Guilty confession: I would have never guessed that San Marino – a nation of 33,000 people – is the world’s oldest surviving republic. It’s said to have been founded in the fourth century by a saint, a Dalmation stone-mason called Marinus, who sought refuge here when fleeing religious persecution. The steep ridge of Monte Titano is certainly a good defensive stronghold. I went in expecting a tax haven similar to Monaco, with only expensive restaurants and unimpressive buildings on relatively flat terrain. I was wrong on all accounts. Instead I had a glimpse into a world of fairytale castles, views that never get boring and more importantly, how the resolve and determination of a tiny nation helped navigate the complex political battleground to retain its independence.
Where is San Marino?
The oldest surviving republic
Whatever the truth of its founding, by the Middle Ages there was an autonomous settlement here which grew into one of the little city states covering Italy in the 14th & 15th centuries. Regional areas surrounding an important city like Venice, Florence and Milan were usually ruled by a strong and wealthy family. The Papal city-state, ruled by the Pope, was also a key part of the system.
Through diplomacy, luck and possibly a lack of strategic importance, San Marino managed to hang onto its independence through the centuries. In the 1800s, the country took in many fugitive Italian nationalist revolutionaries who were persecuted for supporting the unification of Italy. Among them was Giuseppe Garibaldi (who later played an important role in Italy’s unification). Recognising San Marino’s support, story has it that Garibaldi accepted the country’s desire not to be brought into the new Italian state. In 1862 a friendship treaty guaranteed its continued independence from Italy.
In the 1940s, San Marino’s fortifications were restored courtesy of 20th Century Fox, who used the republic as a film set for Prince of Foxes, featuring Tyrone Power. Rumour has it that Fox rented the entire republic including its population at a daily rate of $40.
Tax haven for oligarchs?
Not quite oligarch land, although San Marino is wealthy. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest in Europe – with the vast majority (close to 80%) of its population being Sammarinese and Italians forming the lion share of the remainder. The country used to be a tax haven of sorts for wealthy Italians. It’s said the secrecy of banks here once used to be on par with Switzerland. But after several incidents, scandals and regulatory changes, the last few years have seen the nation’s banking fall in line with international standards and its name being removed from many ‘tax haven lists’.
Streets of San Marino
Once a tax-haven and still a duty-free shopping city, parts of its commercialisation can still be seen today. Traces of San Marino’s popularity with Russian visitors crop up in the historic centre where several signs in shops are translated into Russian. The cobblestone streets in the pedestrianised Old Town can be quite steep at times, but that makes it all the more fun to explore. Given that I spent so much time in the pedestrianised areas, I found it hard to believe that San Marino has the highest rate of car ownership per capita in the world. Fact.
A capital with fairy tale castles
The capital, also called San Marino (or more specifically Città di San Marino) was built as a fortress on top of Mount Titano, 650m above sea level, with lots of stone fairy tale castles and buildings. There are three major castles here, with two of them being used as prisons until the 1960s. Castles 1 and 2 can be entered into, but the third sits isolated on its own.
Torre Guaita (First Tower)
Think postcards of San Marino, think First Tower: the oldest and most iconic of San Marino‘s three fortresses. It looked like something straight out of Lord of the Rings or Robin Hood. I was half-expecting knights to come marching out or a dragon to arise from its slumber and start flapping its wings beside the cliff at any moment.
The First Tower was precariously constructed directly into the rock with no foundation, so has been reconstructed many times over the centuries. It was here that the first inhabitants of San Marino settled. The 17th century statutes made provision for a guardian who watched over the surrounding territory and rang the tower bell in case of danger. Today, the bell is used to indicate that parliament is in session.
Torre Cesta (Second Tower)
This 13th century castle on the highest peak of Mount Titano was home to a number of prison cells. Sadly the original tower is no more – much of what is left is from the 1930s reconstruction after the fortress fell into disrepair. It currently is home to the city’s Museum of Archaic Arms, a large collection of medieval weapons and battle dress.
Montale (Third Tower)
Don’t let its small size fool you into thinking it had no value. This tower from the 13th century had an important purpose: it was the best lookout post. It also has an eerie prison cell that is 8m deep. Unlike its siblings, this tower isn’t open to the public but it’s a decent hike to get there and the views from the tower make the detour worth it.
I was the classic tourist. I got my passport stamped.
Having a South Asian passport, I’m used to collecting stamps from almost every country I land in. So why not add one more to the collection, I thought? San Marino has no official border control with Italy, but you can get a tourist stamp in your passport for €5 at the Tourist Office in the Old Town (8:30am-6:00pm Mon-Fri, 9:00-1:30 & 2:00-6:00pm Sat-Sun). Being initially skeptical of doing something gimmicky, I’m glad I went in because I got to meet and chat with Roberto – an Italian who’s lived in San Marino for 20 years. He’s fallen in love with the solitude of this country.
In San Marino, you don’t just have one Head of State
San Marino has TWO Heads of State (or more precisely Captains Regent) on equal footing that are elected every 6 months (1st April, 1st October); each with veto powers. This has been the country’s governing structure since the first two were elected in 1243. While chatting to Roberto at the Tourist Office, I learnt that these Heads of State are essentially in a ‘golden cage’. They may not leave the country except for official trips, they aren’t allowed to drive a car, they can’t be left alone in public, and they have to always be well-dressed when in public. No jogging in the park in track pants and trainers while they serve their term!
