Mission accomplished

Steve and I ate countless delicious meals over the course of this trip, but I have to say: few things tasted more satisfying than the glue on the stamp I bought in Monaco, the last of the seven Europeans microstates we had set out to visit.

I started planning the first iteration of our Microstate Tour early in 2020 and had booked virtually every aspect of it when governments at home and abroad prohibited international traveling. I then planned and arranged a second version in the spring of 2021 — that one structured around the two French weddings we were invited to (in Bordeaux and Provence). But uncertainty over lingering Covid regulations forced the respective couples to postpone their nuptials to the fall. So I planned and booked the trip a third time. Heading to the airport at the end of August, I only half-believed Steve and I would complete the itinerary.

But it all came off, almost flawlessly. The worst glitch was Alitalia’s cancellation of our three flights (one from Rome to Malta and the one from Sicily to Nice, via Rome). I found alternative carriers, however, and I even nurse some hope we’ll get our money back from the canceled legs.

At the second wedding last weekend, several people asked what my favorite tiny country was. What I could tell them was that the one both Steve and I longed to spend more time in was Malta.Ironically, Malta is the one microstate I didn’t blog about. We had barely 72 hours there and then went on to Sicily, where we met our friend Michael and blasted around the Italian island like Amazing Race contestants. On Sicily I barely had a moment to sit down, let alone write. And then we raced on to Monaco.

Before going to Malta I had predicted to Steve that San Marino would wind up winning the biggest piece of my heart. I loved the feisty Sammarinese independence and the beauty-drenched vistas you meet around every corner. The vibe is very different in Malta. Roughly four times bigger than San Marino, it’s a monochromatic world, at least around its magnificent harbor (the only area we got to).

One of the inlets into the much larger harbor

Almost everything is built out of pinkish tan sandstone, which makes it look a bit like a movie set. Dozens of productions have been filmed here in recent years.

They include Game of Thrones, The Da Vinci Code, Captain Phillips, and more.

Malta the country consists of five islands. We only got to the biggest, most populated one (also called Malta). We stayed in a 400-plus-year-old building on Senglea, a finger of land sticking into the harbor.

Viewed from Valleta, Senglea is the finger on the right. To the left stands the fort that was the site of the great siege.

This side of the harbor was the one-time bastion of the famous Knights of Malta, wealthy Christian noblemen who hailed from all over Europe and hated Islam. In the early 12th century, they fought as Crusaders and over time evolved into something like anti-Islamic pirates. In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them Malta as a permanent home, and they reached perhaps their greatest moment of glory in 1565 when about 500 knights and a couple thousand foot soldiers held out against a vastly larger fleet of Turkish warriors. After their success in resisting the Turkish siege, Muslim expansion into Europe ended; a pretty good case can be made that because of what happened in Malta 450 years ago, Western Europe today is dotted with cathedrals rather than mosques.

We stayed on this street.
The view from our kitchen window.
Walking down to the main thoroughfare from our byway.

The larger than life character who led the Maltese resistance was a Knight named Jean La Valette. He oversaw the building of a new capital across the harbor from Senglea and its two sister cities. The new enclave became Valletta, which claims the honor of being the first planned city in all of Europe. La Valette designed an orderly grid in which tall stone buildings lined streets made intentionally narrow so that folks walking down them would be shaded from Malta’s blazing sun. Valleta is just a ten-minute ferry ride from Senglea. Steve and I made the trip a couple of times in order to sample Valleta’s crackling night life, visit a few of its sumptuous churches, and take in some of it scenic viewpoints.

One of the traditional Maltese vessels.
Here’s one of the dozens of Valleta’s lively side streets

But we were keenly aware of all we couldn’t cram in — exploring important archeological sites both on Malta and Gozo (the second biggest island), swimming and snorkeling in the turquoise local waters, visiting other museums and forts, and more.

But you can never see it all, eh? On our Microstate Tour, Steve and I were away from home for 42 nights. We passed through 11 different countries, slept in 22 different lodgings, and on several occasions I felt as tired as I can imagine ever feeling. Yet over and over the sights and people and new insights recharged us. If we didn’t see it all, we never regretted trying.

