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A trove of tiny treasures

These miniature nations -- Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra -- add up to a wealth of ground to cover.

September 28, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

If you can identify the five smallest countries in Continental Europe you get a gold star. If you know where they are on the map, you should be on "Jeopardy." And if you have visited them you don't get anything else; you have already been rewarded.

The tiniest, Vatican City, is undeniably the most influential.

The next smallest, Monaco, gets very noisy in May.

The third most diminutive, San Marino, was the hilltop hide-out of an escaped slave.

The fourth, Liechtenstein, is widely considered a beautiful Alpine tax haven.

The fifth, Andorra, has the highest average life expectancy in the world at 83.4 years.

Together they take up less space than the Hawaiian island of Oahu, have survived by slipping through history's cracks and are much fancied by tourists, especially in fall, when the crowds have departed.

Recently I set out to see these miniatures, which took time because they are scattered in nooks and crannies across Europe. Besides postage stamps from each, I brought back a range of impressions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Encamp, Andorra: In a Sept. 28 Travel section article about the small countries of Europe, a town in Andorra was called Encampin. It is Encamp.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 05, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Encamp, Andorra: In a Sept. 28 article about the small countries of Europe, a town in Andorra was called Encampin. It is Encamp.


In ancient times, a low hill on the west side of the Tiber River in Rome overlooked a sports field, or circus, marked by a red granite obelisk from Egypt. In AD 64, the Apostle Peter was crucified and buried in its shadow, incising the place in history.

Today people come here to see Michelangelo's Pieta, the Raphael rooms, the ancient Laocoon statue or to study some of the crowning architectural achievements of the Italian Renaissance. Some just want to be able to say they've visited the smallest country in the world. Others come as religious pilgrims.

I take the No. 64 bus to Vatican City from my apartment on the other side of Rome. It stops under the wall around the corner from a side entrance, hardly as grand an approach as along the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Fascist-era avenue that debouches into St. Peter's Square, or as soulful a route as one of the small streets, known as borgos, trammeled by millions of pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

Thus, I sneak into the magnificent piazza, enfolded by two semicircular colonnades conceived by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century. I always feel a shiver when I turn my gaze to St. Peter's Basilica, built between 1506 and 1615 by 18 popes and their favorite architects, including Bramante, Raphael and, of course, Michelangelo, who gave the church its divine dome.

I look toward the adjacent Vatican Apostolic Palace to see whether the pope may be passing the window of his study on the third floor, where he often appears at noon on Sundays. Pigeons wheel and the 140 Christian saints poised in stone on the roofline of the colonnade point the way to heaven. Tourists follow guides with open umbrellas or sit on the steps, apparently overwhelmed.

It is overwhelming to contemplate touring the 10-acre basilica, treasury, crypt and dome, and seven miles of galleries in the Vatican Museums. An information bureau, bookstore and post office are tucked into a low building on the south side of the piazza. But it's far better to reserve a place in advance for one of the three excellent tours offered at the Vatican.

The Vatican Museum-Sistine Chapel tour departs from a ticket office on the north side of Vatican City and ends close to the basilica's entrance, allowing visitors to enter St. Peter's without standing in line. In two hours it can only skim the surface, passing by whole museums such as the Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, opened to showcase works of art stolen by Napoleon, then returned after his defeat.

What the tour does cover is the stuff of memories: the Pine Cone Courtyard, with its colossal bronze fountain, a relic of the first St. Peter's Basilica, built beginning about AD 326 by Emperor Constantine; the Octagonal Courtyard, which displays classical statuary such as the Greek Laocoon, unearthed in Rome in 1506 and acquired by Pope Julius II, at the urging of Michelangelo; the marvelous Gallery of Maps, decorated with 40 historical-topographical maps of Italy devised in the 16th century by papal astronomer Ignazio Danti; the magnificently frescoed Raphael rooms; and, of course, the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo's frescoes in the chapel are so big, busy and breathtaking that they seem almost surreal. His St. Peter's dome, on the other hand, has a serene perfection and can best be appreciated on the Vatican gardens tour.

It takes visitors into precincts otherwise accessible only to about 1,000 priests and nuns and 2,500 laypeople who work there.

In the walled compound behind St. Peter's are a bank, printing press, commissary, gas station, railroad, helipad, radio station, tennis court, medical clinic, hotel and offices of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper, as well as a 5,000-pound fragment of the Berlin Wall and a full-scale reproduction of the grotto of Lourdes.

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