The mountainous microstate of San Marino 🇸🇲

In February 2019, mum came along with me to tick off another microstate of Europe, this time the 5th smallest country in the world, and landlocked by Italy, the beautiful San Marino. Like the other European microstates, of which I have now visited all of them, it has no airport, it also doesn’t have a train station, so other than driving there yourself, your best option is to get the bus from the nearest I`talian city, which is Rimini.

After catching the train down from Bologna, it was a short walk outside Rimini train station to the easily marked bus stop on the opposite side of the street. You can buy a ticket on board the Bonelli Bus or at the kiosk by the bus stop, taking about 40-45 minutes till the bus reaches its final stop, which is right in the centre of this tiny country.

The first thing that struck me as we alighted from the bus was the most incredible mountainous views. The capital, also known as San Marino or locally known as Città, sits atop the ridge of Monte Titano and is the highest part of the country, so the views from up high were breathtaking. It’s part of the Apennines mountain range, which spreads across the horizon to the West, whilst on the Eastern side the land slowly descends towards the Adriatic Sea. I think for the first half an hour or so, once we had checked into our hotel, we just stood mesmerised by the dramatic landscape.

The perfect spot we found to admire our surroundings was over in Freedom Square, or the Piazza della Liberta, from here there are spectacular views west across to the mountains and the valley down below. It was also here where we stopped for a beer and some snacks in Osteria La Taverna one of the restaurants lining the square, tourist friendly and not the cheapest, but it was worth it for the views and to soak up the atmosphere of this curious little country, no regrets.

The square is guarded by the white marble Statua Della Liberta, draped in a flag and wearing a crown featuring the 3 towers that stand proud on the surrounding 3 peaks of Monte Titano. It is such an important symbol of the history of the country, that she is featured on their 2 cent coin.

Behind the statue of liberty is the Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall where all the official state ceremonies take place, as you would expect it’s smaller than your average for a ‘capital city’, but its still worth a visit. The exterior looks like a mini tower, with battlements, a clock face and the national flag, whilst inside you can explore various state rooms filled with coats of arms, busts of important figures, and a beautifully painted facade featuring Saint Marino, the Croatian stonemason who founded the country after making this mountain his home in 301AD.

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It was then time to explore down the narrow streets, climb up the city walls, peer over at some breathtaking panoramic spots and window shop in the unnerving amount of weapon stores, featuring guns, bows & arrows and samurai swords, the country has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the whole of Europe we later found out.

The entire city centre and Mount Titano is a UNESCO world heritage site for many reasons, all apparent as you wander around this unique place, including all the fortifications, stone walls, gates and towers. We were constantly getting distracted and diverted off the main alleyways and streets as we paused to investigate what was up a wall, inside a tower and behind a gate, leading to lots of fascinating discoveries and ever changing vistas.

With our feet starting to get a bit weary, we had one last port of call before heading for a rest, the tourist information centre. We already had a local map from our hotel, but this was for something even more important, a passport stamp! It’s the only place where you can get one, there are no border checks, or passport offices as you enter and exit the country and although the stamp itself is just a tourist stamp and nothing more, the San Marino authorities consider it to be official, I think it cost about €5 and I couldn’t think of a better souvenir to take home.

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That evening, there was only one thing we fancied eating, and that was pizza`! We found Ristorante Cacciatori and dived into the pizza menu as well as sampling a local red wine too.

The next morning, revived with a delicious espresso, it was another cloudless blue sky that awaited us, rewarding us with more endless mountain views.

Our main aim for the day was to walk to the 3 peaks of Mount Titano and visit all 3 of the towers that are located atop them. But first, we stumbled upon St Quirinus’s Church along with the Capuchin Fathers Convent (Convento dei Frati Cappuccini), and although it has been modified over the years, there has been a Roman Catholic church on this spot since 1549. It’s worth a visit, although it has a simple interior, the walnut altarpiece is beautiful, along with the statue of Madonna of Lourdes, casting an ethereal look as she is surrounded by candles and blue light.

As we slowly meandered our way to Tower number 3, (we were working backwards to Tower 1) , we came across a rather harrowing statue of a screaming boy. On further inspection we learned it was erected in memory of those who died in the Beslam school massacre in Russia back in 2004, I’m not sure if there is a specific connection to San Marino, but it definitely brought a little sober reflection to our morning walk.

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Montale is the third of the towers and stands on the smallest of the 3 peaks. It’s a 14th century tall, thin tower with its door 7 metres up from the ground as it used to be a prison. It’s the only tower that isn’t opened to the public, so we didn’t hang around too much, except to admire the view and then we continued to make our way along the foot path to tower number 2.

