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.