With my new country list and FCC score stagnating due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I jumped at the chance to visit San Marino on a recent fly drive holiday to Italy. We spent the first week of the trip in the Liguria and Tuscany regions around Cinque Terre and Florence. We then moved eastwards over the Apennines towards the Adriatic but not before a brief 2 night stay in the micro-nation of San Marino.
San Marino is the world’s oldest republic that still exists. It was founded in AD 301 by Saint Marinus who first left the island of Rab (in modern day Croatia) to find work as a stonemason and preacher in the city of Rimini. Following persecution of his Christian sermons he fled to Monte Titano where he built a small church and founded the city that is now the state of San Marino. The official founding date of the country is 1320 and the country’s borders were extended in 1463 incorporating the communities of Faetano, Fiorentino, Montegiardino and Serraville. Despite threats from The Duchy of Urbino, Papal governors, Napoleon and Italy itself San Marino has maintained its independence and sovereignty. Today it has a population of 33400 and covers an area of 61.2 square kilometres.
The landscape is dominated by the huge, central limestone mass of Mount Titano at 739 metres; hills spread out from it on the southwest, whereas the northeastern part gently slopes down toward the Romagna plain and the Adriatic coast. The silhouette of Mount Titano, with its three summits crowned by ancient triple fortifications, may be seen from many miles away. In 2008 Mount Titano and the historic centre of San Marino were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
San Marino’s economy relies heavily on tourism, banking, and the manufacture and export of ceramics, clothing, fabrics, furniture, paints, spirits, tiles, and wine. Looking down from the old town San Marino’s frontiers are easily distingishable by the factories that line its borders with Italy. These factories are given tax breaks to locate within the San Marino yet are only a stones throw from neighbouring Italy and its efficient transport network The manufacturing and financial sectors account for more than half of San Marino’s GDP but tourism is the biggest growing industry. Its nearest airport is Rimini, 20km away, where many tourists, a growing number of them from Russia (who take advantage of the direct flights from Moscow and St Petersburg) visit the micronation to enjoy its duty free status to buy massively discounted designer brands, perfumes and alcohol. San Marino also has some of the most relaxed gun laws in Western Europe so whilst here don’t be surprised to see numerous weapon shops selling guns, crossbows and other military paraphanelia!
We accessed the country by car, driving in from Florence through Tuscany and Umbria. There are no trains directly into San Marino with the nearest station at Rimini. From there you can take a 40 minute bus ride into the old town. Car is the preferred option but note that San Marino is the only country in the world with more cars than people, so parking especially in the old town is not easy! There are no border checks here and you will soon be in the country without realising!
We stayed at the Grand Hotel San Marino which had an excellent location 5 minutes walk from the old town. It is highly recommended you book your hotel in this area as other hotels such as those found in Serraville are a good 30 minute bus ride away. All the main tourist sights are found in the old town. We arrived after some minor car trouble early evening. Upon checking into the hotel we had a brief encounter with the San Marino national football team who had just finished their pre-match meal before going on to play, and inevitably lose to, Andorra later that evening. After some drinks on our balcony and a spectacular sunset we decided to take advantage of the highly rated restaurant on site before a quick soiree around town. As we visited in late October and due to the country’s altitude at a peak of 749m it was cold, at about 5 degrees celsius. It was also very quiet with only a few restaurants open and not even a bar for an indoor drink.
We had one full day to explore this country, which despite being a fairly busy day was enough to see everything we wanted to. After a typically light Italian breakfast we walked through the Palazzo Pubblico and Piazza della Liberta (yes confusingly these are the same square!) Here the main administrative buildings of the country are found. Behind this square is the first of many wonderful views we would find as we looked out from the republic’s lofty postion towards the Adriatic.
Three fortresses crown the long ridge of Mount Titano, with the city of San Marino clustered at the foot of their walls. The first and earliest of the fortresses is Rocca Guaita, constructed in the 11th century. It served for a time as a prison and was rebuilt several times for different uses until it reached the form we see today, during the 15th-century war between San Marino and the House of Malatesta. Indeed within the castle walls there is fairly interesting weaponry collection. The highest point for miles, 739-meter-high Mount Titano commands spectacular views from any of its three towers. The views stretch northwest to the Apennines and east to the coast, Rimini, and on a clear day across the Adriatic to the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. Three castles punctuate its long ridge, rising to the highest of them, Rocca Cesta. These are linked by a paved path, the Passo delle Streghe or Witches’ Passage. We also took a walk along the bottom of these high-sided cliffs which was very steep in parts but offered exceptional views.
There are numerous museums to visit too. From the more typical National Museum with its archaeological artefacts from Neolithic, Etrucscan and Roman times to the less expected Wax Museum, Vintage Car Museum. a Vampire Museum and a number of torture museums! There is also a stamp and coin museum if you are really bored!
The food as expected is exceptional and retains the usual Italian traditions of a light breakfast, numerous morning Espresso and ubiquitous pizza and gelato shops and my favourite, the Aperitivi. Local Sanmarinese delicacies worth trying are fagioli con le cotiche (a bean and bacon soup), nidi di rondine (a basked pasta dish with smoked ham, cheese and roast rabbit). A good snack for on the go is Piada which consists of a flatbread with various fillings, a twist on the panini sandwiches you may see elsewhere in Italy. Dolci include cakes such as Torta Tre Monti and Torta Titano as well as Verretta, a dessert made of hazelnuts, praline and chocolate wafers! They also produce their own wine and beer. You will not go hungry here!
All in all San Marino is worth a couple of nights if you are already in Italy. It has an interesting history, fantastic views, typical Italian food with a few local twists and lots of cheap shopping!
Top Tip for San Marino:
1) Go to the tourist office in the old town to get a San Marino stamp in your passport (it costs 5 Euros).
2) Drive in and book a hotel with a reduced car parking charge.
3) Take the Funivia cable car from the lower area of Borgo to the old town Citta and save a very tiring climb.
4) Buy some duty free alcohol or perfume in the old town.