Tower 2 or Cesta is located on the tallest of the 3 peaks, this 13th century tower was built on the site of an old Roman fort and also houses the Saint Marinus museum, this tower you can investigate both inside and out and is well worth it.

Tower 1, the Guaita fortress is the most well known and oldest of the 3, built in the 11th century, you can also visit this one inside too, look out for the coat of arms in stone, the bell tower and a display of artillery from the 2nd world war.

Once we made it back down to lower ground, we ventured into the Basilica di San Marino, the main church of the country, dedicated of course to its founder Saint Marinus. The neo-classic style building with adjoining bell tower, has an impressive entrance of wide steps and eight columns across the front, whilst inside another 16 columns frame the interior along with a statue of Mary Magdalene.

Needing refreshment, we got a Piadina to take out and sat in the beautiful Giardino dei Liburni close to the national gallery, easily recognised by its unique sphere shaped fountain. Once we were replenished we spent a nice half hour exploring some of the many pieces of Italian art inside the gallery both classic and modern.

For the rest of the afternoon, we headed out of the ‘big city’ and to the country’s 2nd largest town, Borgo Maggiore. We were curious to explore another part of San Marino, that maybe the tour buses don’t get too, but also because the quickest and easiest way to get there is to take a cable car down the mountain, which is always a fun idea!

The upper station is situated close to the Basilica San Marino and the service runs every 15 minutes, costs vary, but start at €2.00 for a single journey with a Tutto San Marino Card. We had the card and bought a return for €3.50. The views from the car as you would expect down the mountain were outstanding.

Once at the bottom, we wandered around the streets, to catch a glimpse of the every day happenings of the local Sammarinese, of which they make up 4/5ths of the population, with the remainder being mainly and unsurprisingly Italian. How amazing I thought to be part of such a small population of only 33,000 living aside a mountain, surrounded on all sides by Italy, but still retain your own culture and identity. We just had time for a peek inside the Church of Saints Antimo and Marinus close to the lower cable car station, before heading back up the mountain before sunset.

For our final night in the country, we had a lovely meal with incredible views at Ristorante Spingarda followed by a local beer and a final evening walk round the streets and through the city gates, soaking up the views for one last time.

The next morning, we caught an early bus back down the mountain to the Italian coastal city of Rimini for the next part of our adventure . .

Eats – Not surprisingly San Marino cuisine is very similiar to Italian. We ate some delicious pasta and pizza at Osteria La Taverna, Ristorante Cacciatori and Ristorante Spingarda.

Drinks – Despite its small size, San Marino does produce its own beer, wine and spirits, all of which are served in the local restaurants. We sampled the beers Spingarda beera bionda and birrificio abusiv as well as the red wine, Rosso dei Castelli Sammarinesi. Delicious coffee too was to be found everywhere, we had one close to the Giardino dei Liburni at the Galleria Caffe.

Top Tip – We got our free TuttoSanMarino Card from our hotel, giving us lots of discounts around the city, including the reduced cable car fare.

Always be polite – Buongiorno – Good Morning, (Mille) grazie – Thank You Very Much, Arrivederci  – Good Bye

 

 

The Microstate of Liechtenstein 🇱🇮

When I took a month off to travel, pre-pandemic (ah those were the days) I made it my mission to visit Liechtenstein as it was my final European microstate that I had to visit.

It was a destination that had flummoxed me a few times, as I had been to or near to towns in Austria or Germany that appeared to be on a train line close by, but in actuality it wasn’t as simple as I had initially thought, and I never quite made it.

But, in 2019 I gave myself 2 weeks to travel across Europe, visiting a few new places, ending up at a music festival in Spain, so I had the luxury of time to plan a trip specifically to visit Europe’s 4th smallest country & I am so glad I made the effort.

I took probably the easiest route in, which involved a train from Zurich with gorgeous views of the lakes and mountains, (definitely get a window seat if you can). Taking just over an hour, you get off at the Swiss border town of Sargans, minutes from the border. There is only 1 train line in Liechtenstein, but it doesn’t pass through the capital, it crosses further north, starting in Buchs, Switzerland over to Feldkirch in Austria.

The 12 E bus was perfect for me, you get it outside Sargans station, and takes about 15 minutes to get to Vaduz the capital, costing about £2 if memory serves.

Once I arrived in the capital, it was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the one and only Youth Hostel in the country, taking in the stunning mountain views all around.

