Little Europe: Five Micro-Countries
Don't blink as we blitz through Europe's tiniest countries: Vatican City, the planet's smallest country, boasts the its biggest church. The fairy-tale princedom of Monaco lures high rollers with its fancy casino and glamorous views. Italy's last independent hill town, San Marino, still looks formidable, as does the castle-guarded principality of Liechtenstein. And amid the rugged beauty of the Pyrenees, tiny Andorra draws shoppers and hikers alike.
St. Peter's Square
Piazza San Pietro, with its ring of columns, symbolizes the arms of the church welcoming everyone — believers and non-believers — with its motherly embrace. The “square” itself is actually elliptical, 660 by 500 feet (roughly the same dimensions as the Colosseum). Though large, it’s designed like a saucer, a little higher around the edges, so that even when full of crowds (as it often is), it allows those on the periphery to see above the throngs. The obelisk in the center is 90 feet of solid granite weighing more than 300 tons. Think how much history this monument has seen. Originally erected in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago, it witnessed the fall of the pharaohs to the Greeks and then to the Romans. Then the emperor Caligula moved it to imperial Rome, where it stood impassively watching the slaughter of Christians at the racecourse and the torture of Protestants by the Inquisition. Today, it watches over the church, a reminder that each civilization builds on the previous ones. The puny cross on top reminds us that Christian culture has cast but a thin veneer over our pagan origins.
On the square are two entrances to Vatican City: one to the left of the facade, and one to the right in the crook of Bernini’s “arm” (the same entrance that hands out pope-viewing tickets). Guarding this small but powerful country’s border crossing are the mercenary guards from Switzerland. You have to wonder if they really know how to use those pikes. Their colorful uniforms are said to have been designed by Michelangelo, though he was not known for his sense of humor.
There is no doubt: This is the richest and grandest church on earth. To call it vast is like calling Einstein smart. Plaques on the floor show you where other, smaller churches would end if they were placed inside. The ornamental cherubs would dwarf a large man. Birds roost inside, and thousands of people wander about, heads craned heavenward, hardly noticing each other. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pietà (behind bulletproof glass) to the right of the entrance. Bernini’s altar work and twisting, towering canopy are brilliant.
The four miles of displays in these immense museums — from ancient statues to Christian frescoes to modern paintings — culminate in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel. This is one of Europe’s top three or four houses of art. It can be exhausting, so plan your visit carefully, focusing on a few themes. Allow two hours for a quick visit, three or four hours for enough time to enjoy it.
Bypass the long ticket lines by reserving an entry time online. It’s easy: You choose your day and time, they email you a confirmation immediately, and you print out the voucher.
Low-key Vaduz, with about 5,000 people, feels basically like a midsized Swiss town. Its pedestrianized main drag is lined with modern art and hotels bordering a district of slick office parks. Many European companies establish their official headquarters here to take advantage of its low taxes. The tourist information office will stamp your passport for a small fee. If you have more time, go for a stroll along enjoyable Städtle street. Use Swiss francs or euros to buy a postcard and some Liechtenstein stamps to send to the collector in your life.
The prince’s striking castle, a 20-minute hike above Vaduz, is closed to the public, but there’s a fine view from the grounds. After that visit, you’ll quickly run out of things to do. No problem — just head back to Switzerland, and check another country off your list.
The casino is intended to make you feel comfortable while losing money. Charles Garnier designed the place (with an opera house inside) in 1878, in part to thank the prince for his financial help in completing Paris’ Opéra Garnier (which the architect also designed). The central doors provide access to slot machines, private gaming rooms, and the opera house. The private gaming rooms occupy the left wing of the building. The scene, flooded with camera-toting tourists during the day, is great at night — and downright James Bond-like in the private rooms. This is your chance to rub elbows with some high rollers — provided you’re 18 or older (bring your passport as proof). Dress appropriately: During gambling hours, men need to wear a jacket and slacks; standards for women are more relaxed — only tennis shoes and beach attire are definite no-no's.
If paying an entrance fee to lose money is not your idea of fun, you can access all games for free in the plebeian, American-style casino, adjacent to the old casino.
