The morning dawns cool and clear, a lovely respite from the heat of my apartment for the month in Florence. As I make my way down to my hotel lobby, I am asked if I want breakfast inside or out on the terrace. The answer is a no-brainer, and my cappuccino and I make our way to a wooden table. It feels as if we are at the edge of the world, the mountains and plains of eastern Italy arrayed beneath us. Here in San Marino we are at the top of the world, both literally and figuratively.
It was no easy feat getting here from Florence. A train to Bologna, then another to the coastal city of Rimini. Once there, I boarded a bus for the roughly hour drive up Monte Titano to San Marino city, the capital of the Republic of San Marino, one of the world’s smallest independent countries. Stepping off the coach with the view below me and the walls of the city above, I felt a world apart, although Italy was only a few miles in each direction. A lot of stairs later, I reached my hotel, checked in, and then left to explore.
Many visitors to San Marino save money by staying in Rimini and coming up as a day trip. As my cappuccino empties and I begin another here at Hotel Rosa, I am thrilled not to have made that decision. This view, one that changes by the minute and with every few feet traveled horizontally or vertically around the city, is exciting and calming at once. Being able to be here in both the morning light and the colors of sunset is a blessing, one easily worth the extra €50 or so a night.
San Marino sits at the top of Monte Titano, an imposing peak of bare stone. It is arrayed in a series of levels surrounded by defensive walls, three sets in all, built over the centuries. Getting around fulfills the childhood axiom of “uphill both ways” as a dizzying maze of small streets and narrow staircases take visitors up and down and up again to access points of interest and the many views of the area. Cobblestone streets can be uneven, and stone stairs slippery, so it is a necessity to move slowly. For those with mobility issues, a small train-like shuttle stops at a few places, acting as public transit, although navigating between things might be a challenge.
Hotel Rosa is tucked right inside the city wall basically at the top of the mountain, and after breakfast I climb the first of oh so many sets of stairs from here to reach the Guaita, also known as Tower One. San Marino is guarded by three defensive towers sitting on the cliff side of Monte Titano, and the easy highlight of a visit here is walking between them. This tower was built in the eleventh century and is the largest of the three, as well as the oldest. A small admission fee (which one can combine to become a full ticket to two towers, the state museum, and the Palazzo Pubblico – do so) grants access to the battlements and the tallest tower within the Guaita fortress complex. It is a steep climb up a ladder, but the views of the second tower are worth the effort.
Cesta, or Tower Two, is located on the highest peak of Monte Titano. Built in the thirteenth century, it now houses a small museum dedicated to arms and armor, which is sort of apropos given San Marino’s abundance of duty-free weapons shops in the city. (Seriously, if you need a knife, air gun, or sword/mace/other, this is the place to come.) The tall tower of the complex is also accessible, again providing views (especially of towers one and three) that seem straight out of a fairy tale.
Tower Three, or Montale, is a single simple tower. The smallest and most recently built (in the fourteenth century), it is not open to the public, although after traversing a smaller and steeper path than is required for the first two, one can mill about around the base. From here, I have the choice to return to the city the way I came, or to take the scenic route along the cliff and re-enter from the end of a very steep (downhill in this direction) trail. I choose the latter. My feet will notice later, as my day ends with my iPhone registering five miles of walking and a whopping 48 floors ascended – and likely the same number descended as I end where I began.
Having conquered San Marino’s three towers in about two hours, it is time to wander the city and to learn the history of the world’s fifth smallest (by land area) country. Home to about 33,000 people, the Republic of San Marino is not part of the EU, although it uses the Euro and has no patrolled border with its only neighbor, Italy. Evidence of human activity on Monte Titano dates to Mesolithic times, but the first mention of settlement here is from the year 301, when Saint Marinus founded a monastic settlement on the stone of the mountain.
I stop into the Titanus Museum to learn the story of San Marino. This multimedia exhibition contains three “shows,” one dedicated to each of three eras of San Marino: the formation of Monte Titano through the 301 founding, the Middle Ages, and more modern times over the last few centuries. Donning a headset that gives me an English narration, I find myself transfixed by the truly well done (and worth the €9 admission) journey, which takes about 45 minutes.
San Marino advertises itself as the oldest republic in the world, although one here cannot confuse republic with democracy, as decisions were made only by the elite for centuries. But the country has stubbornly – and rather successfully, obviously – clung to its independence despite being conquered multiple times, and being nearly conquered on several other occasions. The current borders date to 1463, encompassing roughly 23 square miles, although fascinatingly Napoleon offered not only to guarantee the city-state’s independence but to enlarge it, an offer that was declined.
The most important chapter of San Marino’s independence comes in 1849, when the hero of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, took refuge here for a single night when he and 1500 troops were being pursued by Austrian forces. In return, he promised San Marino continued autonomy, a pledge honored by Italian King Victor Emmanuel after unification was achieved. Plaques and monuments throughout the city acknowledge Garibaldi and his keeping of his word. The Titanus experience actually ends with a hologram of Garibaldi speaking of his experience, and of his becoming an honorary citizen of San Marino. (Oddly, honorary citizenship was also bestowed on Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.)
After a quick lunch and another view, I take a few minutes to visit San Marino’s seat of government, the Palazzo Pubblico. Only a couple rooms can be seen, but signage and photos show the rather unique government the republic utilizes. A constitution dating to 1600 authorizes power in two forms. Legislative power resides in the Grand and General Council, a 60-member body elected to a five year term. But that is presided over by two captains regent, elected by the council for six month terms. The tradition of the captains regent dates back to 1243, where citizens were elected to oversee defense of the city. Each captain was required to provide a crossbow to the armament of the volunteer guard, and crossbow demonstrations are still part of festivals in San Marino to this day.
My afternoon is spent wandering the city. I see the neoclassical basilica, watch the gondola descend to one of the lower towns, do some shopping, and try to find every perfect viewpoint. I take random streets and staircases, determined to see where everything leads. Spoiler: all will take you to beautiful places with incredible views; there is literally no wrong turn.
Sunset in San Marino is the pinnacle of a visit, and the best reason to stay overnight. I find a viewpoint and a limoncello spritz, and just watch the hills in the changing light. It is movingly emotional, the ending of a day that I cannot even accurately put into words.
Food in San Marino is good. Ritrovo dei Lavoratori is my favorite meal, and I enjoy three courses of local truffles: fonduta, risotto, and a chocolate truffle ice cream. And of course, a view out the windows of the semi-open air restaurant.
I spend two nights at Hotel Rosa in San Marino. In my single full day, I see all I really wanted to see, but another day or two just to soak in the views and the atmosphere would have easily been positives. As a day trip, I think I’d have found my time rushed, not to mention having to miss my morning and evening gazing over the Italian and Sammarine landscapes.
I came to San Marino to check another country off my list, the last of Europe’s micro nations I’d had yet to visit. What I found exceeded my expectations in every respect. I discovered a cool history, some fun activities, and what is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. If San Marino isn’t on your list, it should be.
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