The Lilliputs

GILES PLAYFAIR divides his time between London and the United States, with occasional excursions to the Continent. He hare published several of his travel articles, and he note sends this account of his trip to the four smallest states in Europe.


WHEN I set forth last spring to visit Europe’s four surviving Lilliputian states, I fancied myself as something of an explorer. I knew, of course, that Monaco, the smallest of them all, was already famous among world travelers, and had been for nearly a century. But I imagined that the other three were pretty well uncharted territory.

And maybe it isn’t everyone who could say right off just what Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Andorra are, and where they are: that Liechtenstein is a principality sandwiched between eastern Switzerland and western Austria; that San Marino is a republic landlocked by Italy, about fifteen miles from Rimini on the Adriatic coast; that Andorra lies snugly, if elusively, in the Pyrenees between France anti the Spanish province of Catalonia, and is variously described as a principality and a republic. (Actually, Andorra has two co-princes—the Spanish Bishop of Urgel and the President of France, who inherits his title through the Comte do Foix and the French monarchy. But the co-princes have no powers, except the power of veto, and the Andorrans otherwise administer their own affairs through a General Council.)

I must report, however, that if these countries still need some such explanatory introduction, this is no longer, as it was before the war, through any bashfulness of the outside world on their part. Since 1945 they have all been engaged in determined efforts to make themselves attractive to visitors. Today, each of them has its new hotels; each of them has its tourist offices; each of them is bristling with picture postcards and the various other commodities that tourists are supposed to find irresistible.

Moreover, with the active concurrence of the Lilliputian governments (Monaco’s included), a central travel organization is to be set up in London for the special purpose of popularizing just such a tour as I made: the Little Tour, perhaps this may come to be called, as opposed to the old, outmoded Grand Tour. As recently as the 1930s parts of this Little Tour would have been impossible except by foot or mule. Now it can all be done, if a little hazardously in places, by shining charabanc.

As a matter of fact, to attempt it on one’s own, as I did, without a car, though it may be no explorer’s dream, is still a pretty complicated undertaking. I went Andorra-Monaeo-Liechtenslein-San Marino, which was, I think, as easy a way round as I could have chosen. With Bordeaux as my starling point, it involved me, excursions aside, in approximately sixty-four hours of rail travel with thirteen changes of train, six and a half hours of road travel in three different buses, and an excessively uncomfortable all-day mountain climb, mostly through about three feet of soft snow.

The climb I could have avoided if I hadn’t committed the initial blunder of trying to reach Andorra from the French side. Andorra has no railroad of its own, but there is a railroad station in France called l’Hospitalet-près-Andorre which, judging both from the sound of it and its place on the map, I supposed within as easy striking distance of Andorra as one could get. The trouble was, though, that I arrived in April, and except between June and September the road from l’Hospitalet into Andorra is closed to traffic because of the snow; in fact, it’s considered so impassable that neither the French nor the Andorrans bother to man the frontier. For the rest of the year the only way to get to Andorra in any sort of comfort is from the Spanish side. The nearest railroad station is Puigcerda, and from there it’s about a five-hour drive, with a change from a Spanish bus into an Andorran bus at Urgel.

The remaining Lilliputs were more easily reached than Andorra, and would have presented hardly any problem at all if I’d been going directly to them from some central point instead of traveling from one to the other. Monaco has two mainline railroad stations of its own less than a mile apart, which means that the whole country is somewhat more than adequately served. There used to be a branch line running from Rimini to San Marino; this was destroyed during World War II, but is due to be repaired shortly by the Italians. Meanwhile, there is an excellent bus service.

The simplest way of reaching Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital, is to get off at the Swiss frontier town of Buchs, which is on the main ParisVienna line, and then take a taxi — only a five-mile drive. A more romantic way, perhaps, is to proceed a couple of miles further by train to Schaan-Vaduz, the principality’s onerailroad station, and take a bus or taxi from there. But this means wasting quite a lot of time because, though Liechtenstein has a customs union with Switzerland and therefore no border formalities of its own, the train is held up at Buchs for inspection by the Austrian immigration and customs officials.

All four Lilliputian states have it in common that they are mountainous, and were once practically inaccessible. This largely accounts for their present independence, so that in retrospect at least it was a momentous political decision when in 1859 the Prince of Monaco, who ruled absolutely over a rock that was approachable from France only by a perilous mule-track, granted a concession for the building of a casino within his minute and unproductive realm. For this decision meant that Monaco was abandoning its geographic isolation in favor of flaunting and exploiting its anomalous sovereignty. Henceforth, it could no longer expect to be overlooked by Europe’s successive warmakers and peacemakers; it would have to rely on striking a sentimental chord in their hearts.