Prince Albert I built this impressive, cliff-hanging aquarium in 1910 as a monument to his enthusiasm for things from the sea. The aquarium has 2,000 different specimens, representing 250 species. The bottom floor features Mediterranean fish and colorful tropical species (all nicely described in English). My favorite is the zebra lionfish, though I’m keen on eels, too. Rotating exhibits occupy the entry floor. Upstairs, the fancy Albert I Hall houses a museum (included in entry fee, very little English information) and features ship models, whale skeletons, oceanographic instruments and tools, and scenes of Albert and his beachcombers hard at work.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves and I'm standing atop one of the tiniest countries in Europe. Europe has a handful of these little "don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-'em" lands: There's Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Vatican City, and San Marino…we're about to visit them all. This time, it's Little Europe. Thanks for joining us.
Medieval Europe was a patchwork of miniscule dukedoms, princedoms, and feudal states. Modern-day Germany — about the size of Montana — was fragmented into over 300 of these…each with its own petty ruler, weights and measures, crown jewels, and curfew. These "countries" were only about as big as the distance a cannon could fire from the town walls. And today, only a handful of Europe's mini-nations survive.
The world's smallest country comes with the planet's biggest church. Another is famous for its casino and car races. A stone's throw from the Adriatic Sea, the last of the independent hill towns still looks pretty formidable. This castle-guarded principality is a remnant of Europe's once-mighty Holy Roman Empire. And here, where Spain and France meet, another tiny country entertains shoppers and hikers alike with the rugged beauty of the Pyrenees.
Europe's "microstates" are scattered far and wide. We'll start at Vatican City, drop by San Marino, hike up to Liechtenstein, speed over to Monaco, and finish high in the Pyrenees at Andorra.
Our first country is ruled by a man from another country, it has less than 1,000 permanent residents, and its birthrate is zero. It's visited by hordes of tourists daily, and it's the capital of a holy empire with more than a billion subjects worldwide. Any guesses?
The Vatican City. This is the smallest independent country on earth. Even though it occupies less than a square mile — this country has its own radio station, newspaper, post office, and a cute little train station. Along with the grandest church on Earth, it has a massive museum. The Vatican is ruled — both politically and religiously — by the pope.
Vatican City is embedded in the city of Rome. It's surrounded by a mighty medieval wall that evokes a less-than-peaceful history.
After the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, the city of Rome gradually came under control of the pope. In fact for centuries, the pope was called the "King Pope." Little by little, the "King Pope" built his own empire. At its peak around the 17th century, the "Papal States," as they were called, encompassed much of the Italian peninsula. When the modern nation of Italy was united, it absorbed most of the Papal States, including the city of Rome. But the pope held out.
For sixty years the pope was holed up here, behind the Vatican Walls. Finally, in 1929, the pope and Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty, establishing the Vatican as its own nation. The garden-like core of the country — where serious administration takes place — is closed to the public.
The Vatican "military" is made up of the Swiss Guard. In 1506, the pope imported mercenaries from Switzerland, who were known for their loyalty and courage. Today, about 100 Swiss soldiers still protect the pope, keep the crush of tourists as orderly as possible...and wear the flamboyant Renaissance-style uniform that tourists just love to photograph.
The Vatican has its own postal service. Many consider it to be more reliable than mailing things from across the street, in Italy...and Vatican stamps are a fun souvenir.
The Vatican is built on the memory and tomb of the first pope, St. Peter. Piazza San Pietro sits on what was the site of a Roman racetrack. Imagine chariots making their hairpin turns around that obelisk.
For added entertainment during the games, Christians were executed here. In about 65 A.D., the apostle Peter was crucified within sight of this obelisk. His friends buried him in a humble graveyard atop what pagan Romans called the Vatican Hill. For about 250 years Christians worshipped quietly on this spot. Then, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D., a basilica was built here, and this became the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Twelve hundred years later, the original St. Peter's was replaced by this, the most glorious church in all Christendom. Upon entering, your first impression is: It's big...over 600 feet long, bathed in glorious sunbeams. It can accommodate thousands of worshippers.
