Summer travel in Italy can be bittersweet. The hilltowns are spilling over with festivals, the beaches are at their bikini best, the wineries are splashing out samples of their latest uncorked barrels, green fields turn canary yellow with the rotating heads of sunflowers, and the cities….umm….have you ever seen a beehive from a distance? Close enough to hear the buzz and see comings and goings, when you can admire the activity and the architecture of their civilization, but not feel anxious in their presence? That’s Rome between November and March. Have you ever seen a beehive after a bear has knocked it out of the tree, and stomped on it to get to the honey? The pissed off bees are loud, dangerous, everywhere and out for themselves. That’s Rome from April to October.
I’m exaggerating for emphasis, but really, try to ride a Roman bus in July and tell me you didn’t taste freedom the moment you un-pasted yourself from the damp tourists and stepped into the unrecycled air. I really do love this city, but the summer experience wears on you, which is why we try to spend most of our summer weekends elsewhere.
San Marino seemed like a poor choice in early July. Everything I had read seemed to be along the lines of “cool place, too crowded.” But who are we to take qualified advice seriously? We went anyway.
San Marino is a tiny country, completely surrounded by Italy and a few kilometers from Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The drive from Rome took a gorgeous four hours of mountains, lakes, and streams through the regions of Umbria, Tuscany, Le Marche, and Emilia Romagna. I was surprised when we were able to see San Marino in the distance about fifteen minutes before we actually got there.
After zig-zagging up the mountain we figured out the parking system, which was easy and available. We parked in lot 6, which is the highest a foreign vehicle can go, right outside the city walls and close our hotel. We stayed in Hotel Cesare, because it was the only hotel available in the city center when we booked the night before. I was initially miffed because we didn’t really have a choice, and I always convince myself in these situations that we must be getting the worst hotel. I was wrong. The view from our hotel room was the best view I have ever had from any room ever.
It looked like all of Italy lay before us, and I made a mental note to not leave before taking a bath in the tub that had the same view of the valley. We congratulated ourselves on a room well picked like we had a choice, and hit the streets to join the hordes of fellow tourists. But we never found them. Maybe Rome has raised tolerance for crowds, but really the city was mainly dotted with small families and couples holding hands. No snarling tour groups or pushy photographers. Maybe the weekend of July 4th is the time to go. Maybe (read definitely) it was because of the world cup.
We strolled the perfectly maintained, graffiti free stone streets and wondered if this is really an authentic city or some sort medieval Disney test site. Founded in the year 301 by a stone mason seeking religious freedom, how does a 1700 year old city look so good?
After some back and forth we followed the main road upward to the top where the three defense towers of San Marino are situated over the shear drop of the mountain. If you are wondering how this petite country managed to avoid Italian citizenship for so long, it comes down to gravity.
The town wasn’t really valuable enough to spend resources seiging it, and taking it by force was nearly impossible, so neighboring city-states and the later unification movement didn’t bother when they refused to be absorbed. It wasn’t until the curious visitors from the nearby beaches of Rimini ascended that San Marino went from being a farming community to an investment, shopping, and tourism capital. With the highest male life expectancy of any country, one of the lowest un-employment rates in Europe, no national debt with a budget surplus, and above average per capita earnings. It helps that their population is around 32,000 people, and it’s interesting to note that there are more cars than people in San Marino.
And it’s hard not to think about gravity when perched on cantilevered balconies like this:
With views that look like this:
We climbed the tower and walked the ramparts of castle of Roco Guaita. Upon inspection, this castle looks like it was built very recently, and at the time I assumed it was just well taken care of. But a google search told me that Twentieth Century Fox rented the entire Republic of San Marino, including its people, in the 1940s to film Prince and Foxes starring Tyrone Power. They paid a rate of $40 a day and restored the castles and ramparts for their purposes, which explains why these castles are so perfect.
A bit of advice, if you plan on climbing all over the castle, and you should, wear sensible shoes and avoid dresses and skirts. I wore sandals and a dress, which made modesty difficult when climbing up ladders, however, no one was there to see up my dress so it worked out.
We stopped at a bar with a view, munched on prosciutto and sipped spritz’s. The cool summer breeze was welcome, especially in July. Then we headed down the shopping streets to Palazzo Pubblico to check out the sunset over the mountains. (Oddly there are a lot of weapon replica and model car shops here.)
We spoiled our dinner with some summer gelato and headed back to our room to relax before our mediocre dinner. I managed one more picture of the town before it went dark.
Just one day is enough for San Marino, and can be easily managed in a daytrip (not from Rome). In a wonderful way there is very little do, but a lot to see. Had we a bit more time, we could have made it the post office, where they will stamp your passport, but hindsight and all that. If you find yourself in the Le Marche or Emilia Romagna regions, make time, it’s a lovely to experience for yourself.
Our next day is part II of this post: Urbino and a drive through Le Marche.
Typing about this on a chilly January day makes me miss summer. Until next time, Ciao!