Though the final isn’t until Sunday, we do know one thing for sure about the team that will hoist the World Cup: The winning country will hail from Europe. With the last remaining South American teams, Uruguay and Brazil, ousted in the quarterfinals we’re left with an all-Europe final four. While each team has a unique story of making it this far and its own collection of stars who led the way, we’re making our picks based on what the semifinalist countries have to offer for travelers.
France vs. Belgium
It’s matchup of haute cuisine vs. comfort foods. Cassoulet and escargot vs. waffles and chocolate. Those French fries we’re all so fond of? The origin is highly in dispute. Ask a Belgian, and he’ll say that Belgium invented the delicious potato everyone knows and loves, and that the term “French fries” comes from a French gastronomic hegemony that subsumed neighboring cuisine under the French umbrella. One thing’s for certain, the Belgians do fries best. Dip in some garlic mayo and enjoy. Both countries know their way around chocolate very well, with pain au chocolat being one of France’s many contributions to breakfast delights and Brussels being home to an excellent chocolate museum. Actually, Belgium is basically one big chocolate museum.
When it comes to washing down all that food, France and Belgium are locked in the eternal struggle of fine wine pitted against craft beer. Is a Trappist dubbel or a witbier any match for a nice Bordeaux or Champagne? It’s all a matter of taste. Each nation’s drink of choice pairs well with its food.
When it comes to cities, France of course has Paris, the City of Light. A mecca of culture, architecture and history, Paris is one of the grand cities of the world. Lyon is a gastronomic capital. Provence and the Cote d’Azur are renowned the world over for their beauty. As for Belgium, Brussels has the Grand Place, perhaps the most alluring square in Europe. Bruges is locked in time, a fairy tale town that’s all canals and gabled roofs. Belgium is a blend of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, with a few German speakers sprinkled in.
Overall, Belgium punches well above its weight and deserves to be included in your next trip built around Paris or Amsterdam, but our pick is France.
England vs. Croatia
While France and Belgium are next-door neighbors, England and Croatia have vastly different landscapes. Both have been part of unique political-geographical unions, with England joined with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to form the United Kingdom and Croatia being part of Yugoslavia with what are now Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. But England and Croatia have vastly different histories. While England was the head of the mighty British Empire, Croatia became independent only in 1990s after centuries of outside rule.
England has London, one of the world’s best -- but most expensive -- cities. It’s a wealth of culture, literature and history, with the West End, Tower of London and countless other sites that attract millions of visitors each year. The countryside is strewn with castles, while world-famous universities dominate the towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Ancient civilizations have left the landmarks of Bath and Stonehenge, while Liverpool gave us the Beatles. The charm of the Cotswolds and the Lake District provide a tranquil respite that’s great to combine with bustling London, while the coastal areas offer a surprising number of good beaches.
Beaches, meanwhile, are a particular strong suit of Croatia, which has more than 1,000 islands to choose from. Hvar is famous for its lavender and red wine in addition to simply being a sun-soaked paradise. Korcula is covered in virgin pine forest. The Pakleni Islands offer secluded harbors where visitors can get away from it all.
On the mainland, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more beautiful than the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park, where waterfalls cascade into emerald water for miles around. Dubrovnik is a spectacular seaside city famed for its red-tiled roofs and medieval walls. It doubles as King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” As they did in Bath, the Romans left their mark in Split, where you can find the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s palace.
England is a great place to visit, of course, but while we’re sure plenty of Croatians visit there, the English flock in droves to the sunny isles of Croatia. If even the English pick Croatia, we will too.
Final: France over Croatia. It’s a tight contest, but with cuisine, culture and diversity of cities and countryside, France takes the crown.