The Smallest 5 for the Big 5-O
One of us turns 50 this year. In recognition of the milestone, we’re hitting all 5 of Europe’s “microstates” in a single road trip.
What prompted a birthday trip through Europe’s microstates? An inexplicable fixation with them since our first trip to Europe in 2002, which included a leg by train from Barcelona, Spain, to Avignon, France. When we planned the trip and looked at the train route, we noticed something to the west on the map – a country we didn’t know existed was positioned between France and Spain.
A entire freakin’ country – Andorra – lurking between France and Spain.
One of us (the one with the birthday, to be clear) has been fascinated ever since, and even tried to add a side trip to Andorra to our bike trip in Catalonia in 2009. (This was overruled in favor of Cadaques, which, we think you’ll agree, was a pretty good idea when you check out that post.)
Nonetheless, the impetus to visit the microstates persisted, and the 50th birthday milestone provided a great opportunity to finally see them.
There are some tiny regions in Europe and elsewhere, but not all can be considered microstates. For example, Gibraltar, at the southwest tip of Spain, is tiny, but it’s not independent – it’s a British Overseas Territory. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is independent, but not tiny (it covers 1000 square miles). By contrast, the microstates are truly micro – most cover less than 25 square miles and none of them exceed an area of 200 square miles.
So, other than being incredibly small, what defines a microstate?
- Diplomatic recognition
- Control of territory
- Permanent population
Based on these characteristics, the following sovereign countries within continental Europe qualify and will be part of the trip:
- The Principality of Andorra (finally!)
- The Principality of Liechtenstein
- The Principality of Monaco
- The Most Serene Republic of San Marino
- The State of Vatican City
Because none of the microstates, other than Vatican City, have rail stations (particularly Andorra and Liechtenstein – Nice and Rimini are somewhat close to Monaco and San Marino), we had to forego train travel, which otherwise is the best way to get around Europe. Instead, we’re renting a car and making this a road trip.
In our planning, we had a choice:
- Drive directly from one microstate to another, resulting in a couple of long days of driving, but providing a couple of rest days with no driving, or
- Add interim destinations between some of the microstates, so that we’re never driving more than 3 or 4 hours, but we would be driving every day
We chose Option 2:
The map above depicts the following itinerary:
- Take a redeye to Rome
- Day 1: Vatican City
- Day 2: Drive to San Marino
- Day 3: Drive to Bergamo, Italy
- Day 4: Drive to Liechtenstein
- Day 5: Drive to Lake Lugano, Switzerland
- Day 6: Drive to Monaco
- Day 7: Drive to Carcassonne, France (another place we’ve wanted to visit – last stronghold of the Cathars!)
- Day 8: Drive to Andorra
- Day 9: Drive to Barcelona
- Day 10: Fly back
We’ll spend every afternoon and night in the destination town / country to check things out before heading off the next morning to the next target.
Today, we’re part of the way through the tip, in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. We’ll post highlights of the trip when we get back!
European Microstate Road Trip: Overview
Our epic 9-country road trip designed to hit all 5 European microstates came to an end on Sunday. Despite some initial trepidation, it turned out to be fantastic!
This was one of our best trips, in fact, despite encountering this choice little nugget on 2 of the tiny 5 from a Cadogan guide book that we used several years ago on a previous trip:
“It’s a sleazy little paradise, [Microstate X]. . . Today, the [inhabitants] have found a way to exploit every single possibility open to a grasping, sweaty-palmed pipsqueak principality. They’ve turned their lovely corner of the [region] into a single, garish supermarket. It’s a worthy competitor for Europe’s other Ruritanian craphole, [Microstate Y], which, if you’ve never been, is the first country in the world to be entirely paved over with factory outlet car parks.”
Yow! We’ll reveal which of the pipsqueak nations the Cadogan guide was referencing in subsequent posts, but we were infatuated with the tiny countries and undeterred! We persisted and planned and executed a pretty ambitious itinerary to hit all 5 microstates in a single trip.
Information on continental Europe’s 5 tiniest nations – and the characteristics that define a microstate – was previously posted here. A repost of the map with the location of each is below:
The trip was great adventure, overall – both based on the tiny countries and some of the outstanding start, stop, or stopover locations in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain that we included in the trip to keep driving distances practical. Our experiences in the five microstates spanned the spectrum:
- Two exceeded our fairly modest expectations (biased in part by the pithy and brutal opinion proffered by the Cadogan guide) and we really enjoyed our visit to both
- One was precisely as expected
- Two were definitely not as awesome as we thought they would be – one was simply not as magnificent as we had envisioned, while the other turned out to be every bit just an outrageously expensive Disney world
These reactions will be assigned to the appropriate country in future posts, but some highlights of the tiny five are below, presented in the order in which we encountered the little buggers.
