The complete guide to small European countries

There are six tiny countries in Europe that are big on attitude, culture and style. And even though they're small, some have stood up to the greatest tyrants in history. William Cook goes on a tour to prove that less really is more

It's all relative, of course. Compared with Russia, the largest country in the world, everywhere else in Europe is tiny. Belgium and the Netherlands are both dwarfed by their expansive neighbours, France and Germany. Even the United Kingdom is less than half the size of Spain. Still, you've got to draw the line somewhere, and so for the purposes of this guide anything smaller than 1,000 square miles is small enough, and anything bigger is, er, too big. That leaves half a dozen fun-sized nations. They range from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (just sneaking under the wire at 998 square miles) to Vatican City, also known as the Holy See – at 0.2 square miles, the world's smallest independent state.

The complete guide to small European countries

HOW BIG IS SMALL, EXACTLY?

It's all relative, of course. Compared with Russia, the largest country in the world, everywhere else in Europe is tiny. Belgium and the Netherlands are both dwarfed by their expansive neighbours, France and Germany. Even the United Kingdom is less than half the size of Spain. Still, you've got to draw the line somewhere, and so for the purposes of this guide anything smaller than 1,000 square miles is small enough, and anything bigger is, er, too big. That leaves half a dozen fun-sized nations. They range from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (just sneaking under the wire at 998 square miles) to Vatican City, also known as the Holy See – at 0.2 square miles, the world's smallest independent state.

AND THE REST?

The other four, in descending order of size, are Andorra (180 square miles), Liechtenstein (62 square miles), the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (24 square miles) and Monaco (1 square mile, about the same size as Hyde Park).

Yet though they are small, most of these tiny countries are much older than many of the big brothers that surround them. They're closer to the way Europe used to look, and who's to say they aren't closer to the way Europe will look in future? After all, the continental map is already far more fragmented than it was even 15 years ago.

WHAT ABOUT GIBRALTAR?

This fragment of the Iberian peninsula is a UK Crown Colony, not an independent nation.

WHAT'S THE BIG ATTRACTION OF THESE SMALL COUNTRIES?

Tonight, English eyes will be on a corner of a foreign field: Liechtenstein's Rheinpark Stadium, in its state capital, Vaduz, is the venue for an important European Championship qualifier this evening. At 5.30pm, British time, Liechtenstein takes on England. The Rheinpark's capacity is only 3,500, but England fans shouldn't scoff. With a population of less than 33,000, this pretty little principality is doing pretty well to give us a game at all. And secondly, a decade ago, soccer minnows San Marino – an even more concise nation with an even smaller population – gave England a nasty fright when they scored within 10 seconds of kick-off. England responded to this slight by scoring seven goals, but England boss Graham Taylor still resigned less than a week later. Moral: underestimate Europe's smallest countries at your peril.

BUT THE ENGLAND GAME IS SOLD OUT

Don't fret. There's lots of other stuff to do in Liechtenstein. Well, enough for a few days. The principality's monarch, his Serene Highness Prince Hans Adam II, has an incredible art collection – second only to that of our own Gracious Queen (bizarrely, England and Liechtenstein share the same national anthem – see box below). Liechtenstein marked the millennium by opening a new art gallery, where Hans Adam's Rubens, Rembrandts and Van Dycks rub shoulders with more modern works (00 423 235 0300; www.kunstmuseum.li).

Philatelists should find lots to look at in the stamp museum (00 423 236 61 05; www.news.li/briefmarken). If you're there just before Easter look out for Spark Sunday, when straw witches are burnt on huge bonfires – a pagan ritual to chase away the winter.

The prince's hilltop Schloss is out of bounds. Nevertheless, it's such a beautiful spot that it's still worth hiking up the hill for a closer view.

IS SMALL BEAUTIFUL?

