Five of the European capital cities we visited are in some of the smallest countries in the world, often called “principalities” and too small to have their own airports, so visitors have to fly into a neighbouring country and travel in from there.
There are other small capital cities in Europe, but I have not included in this blog Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands , even though we have visited Torshavn, en route by boat to Greenland. The Faroe Islands have been a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark since 1948 so not totally independent, and therefore not included here. For a similar reason Gibraltar is not included as it is a British Overseas Territory, so including Gibraltar in this blog may lead me to needing to include the British Virgin Islands, or Reunion as it is a French Overseas Territory with the same political status as other departments in mainland France ….and I have to stop somewhere!
In order of my visiting these five small European capitals:
Vatican City: sometime in the 1970s
The Vatican City is a tiny independent sovereign state (the smallest in the world?) with a population of around 1,000; it is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and where the Pope is based, and has it’s own version of the euro with the Pope’s head on it, its own radio station, newspaper, postal service and security service in the shape of the Swiss Guards.
However, for most tourists it is another historical and artistic site to see when on holiday in Rome. And this was how I visited it when in Rome with my mother for a long weekend in the 1970’s.
We were impressed by the vast Piazza San Pietro and enormous Basilica di San Pietro (or St Peter’s church) and of course by the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s painted ceiling and Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar are – according to The Rough Guide to Rome – the greatest masterpiece in Western art, the largest body of painting ever planned and executed by just one man, and probably the most viewed paintings in the world. When you see them you will have your own view.
Monte Carlo: June 1984
My husband phoned me one day when I was at home on what passed for maternity leave in 1984 to tell me that we had won a weekend in Monte Carlo, all expenses paid, due to his successful entry into a newspaper competition! The brief details which he had were that we were going with members of the Lord’s Taverners youth and disabled sports charity, and there was going to be a cricket match.
It turned out to be a very enjoyable weekend indeed. I was seven months’ pregnant, so had to have a “fit to fly” note from our doctor and I also took out extra travel insurance which would fly us home if I went into labour. I found out on the trip that the newspaper had done the same so I was probably rather over insured. In hindsight, had our elder daughter Olivia been born in Monte Carlo she might have become a citizen of Monaco and allowed tax-free status for the rest of the life….. but it was not to be.
Our group of competition winners also included TV and media stars associated with the Lord’s Taverners – including Omar Sharif, Terry Wogan and Babs from “Pan’s People” with her husband Robert Powell – and the cricket match was against the Monegasque royal family with Prince Albert playing (if my memory serves me right). I can’t remember who won, but blame pregnancy amnesia – or a lack of interest in cricket!
Monte Carlo harbour
We didn’t see much of Monaco apart from the drive from Nice airport and in our free time walking around the marina in Monte Carlo with all the expensive yachts – though this was before the era of “super yachts” with helicopter pads and heat-seeking missiles (I may be making that one up). We went into a casino where for the first time I saw the depressing sight of people indoors on a lovely sunny day, with no windows, feeding coin after coin into slot machines (or one-armed bandits as they were then called) . This was certainly not the glamorous “James Bond” side of gambling, with roulette tables staffed by dinner-jacketed croupiers and elegantly dressed gamblers. We had a gala dinner with entertainment which included a singer whom neither of us liked, so my pregnancy was a very useful excuse to leave early.
I’m afraid I have no notes about the airline we flew with or hotel where we stayed, but the weekend cost us absolutely nothing and we had a great time!
San Marino May 2017
The nearest airport to San Marino is Rimini, but my husband and I chose to make a day trip to San Marino part of a week’s holiday to a really lovely part of Italy, so flew into Bologna and out of Perugia, staying in Bologna, Rimini and Perugia, travelling between them by train and taking the express bus from Rimini up to San Marino.
San Marino feels just like a pretty Italian town but is in fact a separate country, a republic perched on top of a very steep hill surrounding by the city walls which defended it for centuries, with 3 of the ancient towers still standing. There are churches, museums (we sampled the Museum of Curiosity but declined the Torture Museum) and, of course, some good restaurants – this is Italy after all! San Marino’s main income (only income?) is tourism and it does good business with selling stamps, coins and passport stamps which are obtained from the tourist information office where for a small fee you have a pretty stamp in your passport to prove your visit.
San Marino was a pleasant day trip in a very enjoyable week in Italy. We had stayed in Bologna before, but consider it a city well worth another visit and we were impressed with the well-located Best Western Hotel San Donato where we stayed for two nights. Bologna is considered the “foodie” capital of Italy, and as well as its own food market, shops and restaurants it is also a very good base for trips out to Modena (for every “vintage” of balsamic vinegar) to Parma for Parma ham and parmesan cheese, and also to Ravenna for stunning mosaics.