But that is what it seems to have done. Around the casino grew Monte Carlo, which became the very hub of the fabulously fashionable Côte d’Azur and turned the valueless rock that had been Monaco into a glittering prize. Yet Monaco has survived two world wars and two separate reshapings of Europe with its independence unchallenged. Admittedly, the Germans violated its neutrality during the last war, though as a matter of fact they were not obligated to respect it, for Monaco had signed a treaty with France that gave the French the right to send troops into its territory in an emergency. But, unlike its big neighbor, Monaco has emerged from the experience of German occupation without any signs of physical or spiritual disfigurement. Its city of Monte Carlo that was built for the delectation of princes is still a living thing; it still looks supremely elegant and supremely opulent; it is not, as so many places elsewhere in Europe have become, just a pale, dejected reminder of what it used to be.

Or so it seemed to me, and I was in Monte Carlo in May, which is out of season. I should suggest, though, that May is possibly the best time of year to go there for those who do not care particularly to be in the fashion and whose resources are limited. True, the opera house is closed, which is a pity, but the main casino is open, the weather is likely to be quite warm enough for sea bathing and sun bathing, and the prices have not risen to astronomical heights. I stayed, demi-pension, in a modest but perfectly comfortable hotel for the equivalent of $4 a night.

And, in or out of season, the thing that gave Monte Carlo its special attraction and set it above the other pleasure troves of the Côte d’Azur is always on view. There is always the pageant of Monaco’s sovereignty to watch: the Prince’s palace, on the other side of the twinkling, stagedesigned harbor from Monte Carlo, and the two toylike sentries outside it, with their two gaily stripe-painted, toylike sentry boxes, and the policemen, whose splendor of uniform and bearing makes the policemen of the French Republic just up or along the road look like bedraggled servants of a pauper state, and the elaborately designed outsize postage stamps and the flags and the emblems and all the rest.

But no doubt in these fear-ridden, armament-burdened times a new and more potent appeal than comic opera colorfulness and romanticism has been added to the charm of Lilliputian sovereignty. That is why, in one sense at least, Andorra, Liechtenstein, and San Marino have chosen a good psychological moment to follow on the road that their baby brother took nearly a hundred years ago. For today the four Lilliputs are like a tiny remaining leisured class among nations. They exist without armies, and consequently exist very happily; they can afford to ignore the trials and problems more powerful countries must face. Taxes are either very low, as in Liechtenstein and San Marino, or nonexistent, as in Monaco and Andorra, where crime is nearly absent and where there is no anxious grabbing at the latest edition of the newspaper. They exude an atmosphere of lightheartedness that is infectious; to visit any one of them is to capture the illusion of a world at peace.

In Andorra this atmosphere is close to anarchistic. As the bank manager told me over a drink in a café, “There is no law in Andorra”; and when he said this the chief of police, who happened to be standing by, nodded enthusiastic agreement. What the chief of police meant, as I discovered on questioning him further, was that, crimes against property and person aside — and these, he insisted, were never committed by Andorrans, though occasionally they were by resident aliens — the people were subject to no compulsions or restraints. Actually, the Andorrans are almost. exclusively a peasant community, but since the outbreak of World War II a considerable number of them have been making their money out of smuggling goods from

France into Spain, and vice versa. Andorra has other sources of revenue — a tobacco industry, for example, and a powerful commercial radio station — but, unofficially at least, smuggling appears to be its chief one, and it has proved extraordinarily profitable.

The Andorrans are too well off to have any real need of a tourist trade. They are investing in the prospect of one, however — in hotels and neon-lit movie houses and shops and marble-walled arcades. In the two chief urban centers—Escaldes and the town of Andorra itself, which are now about a mile apart on the road running through the valley, but will soon be joined together if building goes on at its present rate—I counted a half-dozen modern or modernized hotels already in operation and as many more in process of being built. The shops are innumerable, and they are still mushrooming; even in the narrow, primitive, unpaved back streets of the old part of Andorra town new ones are being readied. In fact, Andorra is a shopper’s paradise; it is stuffed with luxury goods from the market places of the world, and most of these are obtainable at lower prices than in their countries of origin.