Yes. Monaco (020-7352 9962; ( www.monaco-tourisme.com) boasts one of the world's chicest beaches – an exclusive slice of the Côte d'Azur between Nice and the Italian border. Luxembourg (020-7434 2800; www.luxembourg.co.uk) straddles the dramatic Ardennes mountains and the Moselle Valley, famous for its light, fruity wines. Andorra (020-8874 4806; www.turisme.ad) has some of the finest skiing and hiking in the Pyrenees, plus a wealth of duty-free shopping. Winter sports and summer walks are also popular in Liechtenstein, especially in the Alpine resort of Malbun. Contact Liechtenstein Tourism (00 423 239 6300; www.tourismus.li).

WHAT ABOUT HISTORY AND CULTURE?

Vatican City is the historic centre of Western Civilization. You need not be a confirmed Catholic to be drawn to the Holy See. Art lovers and historians will find almost as much to venerate. The Vatican Museums are a treasure trove of ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Syrian relics, plus Renaissance painting, sculpture and tapestries. The architecture is spectacular, too: St Peter's Basilica, the Raphael Stanze and, of course, the Sistine Chapel, complete with Michelangelo's immortal ceiling, plus important works by Botticelli. Call Vatican tourist information (00 39 06 6988 1662) or visit www.vatican.va.

If you're visiting the Holy See for religious reasons, you may even be able to obtain an audience with the Pope. Don't expect a one to one, but applying is a lot easier than you might suppose. Audiences tend to be held once a week, on Wednesdays, at 11am. Apply not less than two days and no more than one month in advance. Send a fax to the Prefettura della Casa Pontificia (00 39 06 6988 5863), stating your name, home address, Rome address and ideal date.

I'D RATHER GO FOR A SPIN

Head for Monaco – home of the Monte Carlo casino and the Monaco Grand Prix. This year's competition runs from Thursday 29 May to Sunday 1 June. For more information, contact the Automobile Club de Monaco (00 377 93 15 26 00; www.acm.mc). There's also an annual motor rally in January. But if your idea of fun is a bit more highbrow than listening to the roar of the combustion engine or the click and clatter of the roulette wheel, this millionaire's oasis also supports its own ballet, orchestra and opera house, plus several theatres. Not bad going for the world's second-smallest nation – but then it's a long time since this Lilliputian paradise last ran short of cash.

Prince Rainier of Monaco is more open than his counterpart in Liechtenstein; the ruler of Monaco opens his palace to the public. You can watch the changing of the guard for free at 11.55am each day. The Grimaldi family have ruled Monaco since 1297, and the country has been independent since 1415. It even survived an economic blockade by the French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963.

You can watch some first-class football while you're here as well, at the Louis II Stadium in Fontvieille. Despite being outside France, AS Monaco play in the French League, which they've won seven times – and right now, they're top of the First Division. Call 00 377 9205 7473 or visit www.asm-foot.mc.

I'M HUNGRY

For fine food and drink, go to Luxembourg, where the delicate finesse of French cuisine and Germany's hearty fare collide. The European Union's smallest state has more Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile, and per head of population, than any other country in the world. They also drink more heavily.

The Luxembourgeois deserve a bit of a break: the world's only Grand Duchy has experienced far too much excitement during the last 1,000 years. Ruled by Hapsburgs, Burgundians, Prussia, Spain, Holland, Belgium and France (which annexed this wooded land as a Department of Forests), Luxembourg finally won its independence in 1815, only to be occupied by the Germans in both World Wars.

If you're a Second World War buff, make tracks for the National Museum of Military History at Diekirch (00 352 808908/804 719; www.nat-military-museum.lu) which records Luxembourg's dramatic role as one of the Second World War's key battlegrounds in the Battle of the Bulge.

No wonder its native Lëtzebuergesch motto is "mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin" (we want to remain what we are).

SMALL COUNTRIES LIKE TO AVOID CONFLICT, THEN?

Not all of them, as Liechtenstein's heroic lone stand against the USSR, in 1945, testifies. The principality's previous military adventure was in 1866, when it sent 80 troops (Liechtenstein's entire army) to guard the Tyrolean border, during the Austro-Prussian war. They saw no action, and returned home after a week, with 81 men, having found a new recruit en route. However, at the end of the Second World War, the principality defied Stalin, when 500 Russians who'd been fighting for the Wehrmacht against the Red Army sought asylum in neutral Liechtenstein. The Allies handed over 2.5 million such soldiers, but unlike the US and the UK, little Liechtenstein resisted Soviet attempts to secure their extradition.