As one final note, I have to credit an excellent book, Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe, by Thomas Eccardt that I stumbled upon after I was well into planning Steve’s and my trip. Published in 2005, it’s too dated to be a practical travel manual today, but Eccardt’s lucid writing about the mind-numbingly complex history of all these places was a great help. To anyone else who’s tempted to see Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, and Monaco — or any combination of them — I recommend it. And wish you bon voyage!

Monaco — not just a mini-Vegas

Of all the microstates, Monaco surprised me most. I had low expectations. I’d planned for us to be there less than 24 hours, partly because all the hotels are astonishingly expensive. (If you want to save money, you stay in the adjoining French town of Beausoleil, but our goal from the start was to sleep at least one night in every microstate.) Also, a friend who lives in Europe had dismissed Monaco as a nothing more than a shopping mall for the rich.

Partly to avoid the astonishingly expensive hotels and partly because it sounded cool, I booked us into an unusual Airbnb accommodation: a power boat (maybe 40-feet-long) berthed in the harbor in the heart of the city-state. Two days before our flight, I had messaged Olivier, the guy who owns the boat. He advised me to get an Uber at Nice airport and tell the driver to take us the “Le Port Hercules a Monaco.” He would greet us when we arrived.

Things with Olivier got a little weird when I alerted him we were on way from the airport and should be arriving about 6:30 p.m. (the arrival time I had earlier predicted.)

“OK,” he wrote. “I understand I wanted to see you because I have an important dentist appointment at 6:20 p.m. so I may be able to be there to receive you only at 7:45 p.m. Will you go? Best regards, Olivier”

“Oh dear,” I wrote back. “I do not understand what you mean when you say ‘will you go.’ We have nowhere else to go beside your boat. What should we do?”

“I understand,” he shot back. “I think you will arrive before 6:30 p.m. these just that I think I be there to receive you at 7:45 p.m. if you do not mind.”

“Olivier, We have nowhere else to go,” I responded, seeking a tone for my WhatsApp message that would suggest gritted teeth. “I will be very, very sad if Steve and I have to stand on the dock in the dark waiting for you. That will not be good.”

Eventually, he messaged that he had moved his appointment “so no worries I’m here and I’m looking forward to welcoming you.” That too was a bit of an overstatement. Le Port Hercules, where our driver deposited us, is a large area with several entry points.

Here’s Steve wondering: where might Olivier be?

More tense messaging with Olivier followed, and when he finally showed up, he turned out to an exuberant young man who showed no sign of being in the grip of any dental emergency. (He claimed to have rescheduled the appointment, which he said was routine.)

His boat looked like the photos I had seen on the Airbnb website (save for the beat-up condition of the deck cushions.)After Olivier left, Steve and I enjoyed a glass of the Prosecco which Olivier had kindly left for us and reminded each other that we never, ever want to live on a boat — unless it was one of the megayachts like the kind that re crammed cheek by jowl into the docks of the Monaco port.

This was the biggest bed on Olivier’s boat.

Those whoppers costs hundreds of millions of dollars, however, so a future residency on one is highly unlikely.

Although Olivier’s boat was cramped and chilly and the bed didn’t have a blanket, the location couldn’t be beat. In one direction, the casinos and high rises of Monte Carlo reminded me of Hong Kong. (Indeed we’ve read that Monaco is the most densely populated country on the planet.) In another, we could see the royal palace.The flag was flying so we knew that the current prince (Albert II, only son of the late Prince Rainier and Princess Grace) was home with his family.

The next morning, we strolled from the harbor up to the royal family’s neighborhood. We had coffee and croissants at a cafe facing the palace. It has a cozy air (as palaces go). Then we ambled through the narrow streets, as charming as any in Europe. Beyond the center of the old city, a cliffside park and plaza reminded me of the best viewpoints in La Jolla, except for the public restrooms. Steve reported the Monegasque ones to be the cleanest and nicest he’s ever seen anywhere. A bit later, we wandered into the austere but elegant cathedral where the one-time movie star, Grace Kelly, married the prince.To one side of the alter we found the site she was buried after dying in a 1982 car accident. Her husband lived for 23 more years, but now he reposes next to her.

