San Marino: a day trip to the world’s oldest surviving republic

Travel writer Julia Hammond spotted an unexpected face while touring the San Marino parliament..

I knew very little about San Marino before my visit, other than that it is one of the smallest countries in the world. Pub quiz trivia: it’s also one of only three countries in the world, together with Lesotho and Vatican City, which is totally surrounded by a single country, in this case Italy.

Small places are perfect for a day trip, especially as I was on a return trip to the nearby Italian city of Bologna. It’s a short ride by rail on the high-speed Frecciabianca train to the seaside resort of Rimini and, from there, a five euro bus ride inland to San Marino. 

A souvenir visa

San Marino, I soon learned, was the oldest surviving republic in the world by most people’s reckoning, founded in its current state in AD 301. From its perch on Monte Titano, the inhabitants had been able to see would-be invaders coming and make the necessary preparations in good time. The lady in the tourist office was keen to impress on me the importance of this enviable status while she sold me a souvenir visa for my passport.

British passport holders don’t need a visa, she said, but the stamp was popular with visitors like me. I was happy to pay. (It soon became the shortest-lived visa I’ve ever received. A few weeks later, my dog chewed that same passport into tiny pieces, though that’s another story.)

Parliament and Abraham Lincoln

On days when parliament isn’t sitting, tourists are welcome to visit the Palazzo Pubblico, the name for the grand building which houses its chamber. The important business takes place upstairs, accessed by a grand staircase. At the top of the stairs I noticed a bust on the wall that looked familiar. On closer inspection, I saw it was Abraham Lincoln. 

Intrigued, I enquired as to what a US president was doing on a wall thousands of miles from home. It turned out that at the start of the American Civil War, The Most Serene Republic of San Marino had offered the great leader dual citizenship in recognition of the “high consideration and fraternity” they felt with the USA.

Rubber duck store

A more recent president could be found around the corner, on a shelf in the San Marino Duck Store. This quirky shop sold all manner of rubber ducks, featuring designs as eclectic as a pink flamingo, the Statue of Liberty, and a Star Wars stormtrooper duck that lit up in a rainbow of colours when put into water. Joining them on display was The Donald, alongside other famous faces including Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe and Harry Potter.

Three Towers of San Marino

But I hadn’t come all the way to San Marino to shop, even if it was a duty-free haven. Instead, I schlepped up to the first of the country’s trio of towers. Known as the Guaita, it’s the oldest of the three fortifications, built in the 11th century. 

Once, it was a prison, and the graffiti its inmates had scratched onto the walls was almost as beautiful as the view through the barred window. From its walls, the views across to the Apennines and Adriatic were breathtaking. Under a blue sky, the second tower called the Cesta could be seen in the distance. A path linked the two, with the Museum of Ancient Arms the reward for those who made the hike. The third tower, the Montale, is closed to the public. 

Museums

San Marino’s cobbled streets are home to a number of museums. There’s a museum of torture, a wax museum, and a tiny place devoted to emigration—people who left San Marino—that only opens on request.

I settled for the lowbrow Museum of Curiosities and spent an hour giggling at an eclectic collection covering everything from centuries-old platform shoes designed to cope with Venice’s floods, to a life-sized model of the world’s tallest man, who grew to be almost nine feet tall. 

San Marino packs quite a punch for somewhere so small. The only problem of going for a day trip, you’ll find, is that you’ll need to go back to fit everything in.

Tips for flying with a toddler

Planning a family trip with a toddler along for the ride? Here are a few tips to help.

Planning with your airline

While you’re booking your flight, check with your airline as to what hand luggage allowance they have for infants and children. It can be handy if you can take a separate bag for your little one.

If your flight includes meals, check what the options are for toddlers or small children. You’ll often need to order a special meal in advance.

Make sure you check in for your flight as soon as check-in opens. Sometimes this can be a week in advance, but with easyJet you can check in online 30 days before your flight. Checking in early gives the airline the best chance to seat you all together if you haven’t purchased specific seats.

Depending on your child’s exact age and the type of travelling you’re doing, there are plenty of options for how to best carry them, including a bassinet, CARES harness, pushchair, etc. Your airline can help advise you, and there’s a good article on flying with a toddler that shows you some of the options. 

