February 1, 1998

Tiny Tour Eleven Days, A 2,400-Mile Drive And Five Minuscule Countries That, When Put Together, Are Still Smaller Than Oklahoma City

Jack Schnedler Universal Press Syndicate
 

When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proclaimed that “less is more,” the renowned architect was advocating simplicity of detail rather than the virtues of visiting dots on Europe’s map.

But less can also be more - and littler can be better - for travelers who embark on a dizzying trek like the one my wife and I took last fall. We collected a priceless set of geographical miniatures by driving 2,400 miles round-trip from Zurich, Switzerland, over 11 days to Europe’s five smallest continental nations.

Our necklace of real-life Ruritanias now glitters with the mini-gems of Andorra, Monaco, Vatican City, San Marino and Liechtenstein. (Minuscule Malta didn’t qualify for our jewel box because it’s an island and we lacked an amphibious vehicle. Nor did tiny Gibraltar, since the redoubtable rock remains a British possession rather than an independent country.)

Our five Lilliputian lands total a snug 268 square miles, so they’d all fit comfortably within the municipal boundaries of Indianapolis or Oklahoma City. Their combined population of 161,000 is less than that of Little Rock, Ark., or Dayton, Ohio.

But travelers curious about the wider (or in this case, narrower) world will find that each of these pip-squeak nations has scenic or idiosyncratic attractions alluring enough to earn a spot on the touristic map. Wrap the five into a single package, as we did, and you collect the bonus of a comparative crash course in the virtues and vagaries of whole societies smaller than a lot of American suburbs.

Our first stop was Andorra, tucked between France and Spain atop 181 square miles of the picture-postcard Pyrenees Mountains. Just about anything a value-seeking consumer might crave - from cigarettes and liquor to diamonds and furs - costs substantially less in this parliamentary principality than almost anywhere else in the Western world.

Andorra has transformed itself since World War II into the national equivalent of a discount factory-outlet mall. After centuries as hardscrabble shepherds, on rugged terrain that still has no commercial airport or rail service, the Catalan-speaking Andorrans now hum along quite prosperously as the merchants of a tax-free bazaar that lures some 8 million bargain-hunters every year.

Wall-to-wall malls and shops do not necessarily make for an enchanting landscape. The sniffy Blue Guide to Spain brands Andorra’s shopping scene “an offensive form of tourism.” We were not at all offended, except by the bumper-to-bumper driving in the capital of Andorra la Vella, where the traffic cops sport jaunty crimson shirts with blue-and-crimson pants and hats that have the aura of a “Star Wars” costume.

But we realized that merchandise fatigue was overtaking us when we got hopelessly lost in the gargantuan Pyrenees department store not long after having bought an amber-colored liquor in an unlabeled bottle shaped like the legs and posterior of a willowy woman being caressed by a cat.

The antidote proved to be a road trip through several outlying Andorran valleys unblemished by shopping centers. At the end of Valira del Nord’s paved road, near a ski lift, we strolled in solitude across a highland meadow at Coma del Forat to examine shepherds’ stone huts built in round and square designs. On the route to France, we admired the 12th-century stone Church of Sant Joan de Caselles, set on a hillside.

There’s no countryside to explore in Monaco. This principality - whose Prince Rainier III is the widower of Grace Kelly - is an upscale urban jungle, plagued by traffic that may be worse than Midtown Manhattan’s.

Tucked into 3/4-mile of French Riviera coast, Monaco has been a playground for the well-heeled and glamorous international set since the now-legendary Casino opened in the Monte Carlo corner of this realm in 1856. Wearing blue jeans, we discovered that humbler tourists are still expected to know their place here, even in these egalitarian times. When we sauntered into the gilded lobby of Hotel de Paris, the Casino’s $450-a-night neighbor, there was hardly a chance to admire the plush furnishings before a uniformed staff member confronted us and asked whether we were hotel guests.

“Non, monsieur,” I replied in my best French, the principality’s native tongue.

“Je desole,” he responded - “I’m sorry” - in a chilly tone that made clear he wasn’t the least bit sorry. Then he steered us briskly out the door.