A plaque outside the cathedral recalls happier days.

One of the cool things about Monaco is that you can walk all over the country. Later that morning we visited the area around the grand Monte Carlo Casino; sadly, guided tours were canceled, due to Covid.But the streets around the place are filled with shops and businesses and markets, some mundane…some not.

I’ve been in plenty of wealthy neighborhoods over the years, but never in a country crowded with the super rich, as Monaco is. I have no desire to move there. But it was entertaining to visit.

Holy microstate!

For a while, I considered skipping Vatican City (aka The Holy See) altogether. It’s the only one among the seven smallest European microstates I have visited before (more than once). But when it became clear we had to go through Rome to fly to Malta, I rethought our plan. How could we ignore this enclave that’s not just the smallest of the smallest countries in Europe, but smallest in all the whole world? When we learned that our old friend Megan (whom I met as a freshman in high school) coincidentally would be in Rome at the same time we would, the stop was irresistible.

It was Megan who suggested we visit the Vatican gardens. I never knew you could. But she secured tickets online and on a sunny morning, we headed for St. Peter’s. Around the back of the cathedral, inside the entrance to the Vatican Museums, we gathered with a group of maybe 15 people. An ebullient Polish-Canadian art historian named Kinga led us outside and down a wooded path.

I took no notes; it was too pleasant simply to stroll through the dappled light and note the horticultural variety as we passed from section to section.Some formal, most less so. We ambled by some flowers, but more of the ornamentation was watery or sculptural or redolent of the distant past.

What tickled me most were the private views; sides of things I’d seen before but never from these angles: a glimpse of that ultra-famous dome……the stark simplicity of the outside of the Sistine Chapel……or the homely building where the former Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Benedict, the recent pontiff who retired) is living out his final years.

It’s the peach-colored building in the distance.

I asked Kinga if Pope Francis often ventures into his back yard, but she didn’t seem to know how often that happens. If it did, she assured us, all the garden tours could be canceled to accommodate him. “We must remember, it’s his home!”

After we left the gardens, our tickets also permitted us to enter the museums, so of course we couldn’t resist dashing through the endless halls to pay a quick visit to the Sistine Chapel. After that, we walked outside and around the walls of the city state to enter St. Peter’s Square. The line to get into the church was daunting. We had to check out of our Airbnb flat and move on, so we settled for just a photo in front of the grand edifice. That was good enough. The gardens had shown us a place where at least a handful of humans (the Pope and a few hundred others) actually live. It felt a bit more like a real country.

A side track around a wannabe microstate

Two weeks ago, Steve and I took the train from San Marino to Rome, where we met our old friend Megan and visited our fifth microstate (the Holy See). From there we flew to Microstate #6: Malta, stayed for three nights, then took a Ryanair flight to Catania in Sicily, the large island off the toe of the Italian boot. We’ve been here for the last 8 days, a significant side track from the theme of this trip; Sicily is not an independent country, though it sure resembles one. It’s been a part of Italy for only 161 years, before that hosting a dizzying succession of cultures and conquerors: Stone Age settlers 5000 to 6000 years ago, North African invaders, Elymians and Carthaginians, Greeks, then Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, a Holy Roman emperor or two, Austrians, Spaniards, Brits, and finally Garibaldi (hero of Italian unification.) I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. All have left their mark, and for a brief spell after World War II some Sicilians agitated for independence. Had they succeeded, Sicily would have been more a ministate than a micro-one. It’s ten times bigger in area than Luxembourg (which in turn could contain all the 6 smaller European midgets.)

Bottom line: Sicily is a staggeringly old, fairly large, and complex place that I’ve barely begun to comprehend.

To try to gulp down as much as possible, we rented a car at Catania Airport and after spending two nights in Sicily’s second largest city…

The centerpiece of one of Catania’s main piazzas is what surely must be the coolest elephant statue anywhere.