Palazzo Pubblico (Public Palace) & Liberty Square
This is San Marino’s official seat of government, and where citizens can book a meeting with the Head of State in the Presidential Waiting Lounge. It’s a collection of all official buildings, including the country’s Parliament. It’s here that official ceremonies take place. In the middle is a balcony from which the names of newly elected Captains Regent are announced. The Public Palace is on one side of Liberty Square which has a fountain with the Statue of Liberty in the centre. A great place to enjoy a coffee in the evening and people watch, as dusk creeps in. Better yet, the square’s stone walls overlook the hills below – the view never gets tiring. Interesting fact: under the square are ancient water tanks since water supply was a critical matter of survival for a city built on bare rock back in the day.
#TopTip: Changing of the Guard: If you’re into a bit of pomp and flair, the changing of the guards donning a maroon & green uniform happens in front of Liberty Square a couple of times a day in summer (June to mid-Sept)
Cava dei Balestrieri
This was originally a big quarry used to extract stone in the 19th century to reconstruct the Public Palace. It then got repurposed to train crossbowpeople. The crossbow has always been an important part of this tiny country’s history. It was frequently the weapon of choice when it came to defending the country, crossbow competitions took place during the feast of the Patron Saint and it was also used to greet important visitors to the Republic. When competitions and festivals aren’t in full swing, people will frequently be practising in the Cava. You can sit right behind them on the stone steps!
This steep paved road with breathtaking scenery links Borgo Maggiore (at the foot of Mount Titano) to San Marino City via the ancient entrance – Porta della Rupe. The old path was frequently used by those going from the capital to the weekly markets of olden times in Borgo Maggiore. Close to the gate is a small place to meditate or pray, free of religious symbols; another reminder that San Marino welcomes everyone without any distinction of race, caste or religion. The rocky cliff, that personified the impossibility of conquering San Marino, is now a green haven in the city. It was covered with plants in the 1920s as a way of giving employment to people who were suffering consequences of the post-war economic crisis.
Guns and San Marino: what’s the story?
The more I explored, the more I realised there were an unusual number of shops selling guns. Being curious, I went into one of them and spoke to Luca who explained that taxes in San Marino are lower than in Italy. And in San Marino you didn’t need to be a proper ammunition shop (unlike in Italy) to sell low power guns below a certain energy limit. As a result, guns are cheaper here, so attract a lot of buyers. Luca explained that the pistols and rifles sold here (low power) are mainly for target practice in private property (some people might use them to shoot birds but that’s illegal in Italy). All you need is to be over 18 – no licence required. Most of the guns he sells are to Italians from across the border. Apparently if a bullet from this low power gun hits a person, it causes injury but isn’t lethal. Who knew!
Food & Drink
The beauty of San Marino City’s hilltop location is that there are plenty of restaurants with incredible views of the surrounding valley and plenty hidden in nooks in the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. Sammarinese cuisine has a lot in common with that of the neighbouring Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. Three dishes jumped out to me: pasatelli (pasta made with bread crumbs, eggs and grated Parmesan; delicious with a bit of truffle), strozzapreti (a twisty pasta, great with sea food) and piadine (classic flat bread sandwiches with a variety of fillings). Here’s my restaurant hit-list in San Marino
Ritrovo Dei Lavaratori – the unanimous recommendation from locals I met in the Old Town. The pasatelli with truffle in the photo above is what I had over there.
Bar Piadineria la Capanna – Great views, good value, good pizza, pasta and piadine
Il Piccolo – supposedly great seafood; I sadly missed going here
Il Matterello – for simple but delicious piadine
L’Altro Gelato – the first gelato shop in San Marino to use ingredients sourced solely from nearby organic farms. The founders have created unique local flavours like ‘Happy Cow’ which is a Bucciatello ice cream with Romagnole apricots and black sesame. It was raining buckets the day I wandered past, so was too cold for gelato, but I now regret not trying it.
Because I didn’t have a car, I relied on public buses to explore the smallest town in this tiny country – Montegiardino, with only 900 inhabitants. There was just one open cafe when I went (La Vecchia Scuola Cafè). This is where I learnt the difference between the classic espresso macchiato (which I am more familiar with) – a shot of espresso with a dash of milk, and a latte macchiato – essentially the inverse. Because my Italian is terrible, I think I ended up ordering a caffè latte, but in a true latte macchiato I’m told the espresso is added to the milk, with the layers of milk, foam and espresso being quite distinct.
While the little university town of Montegiardino was eerily quiet and tiny (was possible to cover on foot in under 45 minutes), it did have some beautiful alleyways. I also stumbled upon a deserted playing field in the rain. I later learned this was an asphalt court where people played Bocce – the Italian version of the British ‘bowls’ game, apparently a favourite past-time for soldiers in the Roman Empire.
How to get to San Marino: Logistics
San Marino has no airport or train station. The closest ‘large’ airport is Bologna in Italy and there is a smaller airport in Rimini that is closer. I flew into Bologna from London. From there I took the airport bus (Aerobus) to the centre (~30 min, 6EUR, every 11 mins). From Bologna, I hopped on the direct train to Rimini (1h-1h15) where I stayed. Accommodation in Rimini is significantly cheaper than staying in San Marino.
From Rimini, I commuted daily across the border into San Marino using the ‘International Bus’ (€5 one way) that departs from near the train station. You’ll need to buy a ticket from the corner shop across the street. The first bus leaves Rimini at 8:10AM, followed by buses at 09:25, 10:40 and 11:55. The last bus back is at 6pm / 7:15pm (~ 50 mins). Get to the area at St Francis Gate in San Marino to catch the bus back to Rimini (bus exchange lies directly below this).
On my return I took the airport bus that shuttles directly from Rimini to Bologna Airport with departures at 0730; 0930; 1130. It takes 1 hr 30 min and costs €20 online or €25 if you purchase on the shuttle. The ticket price includes one suitcase and hand luggage per person.