San Marino is one of the smallest countries and the oldest republic in the world. For people visiting the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy, it’s a quick way to chalk up another country to their list of countries visited. When I checked my list, San Marino came in at #78. That’s the thought that sprang to my mind as I boarded the bus in Rimini, a beach town on the Adriatic Sea, for the one-hour drive to San Marino.
I must confess to knowing little about this tiny enclave in Italy. At 61 square kilometers (24 square miles) and with a population of around 30,000, the Republic of San Marino is indeed small. Prior to my visit, I knew two things about the republic: the San Marino Grand Prix Formula One race and its football (soccer) team (unfortunately, the source of numerous football jokes in Holland). What I discovered during my day in San Marino was a country steeped in history, with fiercely-independent people who take great pride in their culture and heritage. I quickly realised that San Marino was much more than just #78.
A stroll around San Marino
The first thing I noticed as the bus crossed the border from Italy into San Marino was the number of banks along the road. Banking and tourism it is then – no wonder San Marino is one of the world’s wealthiest countries on a per capita basis. The bus zig-zagged up the imposing Monte Titano (the country’s highest peak and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and location of the historic town of San Marino) and stopped at the Piazzale Nazioni Unite where everyone disembarked. From here, I walked to the edge of the impressive town walls and gaped at the view. Spread out before me were green hills covered in a patchwork of meadows, vineyards and forests. The peaks of the Apennine mountains glistened in the distance.
I continued my stroll through the historic Porta San Francesco into the inner town. As soon as I passed the gate, I was greeted by a maze of steep streets and alleys fanning out in different directions. The main street was lined by a multitude of tax-free shops and boutiques, cosy cafés and restaurants.
I climbed the cobblestone streets past the many shops to the main square, Piazza della Liberta, where the House of Parliament is located. San Marino has a multi-party parliamentary system where the Captains Regent are the Heads of State. The Parliament building provides wonderful insights into the country’s history and unique political system. It’s quite amazing to learn how San Marino maintained its independence through the centuries – a testament to the diplomatic prowess of its rulers. Many alliances were formed with surrounding states and a neutral status was chosen during the big wars. One alliance of note was that with the United States, signed during the American Civil War in which President Abraham Lincoln was made an Honorary Citizen of San Marino.
From here, I continued my walk uphill criss-crossing the maze of streets towards the 11th century La Rocca o Guaita, or Main Tower. The Guaita tower is the oldest of the three towers that crown the three peaks of the Monte Titano. This is one of the town’s top attractions – it’s a treat to walk along the walls and inside the tower (where a permanent exhibition illustrates the colourful history of San Marino). The views of the surrounding countryside and the Adriatic Sea in the far distance are nothing short of spectacular.
As I strolled around the town, past picturesque squares, age-old alleys and gorgeous gardens, I couldn’t help but notice the proud faces of the San Marinese, from the Guards of the Rock at the Parliament to the shopkeepers. They have every reason to be, considering the great achievements of the citizens of this tiny enclave to maintain their independence and create a prosperous economy. I boarded the bus for San Marino with the intention to simply chalk up another country for my list. However, I left with a more enlightened sense of history for this region and deep respect for this little enclave.
San Marino can easily be done as a day-trip from Rimini but I would recommend spending a few days there to explore the other villages such as Borgo Maggiore or to go for scenic walks in the San Marino hills. Oh yes, a few more tips: bring your passport to the tourism office for a unique stamp of San Marino. For the philatelists, buy some postage stamps at the post-office – these stamps are a collectors item. The same goes for the country’s Euro coins! Don’t forget to bring one home with you. You can plan your San Marino visit at Visit San Marino or drop @visitsanmarino a tweet.