…we hit the road, moving every morning for the next five days. It’s a madcap way to travel, and I don’t recommend it. But it allowed us to cover close to three-quarters of the island’s coastline and glimpse so many wonders, it seemed worth the price in energy. We made it halfway up Mt Etna……which wasn’t erupting but instead was blanketed in fog (thwarting an ascent all the way to the crater). Later that day, we paid a lightning visit to the ancient Greek theater in the lovely resort town of Taormina.

The next day in Syracuse, we paid homage to Archimedes, the local who became the father of modern engineering.

The adjoining town of Ortygia is very beautiful,

The next day we drove to Noto… and Ragusa

An astonishingly hilly place!

Then on to the remains in Agrigento, where one of Sicily’s richest and most powerful Greek cities once prospered.

The 2500-year-old temple in Segesta, which we visited a few days later, was never finished but remains astonishingly well-preserved.

Throughout our travels, Steve rose to the challenges of the road, steering our little Opel Corsa around the hairpin turns…

Like this!

…leading to Erice, maybe my favorite stop on the driving tour.

A medieval town on the top of a hill, it offers views like this.

And wonderful pastries like this, left in the fridge for us by our Airbnb hosts.
This was the view from our private patio there.

Palermo has been a fine and surprisingly finale. It has a reputation for crime, urban decay, and corruption, but in our Airbnb here, which overlooks the main street in the heart of the old city, I’ve loved the energy crackling all around us.

The window in our living room opens onto the central street in the old town.
It was pretty empty when I shot this photo out the window because it was raining.
But Saturday night it was jammed with tables and revelers.
At one point, a thicket of fans gathered to scream with joy and take photos of some actor. (We never found out who it was.)
We’ve seen lots of brides being captured in their finery.

Tomorrow we’ll have to push back from the banquet table, stuffed but hardly sated. I can see how one could feast on Sicily’s offerings for weeks without digesting it all. But we have one more microstate to visit and one more wedding to attend before heading home on Sunday.

Adrenaline-powered travel

So far this trip has been spectacular. Steve and I both feel great. It will rank among my most satisfying and interesting journeys of all time, I’m already sure. But our transit to Malta was a reminder that travel in the time of Covid is not for the faint-hearted.

Malta, the third-largest of the European microstates, is smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. You can get to it by ferry, and I tried to arrange that. But ferry rides ultimately proved too complicated.

That left airplanes. To get there, I booked us on an Alitalia flight leaving Rome around 5 pm Thursday afternoon (9/23) and arriving in Malta about 6:30 pm. From Malta to Sicily (our next stop), I got seats for us on Ryanair. But then from Sicily to Nice (France), Alitalia once again seemed like the best choice.

I knew Alitalia was iffy. The Italian airline filed for bankruptcy back in 2017, but they’ve managed to continue operating since then. They treated me well in 2020, the first time I had to cancel our microstate trip (because of the pandemic). They ultimately refunded every penny I had paid. This time around, I spent more for refundable Alitalia tickets because I knew things might get snarled up.

The first hint of the coming disaster arrived in my inbox the day we got to Liechtenstein. Alitalia had canceled our morning flight from Rome to Nice, the email informed me, moving us to a late-afternoon flight that would require us spending most of a day in the Rome airport. At least as disturbing: when I went online to look at alternatives, I found a note at the top of the page saying Alitalia would sell no tickets after October 15. That’s how we learned they were finally going out of business.

I scrambled and managed to book flights to Nice on Lufthansa — about the same price, if longer (we’ll have to fly from Sicily to Munich to Nice, requiring almost 6 hours in airports and on planes instead of three and a half.) But since our Alitalia tickets were fully refundable, I had some hope of getting that money back.

This turn of events made me nervous, though, and last Wednesday, the day before our flight to Malta, I made sure to check in and get our Alitalia boarding passes. The flight was on time, the website said, and with the passes in my Apple wallet, I felt relieved.Less than two hours later, while eating what we thought would be our last dinner with Megan, I got another email from Alitalia, this one informing me our flight the next day, for which I had just secured boarding passes, had been canceled. No explanation was offered for why.