So we hauled our bruised egos to the Casino, whose Salle de Jeux Americain is equipped with 150 slot machines imported from Chicago. In the American Room, we watched fellow countrymen and other low-rollers feed the slots, a vignette that had all the elegance of a Las Vegas grind joint.

Next morning we found that Monaco has more picturesque allures across the yacht basin from Monte Carlo on The Rock. This hilltop old quarter, formally called Monaco Ville, extends east from Place du Palais, where the royal guard is changed at 11:55 a.m. daily from spring to fall in front of Prince Rainier’s Italianate palace.

“A single visit is not enough,” insisted the wax museum’s marquee. Ignoring that blandishment, we headed east and then south through Italy for Vatican City. The Holy See houses one of the greatest complexes of museums anywhere, squeezed into this Italian-speaking entity’s one-sixth of a square mile - about the same space as inside Minnesota’s Mall of America.

The Vatican Museums must be approached rather like the running of a marathon. You will certainly feel that you’ve covered 26 miles or more by the time you complete the circuit. And you may hit the wall of touristic endurance before you reach the Sistine Chapel. Admission amounts to about $9, a genuine bargain for such an artistic and historical treasure trove. Frequent signs map out four itineraries of varying lengths on the one-way route.

We went the full distance, from the Egyptian Museum to the Sistine Chapel. Rumbling stomachs eventually took us to the museums’ Posto di Ristoro cafeteria, where the cold octopus salad was excellent and the cannelloni were quite respectable.

Fortified, we took an elevator to the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica. There we were reminded that discovery, in nations large or small, is one of the principal joys of travel: The roof of the basilica - the world’s largest Christian house of worship, in the world’s tiniest sovereign state - harbors four public toilets. But not just any toilets. These rooftop facilities are Turkish toilets, those insidious holes in the floor flanked by porcelain footprints. Somehow, Third World plumbing was not what we’d expected atop such a grand and sacred edifice.

Nor did we anticipate that St. Peter’s roof would sport a bustling souvenir shop staffed by nuns. I bought a plastic snowball encasing renderings of the famous basilica and Pope John Paul II. There’s also a blue Vatican City mailbox for immediate rooftop dispatch of precious postcards, plus a pay telephone for anyone who can’t resist ringing up the folks back home to say, “You’ll never guess where I’m calling from.”

Still chuckling, we pressed northward to the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Landlocked over 24 square miles of the hilly north-central Italian peninsula, 15 miles inland from the Adriatic resort of Rimini, Italian-speaking San Marino trumpets itself as the world’s oldest and smallest republic. Its roots go back to a 4th-century Croatian stonecutter named Marinus, who founded a Christian settlement on the slopes of Mount Titano. Its present constitution dates from 1243, and its military units still include a troop of about 80 crossbowmen.

The republic’s attractive little capital, also called San Marino, is laid out in a zigzag pattern of narrow streets. Three medieval fortresses perched on spurs of the mountain make a mildly challenging destination for a brisk walk, which we did on a morning when wisps of fog garnished the fall foliage in the valleys.

Hiking the town’s up-and-down lanes, we were overwhelmed by the sight of so many miniature liquor bottles in shop windows. These mini-portions of alcohol have been a mainstay of the local tourism trade for decades.

We plunked down $8 for a 12-pack consisting of five flavors of vodka, two flavors of sambuco, a gin, a Scotch whisky, Napoleon Reserve Liqueur, Creola Liquore di Fantasia and Liquore Millefiori. We conducted a tasting and pronounced the entire lot vile to varying degrees. The peach vodka was the closest to palatable, perhaps best suited for pancake syrup.

The aftertaste of ill-flavored alcohol lingered as we reached the trip’s final destination, the Principality of Liechtenstein, where our itinerary included touring one of the world’s largest manufacturers of material for false teeth and other dental appliances.

German-speaking Liechtenstein’s 62 square miles, partly Rhine River lowland and the rest scenically dazzling Alpine foothills, are wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Prince Hans-Adam II inhabits a formidable-looking castle that looms over the capital of Vaduz.