We stayed in the comfortable Card International in Rimini, chosen for its proximity to the station, but also to Roman ruins which impressed us, the more so as my image of Rimini was of mile after mile of sandy beaches. Sandy beaches there were, but as we were there in May, not a soul was on them, even though the weather was, in our opinion, very pleasantly warm.
And so to Perugia, an amazing city again built on a very steep hill, where the locals ingeniously use Roman underground tunnelling to help modern-day Perugians and visitors to move from one level to another, by building flights of escalators from one height to another. We had a lovely relaxing time in Perugia, staying at the Sangallo Palace Hotel, conveniently just near one of the entrances to the flights of escalators. These are dimly lit, and with Roman statues looming out of the gloom are tremendously atmospheric as well as extremely functional! We took a day trip out of Perugia to visit Assisi, where the legend of St Francis is brought to life in the cathedral and to Gubbio, a delightful walled medieval town.
We flew with Ryan Air to Bologna for £82 and Ryanair back from Perugia for £104.72. Our accommodation in Bologna, the Hotel Best Western San Donato, costs £250.86 for 2 nights; in Rimini we stayed 2 nights at the Card International Hotel for £286.49 and 3 nights in Perugia at the Hotel Sangallo Palace cost us £283.95. We spent an additional £940.90 on eating, drinking and transport so our week’s holiday cost £1,948.92.
Andorra la Vella (via Toulouse): July 2017
We chose to fly into Toulouse before and after our visit to Andorra la Vella as we had heard good things about the city and hadn’t visited it before. We booked to stay at the 2 star Hotel D’Orsay, chosen as it was near the railway station (where we would arrive from the airport) and also the bus station (to catch our bus up to Andorra). Like many 2 star hotels we have stayed in, it was excellent, without pretension, with a comfortable, well equipped bedroom and a lovely breakfast. Star ratings for hotels are a bit of a mystery to me – I believe you must have reception manned all night to achieve one level, room service available 24 hours for another level and so on, but as these factors are rarely important to us, we are often happy and better off financially in a 2 or 3 star hotel.
We looked round our area near the canal on our first evening in Toulouse and found a restaurant highly recommended for its famous Toulouse cassoulet and booked a table for later that evening. It was a traditional French dining experience with Madame firmly in control of staff, kitchen and customers and we enjoyed our local speciality meal very much.
We were up early to catch the bus to Andorra. It is in fact a mini-bus laid on and paid for by the hotels in Andorra and it zipped us up in 4 hours into the Pyrenees and on to Andorra La Vella. Andorra is principally used for skiing in winter and the capital has little to offer in summer apart from duty-free designer shops. Spaniards and French bargain hunters arrive by the car load to shop on the main street. Discount designer clothes, perfumes and shoes were not on our list for that holiday (if ever?) but we walked up and down the streets and found a pleasant Spanish-style restaurant to eat al fresco in the evening. We learnt that the Andorrans speak Catalan, and that in fact Andorra is part of the Catalan area which covers Spain around Barcelona, the Pyrenees including Andorra and parts of France around Toulouse.
We had booked to stay overnight in Andorra, rather than have a 4-hour bus ride twice in one day, but we should have put up with two bus-rides instead. We stayed in the Hotel Andorra Centre which was comfortable enough but lacking in character and was more a business or conference centre I felt than a place for travellers. The next morning it was pouring with rain. “Museum weather!” we decided so my husband left me reading in the hotel lobby and went to the Tourist Information office to find out which museums we could visit in Andorra La Vella on a Sunday morning in the rain while we waited for the 2 o’clock bus. He returned with the news that there are museums in Andorra but none in its capital city so we stayed reading in the hotel lobby watching the rain until it was time for our bus which this time was driven by a driver who loved euro-techno-pop which he played loudly for the entire 4 hours…..
We moved hotel in Toulouse and stayed in the extremely elegant Hotel Grand Balcon just off the main square for two nights and enjoyed sight-seeing, eating, drinking and just wandering around Toulouse for the next couple of days far more than we had Andorra La Vella. There you are, not all capital cities are worth a visit.
We flew with Easyjet to and from Toulouse for £239.10. Our hotels cost £78.34 for one night in the Hotel D’Orsay, £73.80 for a night in the Hotel Andorra Centre, and £287.64 for 2 nights in the Hotel Grand Balcon in Toulouse. We spent another £652.67 on the buses, trains to and from Gatwick airport, eating, drinking and souvenir tins of cassoulet (which were confiscated at the airport) so a total of £1,331.55.