How could we get to Malta now? Would our microstate streak be foiled by Italian flakiness? Google Flights didn’t offer any good alternatives, but when I checked the Air Malta website, I found a 10 am flight Friday morning for a fraction of what the Alitalia tickets had cost. Only three seats were left, but I managed to secure two of them for Steve and me. This change in plan required us to cancel the hotel I’d reserved in Malta for Thursday night. Instead we got a room at the hotel near Rome’s airport. Megan was already booked in there to spend the night before her departure on Delta for the US — which coincidentally left at the exact same time as our Air Malta flight: 10 am Friday morning.

In some ways, this change proved fortuitous. It gave us all of Thursday with Megan, and the three of us shared a phenomenally good meal that night at a waterside restaurant near the hotel. Because of concerns over the longer lead time required for a US flight, she decided to take the 6:45 am airport shuttle the next morning, while we would go on the 7:30 one. We said our heartfelt goodbyes in the hotel lobby Thursday night.

I got the first WhatsApp message from her Friday morning, just a moment after we had boarded our 7:30 shuttle bus.

Since our flight was also due to depart at 10, this sent a jolt of adrenaline through my system. Later, we learned that at hundreds of striking air workers were staging a sit-in that morning on the highway between Rome and the airport. To protest EU constraints on the hiring of Alitalia workers by the new carrier that’s scheduled to replace it (called ITA), they reportedly brought a fake coffin draped with European flags and plopped it in front of the airport.

The coffin must have gotten there after we did. Steve and I arrived to find the airport eerily empty. Though Alitalia’s presence had obviously dominated Terminal 1, all human trace of it had vanished: no staff, no passengers.Happily, we found humans behind one Air Malta check-in counter; there we queued up behind maybe a dozen other passengers. When we reached the desk and the stressed-out clerk asked for our proof of vaccination and Maltese Passenger Locator Form (PLF), I felt almost smug showing her the QR codes for both. She unsettled me, however, when she also asked for our VeriFLY clearance for Malta. VeriFLY is a Covid document-verification app that we had downloaded in San Diego. We’d jumped through all its electronic hoops and had gotten a cheery reassurance that we were cleared for travel there. But we’d heard it was no longer required, so we hadn’t checked ours in a while.

When I pulled up the app, a disconcerting message informed me “Needs to be completed!” We protested that we HAD completed it, but the app had somehow forgotten what we’d told it, and besides, we had also just presented our vax proof and PLFs. But the desk clerk was flinty. No green check mark from VeriFLY, no Malta.

Fortunately, we had arrived at the airport with lots of time. So we managed to jump through the VeriFLY hoops again, get our boarding passes……make it through yet another documentation check at the gate……and more upon arrival. My bags were searched more thoroughly than any time in memory. (Oddly, Steve received no such scrutiny.)

In the end we arrived, however, and now I can say unequivocally: it was worth it. But that’s another story.

Free spirits in the world’s oldest republic

Although my last post was a paean to train travel, we couldn’t take a train to San Marino, the fourth microstate on our tour. A tiny independent realm located roughly a third of the way down the eastern side of the Italian boot, San Marino once was accessible by train. But Allied forces destroyed the line during World War II, and instead of being rebuilt it was replaced with a highway. So most visitors drive to San Marino. The other way to get there is on a bus from Rimini, the nearby Italian city on the coast. Steve and I boarded one of those Sunday afternoon.

Storm clouds drained the color and light from the sky, but after a half hour or so we began to get glimpses of a promontory rising up in the distance: Mt. Titano. It was on that peak that a pious stonecutter from Croatia fled and lived as a hermit at the beginning of the 4th Century. His name was Marinus — later Saint Marinus, aka San Marino.From what I could make out, his beatitude resulted from his being a kindly and inspiring fellow who persuaded lots of people to become Christians. Legend has it that he also miraculously cured the dying son of a local noblewoman, who was so grateful she gave him the mountain and some land around it. San Marino thus enjoys the distinction of being the only country in the world founded by a saint. On his deathbed, Marinus supposedly whispered to his countrymen, “I leave you free of domination by other men.” Repeatedly, Steve and I heard that freedom, independence, and self-reliance continue to be core values of the modern Sammarinese.

