Lifestyle & Travel
Jun 1, 2015
Delightful San Marino
Of the world's 193 independent countries, San Marino is the fifth smallest and – arguably – the most curious. How it exists at all is something of an enigma. A sole survivor of Italy's once powerful city-state network, this landlocked micronation clung on long after the more powerful kingdoms of Genoa and Venice folded. And still it clings, secure in its status as the world's oldest surviving sovereign state and its oldest republic (since AD 301). San Marino also enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in Europe and one of the planet's highest GDPs.
Measuring 61 sq km, the country is larger than many outsiders imagine, being made up of nine municipalities each hosting its own settlement. The largest 'town' is Dogana (on the bus route from Italy), a place 99.9% of the two million annual visitors skip on their way through to the Città di San Marino, the medieval settlement on the slopes of 750m-high Monte Titano that was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 2008.
Though San Marino is old and commands some astounding views, it retains a curious lack of intimacy and (for want of a better word) soul.
Although the steep slopes, cliffs and castles of San Marino are impressive enough in themselves, what really takes your breath away is the view from the town. On a clear day you can see the Adriatic a few miles to the east, and in other directions the hilly land rises into central Italy. It's possible to make out small hill-top villages and other, less lofty, castles and fortresses, commanding their own small green patches of territory.
The most obvious attractions of San Marino are its defensive towers. Two of these (the Rocca and the Torre Cesta) can be visited with a combined ticket and offer good chances to climb towers and explore ramparts. Uncontrolled school-parties can present problems in the confined spaces, but since there is not a great deal to see - views, defenses, a few weapons - you can tour the buildings quite briskly. San Marino's fortifications were restored in the 1940s courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, who used the republic as a film set for Prince of Foxes, starring Tyrone Power. (Apparently the film company rented the entire republic including its population at a daily rate of $40).
Although San Marino is described as a place for mass-tourism, it is possible to escape most of the tour-parties and shoppers by heading out along footpaths towards the hill's remoter crags. There are various woodland routes marked out by signs, and if you have time it is worth wandering through the pretty woods, where the natural greenery is such a contrast to the busy streets nearby. For a good short stroll, just head along the main path which follows the clifftop. This leads to the third of San Marino's fortresses, a solitary tower called the Torre del Montale. The building isn't open to the public, but it is another great viewpoint and considerably less crowded. Along the way are various picnic spots and stone benches for a spot of peaceful contemplation.
More colorful tourist appeal is to be had from the changing of the guard ceremony (at half-past every hour in the summer months) in Piazza della Libertà. The republic's militia are proud of their fancy uniforms. As an independent state, San Marino also has its own stamps and postal system. To send a postcard from San Marino, you just need to buy a stamp in one of the town's shops and make sure you post your cards in one of the state's white postboxes before you leave.
San Marino's principal museum is the State Museum (Museo di Stato), which contains historical exhibits and artwork. There are also quite a few minor attractions in San Marino, but most are in the take-it-or-leave-it category: museums of torture, waxworks, weaponry. Car-lovers will want to make a detour to the Ferrari museum at the foot of Monte Titano: the Maranello Rosso Collection.
Of the various churches in San Marino, the most interesting are probably the Basilica of San Marino, which preserves the saint's bones in an urn, and the fourteenth-century Chiesa di San Francesco.
San Marino accommodation
San Marino is small, and most visitors won't feel the need to spend more than a day in the country. If you do wish to stay the night, however, you will find a few good but rather expensive hotels in historic San Marino town and in the nearby villages.