The Nazis, by the way, left this place alone after Liechtenstein's previous monarch, Prince Franz Joseph II, went to see Hitler in Berlin. The Führer, recollected Franz Joseph, was visibly ill at ease. Liechtenstein may not lead the way in women's rights (it was the last European country to give women the vote, in 1984) but it led the world in showing small nations how to stand up to big tyrants.

Or how about plucky San Marino, a safe haven since the Renaissance, and a refuge for Garibaldi? With a population of less than 15,000, it sheltered more than 100,000 refugees, including Jews, from the Nazis during the Second World War. In 1944 this place of sanctuary was unwittingly bombed by the Allies – killing 63 people, as well as destroying priceless ancient documents in the state library.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT SAN MARINO

Founded in AD301 as an enclave in central Italy, San Marino is the world's oldest republic. It has only been occupied twice, and then for only a few months each time – by Caesar Borgia in 1503 and Cardinal Guilio Alberoni in 1739. The brave but canny Sanmarinese even managed to stay on the right side of Napoleon, who said, "We must preserve San Marino as an example of Liberty". The republic proved his point when it turned down Bonaparte's offer to extend its borders, knowing that such territorial avarice might jeopardise its future independence.

The republic makes a great day-trip from Rimini; call the San Marino State Tourist Office on 00 378 882 400 or visit www.sanmarinosite.com for more information.

HOW ABOUT ANDORRA?

Like San Marino, Andorra also succeeded in winning over the Little Corporal, as Napoleon was known. Founded in AD784 by Emperor Charlemagne, Andorra kept both its French and Spanish neighbours happy by paying taxes to Spain in years that ended in even numbers, and tax to France in years that ended odd.

After the French Revolution, France ripped up the rulebook. What did the Andorrans do? Did they rise up and revolt? No, they sat down and wrote Napoleon a letter. The man who'd crushed Europe's mightiest armies could not resist this simple courtesy. Andorra's original tax regime was restored in 1806. "It is too extraordinary to be invaded," declared Bonaparte. "Let it stand here forever as a museum piece." (In accordance with its museum status, Andorra didn't introduce female suffrage until 1974, a decade ahead of Liechtenstein). Extraordinarily, Andorra has never been invaded. It's never had a war. It's never even had an army – and it probably never will. After all, today's visitors are all far too busy skiing or shopping to even think about causing trouble.

CAN I FLY DIRECT TO THESE SMALL COUNTRIES?

Only to Luxembourg, the only one of the six with its own airport. Luxair (01293 596 633; www.luxair.lu) flies non-stop from London Heathrow, with fares from £102.20 return, and also from Manchester, Stansted and London City. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick.

To reach Andorra, the French option is a flight to Toulouse (from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester on BA). From Blagnac airport you can catch the bus to Toulouse station. Catch a train to L'Hospitalet-pres-l'Andorre (about two hours). From there, it's about another two hours by bus to Andorra la Vella. For train information, call SNCF on 00 33 892 35 35 39 or visit www.sncf.fr. Alternatively, fly to Barcelona on one of a range of airlines, or to Gerona on GB Airways (booked through BA) or Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). You can rent a car and drive to Andorra in a few hours.

For Liechtenstein, fly to Zürich on one of a range of airlines, then take the train to Buchs (just over two hours) and the bus to Vaduz (about 15 minutes). Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) flies direct from London Heathrow to Zurich from £113.80 return, including taxes. For train information, call 00 41 900 300 300 or visit www.sbb.ch. Ryanair provides the alternative, with cheap flights to Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, which has connecting rail links from the airport via Bregenz to Feldkirch or Buchs, where you catch the bus.

