Editor’s note: like Sam, I also have the goal to visit most, if not all, countries of the world, but especially all the countries of Europe. San Marino is one I’m missing, and will make sure to hit the next time I’m in Italy. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
My first time to Europe was when I was 17 years old on a family trip to Italy. Italy, as everyone knows is phenomenal. From the ruins in Rome, the beauty of Tuscany, the art of Florence, and the romance of Venice (travel expert tip, find someone other than your dad to go to Venice with), alongside the best food in the world, Italy is understandably at the top of travelers’ lists and is regularly one of the most visited countries in the world. As a teenager, I had a goal that I still have, to visit every country in the world, but back then I was a lot farther from this goal than I am now. While in Italy, I made it a priority to visit the three smallest countries in Europe, Vatican City, Monaco, and San Marino, to add up my country count, at that point at about a half dozen. Vatican City is of course a must for any visitor of Rome, Monaco, while beautiful, was a bit too ritzy for me and I did not find the people to be welcoming of a teenage tourist without deep pockets, but San Marino was not only my favorite of the three, but was one of the highlights of my vacation.
San Marino is about four and a half hours directly north of Rome and is a great way to break up the nearly 7-hour drive from Rome to Venice if you are making the journey by car. Getting into the tiny nation, half the size of Liechtenstein, was a nightmare with horrific traffic; I do not know if this experience was a bad traffic day or if it is the routine, but it made us wonder if dealing with such was worth it just to cross another country off of my list. However, the history of San Marino would tell you that it is not just any country, it is somewhere truly special. San Marino has its own local culture and identity and locals may get offended if you call them “Italian” as they are proud of their history and unique identity. San Marino was founded in 301 CE by its namesake, Saint Marinus, who escaped the Roman emperor Diocletian’s torture and persecution of Christians. Saint Marinus found refuge on Mount Titano, some 2500 feet above sea level and just off the Adriatic Coast. It was then that, in defiance of the Romans, Saint Marinus founded his own nation, and more than 1700 years later, San Marino proudly boasts that it is the world’s oldest continuous republic. San Marino maintained its roots as a place of safety for those escaping religious persecution when it declared itself neutral during World War II. As a result, this country, which today has a population of only 33,000 people, took in 100,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Despite San Marino’s neutrality, in September 1944, Nazi Germany decided to invade the small country leading to a four-day battle between Sammarinese and British forces against the Nazis and an allied victory and repelling of the enemy.
Though San Marino has a few small industrial towns, the highlights are all in the capital, also called San Marino. The historic city of San Marino and the fortresses of Mount Titano are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the streets are lined with the Sammarinese flag depicting the three fortresses of the mountain as their national symbol. These three fortresses, Guaita (11th century), De La Fratta (where there is a museum of the life of Saint Marinus and has over 1500 weapons on display, 13th century), and Montale (14th century), are each perched on a peak of Mount Titano’s jagged summit. They are picturesque examples of medieval architecture that pour majestically down the steep cliffs of the mountain. At the top of each fortress, there are stunning views of the other fortresses, the valley below, and, to the east, the Adriatic Sea. Though you do not need to go through any sort of customs to enter San Marino (there is not even an airport in the country), you can get a souvenir of the three fortresses with a beautiful stamp depicting them for the cost of 5 euros at the tourist information center. As this stamp is the official stamp of a sovereign nation, it is in no way illegal to have in your passport and will be one of your more obscure stamps. Some other highlights of San Marino include the Palazzo Pubblico and its beautiful clock tower, similar to what one would find in Florence. Also, be sure to visit San Marino’s main church, the 19th century Basilica di San Marino, an excellent example of Neoclassical architecture with eight prominent columns on its porch and three naves. The basilica is a center for religious and national celebrations and has been featured as another national symbol.
However, perhaps the best way to spend time in San Marino is by wandering the narrow, pedestrian streets of the old town past the impressive city gates. There are quirky shops, many selling World War II items and novelty gifts, and prices for goods are cheaper than in Italy. Sitting outdoors at a café or restaurant and drinking one of the local espressos, beers, or wines is also a peaceful respite to your bustling Italy itinerary, as you watch people go through the little winding streets while you’re getting shade underneath Mount Titano’s big trees. While we came to San Marino primarily to cross another country off of my list, visiting the world’s oldest republic was an experience different than the rest of our trip. We all agreed that Europe’s third smallest country was filled with lots of charm and things to do, and on a future trip, would be a place where we would love to spend more time.
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