Vaduz (capital of the Principality of Liechtenstein) via Zurich: August 2018
As we had found Andorra la Valle very disappointing when we had visited it the previous summer, we decided not to stay in Vaduz overnight (as we had done in Andorra la Valle) but visited it for the day by way of an organised tour from Zürich. We therefore flew into Zürich and stayed for 2 nights. It was only after paying what seemed an eye watering price for a small hotel room in Zurich that I read a newspaper article which claimed Zurich is the most expensive city in the world …
We had a strange view of Zürich, arriving so late on Friday evening due to spending 2 and a quarter hours on the tarmac at Luton airport that we had no energy to explore but instead had a snack and drink at a station café (which cost the equivalent of 27.50 euros). On Saturday we found that the annual Pride parade was being held that day (which may also explain why our hotel – the 2 star Walhalla Hostel – was so expensive) and when we returned at about 7.30 pm from our day trip to Vaduz, the streets were awash with drink bottles, cans, polystyrene cartons, sobbing women being comforted by friends, drunken men posturing before a fight and every type of costume you could imagine. Not enjoying walking ankle-deep through rubbish (I could go to Wood Green for that) we returned to our hotel area and had a snack at a nearby café where, readers, my thrifty Yorkshire-born husband spent the equivalent of 8 euros on a plate of chips!
In the morning (well done the Swiss) the city was clean again and we could see how attractive the old town and riverside areas were as we strolled around before catching our flight (which was delayed an hour in boarding, coupled with another hour or more on the tarmac). And our Hostel Walhalla (not to be confused with its sister Hotel Walhalla, with four stars) did provide an excellent breakfast, the room had sufficient power points, waste bins, mirrors and towels to suit my exacting requirements, and also play station equipment, a virtual reality headset and the ability to play Spotify play lists through the room speakers via blue tooth…… I chose it mostly for its location, being opposite the bus station from where our coach tour left, and near the railway station for travelling to and from Zürich airport. The main down side to the room was that it had no air-conditioning, just a fan, and Zürich was experiencing a heat wave with temperatures reaching 31 degrees. Fortunately, we had been experiencing even higher temperatures in London so had to some degree become acclimatised.
But what about Vaduz, the point of our visit? We had booked before leaving home a coach tour with English guide described as the “Heidi land” tour – two countries in one day and this was what it delivered. I hadn’t realised the fictional character of Heidi had bred a tourist industry where “her” house could be visited; one could pose for photos with plaster cows and so on. Before “Heidi land” we had a brief tour of Zürich – excluding the centre because of Pride – and then stopped in Rapperswil , a fairly attractive resort on the banks of Lake Zürich. This all meant that we actually spent 45 minutes in Vaduz, considerably less time than we had spent on planes on the tarmac, let alone the time spent in airports.
Liechtenstein really is an odd country, being so small – only 25 km long – having a population of under 38,000 (so only a tenth of the London Borough of Barnet), being ruled by a Prince, who is Head of State as well as Monarch and who does indeed live in a castle and having an economy built entirely on banking and money laundering. Our guide told us that the Gaddafi family keep their money here, as do many Russian oligarchs, and Imelda Marcos did and so on. Interesting to hear a Swiss person being critical of another country’s banking ethos! Liechtenstein has its own flag and postage stamps but not its own currency but uses Swiss Francs instead. We were expecting to cross a visible border with passport control and hoping for a stamp in our passports, but in fact you just drive over a bridge from Switzerland and there you are – with Austria a few kilometres away on the other side.
I read an interesting article in the Evening Standard which quoted facts about Liechtenstein from a book by Charles Saatchi, and learned that Liechtenstein is double landlocked as it is bordered by two countries – Austria and Switzerland which are also landlocked. The national anthem (Oben am Jungen Rhein) shares the same tune as the English national anthem, so when Northern Ireland played Liechtenstein in the 2004 Euro football, two national anthems were sung, each with the same tune! And Liechtenstein leads the world in false teeth manufacture, making 60 million sets a year and thus claiming one fifth of the world market. Who knew?
I was entertained to read that Swiss troops accidentally invaded Liechtenstein in 2007 as they had become lost in a rain storm. Switzerland immediately apologised. The only time the Liechtenstein army engaged in action was in 1866 when they sent their 80 soldiers into battle, returning with 81 including a new Italian friend who had joined them. All were unharmed. Thank you for these amusing snippets, Mr Saatchi!
Vaduz is full of designer shops but also had whimsical street art and at the time we visited a festival in full swing. I bought an excellent Aperol Spritz even if it did cost me 8 Swiss francs to drink it out of a plastic glass walking around (I daren’t think how expensive it might have been if I had sat down and had it in a proper glass). I liked what I saw of Vaduz but 45 minutes was more or less enough time and I was glad we weren’t staying the night; we did, however, gain our coveted passport stamps by the simple process of paying 3 francs each in a souvenir shop which placed a stamp on whichever page of our passports we chose.
Our flights with Easy Jet cost £279.50 return, our two nights B&B in the Hostel Walhalla £342.31, the day trip booked through £133.38 and we spent a further £174.18 on food, drink and train fares to and from airports, so a total of £929.37.