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A trove of tiny treasures

{SMALL COUNTRIES OF EUROPE}

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

Some of the princely family's modern art is on display at the nearby Kunstmuseum, along with temporary exhibitions. But the museum's best surprise is its first-floor sushi bar, where I had an early dinner before trying to find my hotel.

The road from Vaduz to Balzers is a disconsolate suburban strip. But the mountainside town is affable, made up of well-tended houses surrounded by horse pastures and gardens, the kind of place where you could send your kids out to play with no worries.

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.

The next day I drove around Liechtenstein, bought a half-case of red wine from the princely family's vineyard near Vaduz and finally broached the front door of LGT, the royal family's bank, where I asked a customer service representative if I could open an account.

He looked at me strangely and asked where I was from.

When I told him I was American, he said I couldn't open an account in Liechtenstein because of U.S. banking regulations, but I'm pretty sure it was my Birkenstocks.

ANDORRA

Outside a church on my first morning in Andorra, I met a dapper man who looked about 60 and was wearing a suit coat with a silk handkerchief in the front pocket. He noticed that I was trying to read my map upside down and asked whether he could help.

After we'd talked for a while he asked me how old I thought he was. The average life expectancy in Andorra is 83, so I figured this was a trick question. But before I could come up with an answer he did a little twist and said he was 93. Then he pulled out his driver's license to prove it.

If first impressions are everything, he's the reason I took a shine to Andorra, but I found many others during my visit. Though locked in the mountains like Liechtenstein, Andorra is three times bigger, so there's more to see. And these mountains are the Catalonian Pyrenees, culturally flavored by Spain, where people stay up late and know how to party.

Andorra lines a high pass in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. I drove in from the north, noting the long line of cars headed in the opposite direction, stalled at a customs booth on the French border, where officials were opening trunks to inspect the loads of purchases leaving Andorra, a tax-free shopping mecca.

Pas de la Casa, the first town I came to, has a duty-free mall, like those in airports, and two route options for people going onward: a long, toll tunnel or the switchbacking road I chose that crosses the 7,900-foot Envalira Pass before plunging into Andorra.

From there, the highway follows a branch of the Valira River past a chain of ski resorts, a hydroelectric plant and the monstrous, pinnacle-shaped Caldea spa complex to the nation's capital, Andorra la Vella, a densely packed modern city in a widening of the valley.

The Hotel Pyrenees, where I booked a room for three nights, is in the upper town. It's clean, efficient and friendly and has a beautiful swimming pool on the roof of an adjacent parking structure.

I took a dip and then went for a walk in the old town, a small district of stone buildings surrounding Casa de la Vall, which was Andorra's administrative center when it was co-ruled by the Spanish bishop of Urgell and the French king.

Technically, the bishop and the president of France remain its co-princes, but Andorra now has a democratically elected parliament and ministries in modern buildings below the nearby Piazza of the People.

Beyond that, Andorra la Vella seemed to me chiefly a conglomeration of shopping malls that attract day-trippers from France and Spain seeking tax-free luxury goods such as perfume and watches. The summer sales were on, but even so, things seemed expensive, except for shoes, which is why I had to find room in my suitcase for two new pairs of sandals.

One night I had charbroiled chicken at an Argentine barbecue near my hotel. The next night I found Ca la Conxita, a restaurant decorated like a Hallmark Halloween card, which serves local fare without a menu. The owner sat at my table and told me what she could prepare. I chose steak, followed by a watermelon slice.

It was easy to fill my days in Andorra visiting such historic sites as Casa Cristo, which occupies a four-story farmhouse left as it was when the family that lived there moved from the hamlet Encampin in 1947.

It is an ethnographic museum dedicated to the old days, when Andorra produced tobacco for snuff. A few fields nearby are still devoted to big-leafed, pink-flowering tobacco plants, now used for cigarettes.

Every little town seems to have an old Romanesque chapel built of rough stone in the Middle Ages. My favorite, in the village of Santa Coloma just south of the capital, has a round bell tower and traces of Gothic frescoes.

The restored ruins of another cherished Andorran chapel are on a hillside in Meritxell, where legend has it that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared miraculously. When the chapel burned in 1972, a striking new sanctuary was built.

Farther north at Arcalis I hiked to Tristaina Lake, set in a scree-covered cirque, where I sat eating a sandwich, despairing of the march of the clock but appreciating the view. So little time, so many small countries to see.

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susan.spano@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

*--* EUROPE'S SMALLEST 10 Rank/City Area Comparison 1. Vatican City 0.2 sq. miles Slightly bigger than the San Diego Zoo 2. Monaco 1 sq. mile Disneyland 3. San Marino 24 sq. miles About the size of Pasadena 4. Liechtenstein 62 sq. miles Original Hearst Ranch near San Simeon 5. Malta 122 sq. miles The size of Denver 6. Andorra 181 sq. miles About the surface area of Lake Tahoe 7. Luxembourg 998 sq. miles About two-thirds the size of Rhode Island 8. Cyprus 3,572 sq. miles Delaware and Rhode Island combined 9. Kosovo 4,203 sq. miles San Diego County 10. Montenegro 5,333 sq. miles Slightly smaller than Connecticu t Source: National Geographic Society / Los Angeles Times *--*

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