Europe stretches west-east from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in central Russia, and north-south from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Although one of the smaller continents of the world, it contains a large number of countries, many of which are well known, but several of which are not.
The countries of Europe can be identified in a number of ways, both as groups, and individually. An atlas map would assist greatly when trying to identify these countries, and it would need to be an up-to-date map as country names and shapes have changed several times, even since WW2.
In the north, four countries make up the area known as Scandinavia: Norway on the west coast, Sweden, its eastern neighbour, Finland, further east, and Denmark, further south. These four are separated by the Baltic Sea from the three small countries known as the Baltic states: Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
The Baltic states used to be part of the Soviet Union, but are now independent and members of the European Union. Their huge neighbour Russia lies across their eastern borders and stretches across to the Ural Mountains and beyond to border China and the Pacific Ocean.
At the southern end of the Baltic Sea is Poland, another ex-communist bloc state, as are its eastern neighbours Belorussia and Ukraine.
West of Poland is Germany, and then following west and south from Germany we come to the Netherlands (or Holland), Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. Luxembourg forms a little triangle between France, Belgium and Germany.
The United Kingdom and Ireland lie even further west across the North Sea and English Channel.
South of Poland are the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which used to form Czechoslovakia, and south again are Austria and Hungary. West of Austria is Switzerland, and sandwiched between the two is tiny Liechtenstein. There are four other tiny European states: Gibraltar at the southern foot of Spain, Andorra in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France, Monaco on the south coast of France and San Marino in north east Italy.
Italy itself lies east of France and south of Switzerland and Austria. Further east, and south of Austria and Hungary lie the countries of the old Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia. South again lies Greece on the Mediterranean, and between Macedonia and the Adriatic Sea lies Albania.
East of the former Yugoslavia and south of Ukraine we find Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova.
The country of Turkey has a small section within Europe, but its bulk lies south of the Black Sea in Asia Minor.
Three islands complete the picture. Malta lies between Italy and north Africa; Cyprus, still divided into Greek and Turkish parts, lies in the eastern Mediterranean south of the Turkish mainland, and Iceland lies in the north Atlantic between mainland Europe and Greenland.
Countries can be grouped politically, by religion, race or language and in other ways but, except for the former, these groupings can be rather complicated and difficult to describe or differentiate.
Between 1945 and about 1990 Europe was divided mainly into a communist eastern bloc, and a capitalist west. More recently the development of the European Union has brought countries of both east and west within the same economic grouping, many sharing the same currency, the euro. The United Kingdom is the only major country in the EU which does not now use the euro, having chosen to retain its pound sterling.
In religious terms most southern European countries are essentially Roman Catholic, and most northern countries are Protestant in one form or another. The Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches dominate countries of the east and south-east of the continent, while a few, notably Albania and Turkey, are Moslem.
Languages vary tremendously, but most of the south are essentially Romance in origin, having developed from Latin, and many in the west and centre are Teutonic. However, some languages are difficult to define or describe. Those of the Scandinavian countries are similar to each other but quite different from the others, and some regions have languages which fit into no pattern at all, for example that of the Basques of western Pyrenean France and Spain.
Each country of Europe has its own fascinating history, and the movement of borders and peoples over time are evidence of the apparently ever-changing patterns on Europe’s map.