It wouldn’t be a European road trip without notching up another country or two. Last year Poland was new, in 2013 Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were all new to me. So this summer the temptation to visit Andorra, a tiny principality wedged high in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, was too much and we detoured several hours off route just to drive through this mountain tax haven.
When I say “notching up” a new country I’m being facetious. Let me explain: I don’t visit new places just to say “been there, done that” but I do have a competitive list of countries visited with a couple of old friends, and we do like to add to it whenever possible. We are all very well-travelled and have all lived in many countries. We met in Vietnam and over the last 20 years have teased and egged each other on in a bid to out-travel each other. It’s just a bit of serious fun! We all travel for much more genuine, thoughtful and profound reasons than just adding a notch to our belts, we aren’t quite as superficial as it sounds, trust me!
In this “competition” (said semi jokingly) we have some rules. If flying, airport lounges certainly don’t count, we have to go through immigration. Once in the country we have to buy something, preferably have a meal and go to the loo at the very least! It’s not enough to simply walk through the airport doors, take a selfie and go back into no-man’s land. Nor is it enough to jump off a train on to a platform, touch the ground and say “I’ve been to Bulgaria”. So my trip to Andorra filled all the criteria and I can honestly say I’ve been there. We went crazy food and alcohol shopping at the tax free supermarkets, ate an ice cream and went to the toilet. But I can’t say I know Andorra well, despite having driven the length of the country.
It’s a strange place, Andorra. It’s a principality ruled by 2 “princes”, one of whom is the serving French President and the other is a Spanish Bishop (from the town of Urgell). Who knew that President Hollande is also Prince of Andorra, a reigning monarch, really? Mad! The country is not part of the EU (watch out for sky high roaming charges as a result) but uses the Euro. Its official language is Catalan, though French and Spanish are widely used. It declared war on Germany in 1914 at the start of WWI but got left out of the Treaty of Versailles and was therefore technically still at war until 1958 when it officially declared peace! It is an ancient country created by charter in 988 though the current state “only” dates from 1278. It grows a lot of tobacco (photo below).
It is the 6th smallest country in Europe in size which means it is the biggest of the 6 European microstates. Until I looked up a few facts and figures for this post I thought I had been to all the other microstates and it was the last one for me to visit, having already been to Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Vatican City. Little did I realise Malta is also considered a microstate (no wonder, it turns out it’s tiiiiny but I had no idea!) and I haven’t been there. So urgh, I can’t say I’ve been to all the microstates…yet!
Microstates are funny places. San Marino appears to be full of weapons and Christmas decoration shops. A very peculiar mix! I assume people who collect Christmas baubles like to be able to buy from every country they visit so tiny San Marino has caught on to this craze. As for the weapons, I can’t explain that.
Monaco is just down the road, so we go often. Everyone has heard of Monaco (Monte Carlo) and its fame spreads further than its minute size should theoretically warrant. The magic of a Hollywood star marrying a real Prince had much to do with that I guess.
By contrast no one’s ever heard of Liechtenstein! You have to look hard on maps of Europe to find it. It doesn’t have a ski industry like Andorra to entice tourists or glamorous Hollywood stars and a F1 Grand Prix like Monaco or a Pope like, well you know where.
The Vatican of course is even more well-known than Monaco and has an even more peculiar status, not quite like any of the other microstates. I think it would be impossible (or just very strange) to miss it if in Rome. Of course it just happens to be the home of that rather powerful man, the head of the Roman Catholic Church….
And finally Malta…the teen has been there on a school trip so I’ve included one of his photos. It looks beautiful and I’d love to visit.
Have you been to any of the European microstates? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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