Near the entrance, Michelangelo's Pietà is adored by pilgrims and tourists alike. Here the 25-year-old Michelangelo intends to make the theological message very clear: Jesus — once alive but now dead — gave his life for our salvation. The contrast provided by Mary's rough robe makes his body — even carved in hard marble — seems soft and believable.
The high altar, like so much of the art decorating the Vatican, is a masterpiece by the great Baroque artist Bernini. With sunlight illuminating its alabaster window — as if powering the Holy Spirit, it encrusts the legendary throne of St. Peter with a starburst of Baroque praise.
Directly above the altar which marks the tomb of St. Peter, stands Bernini's bronze canopy, and above that Michelangelo's dome — taller than a football field on end. The inscription declares, in Latin: Tu es Petrus..."You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." This is the scriptural basis for the primacy of Rome in the Catholic Church.
A viewing perch gives travelers a close-up look at those huge letters and a heavenly perspective into the church. From the rooftop you can size up the dome you're about to climb. For a close look at Michelangelo's dome-within-a-dome design, lean in as you climb 300 steps to the cupola.
The view from the top is unrivaled: both of the city of Rome...and of the Vatican grounds. You can survey the entire country from this lofty perch. The long rectangular building is the Vatican Museum with the adjacent Sistine Chapel. These buildings and courtyards display some of the greatest art of Western civilization.
Over the centuries the popes have amassed enough art to fill what many consider Europe's richest museum. Long halls are sumptuously decorated with precious tapestries, frescoed ceilings, and ancient statues.
The museum features art from every age. Its exquisite painting gallery includes Raphael's much-loved painting of the Transfiguration. Halls and courtyards are littered with ancient Greek masterpieces — like the Laocoön...so inspirational to the great masters of the Renaissance.
And the pope's apartments tell Christian history — this is the battle in which Emperor Constantine was led by angels and a holy cross both to a key military victory and to his own religious conversion.
And these rooms celebrate pre-Christian philosophy. Here Raphael paints the School of Athens...the who's who of ancient Greek intellectual heroes...many painted with the features of Renaissance greats...Leonardo, Michelangelo...and a self-portrait of Raphael in the black cap.
But of course, we've just scratched the surface. If you're pondering eternity, try covering the Vatican Museum thoroughly.
On the opposite side of the Italian peninsula, just a few miles inland from the Adriatic coast, is another tiny nation that's entirely surrounded by Italy...San Marino.
The Republic of San Marino brags it's the world's oldest and smallest republic. It's remained sovereign through almost all its 1,700-year history. San Marino's isolated location has helped it maintain its independence. The 24-square-mile country clings bravely to Monte Titano, in Italy's rugged Apennine Mountains.
A thousand years ago, Italy was made up of dozens of independent little states like this. Over the centuries, virtually all of them disappeared from the map. First, Europe's dominant royal families snatched up these tiny territories, and added them to their vast kingdoms. Then, in the 19th century, Italy’s unification movement consolidated virtually the entire Italian peninsula into the modern nation of Italy.
San Marino survived because of Giuseppe Garibaldi. A leader of the Italian unification movement, Garibaldi hid from his enemies here in San Marino. In appreciation, Garibaldi allowed San Marino to remain independent.
Perched above the old town are San Marino's three characteristic castles. This trio of fortresses has done its part to keep San Marino free and independent over the centuries. A ridge-top trail connects the fortresses.
Since the 1960s tourism has brought prosperity — and along with it streets of tacky shops. About half the country's economy is based on tourism.
As in other tiny states, quirky laws and tax regulations are used to stoke the economy. As sales tax is half what it is in surrounding Italy, shoppers have long come here for the savings.
Several of Europe's tiny countries produce their own stamps and coins — much sought after by collectors.
Rick: A stamp for my passport please.
And for a fee, they'll even stamp your passport.
The town's focal point is the long, balcony-like Piazza della Libertà, with sweeping views over the realm. The statue depicting Liberty — wearing a crown with the three castle towers — celebrates this country's passion for independence and democracy.
The Palazzo Pubblico, or “Palace of the People,” is guarded by some of San Marino's tiny security force, in their distinctive uniforms.
A modest stairway leads to the room from where the country is governed. Paintings remind legislators of its long history and the saint who's considered the father of this little nation.