 

Once refreshed, I set back up the road to explore the capital, feeling a little tired from my journey I took it easy for the rest of the day, exploring the shops, cafes and trying the local beer. I would leave the popular castle for day 2 & made an obligatory stop at the tourist information centre to get a local map. It was nice not to have much of an itinerary, but wandering, taking photos, window shopping (its an expensive country!) & constantly gawking at the incredible surrounding scenery.

Being on a budget, and only a few days into my 2 week journey, dinner was bought at the local supermarket and cooked at the hostel. But this tiny country sitting between Austria and Switzerland is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous views, which I could luckily enjoy from my hostel window, so I most definitely could not complain.

That evening, I picked up a walking trail close to the hostel and headed South towards the Swiss border. I found myself at the famous Rhine River, which acts as a border between the two countries and I had a lovely walk as the sun started to set. I crossed over bridges between the two countries, with a line marking the spot of the border half way across the river. Of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of photos of me standing in both countries at the same time.

I had pretty much a full second day in the capital, as I was catching the night train to Slovenia at around 9PM that evening. Once I had checked out of the hostel, I stored my rucksack in the lockers located in the centre of the town. I can’t quite remember exactly where the lockers were, but they were on the east side of the main road right in the heart of Vaduz.

My first stop was up to see Vaduz castle, I headed there first, as its location on a hilltop, is 120 metres above Vaduz, so thought it best to avoid hiking up in the midday sun. A fortress initially in the 12th century, it gradually expanded to become a proper residence, with the royal family moving there in the 1700’s. Although it did become abandoned many years later, the royal family renovated it and moved back in and still live there today, meaning that you can’t actually visit inside. Don’t let that put you off making the trip though, the hike up is lovely, with some incredible views all around.

If you have had your fill of window shopping and cafes the Kunst Museum is an airy, interesting, artistic space. Built across two levels, the museum houses both modern & contemporary art from worldwide artists, a cafe and of course the all important gift shop. If an entire art gallery is too much to handle, you can still get your fill of cool, unusual sculptures dotted around the city centre, like the Colombian Reclining Women.

Next up was the Neo Gothic Vaduz Cathedral or Cathedral of St Florin. Quite a simple, peaceful place, I had it almost to myself, I must have timed it just right. It had some lovely stained glass inside, and made for a cool, quiet rest stop.

Due to the mild climate and south west facing slopes, vineyards are a common sight along with the ever present mountains, so it’s no surprise that there are many companies offering wine tasting trips. That wasn’t something I had the time, money or inclination to do, but I still had a wander out of the main centre and into the countryside to explore the rows of grapes vines, and I even came across some grazing goats.

It was another supermarket late lunch, as not only are the cafes and restaurants expensive, the plant based options were limited, but I didn’t quite mind as I found a bench in the shade, and took my last views of the surrounding landscape.

Although my night train onward wasn’t till late, I fancied a look around the Swiss border town of Sargans, which is where I boarded the bus to Vaduz and would be boarding the train to Slovenia. So, feeling refreshed, I grabbed my rucksack and only had a few minutes to wait to get the bus back over the border to continue my adventure.

Would I return, actually yes I would, it’s a bit of a faff to get too, and the only way in is via expensive Austria or Switzerland, so it’s never going to be a cheap trip. But if I got the opportunity, I think I would fancy Schaan, the largest city in the country and this time I would bring my walking boots and head up some of the many walking trails. You can never get enough of those incredible mountain views and fresh alpine air.

EATS – Brasserie Burg is situated in the pedestrian area in the heart of Vaduz, it has lots of outside seating, so you can sit down and watch the world go by whilst sampling a local beer and maybe trying a vegan pi“zza.

COFFEE AND CAKE  – The American Bagel & Coffee Company had delicious coffee, and a good range of sandwiches and cake, with really good vegan options too.

TOP TIP – Liechtenstein isn’t the cheapest of countries and its also landlocked by Austria and Switzerland, two other countries not known for being budget friendly either. If like me, you stay at the Schaan/Vaduz youth hostel, it’s close to a decent supermarket, which I visited a couple of times for breakfasts and one evening meal, to help stay save the pennies.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – ‘Hallo‘ – Hello, ‘Danke schön’ Thank You, ‘Bitte‘, Please.

 

A Weekend in Andorra 🇦🇩

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Starting 2019 as I mean to go on, by exploring the world!  I have done some travelling since dad died, but havent felt up to writing, I am still figuring stuff out and looking at ways to combine more travelling and earning a living now I don’t need to be based in the North West UK anymore. But since last summer I have been back to Greece, also to Albania and Jordan, so I will aim to write those travels up soon. For now though, I have just landed back from Country 51, Andorra!

