Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Slate Highlights the Microstates

As I'm tied to a desk for the summer with dwindling funds, I've enjoyed reading Slate's recent slate of travelogues featuring Europe's microstates. In July, Happy Menocal and John Swansburg wrote and illustrated what is practically a small book (indeed you can download it for your Kindle) about Malta, the smallest EU member state. This week, Josh Levin has a series where he visits Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Liechtenstein. I find the tiny states and the reasons for their survival (basically, they are either located in between two big countries or didn't join in when Germany and Italy unified) fascinating. Visiting them can be interesting - I've been to San Marino twice on daytrips after nights in Rimini, and I like the old town; flashy Monaco is less charming but I was hung over after partying in Nice and on a budget and it's worth seeing once; I came within a few kilometers of Andorra on a train-bus-train trip from Barcelona to Toulouse, from what I know I don't think a few hours in a town there would be so hot but a hike in the mountains could be nice. One thing I learned from the series: there is an Olympics-affiliated biennial Games of the Small States of Europe, in which all of Europe's ten countries with a population under one million compete, except for that sovereign office building Citta del Vaticano. Levin attends these games in Liechtenstein.

At the other end of the spectrum, Slate has also recently highlighted one of Europe's largest countries - Kazakhstan. Yes, Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, but it too has territory near the Caspian Sea which belongs to that vague geographic expression known as Europe - that's why it competes in UEFA not Asia in football.

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