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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

Lake Lugano, Switzerland

Day 5 of the micronations road trip took us to a halfway point between Liechtenstein and our next target, the Principality of Monaco. The halfway point we selected was Lake Lugano, Switzerland (which brought our country count for just 5 days of the trip to five, as it happens . . .). GPS route for the day’s drive:

As some have noted, this blog has a particular interest in geography and geographic anomalies. Lake Lugano played to this interest. Although the type of geographical anomaly there is very unusual, we had nonetheless encountered this type of anomaly twice already during the trip: an enclave.

The Italian commune of Campione on Lake Lugano lies entirely inside the Swiss canton of Ticino. The map below shows Swizerland in pink and Lake Lugano in deep blue. The enclaved Italian commune isolated entirely inside of Switzerland is in the southeast section of the lake:

Unlike the enclaves of Vatican City and San Marino, where an entire nation resided inside another country, this enclave represented just a tiny piece of Italy, very similar to the Spanish town (or Catalonian town, if you side with the secessionists there) of Livia stuck inside of France, which we blogged about last year.

Although we’ve only been posting information on why things still exist on the micronation blogs themselves, we figured this enclave deserved some detail, so here’s the explanation for why it exists, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“In the first century BC the Romans founded the garrison town of Campilonum to protect their territories from Helvetii invasions.

In 777, Toto of Campione, a local Lombard lord, left his inheritance to the archbishopric of Milan. Ownership was transferred to the abbey of Sant’Ambrogio. In 1512, the surrounding area of Ticino was transferred from the ownership of the bishop of Como to Switzerland by Pope Julius II, as thanks for support in the War of the Holy League. However, the abbey maintained control over what is now Campione d’Italia and some territory on the western bank of Lake Lugano.

When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione chose to remain part of Lombardy. In 1800, Ticino proposed exchanging Indemini for Campione. In 1814 a referendum was held, and the residents of Campione opposed it. In 1848, during the wars of Italian unification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation. This was rejected due to the Swiss desire for neutrality.

After Italian unification in 1861, all land west of Lake Lugano and half of the lake were given to Switzerland so that Swiss trade and transport would not have to pass through Italy. The d’Italia was added to the name of Campione in the 1930s by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and an ornamental gate to the city was built. This was to assert the exclave’s Italian-ness.”

On to our day in Lake Lugano.

First, we definitely picked the right place to stay – spectacular views of the lake:

And a complementary electric Smart Car for forays down to the lake . . .

Along the lake . . .

The Romanesque Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the shores of the lake:

The church was built in 1499 in recognition of the cessation of conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines and to thank the Observant Franciscans for their work during the plague of 1498. It features a very busy 15th century fresco by a student of Leonardo da Vinci that’s still perfectly intact and considered to be one of the best examples of art during the Lombard Renaissance.

Heading back to The View in our sweet ride:

Incredible dinner outside at The View, overlooking Lake Lugano:

 

Unbeknownst to us, August 1 is Swiss National Day, so not only did we have a sweet dinner overlooking the lake, but got to experience a great fireworks display, to boot.

 

 

Categories: Mappy Hour, Maps and Miscellany, Micronations Road Trip, Switzerland | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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