No. 1 of 5: The State of Vatican City:
No. 2 of 5 – The Most Serene Republic of San Marino:
No. 3 of 5 and location for the Big 5-0 milestone – the Principality of Liechtenstein:
4 of 5 – Principality of Monaco:
And finally, No. 5 of 5 and the microstate that started it all – the Principality of Andorra:
Before we left the US, we were a little concerned that the trip could turn out to be an arduous box-checking exercise involving too much driving and not enough time to enjoy each destination, based on the itinerary we designed:
- Take a redeye to Rome
- Day 1: Vatican City (1 of 5 . . .)
- Day 2: Drive to San Marino (2 of 5 . . .)
- Day 3: Drive to Bergamo, Italy
- Day 4: Drive to Liechtenstein (3 of 5 . . .)
- Day 5: Drive to Lake Lugano, Switzerland
- Day 6: Drive to Monaco (4 of 5 . . .)
- Day 7: Drive to Carcassonne, France
- Day 8: Drive to Andorra (5 of 5!)
- Day 9: Drive to Barcelona
- Day 10: Fly back
Instead, our daily cadence ended up providing a good balance – we’d drive for a few hours each morning in our rockin’ diesel Skoda family truckster . . .
. . . then arrive at our destination in the early afternoon to explore things, typically log some downtime in the evening at the hotel pool, then grab dinner.
Although the trip focused on the microstates, some of the stopovers proved to be just as rewarding, including staying in a hotel that overlooked Lake Lugano in Switzerland on August 1, without realizing beforehand that this was the Swiss National Holiday – spectacular!
We’ll post highlights of each of the five micronations plus the very cool stopover locations during the next few weeks.
Oh, and the book read as we started the trip?
Microstates! The Principality of Andorra
From Carcassonne, we headed south to our final microstate – the Principality of Andorra, which is squeezed between France and Spain in the heart of the Pyrenees:
As noted in our initial summary post for this trip, the existence of Andorra prompted our micronation fascination and – ultimately – this trip.
Here’s one view of the principality through a series of quotes from our much loved and candor-filled Cadogan Catalonia guide:
- “The Principat de les Valles de Andorra, as it is officially known, is an independent historical oddity in the manner of Grand Fenwick and the Marx Brothers’ Fredonia, a Catalan-speaking island of mountains measuring 468 square kilometers that has managed to steer clear of the French and Spanish since its foundation by Charlemagne.”
- “They’ve turned their lovely corner of the Pyrenees into a single garish supermarket. It’s a worthy competitor for Europe’s other Ruritanian craphole, San Marino, which, if you’ve never been, is the first country in the world to be entirely paved over with factory outlet car parks.”
- “It’s a sleazy little paradise, Andorra.”
Sheesh! We’d see about that during our visit.
History: From multiple sources, each linked from the end quotes: “After the death of Charlemagne, the Carolingian Empire fell into divisive territorial quarrels, and Andorra fell into the rule of the Count Of Urgell, one of the powerful families of the Spanish nobility. In 1133 the Count of Urgell ceded the lands to the Bishop of Urgell.
In 1159 Andorra became the subject of a prolonged struggle between the Count of Foix and the Bishop of Urgell. Although an agreement was signed that year which recognized the Bishop’s authority while ceding certain rights to the Count of Foix, the dispute lasted through many bloody, bitter battles until 1278 when Roger Bernard (Count of Foix) and Father d’Urtx (Bishop of Urgell) signed a peace treaty forced upon them by the King of Aragon.
This treaty, and another signed eleven years later, established that Andorra would become independent, but pay an annual tribute called questia. To whom the tribute went alternated every year; first to the Count of Foix, then to the Bishop of Urgell, then the Count of Foix, etc. This agreement, called the Pareage is still the basis of Andorra’s constitution and political independence.“
“Over the years, the title to Andorra passed from the Counts of Foix to the Kings of Navarre. After King Henry III of Navarre became King Henry IV of France, he decreed in 1607 the King of France and the Bishop of Urgell were the co-princes of Andorra. Later through revolutions and counter-revolutions France became a republic and today the French President and Bishop of Urgell serve as the co-princes of Andorra.“
Why it still exists: “If both Urgell and Foix had ended under the same realm, Andorra would have probably been absorbed into it. But history didn’t go that way: Urgell was absorbed first into the county of Barcelona, later the crown of Aragon and finally Spain (if we don’t count some historical oddities like Napoleon’s empire, when Catalonia was part of France, or the ephemeral Catalan republics); Foix became part of Navarre and later of the kingdom of France. So, in short, the current heads of state of Andorra are the bishop of Urgell and the president of the French republic, and thus both Spain and France have the obligation of militarily protecting Andorra. Which means that neither Spain or France will let the other absorb Andorra.“
Absolute size: 181 square miles
Relative size: Largest of the European microstates, but still the 16th-smallest nation in the world and smaller than Fairfax County (at 400 square miles).
