-storey buildings, standing cold, still and silent in the desolate tundra.
How to reach Komi
Syktyvkar, the capital of Komi is relatively easy to reach from Moscow and other nearby large Russian cities- by plane or by train. You can reach it by car, but it would be a long adventure. Then, from Syktyvkar you can travel mainly by train to Vorkuta in Komi’s far northeast, or by local domestic flights to the larger towns. There are also some roads, but they are not too many. Everything else can be reached by wild adventures in some of the wildest forests in Europe.
Kazakhstan is well-known as the largest Central Asian country. But look at its western part. You will see a river, flowing from the Ural Mountains, crossing the two westernmost provinces of the country and reaching the Caspian Sea. This is the Ural River, which is considered a part of the border between Europe and Asia. And the Kazakhstan area west of this river belongs to Europe. Let’s focus on this extreme piece of the „Old Continent”.
The European part of Kazakhstan is divided into the western parts of the country’s westernmost two provinces (regions)- Atyrau and West Kazakhstan. You definitely know Istanbul, right? Yes, it is the big megacity in Turkey, located on the both sides of the Bosphorus, divided into European and Asian parts. But there is another city, divided into European and Asian parts, on the both sides of Ural River. It is Atyrau- a modern city with some interesting history. Its biggest landmark is Imangali Mosque, located in Europe. Another interesting spot is the History Museum, but it is in Asia, so you have to cross into Asia through one of the Ural River’s bridges.
Another large city in the European Kazakhstan is Oral (Uralsk). It is almost entirely in Europe, and is a nice and relaxing city to explore. There are many museums, memorials, churches, mosques and other buildings, featuring Russian architectural style.
The rest of the European Kazakhstan consists of a flat plain, covered by dry steppes and semi-deserts. There are some small towns and villages in this part of Europe, but they are scattered and isolated. Nothing much to see there, but it may be good for adventures.
How to reach European Kazakhstan
It is not difficult to reach Atyrau or Oral (Uralsk)- there are good transport connections by plane, train or by bus- from the rest of Kazakhstan or from Russia. You only need a Kazakhstan visa. But to penetrate in the interior of this area is more difficult. There are not too many roads, and the public transport is rare. So, the only way to explore large parts of this area is only by 4×4 vehicle, bike or just trekking on foot.
Now, let’s back to the north. We saw Komi, the largest administrative region in Europe. But there is more land between Komi and the Arctic Ocean. This is Nenetsia- a wildland with harsh conditions, covered mainly by tundra.
Nenetsia is an autonomous district (okrug), a part of the larger Arkhangelskaya Oblast. It is the homeland of the Nenets, the indigenous people living along the coast of the Arctic Ocean on the both sides of the Ural Mountains. They belong to the Samoyedic branch of the Ugro-Finns (Uralic) group. You can still see their traditional way of life in their tents, carrying reindeer herds.
Nenetsia is a very sparsely populated land. Its size is similar to that of California, but its population is no more than 43 000 people. The capital is Naryan-Mar, with only around 21 000 people (around the half of the total population of Nenetsia). Naryan-Mar is a nice town, but there is nothing too special to see there. Still, the main attraction in this land is to visit the Nenets people in their tents and try their sleighs, pulled by reindeers.
How to reach Nenetsia
Nenetsia is too far in the north, and there are limited ways of transportation to reach it. There are flights from Moscow, St. Peterburg and Arkhangelsk. Also, there is a road from Ukhta in Komi, but it can be used only in the summer. During the winter, the only ways of transportation around Nenetsia are helicopters, snowmobiles and reindeers.
Let’s get even further. Look at the map again. Can you see a significant, narrow and long curved island, located north of Nenetsia, like a giant worm through the Arctic Ocean? This is Novaya Zemlya (New Land)- a desolate and lonely piece of land, with feeling like „the end of the world”, yet still a part of Europe.