That alone might have made me love the place, but San Marino has more going for it — at least the old heart of the community on the top of the mountain. Walled and fortified over the centuries with three massive towers, it’s a daunting place to penetrate even today. Our bus deposited us in a parking lot more than halfway up the promontory, near the base of the old walls. An elevator took us up to a higher level……but then we started trying to follow Google Maps’ directions up the stony warren of streets. We quickly got lost…

Here’s Steve, smiling despite our confusion.

…and for a while were scared we might have to haul our bags up several flights of steep stony stairs.

This photo shows only about a quarter of the total stairs up to the next level.

A policeman finally pointed out a path we could roll up. Here I have to say that if you hate slogging up and down steep inclines (not to mention stony stairs), San Marino might not be your idea of a vacation paradise. But then you would miss out on vistas such as these.We finally made it to our hotel, got a good night’s sleep, and awoke to a wonderland bathed in sunshine. In the tourist office, I was able to buy a stamp:

That’s Oscar, holding in his arms Federico Fellini, who was born in nearby Rimini.

San Marino has its share of museums, churches, and other modern attractions (a torture museum, a vampire museum, a sort of Italian Ripley’s Believe It of Not). Its streets are jammed with shops selling jewelry, leather goods, souvenirs, and startlingly realistic toy guns.None of that interested us much, but we were dazzled by San Marino’s three great towers. This tiny enclave for more than 1700 years avoided being overtaken by those who coveted it (including Cesar Borgia, Napoleon, and various rapacious clergymen and nobles). The story of how that happened is so complicated, it made my eyes cross. Clearly luck had something to do with it; probably good diplomatic skills too. But the towers also deserve a bunch of the credit. One looks just right for locking up Rapunzel.The biggest and oldest tower feels like part fort/part castle.We poked among the nooks and crannies and I reflected that being Rapunzel here might not be so bad, providing one got a room with a view.

We left San Marino Tuesday morning (9/21) and took the bus to the train to Rome. There we had roughly two days in which we visited Vatican City and packed in lots of sightseeing with our old friend Megan (who lives in Rhode Island but coincidentally was in Rome just when we were passing through).

The Vatican is the smallest of all the microstates, and I plan to write a proportionally short post about the time we spent there. But now it’s Friday afternoon (9/24) and we have arrived in Malta after a hair-raising journey. I’ll describe that next.

Railroad Man

The other day when Steve glanced at our tickets for the Bernina Express, his jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Am I really in seat #61?” “Yeah. You’re in 61 and I’m in 63. So what?”

“But that means this morning I will literally be the Man in Seat 61,” he replied.

I grasped his wonderment then. Several years ago I became an ardent fan of a website called The Man in Seat 61. I subsequently read an article about the guy who writes it, and if I were home in front of my desktop computer, I could tell you his name and his background. But as I’m working from my iPad with painfully slow hotel internet, all I will say is: if you’re interested, Google him. What I recall from the article is that he’s a Brit who I think began by writing online about European train travel, with an eye to making it easier for newcomers to navigate. He has since expanded to cover the rest of the world. I think I used his information to take trains in Vietnam. I read him religiously before our trip to India three years ago, and I give him all the credit for enabling me to traverse the subcontinent on rails.

Today his website is a vast repository of information, wonderfully organized and copiously linked. Thanks to him, for this trip I booked seats online for Steve and me from Paris to Bordeaux and back, Paris to Luxembourg, Luxembourg to Zurich, Zurich to Sargans (the gateway to Liechtenstein), Sargans to Chur, Chur to Tirano, Tirano to Milan, Milan to Bologna, Bologna to Rimini (gateway to San Marino), and Rimini to Rome.

It was the Man in Seat 61 who inspired me to route us from Liechtenstein to Italy on the Bernina Express. Poking around on his website I stumbled upon his glowing descriptions of it. The train is one of only three in the world to have been declared a UN World Heritage rail line, and The Man could not praise it highly enough. It was complicated to book online, run by a private Swiss line (the Rhatische Bahn) and requiring two separate tickets. But I did what he said and it all worked.