Choose your seats carefully

Be strategic when selecting your seats. Generally a window seat is the best for a toddler, as looking out the window will give them an extra form of entertainment and distraction. It will also leave you in between them and the aisle, making an impromptu adventure away from their seats less likely.

Most airlines will sit an infant under 2 years old on an adult’s lap. However, you can usually book them their own seat, if you’d prefer. You’ll probably need to phone the airline to arrange this.

If you’re using a CARES harness, phone your airline before you book your seats, since there are rules around which seats can accept them.

Keep them entertained

Make sure you have a variety of entertainment to keep your toddler occupied for the whole trip. It’s generally a good idea to limit toddler’s screen time at home; however, a long flight is not the time for this! 

Take digital and non-digital options. Don’t forget to pack a spare battery and charger cable for your phone or tablet (Anker make reliable and cheap battery packs). You can pre-load your devices with games, television programmes, and films, because you won’t have wifi on the plane. You can buy children’s headphones to make sure they don’t disturb other passengers too much.

Non-electronic entertainment such as colouring books, picture books, cuddly toys, or stickers can be extra options if they get bored with their devices. The longer the fight, the more options you should have. The company Keep Em Quiet produces special entertainment packs for just this purpose, so have a look at what they offer.

You could even wrap up some of your activities or snacks as presents, and give your child a gift for good behaviour every half an hour.

If your child is a little older, don’t forget games like i-spy that don’t need any equipment, or pretend that they’re the pilot or a member of the cabin crew, and play through everything that usually happens on board.

At the airport, a Trunki ride-on suitcase will give a toddler something to play with. 

Time your flight to fit the toddler’s sleep schedule

If possible, book your flights to suit your toddler’s sleep schedule. A late-night or early morning flight is generally not a good idea if it will cut into usual sleeping time. A mid-morning departure time often works well. You may even get an hour or so respite if you can make afternoon nap time happen while on the plane. 

However, if you are flying long-haul, your best bet is probably going to be a night flight so they can spend a decent portion of the flight asleep.

Bring snacks

Having a variety of snacks is an excellent way to keep occupied and happy. Non-messy snacks are the easiest to manage and can be brought out at strategic moments to help avert meltdowns. Don’t be above bribery in this situation! Bring wet wipes to clear up any mess.

Don’t forget to buy things like bottles of drinking water once you’ve gone through airport security; the liquid limit is still 100ml.

Go for walks on the plane

Get out into the aisle and go for a walk to give your toddler some space so they don’t feel so cooped up. Letting them blow off a little steam and use up some energy will make them more likely to stay settled when you return to your seats. Try to plan your walks between meal and drink services so you’re not getting in the cabin crew’s way.

Make sure they’re comfortable

Pack extra pillows and blankets to keep your toddler as warm and comfy as possible, and bring their favourite pyjamas or other clothes to change into on the flight. The more comfortable they are, the happier they will be, and the more chance they will get some sleep.

Feeling ill on board

You might take a small bottle of Calpol for the flight, in case your toddler starts feeling ill. Sore ears, as a result of the change in pressure, can be a problem too, so have some food or drink that your child can swallow during the climb and descent parts of the flight—swallowing equalises the air pressure in your ears, and makes things more comfortable.

Take some sick bags and spare nappies that are easily accessible. Keep some extra clothes handy as well, not packed in your suitcase, for an emergency change!

Try to relax and not stress too much!

If you’re stressed out, your toddler might pick up on your mood and become unhappy. At the end of the day, there’s not much you can do once you’re on the plane, so just relax and try not to worry. Remember you’ve got a wonderful family holiday to enjoy on the other end!

Why is Mauritius so popular? Beaches, catamarans, and more.

This year we’ll start taking a personal look at holiday memories you might like to recreate for yourself. This month, Lara Whybrow tells us about her travels to Mauritius.

An old favourite among tourists, Mauritius is absolutely gorgeous, and most travellers have been back many times to luxuriate in its lush flora and spotlessly clean beaches. It’s a volcanic island, famed for its beaches, reefs, and lagoons. 

We booked our holiday through a specialist travel agency that has lots of interesting information on Mauritius. 

