Standing in the Piazza Risorgimento, sorting in a desultory fashion through a box of miniature plaster legionaries priced at 5 euros a pop, I feel none of the excitement I thought I would. I am about to enter the smallest country in the world - yet there is no frisson, no palpitation, no sweat. At 0.17 square miles Vatican City is way out in front when it comes to dinky sovereign states - it makes Liechtenstein look like Canada, Monaco like Russia, Luxembourg another virgin planet. As a connoisseur of all things ickle, I feel I have been striving towards this moment all my life, yet now I face the walls of the citadel my spirits are decidedly low.
It could be the queues: the phalanxes of rain-smocked tourists, the crocodiles of hirsute nuns, the campervan-loads of Scandinavians. It could be the prices: I just fed the children pizza and now my bankroll has anorexia. But on balance I think it's because Vatican City, despite its flag, national anthem, post office, miniature rail system and bijoux army of Swiss Guards, has none of the attributes you really expect from a country. To be blunt - it has no hinterland save for a park, and no border controls save for a ticket vendor. Added to this, its principal buildings are way too large.
St Peter's is a power-trip basilica, crazed by its own sense of importance. No self-respecting country dedicates this much masonry to glorifying an immaterial deity. It's as if you pitched up on Easter Island and found a monolithic head four miles high. Besides, Vatican City is but a rump of territoriality, the merest crumb left behind on the Roman table when the rest of the Papal States were snaffled up. Surrounded by a Pacific of masonry, its egregious treasure horde of books, paintings and jewelled chasubles, is in danger of being inundated by a rising tide of atheistic rationalism.
No, when I think of a small country I think of Andorra. Not, you appreciate, that I've ever actually been there, but people do - Barnaby up at the bike shop went there last year for a snow-boarding holiday. He said it was fine, relatively cheap, and he felt not the slightest little bit of claustrophobia. My late father always used to tell me that you could roll a marble from one end of Andorra to the other - a feat he claimed to have performed - but I have my doubts about this, as he also believed himself to be descended from the yeti, and to have visited El Dorado (a mythical city he somewhat improbably located on Salisbury Plain).
Or Sealand. Sealand is truly small - it makes Vatican City seem like an illimitable tract of tundra. True, it isn't exactly terra firma, being rather a bizarre, seven-storey naval fort (Roughs Tower) left behind seven miles off Harwich in Essex after WWII. Declared a sovereign state by Prince Roy Bates in 1967, Sealand has had a chequered history, including an invasion staged in 1978 by a turncoat German businessman with an army of Dutch mercenaries.
However, Sealand does boast its own currency, postage stamps, flag &c. It has also had de facto recognition of its sovereignty by the British courts (specifically Chelmsford), and so far the Inland Revenue has not sought to levy National Insurance from its citizens - at least when they're in residence of the tower. Bates, a former WWII airman, founded Sealand on sound libertarian principles, believing that any people should have the right to self-determination on any piece of land not previously claimed. This sits a little oddly beside his royal title, rather as if the Pope claimed that Vatican City only existed so that the young people could copulate freely under the influence of ecstasy. Stranger still is the assumption of the title Prince Regent by his son Michael, for it was Michael who was kidnapped by the invading cheese heads of '78.
Personally, if I'd spent my childhood being traumatised on a hunk of metal in the North Sea the last thing I'd want to do is become its Prince Regent, but then I suppose I'm not exactly the stuff secessionists are made of. If you walk along the coast of Kent between Whitstable and Herne Bay, or Essex between Clacton and Harwich, you can see these enigmatic Maunsell sea forts studding the beaten pewter of the horizon. They look like HG Wells's invading Martians, stunned into decades of inanition by the prospect of making a landfall at Margate or Walton on the Naze.
In the 1960s, quite a few of the towers were occupied by pirate radio stations but those heady, pop-picking days are over. Sealand survives - wouldn't you guess it - as an offshore e-commerce centre, the Dutch Antilles of the virtual world, but surely there's a case for some of the other towers becoming sovereign states? If the Vatican were to move to one of the sea forts it could only be interpreted as the Church Triumphant - and a massive publicity coup to boot.Reuse content