Arrivals

Andorra is one of 5 countries I believe that doesn’t have its own airport, so travelling in by car or bus is your only option, as there aren’t any trains either! The nearest airports are in either Spain to the south or France in the north, I flew in with Easyjet to Barcelona in Spain and I flew home from Toulouse in France. Most airports in the UK have regular and inexpensive flights to Barcelona, and you can fly into Toulouse from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and London, so lots of options.

It’s so easy to then get yourself to the capital Andorra la Vella as Andbus provides regular direct services from both airports to the main bus station, taking around 3 hours and around €33 each way. Andorra is located high up in the Eastern Pyrenees, so the views as you make your way up to the capital are pretty spectacular if it’s not too foggy! The Andbus’s were on time, clean, USB ports everywhere and although there was supposed to be WIFI, they do warn you it could be temperamental, and I wasnt able to connect at all during both journeys. Other departures that I saw on the board at the Estacio Nacional d’Autobusos d’Andorra were Madrid with Alsa Bus, Lleida (also in Spain) with Montmantell and I think Eurolines do an overnight bus to Porto in Portugal too. Both border crossings in and out of the country were quick, we didn’t stop at all, which was great, meaning no delays, but also no stamp in your passport either. The bus station itself is clean and modern with toilets, vending machines, lots of seats and plenty of lockers, great if you’re only staying a short while, it was €3 for 24 hours use.

 

Sights

It has to be said, that unless you are mad on duty free shopping or skiing, there isn’t one outstanding must see building, church or museum. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a visit by any means. The capital Andorra la Vella is friendly with lots of quaint little back streets, surrounded by epic mountain views and lots of duty free shops, so if you fancy a bargain on a go pro or iPhone this is the place. I was on a tight budget as usual, so I just fancied a wander along the streets, to drink good coffee and find a few places of cultural interest. A good place to start is at the Tourist Information Centre, a modern stand alone building where the shopping street Avinguda Meritxell meets the Place de la Rotonda. Here you can get free maps of both the capital and the country as a whole, pick up some souvenirs, book a tour or get bus timetables, the staff speak English and are really helpful too.

Casa de la Vall This is the place to visit if you want to learn some history about Andorra, this 16th century building is one of the oldest and most continuous seats of parliament in Europe. It is open Mon-Sat, closing at midday but opens again at 3. Unfortunately, even though I got there at 3 on the dot, it never opened on the day I visited, when I asked at the Tourist Information Centre, they very kindly rang as they presumed it should have been open, but it was indeed closed for the day, despite the sign outside saying differently. So I never got to explore it during my stay. Even if you don’t want to visit inside, still head over as there is a great viewing area out front.

Staying in this historic area a short walk from Casa de la Vall is a small but beautiful Romanesque building, otherwise known as the Church of Sant Esteve.  Quite a simple and calm interior, the outside is pretty impressive and worth a visit.

Avenue Meritxell is one of the main shopping streets in the capital, lined with clothes, gadgets and jewellery shops, if you’re in the market for a bargain, spend some time window shopping along here. Andorra is exempt from excise duty tax, so you’ll find things much cheaper than at home. Also along this street are lots of restaurants, some souvenir shops and the large Pyrenees shopping mall.

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Heading East along the Avenue Meritxell, you will eventually come to a junction and if you turn right the shopping street, becoming a pedestrianised area, with more malls, restaurants and bars. Whilst I was here, it was 12th night, and the avenue was converted into the Three Kings Parade all covered with sparkly Christmas lights and floats. It was memorable for maybe some of the wrong reasons, as the children threw boiled sweets from the floats preceding the three kings arrival, they were like missiles flying through the crowd, I’m sure there will have been a few black eyes the next morning, gosh they hurt!

The Salvador Dali clock called ‘Nobility of Time’ is found here too at the point where the Avenue Meritxel crosses over the river (Pont de la Rotunda) as well as the impressive Andorra La Vella sign, where you must get a photo as proof of your visit, of course! (especially if you didn’t get a passport stamp).

Exploring the capital with a stop for some tapas and coffee pretty much took up day one, so on day two, armed with a bus timetable I headed off to another town nearby.

Encamp – One of the main ski resorts in the country, its only a short 20 minute bus ride from the capital.  Bus L2 leaves regularly and costs €1.85 for a single trip or if you plan on visiting more places, a €4 ticket will give you a day pass.  Catch the bus on Avinguda Príncep Benlloch, there will be a yellow bus sign painted on road, or just keep a look out for skiers stood at the bus stop, as the ski resort at Encamp has real and artificial snow, so attracts skiers 365 days a year. If you are already staying in Encamp, then there is a free Funibus that travels through the town, taking skiers direct to the cable car station.

