Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/19 posted by hidden europe on

Europe boasts an engaging mix of microstates, some less acknowledged internationally than others. The mainland of western Europe numbers five independent nation states that are all among the smallest in the world. Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City - listed here in order from the largest to the smallest - all have a national territory of less than 500 square kilometres. And the last two in that list are notably diminutive: Monaco and Vatican City each have a size of less than two square kilometres. In Andorra and San Marino, we have the world's two remaining diarchies - nations that are presided over by two individuals who share the role of head of state.

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Dear fellow travellers

Europe boasts an engaging mix of microstates, some less acknowledged internationally than others. The mainland of western Europe numbers five independent nation states that are all among the smallest in the world. Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City - listed here in order from the largest to the smallest - all have a national territory of less than 500 square kilometres.

And the last two in that list are notably diminutive: Monaco and Vatican City each have a size of less than two square kilometres. These five microstates are curious polities indeed. In Andorra and San Marino, we have the world's two remaining diarchies - nations that are presided over by two individuals who share the role of head of state. Some readers may argue that Swaziland has historically operated in this manner, and we take the point. But the royal rituals of the landlocked African kingdom defer more to the mighty lion than the proud elephantess, so there's not quite the parity of esteem that prevails in San Marino or Andorra.

Andorra has its co-princes and San Marino its Captains Regent - two in each country. And there the parallel between San Marino and Andorra ends. The first is a republic, and indeed a country with a very fine republican tradition, so much so that Abraham Lincoln warmly accepted the offer of San Marino to make him an honorary citizen. The two Captains Regent of San Marino are intimately involved in the day-to-day running of this mountain republic and, for their six-month period in office, the two joint heads of state are like Siamese twins. Virtually inseparable. The Captains Regent are frequently seen out and about in the narrow streets of the Sammarinese capital (also called San Marino) that lies perched on the top of Mount Titano. The Captains Regent are Sammarinese through and through.

Shift to Andorra and it is perfectly possible to become head of state (or more precisely joint head of state) without a drop of Andorran blood in your veins. There is no requirement that the co-princes can speak or understand a word of the sole official language, which is català. Indeed, you do not even need to have visited Andorra to be appointed co-prince of the Pyrenean co-principality.

Looking at Andorra's current crop of co-princes, one was born in the Normandy city of Rouen. He is a lapsed Catholic and has impeccable socialist credentials. The other was born in Barcelona, enjoyed (or endured) a solid career as a university professor and is now a Roman Catholic bishop, presiding over a small diocese in northern Spain. No doubt President François Hollande and Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicília will have an interesting conversation when they first get together to review how they will go about sharing their duties as joint heads of state of Andorra. They have not yet had a chance to meet.

Odd, you might think, that the French President and the Bishop of Urgell are, by virtue of their offices, the co-princes of Andorra. On the whole, the bishops have more chance to get to grips with the job than the presidents. Perhaps it's the mountain air in Urgell, but the local bishops are famously long lived. The predecessor in Urgell of Bishop Vives i Sicília was in office for 32 years, during which time he job-shared the Andorra post with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. Presidents come and go, but bishops stick around.

Andorrans are, by and large, rather happy to have absentee heads of state. It suits their rural ways. Pomp and ceremony are not in the Pyrenean character. The Sammarinese, by contrast, like having their Captains Regent around. It suits the country's republican spirit. It's easier to hold the bosses to account when they live among you. And, as each new pair of Captains Regent is ousted from office after just six months, you have every excuse for a day of festive ceremonies twice each year to mark the inauguration of the new joint heads of state. That's the way they like it in San Marino.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.