Steve and I actually have ridden on one of the other two World Heritage railway lines while in India. The “toy train,” as it’s known, runs from Jalpaigur up to Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas, and I can tell you: the Bernina Express is about a million times nicer. Like the Indian train, the Swiss one runs on a narrow-gauge track, but the Swiss cars have huge panoramic windows and comfortable seats. The Indian train arrived at its destination more than three hours late, after tortuous intervals of sitting and not moving. The Swiss one took off at 8:16 instead of 8:15 and arrived in the Italian town of Tirano at 12:51 instead of 12:49. Its roughly 4.5-hour-long route took us over one of the highest rail beds in the world, one constructed more than 100 years ago specifically for tourists. It posed devilish challenges to the Swiss engineers who designed it, but it helped make them into the pre-eminent experts on tunneling that they are today.Lots of tunnels on this run!

People say it’s a strikingly different experience in summer and winter, and that you really should ride it in both seasons. I can tell you it was beautiful in late summer, on a day that began enshrouded in mist……but turned golden long before we crossed the Italian border. We had spiffy headphones that told us (in English) about the line’s history and highlights.The route literally winds through Heidi country — the part of the Alps where the book was set and movies were filmed.Bridges like this and sections of track that corkscrew through the mountains and meadows are among the attractions.In this view, the train is going under a circular bridge that it just traversed.Views of glaciers and glacial lakes also triggered avalanches of camera clicks.And there was a short rest stop that included traditional Alpine entertainment.

Steve and I enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did all our companions in the full car.

Now we’re on our last train trip of the trip, taking us from Rimini on the Adriatic southwest to Rome. Although we have more than two and a half weeks left before we return home, we’ll get around on planes and rental cars from here on. That’s too bad. When it comes to transit preferences, I’m with the Man in Seat 61.

Liechtenstamped

Even now, in this time of pandemics and panic, no one checks and stamps passports when you move around between many countries in Europe. In Andorra, Steve and I asked at the tourist office about getting our books stamped, but all the girl at the counter could offer was something that looked designed for children. (We passed.) Luxembourg appeared to be way too cool for faux passport stamps. But Liechtenstein was into it. In the center of Vaduz (the tidy little capital), we saw signs like this.

Around mid-afternoon last Thursday (9/20), Steve and I walked to the Liechtenstein Center and paid a few Swiss francs to get a postage stamp and this souvenir:

A few minutes later, serious rain finally caught up with us for the first time on this trip. We’d been on the road, moving quite a bit. I was tired, and my umbrella offered only partial protection; my feet got very damp. I felt dispirited. We abandoned any further touristic efforts and retreated to the Airbnb apartment in which we were lodging, not far from the center.

These locals were attending the inauguration of a new piece of public art. Vaduz has a LOT of public art. But the ceremonies were in German, and we were getting soaked.

The next day, the world felt renewed: warm and sunny and inviting. Throughout the morning we stockpiled tantalizing glimpses into the strange but pleasant little country that boasts it’s the last remnant in the world of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s also the only country named after the person who bought the place: Prince Johannes Adam I of Liechtenstein (aka Hans the Rich). For centuries, his descendants didn’t actually live in the land bearing their name, but they’re well-entrenched today. The current prince still actively rules the place, and he and his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandkids live in the ostentatious palace that clings to the hillside high above Vaduz.

There it is in the distance.
Another view of the castle, which is closed to the public, being a private dwelling. Note the grapevines in the foreground. You see a lot of those around town.

Probably my most enduring memory of my 24 hours in Liechtenstein will be our ride on the little “train” that once a day tootles around the town.

The operator had installed protective plastic sheets between each row of seats. It gave the ride a slightly psychedelic feeling, which seemed appropriate.

Through earplugs dialed to English, we listened to some minimal commentary and a whole bunch of bouncy Teutonic music. The musical climax was a rousing rendition of the Liechtensteiner Polka. In the city center, we saw vegetable fields and cows munching emerald grass next to the main highway through town.