Population: 77,281; world’s 11th-smallest country by population
Capital: Andorra la Vella (the highest capital in Europe)
Government. “Andorra has two ‘co-princes,’ the Count of Foix in France and the bishop of La Seu d’Urgell in Spain. In 1589, the Count of Foix, Henry of Navarre, was crowned King of France and became Henry IV, and the county became a holding of the Kingdom of France. According to an agreement spelled out in 1278, in odd-numbered years the French co-prince is sent 1,920 francs in tribute, while in even-numbered years the Spanish co-prince receives 900 pesetas, 12 chickens, six hams and 12 cheeses. Napoleon thought it was quaint and left it alone, he said, as a living museum of feudalism.“
Tiny state trivia:
- Andorra declared war on Germany at the breakout of WW I, but never participated in the conflict itself, nor attended the peace conference at Versailles in 1918. As a result, they were still technically at war with Germany through WW II and until 1957, when the country issued a peace declaration.
- Andorra is the world’s only co-principality
- Andorra has never had a national bank nor any national currency
- The country has not been in a war in more than 1000 years
Enough of that – on to the day’s trip.
Our trip planning to head a little out of our way to Carcassonne between Monaco and Andorra provided us with a significant historical benefit. We’d be traveling right by the town and fortress of Foix, where one of Andorra’s co-princes once ruled. (Also, as a total non sequitur, notice the little yellow kidney-shaped area to the east of Andorra? That’s Llivia, the Spanish town stuck inside France that caught our interest last year during Catalonia’s clamor for independence from Spain.)
Our stop in Foix was the highlight of the day – cool town, even cooler castle, and a market was in full swing in the center of town:
Made-to-order latkes – perfect starter for our lunch:
A little traveling entertainment while we snacked:
A quick visit to Fanjeaux, another Cathar hill town between Carcassonne and Andorra:
Across the border and traveling through the valleys of the Andorran Pyrenees:
One of the cool things about the isolated country is the preservation of so many medieval Romanesque churches, which would have been rebuilt as shitty, gaudy Gothic or Renaissance structures in other countries. Below is the perfectly Romanesque church of San Joan de Caselles encountered on the way to Andorra la Vella, the principality’s capital. The church dates 11th or 12th century and features the typical architectural layout of the Romanesque churches in Andorra: rectangular nave with wooden roof, semi-circular apse and Lombardian style bell tower.
Wandering in Andorra la Vella to Casa de la Vall, home to the Consell de la Terra – the General Council of Andorra (which the Andorran’s generously refer to as a “parliament”). The Consell de la Terra founded in 1419, one of Europe’s oldest continuous parliaments.
Casa de la Vall was built in 1580 as a manor and tower defense by the Busquets family. In 1702 it was acquired by the Consell de la Terra for its current use.
Um . . .
We think this is the progenitor to Ben the Boss Tone, the dancing guy on the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. If you don’t believe us, check this out at, like minute 0.50:
Signage in downtown Andorra la Vella reinforcing Andorra’s geopolitical situation:
Someone’s gotta watch over the town:
Views over developed Andorra la Vella:
The 12th-century, Romanesque Església de Sant Esteve in the middle of Andorra la Vella:
Statue of Princep Benlloch in front of Església de Sant Esteve. “Joan Benlloch was named Bishop of Urgell on 6 December 1906; in this position, he was also Co-Prince of Andorra. . . His tenure saw his country enter World War I on the side of the Allies, but Andorra was not included in the Treaty of Versailles and officially remained in a state of belligerency until 1957.“
Another awesome hotel pool in which to unwind with a few drinks in the late afternoon – this one built into Pyreneean granite on the mountain:
Trip target finally achieved in Andorra, the microstate that started it all: completion of visits to all five European microstates in a single road trip!
The only thing left now is a brief morning drive southeast to Barcelona to spend a little time there before our flight out the day after.