Perched on a mountain towards Italy’s east in Emilia-Romagna is a bitesize nation - the world’s fifth smallest - that echoes from a bygone European era. A city-state, a microstate, a sovereign state and a Republic, it’s one of the world’s oldest political curiosities. It survived Italy’s city-state network, and clings proudly to its independent status. Lesser known but nominally larger than Vatican City (the other of the two countries tucked inside Italy), San Marino boasts features that Italy lacks: a healthy GDP, high standards of living and an underlying sense of pride that’s unifying. But does it have Italy’s soul, or its eternally beating charismatic heart that beats joie de vivre into many who stay?
I visited during March, and got trapped by record level heavy snowfall. This is San Marino through my wintry travel eyes.
Getting to San Marino
After a temporary hiatus in Rome (my old ‘home’), Trenitalia shuffled me over planes of white to the east coast, where I transferred to a new service bound for Rimini. As a small country, few options are available in terms of public transport. Thankfully, for those on meagre budgets without the means to hire a car, Bonelli bus 72 hoists passengers up the steep windy road to the historic core of San Marino (Citta di San Marino) several times daily. Located directly outside the train station in Rimini, taking the bus is convenient and remarkably hassle free. Tickets can be purchased in the Tourist Information Centre or from the driver, and buses depart near Burger King. Maps.Me, Google Maps or a small Italian conversation with the bus driver before departure is useful, particularly if disembarking prior to the final stop near the summit.
Despite miniature dimensions, the Republic of San Marino is divided into nine municipalities. Eight are rarely visited by foreign visitors, most of whom hightail directly for Citta di San Marino, the one with vertiginous views and hilltop towers. I had pre-booked a bed in Hostel San Marino, located in the municipality of Borgo Maggiore, a few stops shy of the medieval core.
Key Sights of the Curious Nation
Despite being divided between nine municipalities, its prominent features (at least in terms of history and tourism) are situated high on Mount Titano, in the City of San Marino. Following two days of heavy snowfall with blizzards to boot, no public transport and a lack of snow boots, I ventured from the hostel in Borgo Maggiore (halfway down the mountain) to the ‘city’. Cloaked in a heavy white blanket, the panoramas for which the Republic is famous were absent. However, the medieval architecture came to life, covered in snow and long, sharp icicles, transporting me to a fantasia circa 1300.
The following attractions (except the first list item) were closed, yet still emitted a sense of the 13th century even from outside locked gates and closed doors.
A passeggiata up, down and along the medieval twists and narrow turns of the cittadina is taking a walk into history. Surrounded by Medieval fortresses, ramparts, neoclassical churches and history museums, one can truly feel as though the past is alive (a walk likely better completed in summertime when the streets are filled with locals). My meander took me on a slippery journey to a distant past: noble princes bedecked in embroidered attire overlook coin makers, men who hammer away tirelessly in the streets, whose heads cock occasionally to the jocund cheers of courtly game players, sounds echoing off the ramparts. The streets do transpire to said scene in July when San Marino celebrates the Medieval Days festival, hence my advice to visit during summer.
The first of the two towers open to the public (the third being permanently closed) is the most iconic. Sitting at the top of a Titano tip, it looks like every tower of the Middle Ages should: fortifying, majestic and medieval. Surrounded by thick forests teeming with maple and pine trees and home to foxes and hares, standing at the gates is akin to being enthroned, looking down on the world around.
Perhaps the most visible of the three Sammarinese towers, its home at the highest peak of Monte Titano, it projects a piece of 13th century history to the distant parts of the micro-nation. It houses an impressive display of weaponry, a real throwback to medieval times for aficionados. If you stop and listen attentively, you’ll hear hooves clapping on cobblestones and swords clanging in battle. Sadly, for me, the historic sounds were muffled by the blizzard-like wind whirling overhead.
The Public Palace, located in Freedom Square, is the core of the country’s political scene. Established in the 19th century on the site of an ancient building, it has been tastefully designed and constructed, taking into consideration its medieval surrounds and older counterparts. With arched doorways and a colourful façade, it is a striking example of Gothicism. The views from the piazza on a clear day would be stunning.
There are ample other sights to see, including museums, galleries, churches and shops, but they’re best visited when, well, they’re open. Sadly, my visit was unfortunately timed during the middle of an unexpected snow storm. Tourism – and tourists – were absent in the streets. Therefore, a personal recommendation cannot be made.
The Sammarinese Sense of Pride
Although opportunities to engage with the Sammarinese were limited, most hibernating sensibly indoors, those I met seemed proud of their Republic tucked within the confines of Italy.
“Parlate l’italiano?” I queried. (Do you (plural) speak Italian?)
“Certo. Ma parliamo l’italiano migliore, e meglio che lo parlano gli italiani!” (Of course. But we speak the best Italian, and we speak it better than Italians!)
Reservedness was not on the menu; exasperation and eye rolling were the featured items of the day. Though only one encounter – with similar statements made by several others, I gained a sense that the nuanced sense of pride woven into the comments was an indicator of a greater, collective egoism, an ideology of imperiousness shared perhaps by the country’s other two million inhabitants.
Size can be a demeaning feature when political and economic aspirations are at stake. San Marino has had to fight to stay and boasts features non-existent in its contemporary: an egalitarian distribution of wealth, full employment for all citizens, and little to no social stratification. It makes sense, then, that those with a Sammarinese legacy are proud of it. With a continually failing economy, a corrupt government and a generation of youth fleeing the country, it comes as no surprise Sammarinese are defiant when asked if they are Italian: “Siamo Sammarinese!” (We are from San Marino!)
A Comparison to Italy
Comparing countries is always difficult, and often fraught with peril. It causes us to generalise and make assumptions (such as mine outlined above) about entire nations of people, when each individual is inherently unique. After three years in Italy, I gained a moderate sense of what it means to be Italian, the good, the bad and the downright ugly. I thus attempted to draw comparisons between Italians and the few Sammarinese I met in San Marino.
Brimming with Italian hospitality, I opened my travel arms and heart, anticipating a big, warm Latin embrace, but was left standing open-armed and alone. Friendly words were spoken, but the massive, soul-restoring often suffocating dose of warmth I’ve come to expect from Italians – at least those from the south – didn’t emerge from the Sammarinese. Granted, it was cold outside; freezing, in fact. And, I’m just another foreigner, passing through, likely never to return. However, the experience left me feeling a little lacklustre, void of the joie de vivre and intimacy imbued by gregarious Italians.
It’s not to say you shouldn’t consider visiting. The tiny historical core on Monte Titano is a well maintained, finely-preserved showcase of medieval history. So, even though San Marino may not have the beating heart and soul of Italy, it’s a historical masterpiece. It’s worth even a day of your time.
Don’t forget to collect a legitimate stamp in your passport from the Tourist Information Office in Citta di San Marino on your way in or out.
For flights to Rimini (San Marino’s closest point of connection), compare the following websites to locate the most reasonable fares:
As described in the body of this article, Bonelli bus 72 transports travellers to and from Citta di San Marino several times daily. See the following website for further details:
The author stayed at Hostel San Marino in Borgo Maggiore.
Consult the following websites for up to date information regarding prices and availability of accommodation in San Marino:
The currency utilised in San Marino is the Euro. Please refer to the following website for current and up to date exchange rates: