In a recent post, I noted that the tiny Republic of San Marino, which is entirely surrounded by Italy, was number one on my personal bucket list.
The main reason was that it was the only country in Western Europe that I hadn’t visited, and that since I would be visiting Italy soon, I could then cross it off my list. Of course, I also wanted to go for all the reasons I want to go anywhere — seeing what there is to see and, I hope, enjoying it — but I admit the list thing was the top consideration.
As it happens, I did visit Italy shortly after the post appeared, and I did make it to San Marino — whose irresistible full name is The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.
And — as a bit of pleasant surprise — I loved it.
I had long since read that San Marino was basically a tourist trap, with people like me, I guess, being the trapees.
As soon as we entered the country, various articles warned, we would be besieged by folks hawking tacky souvenirs of the “My Grandpa and Grandma went to San Marino and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” variety.
Maybe it was because my wife, Catharine, and I visited in the off season (late October), but we found little of that. Yes, San Marino does brand itself as the “land of shopping,” and there were certainly souvenir shops, but also some classy stores and few annoying shop owners soliciting our business. (Maybe they were worn out from the summer season.)
We did splurge on two souvenir stamps in our passports — there are no border controls between Italy and San Marino — which are offered at the tourist bureau. They cost five euros each and include a shiny five euro San Marino stamp. (San Marino, by the way, earns a good deal of revenue by issuing scads of very attractive postage stamps intended for collectors.)
The man at the tourist bureau told us that San Marino attracts millions of tourists each year — it’s difficult to say precisely with no border controls — and that Americans are among the top visitors.
Medieval Fortresses and Panoramic Views
Beyond the shops, what we found was a stunning mountaintop town with winding, cobbled streets — mostly steep and uphill — dramatically situated palaces and towered fortresses, and sweeping views over northeastern Italy and the Adriatic coast from atop Mount Titano.
Churches, convents, monasteries, piazzas, museums, and restaurants with panoramic vistas all competed for our attention.
The mountaintop capital (also called San Marino) and another well-preserved medieval area of the country, Borgo Maggiore — which can be reached by cable car from atop the mountain — were awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Mount Titano appears to be composed of sheer walls of solid granite — which helps explain how little San Marino has remained the world’s oldest independent republic, with roots dating back to 300 AD. The 33,000-citizen country is governed, by the way, by two Captains Regent, who serve just six months each before other citizens take their place.
Because we were coming down for the day on the train from Venice, we only had the afternoon to explore the country. But when the country is the third smallest in Europe (larger only than micro-states Monaco and The Vatican) and the area of the World Heritage Site is just two-tenths of a square mile, you can get a fair idea of what’s there.
But we did resolve to return again when we can, perhaps staying overnight next time — even if it’s already received a coveted check mark on my list.
Getting to San Marino
Unless you have a car or want to invest in a taxi, the best way to get to San Marino is by public bus from the Italian city of Rimini, a resort along the Adriatic coast and worth a stop by itself.
If you reach Rimini by train, as most visitors do, exit the train station and go left about a quarter block to the local Visitor Center, where you can purchase round-trip bus tickets to San Marino for a few euros. Then walk straight ahead down the street in front of the train station, past the Burger King, and look for the bus stop that reads “San Marino.” (Try to resist stopping at Burger King, because San Marino is known for good food.)
Buses leave about ten times a day between 8:10 a.m. and 7:25 p.m. (schedules subject to change). Get there early, especially in high season. The bus winds around for about 45 minutes, picking up local people and dropping them off at various points along the way. About halfway through the ride, you’ll start to see a town perched atop a mountain in the distance. That’s San Marino.
The last stop is at the foot of the capital, and you’ll need to do some uphill walking from there, though there is an outdoor elevator to help you get part-way. Bring walking sticks if you have mobility problems, and keep in mind where the bus stop is and the return schedule — the last bus back leaves at 7:15 p.m.
Note: Thanks to Mitch Stevens and Southwest Discoveries for naming us one of the top Senior Adventure Travel Blogs of 2016!