Actually, Novaya Zemlya consists of two islands- Northern and Southern, but they are so close to each other, and the strait between them (called Matochkin Strait) is so narrow that you have to zoom deeply to notice it.
Novaya Zemlya is an arctic desert. Part of it is covered by tundra, and another part- by glaciers. Polar bears wander around the silent and cold land. However, there is still some population on the islands- around 2400 people, most of which live in the main settlement Belushya Guba.
The islands are known as a site of the most powerful nuclear bomb testing during the Soviet Era- the detonation of the so-called „Tsar Bomba”. There have been many other nuclear tests and more military activity, which undoubtedly caused some pollution on the islands. But now they are almost silent, remote, desolated and still. And this is the main thing that you can enjoy there, in this strange, almost ghostly part of Europe.
How to reach Novaya Zemlya
Its very difficult. First, Novaya Zemlya is a part of the Arctic National Park. At the same time, it is still military sensitive. So, you need a permit to be allowed on the islands. And the only way to reach it is by plane from Arkhangelsk, twice a week.
Once you arrive in Rogachevo, the main airport, you have very limited options to travel around. The only road on the islands is the one connecting Rogachevo with Belusya Guba (around 5 miles long). Everything else can be reached only on foot, maybe by snowmobile, or by boat only in summer.
Novaya Zemlya is a very extreme place. But it is still not „the end of Europe”, there is an even further, more extreme piece of land, which is closer to the North Pole than anything else in the „Old Continent”. Yet it is still the same Europe, where Paris, London and Rome are located. This is Zemlya Frants-Joseph- a desolate and remote uninhabited archipelago, surrounded by ice and veiled by cold and silence. Finally, this is the „extreme end” of Europe- there is no more of the continent further.
Zemlya Frants-Josef (or Zemlya Frantsa-Josifa, Frants-Josef Land) is a polar archipelago, consisting of 192 islands. Maybe if it was in the tropics, it would be a popular tourist destination with beaches, resorts and many other attractions. But now, it is one of the northernmost pieces of land on the Earth, and there is nothing else but only some arctic tundra, rocks, glaciers, as well as polar bears and other arctic animals wandering around.
The archipelago is uninhabited. The only human presence there is two military-scientific bases- Nagurskoe and Graham Bell airfields. They are the Russian northernmost bases. And the rest is a pure, cold and remote wilderness- something that would attract the most adventurous explorers.
How to reach Zemlya Frants-Josef
It is not only „the end of Europe and the world”, but also the most difficult to reach place in the „Old Continent”. Again, you need a permission to visit it, since it is a part of the Arctic National Park, and a military area. But this permission is more difficult to obtain, compared to the access to Novaya Zemlya.
Then, the only way to reach the islands is by passing icebreakers (yes, there are flights to the airfields on the archipelago, but they can’t be used by tourists), if the government allows. An interesting fact is that one of the few tourists ever visited Zemlya Frants-Josef is the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Ural Mountains- a walk on the border between Europe and Asia
The border between Europe and Asia runs on the main summit of Ural, the watershed between Pechora and Volga from the west, and Ob River from the east. But again- this is only fictitious. It is a normal summit, no different than any other summits of relatively lower mountains on the Earth. And there is nothing different between its western (European) and eastern (Asian) slopes.
Don’t forget, there is only one natural continent- Eurasia, so the division between „Europe” and „Asia” is only cultural and partly political. But, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be excited to make a picnic on the summit of Ural, put your backpack in Asia, your snacks with water in Europe, then take a nap putting your legs in Europe and your head in Asia.
No matter how do you look toward Europe and what is Europe for you, it obviously has much more to reveal than most of the popular tourist destinations present. Yes, naturally, it is not a separate continent, but even if we think about it from natural point of view, we can always think of it just as „the western part of Eurasia”. Anyway, for us it always remains as we know it- Europe, „the Old Continent”.
Check out some books about geography, travel and adventures to the ends of Europe!
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