San Marino

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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!, Monaco, Road Trips, 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

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!, Monaco, Road Trips, San Marino, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Microstates! The Most Serene Republic of San Marino

The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is the lone relic of what once were scores of city states across Europe in the middle ages. Founded in 301 AD, the country has survived intact for more than 1700 years, withstanding threats by other Italian city states, the Napoleonic Wars, the unification of Italy, and two world wars. It is the oldest republic in the world.

The country is surrounded by Italy and located immediately inland from the Adriatic. Most of the microstate is perched atop the three peaks of a formidable mountain – Monte Titano:

We traveled on Day 2 from Vatican City (or nearby in Rome, anyway) to San Marino. This was the only time during the trip that we would drive directly from one microstate to another without an intermediate stop. Connections during the rest of the trip will require a layover in an Italian, Swiss, or French town (each of were great destinations in their own rights). Our drive out of Rome took us north and east, initially on highways, but for the last enjoyable half hour or so on crazy switchback roads through the Italian countryside to reach San Marino:

Review of the Republic

History: The country is named after Marinus, a stonemason from a Roman province across the Adriatic in what’s now Croatia. According to legend, Marinus traveled in AD 257 to Rimini, a city on the Italian coast, immediately to the east of modern day San Marino, to support rebuilding the city’s walls. Marinus later was ordained as a deacon by the Bishop of Rimini, then fled inland to seek refuge on Monte Titano to escape the third-century Diocletianic Persecution of Christians. He subsequently founded an independent monastic community in AD 301, a date that is recognized as the official year of San Marino’s founding.

By the 12th century, San Marino had developed into a commune ruled by its own statutes and consuls. The country’s isolation atop Mount Titano and its mountain fortresses enabled San Marino to retain its independence despite attacks by the Duke of Rimini and other powerful families and bishops. Although the country originally consisted only of Monte Titano, it grew to include some adjoining towns and castles in 1463, when Pope Pius II granted these in return for its support for a successful alliance against the Duke of Rimini. The country has remained this size ever since, declining an offer of increased territory by Napoleon in the late 18th century. (San Marino’s Regent stated the “Only in poverty and insignificance could San Marino hope to maintain herself free and sovereign through the centuries.”)

Why it still exists: Two reasons: Napoleon and Garibaldi.

  1. The advance of Napoleon’s army in 1797 threatened to absorb San Marino into the rest of recently conquered Northern Italy. One of the country’s two Regents at the time cultivated a friendship with Napoleon and he subsequently promised to protect its independence (Napoleon will make an appearance in Andorra’s history, as well.)
  2. During the Italian unification process in the 19th century, San Marino served as a refuge for Italians persecuted because of their support for unification. In recognition of this support, Giuseppe Garibaldi accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state. As a result, it has remained an independent country and a medieval time capsule ever since.

Absolute size: 24 square miles

Relative size: San Marino is the third smallest (or third largest – take your pick) of the five European microstates and is slightly larger than the City of Alexandria, at 15 square miles.

Population: 33,562

Capital: City of San Marino

Government: San Marino is the world’s oldest extant sovereign state and is a parliamentary representative democratic republic. The first written mention of San Marino as a republic is in the 9th century. The Captains Regent, an elected pair, serve as San Marino’s heads of state. Both are elected every six months by the Grand and General Council of San Marino. San Marino also sports the earliest written governing documents of any nation – the Constitution of San Marino (Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini), written in Latin in the late 16th century, the constitution dictates the country’s political system.

Tiny state trivia: Here are several cool nuggets:

  • The foundation of San Marino’s army continues to be the Crossbow Corps, which has existed continuously as a statutory military unit since 1295. (Reminiscent of the status of the English longbow in The Mouse that Roared . . .)
  • San Marino is one of only three nations that are enclaved – entirely surrounded by one other country. The other two are Vatican City and Lesotho, in South Africa.
  • In 1861, immediately before our Civil War, the government of San Marino wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, proposing an alliance between the two democratic nations and offering the President honorary San Marino citizenship. Lincoln accepted the offer, writing in reply, “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored in all history. It has, by its experience, demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.”

A view of Mount Titano as we near San Marino.


Sign in town demonstrating the mountainous nature of San Marino via its twisting, switchback roads (the country’s three fortifications appear here, as well):

Hiking up to the Cesta tower (the middle of the three), with a view from Mount Titano to the Adriatic:

Guaita Tower from one of the rooms in the Cesta Tower, which was built in the 13th century atop the remains of a Roman fort:

Iconic image of Guaita Tower directly above the town of San Marino on Mount Titano:

Heading up to Guaita Tower:

Guiata Tower was originally constructed in the 11th century, then reinforced in the 15th century as protection against the House of Malatesta that ruled Rimini and had designs on San Marino:

San Marino’s public square with their Statue of Liberty:

Palazzo Pubblico, San Marino’s capital building:

The founding father himself, perched on the right corner of the city hall:

Inside the Palazzo Pubblico, featuring multiple instances of the country’s coat of arms, which feature the three towers (each topped with an ostrich plume – we still have no idea why):

The country was holding a medieval festival while we were there, so there was a lot of this going on:

The kid’s definitely diggin’ it:

Freakin’ awesome views at lunch . . .

and from our craptastic hotel (albeit with a sweet balcony overlooking the countryside):

View of the Cesta Tower from the same location:

View into town from our balcony (three ways):

San Marino’s public square at night – quite the crowd!

And some outdoor concert action:

Two down, three to go!

Categories: Micronations!, San Marino | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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