You don’t have to be a skier at all to enjoy a visit to Encamp, there are still enough things to fill a couple of hours. The small town has a few museums such as the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum a 3 story refurbished rural house, giving visitors a real in site into Andorran life at the end of the 19th century. If cars are more your thing, there is also the National Automobile Museum all walkable from the bus stop.

A real delight though, was the area in the town called Les Bons a historical village with amazing views across the valley, it’s a bit of climb, so have some decent footwear on. There is a 12th Century Church the Sant Roma up here with a small altar with beautiful murals and an impressive defense tower too.

The big draw to the town though is the stomach clenching (if you’re not great with heights that is) 6KM Funicular and one of the longest cable cars in Europe. Its €12 for a return journey taking just over 15 minutes each way and transports you to the top of the snowy mountains and the Solanelles ski area.  It does stop half way, but I wasnt quite sure what was there, other than the option to hop off half way to go hiking, as there wasnt any snow there or a rest area, so I stayed on with the other skiers till it terminated at the summit.  As well as skiing and snowboarding, there is a coffee shop and restaurant area both with outdoor seating, so none skiers like me can grab a hot drink (or beer), wrap up and enjoy unbelievable views. Well worth it and was probably the highlight of my trip to the country.

With only a few daylight hours left of day 2,  I decided to walk to the village of Santa Colomba, to the west of the capital, it was only a 25 minute walk from my hotel, although I did see the L1 bus driving along the main road, if your hotel is a bit more central than mine was. The reason tourists head to this village is to view the Pre-Romanesque Santa Colomba Church with its unusual circular bell tower the only one of its kind in the country and the multi coloured wooden bust inside.

If you are visiting between 1 June to 31 October and are short on time and car-less, a good idea would be to board one of the various Tourist Buses. They offer 6 different routes with audio commentary in Catalan, Spanish, French and English.  They cover all areas of the country, including the epic landscapes, the best of the Romanesque architecture and the main museums, I think I would have used this had I not visited in January for sure.

Coffee and Cake

Fleca Font appears to be a bakery chain, as I spotted a few dotted around. They are simple, nothing fancy, but they seemed friendly, the waitress spoke English and they had a good selection of pastries and decent coffee and free wifi.  There is one right by the Church of Sant Esteve, it was a handy place to rest my feet, upload some pictures and recharge with an Americano. Another coffee shop in the capital that provided a good caffeine fix was Santagloria and although not the best coffee in the world, its worth grabbing a drink at the coffee bar atop the mountain if you take the cable car in Encamp.

Eats

Although a german burger joint wouldn’t normally be high on my list for places to go eat when visiting a, well, none German town, I was drawn to Frankfurt Chester because I could see it served local Andorran beer which was on my list of things to try. The place looked inviting too, with lots of seats by large windows, so I ventured in, ordered a bottle of local beer and a delicious huge plate of Patatas Bravas, I spent a good hour people watching, the total cost being just over €7. I really fancied visiting La Birreria for some local beers too, but once again, it was closed on Sundays.

Another place I really wanted to visit was Veggies World in the city centre, it didn’t open until 7PM, so I held off eating and made my way there for just after 7, but on arrival, the place was still closed. It didn’t look like it was opening any time soon, there were no lights on and the chairs were all stacked up, I was too hungry to hang around, and never had time to make it back during my stay. To stick to a tight budget this time, I bought lunches from the big supermarket SuperU in the city centre and stocked up on the impressive and large breakfast I was served at Hotel Cervol where I was staying for the weekend.

Others Sights – I really wanted to visit the one and only Andorran UNESCO site Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. 9% of Andorra is a designated world heritage area, covering forests, lakes and mountains and promises spectacular scenery and wildlife. Buses are reduced in the winter months, and none were running close to the start of the valley on the Sunday when I was there. I also read that some of the hiking trails were more suited to the summer months and as I wasnt really kitted out for all-weather hiking, I didn’t venture over, but I have definitely put it back on my list for a possible return.

Andorra is a unique little place, it absolutely cannot compete with its neighbour Barcelona for architecture, cathedrals, museums and nightlife, but it does have its charm and the mountain landscape is breathtaking. I am really glad I visited and wouldn’t rule out a return in the summer months with my hiking boots to see more.

Always Be Polite – A few phrases to go armed with – Hello ‘Hola’ – Thank you ‘gràcies’ – Yes ‘sí’ – Goodbye ‘adéu’