Little San Marino, the independent republic in the Apennines, is a gem. And like most gems, you have to take time to appreciate it. Forget the overpriced day trips touted by bus operators, and instead plan to spend two or three days in San Marino.
This diminutive polity, with its capital (also called San Marino) on Mount Titano has a grand title: Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino. But San Marino’s serenity is an elusive commodity by day. Tourists jostle for space on the narrow streets of the capital. Those with cash to spare splash out on discount luxury goods or replica weapons, while those with more sense head up to the ramparts and fortifications whence there are fine views. Look east towards the Adriatic and gaze west over successive ranges of hills towards Tuscany.
Come evening, though, the day trippers head off down the hill. The parking lots, so crammed with tour buses during the day, empty out. San Marino then assumes quite a different demeanor.
In the quiet of the evening, it is possible to catch the sense of how this hilltop city-state once so impressed the world with its pacific gentility and commitment to liberty. So much so that Abraham Lincoln — when made an honorary citizen of San Marino in 1861 — wrote to the Captains Regent of San Marino: “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history.”
An American connection
Spending a few days in San Marino a month or two back, we were impressed to see that the American connection was not limited to Lincoln’s correspondence. On a terrace in the capital is a fountain that marks the gratitude of the people of San Marino to America — most particularly for having in the 17th century helped modernize the republic’s water supply.
Emblems of statehood
Seventeenth century? Well yes, because San Marino still has a habit of reckoning time back to the day in 301 AD when it first acquired a few emblems of statehood. So just now, we are in 1711 San Marino time. These things should not be taken too seriously, of course, but that question of dates is a little reminder that San Marino is distinctly different from the rest of Europe.
Not a member of the European Union, but a user of the euro, San Marino confounds and confuses many first-time visitors. San Marino boasts its own euro coins and sells an impressive array of postage stamps. It has headed off invasions and given shelter to the needy. Garibaldi sought refuge in San Marino when pursued by the Italian authorities.
Those are the facts, yet the most important detail is that San Marino is simply an exquisitely fine place to be. Take time out from a tour of Italy to spend a few days in San Marino.
It is easy to reach, with buses running about hourly from Rimini railway station in Italy. The journey by bus to the capital of San Marino takes 50 minutes. Note that outside the peak summer season there are no evening buses on the international route from Rimini.
There’s an excellent choice of accommodation. We were impressed with the Hotel Joli which occupies a plum spot just outside the old city walls of the capital and is conveniently close to the bus stop for the Rimini connection.
As to food, we would offer a note of caution. The heart of the Old Town is full of cheap cafés geared to the needs of day trippers. For more traditional Sammarinese fare you need to cut off the main drags to find the spots more favored by locals. For culinary perfection San Marino style head for Cantina di Bacco (at 35 Contrada Santa Croce) where Luigi Monetta works a little magic with local ingredients to produce the finest food in town. Cantina di Bacco is open for lunch and dinner every day except Tuesdays.