Generally speaking, Andorra can be recommended for its cheapness. The charge for a hotel room with bath is something under a dollar and a half. The average meal, which consists of seven courses and inevitably includes paella (an assortment of shellfish and meats in fried saffron rice) and (for some reason) crème caramel, costs about 90 cents, with a bottle of local wine thrown in.

But all this, and the salmon trout fishing, too, which is said to be very fine, is clearly not enough to put Andorra on a level with Monaco as a pleasure resort. The one thing it feels it must have, if it’s ever going to catch up, is one thing that has been vetoed by the Bishop of Urgel: a casino.

In Liechtenstein also a casino has been forbidden by the Swiss, who have the final say in such a matter under the terms of their customs union with the principality. The Swiss objection is partly based on moral grounds, as is the Bishop’s in Andorra, and partly, one may suspect, on economic grounds.

In other respects, too, Liechtenstein’s position is comparable with Andorra’s. The atmosphere is more orderly— one even has to fill out a registration form on arrival at a hotel, which in Andorra is a quite unheard-of bit of red tape — and if smuggling goes on or has gone on, it is not something openly admitted or boasted about. But like the Andorrans, the Liechtensteiners, though too prosperous to need a tourist trade, are investing their money in one; and their prosperity is likewise in a large measure due to the war, when refugee capital flowed into their country, when export prices for their farm produce boomed, and when hugely inflated wages were to be earned working for the Germans across the Austrian border.

For the tourist, Liechtenstein is a far more expensive country than Andorra. The local wine, a vin rosé, is infinitely superior to the Andorran local wine, but it is not thrown in with a meal any longer, as it used to be; it is charged for at $1.80 a bottle. Hotel prices in general are as high as they are in Switzerland, which is to say as high as anywhere in Europe. Government officials excused it on the grounds that Liechtenstein was tied to the Swiss economy. But the fact is that Liechtenstein was tied to the Swiss economy before the war, and in those days, I’m assured, prices were about half what they were in Switzerland.

Of course, everything is no doubt considerably more luxurious now than it was then, but just the same the Liechtensteiners have a lot to learn about running hotels. So, for that matter, have the Andorrans. With one outstanding exception, in every hotel I stayed at in the two countries the shine of comfort was too often mistaken for the actuality. In a hotel in Vaduz, for example, I bad a telephone in my bedroom (there was a telephone in every bedroom), but no closets, no chest of drawers, and no table. In an Andorran hotel, I had a most serviceablelooking bathroom, but without any towels in it, which proved quite a logical omission because there wasn’t any hot water either.

Liechtenstein has the picturesque advantage of a reigning prince who lives in a Zenda-like castle, standing in splendid isolation high above Vaduz. The Prince himself is said to be somewhat cool towards the whole idea of tourism, but a number of his relatives, who — like him — once spent most of their time on estates in what has since become Russian-dominated Europe, are taking an active part in the tourist drive. There is notably an immensely energetic baron, who runs a tourist bureau of bis own called Quick, which serves as a thrustfill addition to the slower-moving and more conservative government bureau. The baron is brimming with ideas for a bigger and brighter tourists’ Liechtenstein. He has persuaded the Prince to allow his castle to be floodlit at night during the season, and he has persuaded the government to build a ski lift which he hopes may turn Liechtenstein into a popular winter sports resort. Meanwhile, in the summer, he arranges for conducted charabanc tours to come to his country from England and elsewhere, and personally welcomes the visitors on their arrival in Vaduz.

For me, though, Vaduz itself seemed a place to be avoided in the summer. It is a village growing up into a town, though apparently without any proper plan or design. Lying at the foot of the mountains, parallel with the Rhine, which is Liechtenstein’s western frontier, it is apt to be uncomfortably hot. And, thanks in part to the comings and goings of the charabancs, and in part to the hammering out of the new buildings, which seems to begin promptly at six o’clock every morning, it is often excessively noisy.

However, within a fifteen-minute climb up the steep roads leading to Liechtenstein’s unspoiled highlands, one can find perfect quiet and a cool breeze and a view of mountain scenery as lovely as any an Switzerland. And up there is the exception among hotels that I mentioned just now, a brand-new hotel called the Sonnenhof; and for a combination of peacefulness and comfort it is in my experience without a peer.

Still, these things, and mountain climbing too, and facer gardens and cafés and at least one hotel with a dance orchestra and cabaret, do not add up to any Monte Carlo. As in the ease of the Andorrans, the men behind Liechtenstein’s tourist drive are convinced that their pre-eminent need is a casino.