Monaco is eight minutes from Nice airport by helicopter. Reaching Nice is the easy and cheap part, with flights from a range of UK airports. If the €100 (£67) helicopter fare is too high, you can catch a bus to the main station and take a half-hour train ride to Monaco for about a tenth of that.

For San Marino, fly to Bologna from Heathrow on Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.it) or from Stansted on easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com); or from Stansted to Forli or Ancona on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), then take the train to Rimini, and a bus to San Marino. For train information call Trenitalia on 020-8903 0999 or visit www.fs-on-line.com.

Reaching Vatican City is easy. You simply fly to Rome and take the bus or train into the centre of the Italian capital. The Vatican is on the west bank of the Tiber.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I READ BEFORE I GO?

Rough Guide and Lonely Planet provide good introductions to most of the destinations above. There's a charming chapter on Liechtenstein in Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There (Black Swan, £7.99). Vitali Vitaliev's amusing travelogue Little Is The Light (Pocket Books, £6.99 via Amazon) visits all of the small countries above, apart from Vatican City, which Bryson describes in a brief but moving passage in the Rome chapter of Neither Here Nor There.

Gone and nearly forgotten

A few of the many small countries that have long since disappeared

Germany was a patchwork quilt of tiny countries until Bismarck unified it as one country in 1871. Does anyone outside Deutschland still remember Nassau or Oldenburg? Hessen, Saxony and Mecklenburg have all survived (to an extent) as Lander (states) in today's Federal Republic, but Brunswick, Waldeck and Lippe are now mere cities within larger provinces rather than autonomous countries.

The Free City of Danzig, administered by the League of Nations from 1919 to 1939, ignited the Second World War when its Nazi leader announced its (re)union with Germany. After the war its German inhabitants were expelled and it became the Polish city of Gdansk. This Baltic Belfast has since become famous as the venue where Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement began, and also as the birthplace of Germany's greatest writer since the war, Günter Grass.

Closer to home, the French port of Calais was an English enclave on the European mainland for more than 200 years. Captured by Edward III during the Hundred Years War in 1347, it was finally recaptured by the French in 1558, during Queen Mary's reign. "Bloody" Mary took it rather badly at the time. "When I am dead and opened," she said, "you shall find 'Calais' lying in my heart."

A familiar tune in an unfamiliar place

Why do Britain and Liechtenstein share a national anthem?

Thankfully, there's not the slightest chance that England "fans" will boo Liechtenstein's national anthem this evening. Why not? Because it's sung to exactly the same tune as "God Save The Queen", though with different words, of course.

Liechtenstein's lyrics were composed by a German clergyman called Jakob Josef Jauch, in 1850 – although they weren't actually adopted as its national anthem until 1951.

Jauch's ode originally ran to five verses, but it was trimmed in 1963, and the first line tweaked from "On the banks of the German Rhine" to "On the banks of the young Rhine" (Liechtenstein is actually the last survivor of the 343 statelets that made up the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations).

The English lyrics are traditional, but were certainly sung at London's Drury Lane Theatre in 1745 (to a different tune, by Thomas Arne, who also wrote "Rule, Britannia!") during Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion – hence the neglected last verse: "May he sedition hush/And like a torrent rush/Rebellious Scots to crush." No wonder it hasn't always been quite so popular north of the Tweed. Yet neither Britain nor Liechtenstein can claim a monopoly on the music. Often credited, along with the English lyrics, to a patriotic fellow called Henry Carey, it was probably originally just a folk tune that has been used in various forms ever since the early 17th century. One such version was even written by a composer called, appropriately, John Bull. However, the bad news for British Bulldogs is that their favourite melody may actually be by a Frenchman, the great composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Apparently, Monsieur Lully wrote it in 1686, for Louis XIV, based on a hymn that was sung to greet the French king. It's enough to make Nelson and Wellington turn in their respective graves.

But, for anyone who would like to sing along to both anthems, here is the Liechtenstein anthem's first verse, in English. You already know the tune:

High over the young Rhine

Lies resting Liechtenstein

On Alpine heights.

This belov'd homeland,

Our dear fatherland

Chosen by God's wise hand

Chosen for us.

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