The prince doesn’t invite tourists into his stately home, but he does sometimes come down on the royal cook’s night off to dine at the estimable restaurant of the Hotel Real - or so we were assured by the clerk who checked us in. The State Art Collection down the street sometimes displays Old Masters belonging to the prince, at other times work by artists with local connections, such as Eugen Zotow, are displayed. During our visit, the building’s facade carried a fanciful self-portrait of Zotow.

A denture factory seemed a fitting flourish to cap a journey as whimsical as our mini-nations circuit. And we were not disappointed by Ivoclar-Vivadent in Schaan, the next town north of Vaduz. Armin Ospelt, head of product management, told us just about everything we wanted to know about the high-tech business of making the stuff that goes into false teeth, fillings and the like. A sign in one wing proclaimed proudly that the 24 employees there had produced 20 million teeth in 1996.

Most of the plant’s 7,000 visitors during a typical year are in the industry, Ospelt said. But he assured us that ordinary tourists are welcome, too, preferably by appointment. There’s even a gift shop on the premises where you can buy gumdrops shaped like molars or a molar-shaped paperweight, toothsome souvenirs of a journey that grazed gleefully among the bite-size morsels of Europe.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

IF YOU GO

Andorra maintains a tourism office in the United States, operated by Gilberto and Martha Garcia from their suburban Chicago home at 6800 N. Knox Ave., Lincolnwood, IL 60646; (847) 674-3091 or fax (847) 329-9470.

The U.S. branch of the Monaco Government Tourist Office is at 565 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017; (800) 753-9696 or fax (212) 286-9890.

Information on Vatican City and San Marino can be obtained in the United States through the Italian Government Tourist Board, Suite 1565, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10111; (212) 245-4822 or fax (212) 586-9249.

Liechtenstein information is available from Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; (212) 757-5944 or fax (212) 262-6116.

Information about Andorra is in some guidebooks to France or Spain; about Monaco, in most guides to France; about Vatican City, in virtually all guides to Italy or Rome; about San Marino, in some guides to Italy; about Liechtenstein, in some guides to Switzerland.

All our mini-nation hotels can be recommended. They included Hotel Plaza in Andorra la Vella ($90 a night); Hotel Alexandra in Monaco’s Monte-Carlo quarter a few blocks from the famed Casino (an off-season bargain at $112); Grand Hotel San Marino just outside that capital’s walls ($88); and Hotel Real in downtown Vaduz, Liechtenstein ($139). There are no hotels in Vatican City, but the stylishly refurbished Hotel Columbus, on Via della Conciliazione just two blocks from St. Peter’s Square, gave good value at $189 a night in expensive Rome.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Andorra maintains a tourism office in the United States, operated by Gilberto and Martha Garcia from their suburban Chicago home at 6800 N. Knox Ave., Lincolnwood, IL 60646; (847) 674-3091 or fax (847) 329-9470. The U.S. branch of the Monaco Government Tourist Office is at 565 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017; (800) 753-9696 or fax (212) 286-9890. Information on Vatican City and San Marino can be obtained in the United States through the Italian Government Tourist Board, Suite 1565, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10111; (212) 245-4822 or fax (212) 586-9249. Liechtenstein information is available from Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; (212) 757-5944 or fax (212) 262-6116. Information about Andorra is in some guidebooks to France or Spain; about Monaco, in most guides to France; about Vatican City, in virtually all guides to Italy or Rome; about San Marino, in some guides to Italy; about Liechtenstein, in some guides to Switzerland. All our mini-nation hotels can be recommended. They included Hotel Plaza in Andorra la Vella ($90 a night); Hotel Alexandra in Monaco’s Monte-Carlo quarter a few blocks from the famed Casino (an off-season bargain at $112); Grand Hotel San Marino just outside that capital’s walls ($88); and Hotel Real in downtown Vaduz, Liechtenstein ($139). There are no hotels in Vatican City, but the stylishly refurbished Hotel Columbus, on Via della Conciliazione just two blocks from St. Peter’s Square, gave good value at $189 a night in expensive Rome.


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