In about the year 300, Marino, a stone cutter from present-day Croatia, fled persecution from the Roman Emperor. He found refuge here, on Monte Titano and decided to stay and help the community of other fleeing Christians. He was made a saint for his efforts, and remains the patron saint of this country to this day.
From this lofty perch, San Marino's soldiers have defended their homeland — with the latest in military technology. Ever since a key victory back in the 15th century, the crossbowmen of San Marino have been a part of state celebrations.
Traditionally, this forced the marksmen to stay sharp and keep their crossbows in good working order. While today it's mostly an excuse to show off for tourists, their sport is still taken seriously. The marksmen hit their target with armor-piercing force — illustrating the pride of nation with a long if not mighty heritage.
As if celebrating their bulls-eyes, the San Marino Crossbowman Federation enlivens their mountain top republic with traditional fanfare.
San Marino takes you back to the age of city states, an era of pageantry, pride and fierce independence. Further north lays another pint sized country that is tucked away not on a hill — but in the mighty Alps.
Two centuries ago, there were dozens of independent states in German-speaking Europe. Today, there are only four: Germany, Austria, Switzerland...and Liechtenstein.
Nestled between Switzerland and Austria, the Principality of Liechtenstein is defined by the mighty Alps to the east, the baby Rhine River to the west, and a stout fortress protecting the mouth of its valley to the south. This quirky remnant of medieval feudal politics is just about 62 square miles. It is truly land-locked, without a seaport, or even an airport.
Liechtensteiners — who number about 35,000 — speak German, are mostly Catholic, and have a stubborn independent streak. Women weren't given the vote until 1984.
The country's made up of 11 villages. The village of Triesenberg, high above the valley, gathers around its onion-domed church, which recalls the settlers who arrived here centuries ago from the western part of Switzerland.
The town of Vaduz sits on the valley floor. While it has only 5,000 people, it's the country's capital. Its pedestrianized main drag is lined with modern art and hotels bordering a district of slick office parks.
Historically Europe's tiny countries have offered businesses special tax and accounting incentives. For a place with such a small population, Liechtenstein has a lot of businesses. Many European companies locate here to take advantage of its low taxes.
And that's how the Prince of Liechtenstein, whose castle is perched above his domain, likes it. The billionaire prince, who looks down on his 6-by-12-mile country, wields more real political power in his realm than any other European royalty.
The national museum tells the story of the prince and his country. Their family crest dates to the Middle Ages, when the Liechtenstein family was close friends with the Habsburg family, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire. The Liechtenstein family purchased this piece of real estate from the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1719, the domain was granted principality status — answering only to the Emperor. The Liechtenstein princes — who lived near Vienna — saw their new country merely as a status symbol, and didn't even bother to visit for decades. In fact, it wasn't until the 20th century that the first Liechtenstein prince actually lived here.
In 1806, during the Napoleonic age, Liechtenstein's obligations to the Habsburg Emperor disappeared and the country was granted true independence. Later, after World War I, tough times forced the principality to enter into an economic union with Switzerland.
To this day Liechtenstein enjoys a close working relationship with its Swiss neighbors.
And like Switzerland, a big part of its modern economy is tourism and sports — hosting visitors enjoying its dramatic natural beauty. Ski lifts, busy both winter and summer, take nature lovers to the dizzying ridge that serves as the border with Austria. Even in little little Liechtenstein...the views are big and the hiking possibilities go on and on.
On the Mediterranean Sea, basking between the French and Italian Rivieras, the Principality of Monaco barely fits on its one square mile of territory.
Of its 30,000 residents, less than 10,000 are true Monegasques, as locals are called. Many of the rest call Monaco home because there's no income tax. Despite over development, high prices, and mobs of tourists, a visit here is a Riviera must.
And Monaco is a work in progress. The district of Fontvieille was reclaimed from the sea. It bristles with luxury high-rise condos. The breakwater — constructed elsewhere and towed in — enables cruise ships to dock. And cars still race, as they have since 1929, around the principality in one of the world's most famous auto races, the Grand Prix of Monaco.
The miniscule principality has always been tiny. But it used to be less tiny. In the 1860s it lost most of its territory to France. But the prince built a casino and managed to connect his domain to the rest of the Riviera with a new road and a train line.