We also noted many massive buildings that we assumed house the countless companies from all over the world that set up headquarters here in order to decrease their tax burden. (While lower than what those companies would pay elsewhere, that tax money is a significant contributor to Liechtenstein’s current wealth.) The soulless structures share the streets with old homes that could have informed Walt Disney’s vision of Euroquaint.

We had to tear ourselves away around 2 p.m. to catch the bus back to Switzerland, and the train to the Swiss town of Chur, starting point for our Saturday morning ride on one of the most famous trains in the world. But I left with my stamps and the lingering refrain of that unforgettable polka.

Lux

To those friends (at least 2 of ‘em) who warned we might be bored in Luxembourg, I can only say: no way! Steve and I had some dazzling moments during our stay there (Saturday 9/11 to Wednesday 9/15). They weren’t the kind of offbeat or exciting adventures that make for the most interesting blog posts. But I can say with confidence: if you ever get a chance to visit the Grand Duchy, do not turn it down.

Luxembourg, we learned, is the first country in the world to make all local public transportation free. This is a nice amenity! One of the frictions of traveling in any strange country is figuring out how to pay for the bus or metro or train or whatever. We took a high-speed train from Paris to Luxembourg City, where we walked out the door of the train station and got on a spiffy free tram that took us to the city center. In the center, we stayed in the spare bedroom Airbnb’d by Mohit and Prarabdhe, two Indian Ph.Ds who have permanently moved to Luxembourg. The next day we got on a tram going in the other direction to a transportation hub where we climbed on a free bus that took us out into the countryside. It almost felt like having a private driver at our disposal.

This is a country where people are very good at signs.
On board the free bus to Echternach, a 30-40-minute ride from Luxembourg City.

I can also attest that Luxembourg is a great place for walking and hiking. The center of the capital looks extraordinarily prosperous — no surprise, given that Luxembourg, largest of the 7 microstates on our present tour, is also the country with the highest GDP per capita in Europe. I couldn’t help comparing what it’s like to stroll around Lux City and Antigua, Nicaragua (one of the poorest countries in the world, around which we were strolling just three months ago). In the former, streets and plazas are vacuumed and buffed, not busted up and filthy. Tantalizing shops and restaurants and bars and pastry vendors line the streets instead of tense, hungry looking folks hawking lottery tickets and single cigarettes. On the day of our arrival, well-dressed Luxembourgers jammed the place, ambling, shopping, wining, breakfasting, lunching, and dining.

Built originally as a fortress on a rocky cliff, the city walls command great views of the lower city.

We walked down to the lower part Sunday morning and found postcard views and woodsy paths.

I wanted to visit Luxembourg even before conceiving of our Microstate Tour. What made me think of that was reading Bill Bryson’s hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods). At one point in it, he compares that challenging trek to hiking in Luxembourg, where he reported being able to sleep in cozy inns after days of making one’s way along glorious trails. I was intrigued, and I learned that one of the most famous byways in Luxembourg is the Mullerthal Trail, which consists of three big multi-day loops. I tried but failed to find the sort of arrangement Bryson had described. Maybe Covid caused the outfitters to shut down, at least temporarily. But I still wanted to squeeze in a bit of Luxembourgian hiking, so I booked us into a sweet little hotel in the charming town of Echternach, a trailhead for both Mullerthal and other local pathways.

This was the view from the outdoor restaurant in front of our hotel. In one corner of the plaza a brass band played tunes such as Rocky Mountain High and Sweet Caroline.

On Monday the weather was glorious, so we tackled an 11-mile outing that included part of Mullerthal 2.

In the Middle Ages, local folks quarried grinding stones at this trailside spot, creating a man-made cave.

We took it easier the next day, exploring short sections of Mullerthal 1 and visiting the touristic highlights of Echternach. Most of these I won’t bore you with. But one I should mention. Echternach is home to the ruins of a villa built by Roman conquerors roughly 2,000 years ago. No walls remain, but all of the foundations are intact, and it’s obvious how magnificent the place once was.The Luxembourgers have built a sweet little museum explaining the site. Alas none of the signs were in English. It didn’t really matter. We didn’t need to read placards to understand that this was one of those small but pleasant wonders you sometimes stumble upon, a bit like the country it’s now part of.