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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?

  • Independence
  • Diplomatic recognition
  • Control of territory
  • Permanent population
  • Government

Based on these characteristics, the following sovereign countries within continental Europe qualify and will be part of the trip:

  1. The Principality of Andorra (finally!)
  2. The Principality of Liechtenstein
  3. The Principality of Monaco
  4. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino
  5. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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!

Categories: Andorra, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Micronations Road Trip, Monaco, San Marino, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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:

Location of the continental Europe’s five microstates

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:

Hallway of maps in the Vatican Museum

At the border between Vatican City and Rome – No. 1 complete

No. 2 of 5 – The Most Serene Republic of San Marino:

Guaita (1st Castle) on San Marino’s Mount Titano

San Marino’s town hall at sunset

View from Cesta (2nd Castle) to Guaita (1st Castle) on Mount Titano in San Marino – Microstate No. 2 complete

No. 3 of 5 and location for the Big 5-0 milestone – the Principality of Liechtenstein:

Vaduz castle from afar

and up close – No. 3 complete

4 of 5 – Principality of Monaco:

Monte Carlo casino our evening in Monaco

Above the port of Monte Carlo – No. 4 complete

And finally, No. 5 of 5 and the microstate that started it all – the Principality of Andorra:

11th-century Sant Joan de Caselles church with Lombard-style tower in Andorra

Casa de la Vall in Andorra la Vella – headquarters of the General Council of Andorra; No. 5 of 5 complete!

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

Travel map, as the crow flies – arriving in Rome and departing from Barcelona

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 . . .

Our trusty Skoda after navigating the narrow alleyways of Bergamo on Day 3

. . . 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.

Sweet pool in Carcassonne, our stopover between Monaco and Andorra

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!

Fireworks over Lake Lugano to celebrate the Swiss National Holiday

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?

Of course.

 

 

Categories: Andorra, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Micronations Road Trip, Monaco, San Marino, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Microstates! The Principality of Monaco

After cooling our heels in Switzerland, Monaco was the next stop on our microstate tour and the penultimate puny principality that we’d hit. Beautiful day for a visit, as you’ll see below, but we’re definitely not fans – spending a day in the principality revealed an unappealing juxtaposition of moneyed pretentiousness and cruise ship day trippers, earning Monaco the bottom spot on locations visited on the road trip – including both the microstates and our intermediate layover towns.

The black tie casino and Formula 1 racing circuit principality is located between France and the Mediterranean Sea, just a few miles from the Italian border.

Principality Précis:

History: We’ll ignore the pre-Roman and Roman past and start with the Holy Roman Empire, which granted the area that became Monaco to Genoa in the 12th century. On June 10, 1215, a detachment of Genoese Ghibellines (foes of the Guelphs, which will matter), began construction of a fortress on a rocky outcrop in what is now Monaco.

The Rock of Monaco in 1890.

The Ghibellines sought to encourage development around the fortress to sustain the military installation and invited other Genoese to migrate to the area. One of the groups to come over was a faction of the Grimaldis, a prominent Guelph family from Genoa. In 1297, the Guelph Grimaldi’s seized control of the Rock of Monaco from the Ghibellines, in the process establishing the Grimaldi dynasty in Monaco. The Grimaldi family has ruled Monaco ever since (with a short intermission under French control during the French Revolution).

Monaco started as a vassal state of Genoa, but ultimately became a city state in its own right. Fending off nearby powerful kingdoms, the principality confirmed its independence from Spain in 1633 and from France in 1641 through the Treaty of Peronne. The principality – still ruled by the Grimaldis – became a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat. It regained its independence in 1861 through the Franco-Monegasque Treaty, where France accepted Monaco’s sovereignty, but annexed 95% of the country, leaving just the tiny strip that exists today.

Although initially neutral during WW II, Monaco’s Prince Luis II supported the French. However, many of Monaco’s citizens preferred Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italian state, and in November 1942, Italy invaded Monaco and installed a puppet state. Monaco was liberated in September 1944.

Why it still exists: The House of Grimaldi successfully played Italy, France, and Spain against one another for centuries to retain Monaco’s sovereignty. (Oh, also, Monaco has no mineral resources or arable land, similar to most of the other microstates, so there’s never been a huge incentive by more powerful nations to absorb what remained after France grabbed 95% of the country in the 1800s . . .). In addition to France’s interference above, Monaco’s surrounding neighbor threatened the country again in 1962, when Charles de Gaulle threatened to close Monaco’s border with France and cut off its supply of French francs because French citizens living in Monaco were evading French taxes. Monaco abolished the country’s tax exemption for French citizens and normalcy was resumed.

Absolute size: Just 0.78 square miles

Relative size: Monaco is the second smallest of the five European microstates, after the State of Vatican City, and is smaller than the National Mall (the evolution of which we described here).

Population: 38,400 – the principality is the most densely populated sovereign state in the world

Capital: Monte Carlo

Government: Monaco is a principality governed as a constitutional monarchy

Tiny state trivia:

  • The Grimaldi family is the oldest ruling family in Europe
  • Monaco stopped collecting income tax in 1869 due to the cash-generating success of the Casino de Monte Carlo
  • Monaco’s red and white flag looks almost exactly like Indonesia’s. The only difference is the width:

Towards the end of the trip, our drive from Lake Lugano to Monaco placed us along France’s Côte d’Azur.

We had very glamorous expectations of the area, so headed off the highway and onto small coastal roads as we neared Monaco. Huge mistake. The coastal towns were packed with beachgoers and traffic, and we ended up adding a half hour to our trip as a result. We headed back to the highway a few miles from Monaco to finally reach the country.

View of the Principality of Monaco – yup, pretty much all of it – from the French border:

Around town – the place definitely has an unmistakable style to it:

Casino de Monte Carlo:

View from the center of the city near the casino and towards the Rock of Monaco and the old town:

Looking up to the Rock of Monaco from the port:

Per the warning, we didn’t proceed in our underwear. We wanted to and were going to, of course – per our usual style – but we thought we’d instead comply with local conventions here.

The bland-looking Prince’s Palace of Monaco:

Remains of the old fortress walls:

We were surrounded by Euro dudes sporting murses:

The narrow streets of Monaco’s old town:

New, incredibly pricey residences on Port d Fontvielle on the south side of the Rock, complete with yacht slips (natch):

Monaco’s St. Nicholas Cathedral, built in the 19th century on the site of a church previously built in 1272:

Monaco’s Port Hercule, home to some sweet rides:

Check out the pool on the first one:

Our overpriced lodging for the day:

Day and night views at Hotel Metropole:

There was a lot of “being seenness” that we didn’t really dig, but at least got to observe:

Line of cars valet parked at Hotel Metropole, consistent with Monaco’s image:

Casino in the evening, preparing itself for our pending visit:

Purloined picture of the casino’s interior, where pictures are prohibited. Nice, but much smaller than we anticipated and rather underwhelming, when it came down to it . . .

Four down; one to go!

 

Categories: Monaco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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