San Marino actually has a casino. It is referred to in the official guidebooks as the “quite new kursaal,” for the San Marines! haven’t got around as yet to employing a very expert English translator. It was built on the level immediately below the old walled capital of San Marino, which is atop Mount Titano, and it stands there now, a vast marble palace of a building, more impressive in its modern way than Monte Carlo’s casino, but deserted except for a sad-eyed caretaker.

For San Marino is at once the Cinderella and the enfant terrible of the Lilliputs. It fared badly during the war. On June 26, 1944, the British bombed it, in the mistaken belief that the Germans bad an ammunition dump under the railroad tunnel, and the republic suffered quite heavy damage. Thereafter, its territory was in turn occupied by the retreating German army, turned into a battlefield, and finally occupied by the pursuing British.

There was no compensation forthcoming for all this after the war. Moreover, San Marino found itself caught up in a running dispute with Italy, as a result of which the Italians were withholding payment of an annual sum that under treaty they were obligated to pay the republic in lieu of customs dues. Accordingly, San Marino decided that it must build up a tourist trade in order to pay its way.

At that moment, a mysterious figure from Rumania, named Maxim Maximo, appeared on the scene with an offer to raise money from private sources in Genoa for a casino. This offer was accepted, and in August, 1949, the roulette wheels began to turn. At the same time, on the strength of their expectations, the San Marinesi opened three new hotels. (Formerly, there had been only one.)

During the first six months of operations, the casino brought San Marino double the revenue that Italy was still withholding. But then the trouble started. Italy requested San Marino to close down its casino and, when this request was refused, established what amounted 1o a total blockade of the republic. Italian police were posted at every road leading into San Marino and, on the pretext of enforcing customs regulations, held up anyone attempting either to enter or leave, for hours on end. After seventeen months of this the San Marinese government was finally compelled to give in.

Precisely what the grounds of the Italian objection to San Marino’s casino were is open to doubt; at least no two people in San Marino itself seem to have the same explanation. But the grounds could have been political because, let it be whispered, San Marino had (and still has) a pro-Communist government.

For my part, though I took some trouble looking into the matter, I find it hard to regard this pro-Communist government as a particularly grave menace to the peace of the world — or of San Marino. “They ‘ate themselves,” an Italian told me, speaking objectively of a people among whom he has lived continuously for the past thirty years. He meant that political rivalries in San Marino are intense. But if this is so, il is not at all obvious to the tourist. For the atmosphere of the place remains uninhibitedly friendly and free, and if the present government has made one attack on democratic liberties or enacted one Communist or even Socialist measure, nobody I spoke to in San Marino, government and opposition supporters alike, could tell me of it.

Anyhow, I was enchanted by San Marino. It is more expensive than Andorra, though less expensive than Liechtenstein: about halfway between the two. Assuming that Monaco must still be considered in a lofty class by itself, San Marino would be my choice if l had to recommend one above the other Lilliputs for a vacation.

For it has something that Liechtenstein and Andorra rather dopressingly lack: a cultural tradition. And it has set about organizing its tourist trade without doing violence to this tradition. The Diamond hotel, for example, where I stayed, is a conversion job of a characteristic building within the old walled capital. Hut though it has its private bathrooms and its telephones, the whole thing has been carried out without creating any disharmony between it and the town of which it’s a part.

This town is remarkable not only for the superb panoramic view from it: it is remarkable in itself. Its history, which dates back more than a thousand years, is commemorated not simply in hastily assembled handouts for tourists; it is commemorated in stone. It has the most primitive sort of movie house that I can remember having been in since the advent of the talkies. But it also has a very handsome white and gold theater, which the San Marinesi people built for themselves in 1941 on the site of an older theater. That, I think, typifies the essential differ— ence between San Marino on the one hand and Liechtenstein and Andorra on the other.

And I’ve a second, more sentimental reason for my preference. San Marino really needs a tourist trade, and now that its “quite new kursaal” has been forced to close down, there is something touchingly, almost heart-rendingly appealing about its efforts to acquire one, especially by comparison with the slicker, more efficient methods of, say, the Quick office in Vaduz. Its newest, biggest, only neon-lighted hotel advertises its attractions to the English-speaking world in these words: “Ot offers a friendly warm wellcome in a serene and calm atmosphere. Every modern comfort, central heating, batle, telephone in cache room, garage, park, garden and large roof terraces from where a wonderful siglet may be enjoyed.”

That may not be entirely clear, but I should hate to think of the hotel that has said it not being full.