Humble Monaco was suddenly on the Grand Tour map — the place for the vacationing aristocracy to play. Today, the people of Monaco have one of the world's highest per-capita incomes, with plush apartments to match. Its famous casino allows the wealthy to enjoy losing money in extreme comfort.
If Monaco is a business; the prince is its CEO. While the casino generates only a small part of the state's revenue, its many banks — which provide an attractive way to protect your money from the taxman — earn much more. There is no income tax here, but the prince collects plenty of money in value-added taxes, real estate taxes and corporate taxes.
Nearly all of Monaco's sights are packed in a Cinderella neighborhood atop its fortified hill. Its impressive aquarium, which proudly crowns the cliff like a palace, was directed by Jacques Cousteau for 17 years.
A medieval castle sat where Monaco's palace sits today. The palace square features a statue of François Grimaldi, a renegade Italian who captured Monaco disguised as a monk in 1297.
This first ruler of Monaco established the dynasty that still rules the principality. Today, over 700 years later, the current prince is his direct descendant.
Palace guards protect the ruling Grimaldi family 24/7 and they change with the pageantry of an important nation. Every day at about noon tourists pack the square to witness the spectacle in this improbable little princedom.
Our final stop is Andorra — the biggest of these midget countries. If you're keeping track, here's a rundown on Europe's tiny derby showing each of these countries’ relative size.
The Vatican is the big little winner. Then comes Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and finally, Andorra. Luxemburg is Europe's next smallest country. Small as it is, it would easily fit all five microstates within its borders.
Andorra sits high in the craggy Pyrenees Mountains, as if hiding out between Spain and France. With 180 square miles and about 75,000 people, it's the largest of Europe's micro-countries.
The country has a long history. In their national anthem, Andorrans sing of Charlemagne rescuing their land from the Moors back in 803. In the 13th century Spanish and French nobles married. They agreed that the principality would be neither Spanish nor French. This unique feudal arrangement survives today. And — while they have co-princes: one happens to be the president of France and the other a bishop from Spain — locals stress that their land is 100 percent independent.
Until little more than a generation ago, Andorra was an impoverished and isolated backwater. Churches date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Their stony Romanesque bell towers stand strong as the surrounding Pyrenees.
That same local stone is used today as a building boom illustrates how, lately, the principality has flourished. Since World War II the population has increased tenfold. Recently Andorrans have become quite wealthy.
The mountains that kept the principality both isolated and poor are now a source of its prosperity. Hiking and skiing are understandably big business here.
And Andorra employs those special economic weapons so popular among Europe's little states: easy-going banking, duty-free shopping, and low, low taxes. It's morphed from a rough and tumble smuggler's haven to a high-tech, high-altitude shopper's haven — famous for its low prices.
While Andorrans speak Catalan — and have an affinity for the Spanish region of Catalunya and Barcelona — the commercial environment here is international as can be.
The country's capital and dominant city, Andorra la Vella, is a mostly modern town with the charm of a giant shopping mall. While most know this place for its shops and for what locals claim is the biggest spa in Europe, pockets of Old World charm do hide out in the old center.
The Casa de la Vall is the country's parliament building. A private residence back in the 16th century, today it houses Andorra's claustrophobic parliament chamber. It has 28 seats — that's four representatives for each of the seven parishes — with portraits of the current co-princes on the wall.
While a humble reminder of a simple past, Andorrans still look to this building for leadership as their country builds an ever better life for its citizens.
So, what do Andorra and the rest of Europe's little countries have in common? Most of them are high in the mountains or some other hard-to-reach terrain. Many offer low or no taxes, which encourage businesses and individuals from other countries to come and support the local economy. Each one has survived centuries of warfare, treaties, and reshaped borders — usually thanks to a combination of diplomatic skill and luck. All of them get by on the coattails of larger nations. And they're small and easy to overlook, so they can fall through the cracks without being noticed by the next big tyrant.
Most important, all of them are sustained by an unwavering national pride in their unlikely yet enduring independence. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling.
…Croatia fled persecution from the Emperor Dioclesian…
For a place with such a small population, Liechtenstein has a lot [laugh].