My mother, a sprightly 55-year-old, found the atmosphere decidedly rejuvenating, and I hadn’t seen her so bubbly in ages! She dragged me off to what sometimes seemed like endless attractions, but it got me out of my comfort zone as I’d no doubt have laid on the beach all day. 

The bustling energy of the markets proved a little too much for me at times, but I definitely couldn’t complain about the variety of sarongs, shawls and dresses, as Mauritius has a bustling textile industry and the markets are full of goodies. 

Attractions on offer

We went on a spectacular catamaran cruise and went to a fascinating visitor centre showing how sugar is produced in Mauritius. You can also visit a casino, and spend time at the Waterfront shopping and restaurant complex. You can swim with dolphins too! There are also tours which include many of these attractions.

There are plenty of beaches and sports activities if that’s your thing—it really is a holiday that can be whatever you want it to be.

The weather can be changeable

Most Brits will feel somewhat at home in Mauritius at this time of year. It’s a small island in the southern hemisphere, on a similar latitude to northern Australia, but it’s only a 12-hour flight away from London. 

Between January and March you can expect temperatures up to around 30C (86F) during the daytime.

We’re now in the hotter and wetter time of the year, but the rain tends to come in quick bursts, so there’s lots of sunshine even on wet days.

On some days the moody weather would be a little chilly and overcast one minute, then the next it would break out into sun and leave you rushing barefoot into the nearest shop to get some cooler clothing. Be prepared for any kind of weather when going on an outing!

Travel was easy and enjoyable

Getting around is easy enough in Mauritius. Uber isn’t available though, so we used taxis and buses when we weren’t with our tour group. 

The taxis weren’t cheap, so we decided to try out the public transport. Early one morning we set out to wait for the bus at the stop by our hotel. It turned out to be painless and very cheap! The buses were quite regular, and were not as overcrowded and rickety as some of the buses we had taken on our travels in other countries. Definitely not shiny and new though, but then again we were in Mahebourg which isn’t as “touristy” as other places. 

Using public transport allowed for some light exploration. My mother wanted to focus on ticking off sights on her checklist so that she could feel like she had seen it all, and I wanted to do the same but in my own way: I wanted to see the everyday side of existence in Mauritius, the way the locals lived. 

So we took the bus and got off at a random ordinary suburb stop, then walked around until we got tired. Since Mauritius is largely French-speaking it was a little tricky at times, but people were kind when we needed help. The streets were relatively clean and peaceful, with quaint old houses bordered by neat little gardens. Vivid splashes of colour from bougainvilleas flowers everywhere completed the scene. 

Mauritius has a wealth gap, but it isn’t as glaringly obvious as in other places. Shopkeepers will close early sometimes to enjoy a nice afternoon at the beach with their families. 

Expectation meets reality

Our hotel, the Blue Lagoon, was perfect: excellent food, immaculately clean and all the appliances in the room worked. The hotel spa staff were top-tier and gave excellent aromatherapy massages, pedicures and other treatments. 

The dining hall and bar opened right onto the beach, so we could enjoy morning breakfasts and sunset cocktails in the most pleasant of surroundings. 

The image I had in my mind of Mauritius was of a friendly tropical place, where I would have the time of my life and would feel like those smiling people in the idyllic travel ads. I was not disappointed! Mauritius is a popular place for a reason, and it’s worth considering for your next beach, culture or foodie holiday.

Coach holidays to Europe: the stress-free way to get away

Holidays often mean hours stuck in airports, with endless queues and invasive security checks. Yet many of our customers never have this hassle and stress, because they travel to Europe by coach.

If you’ve not looked at coach travel recently, it’s a real eye-opener. You’ll get some incredible ideas for holidays by browsing some of the websites that we’ll mention in this article.

These kind of guided coach tours are useful if you haven’t been to a place before. You can see the main sites without having to worry about exactly where you’re going, or how to find your way there.

There are several national coach firms in the UK, including ShearingsLeger Holidays, and National Holidays, which will all take you to Europe. They have special Christmas Market tours, and also offer year-round travel to lots of interesting places.

Shearings

Shearings visits more than 30 countries. They have Christmas market coach trips to Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Prague, and Brussels. Their packages include transport and accommodation. The tours tend to have a ferry crossing at Dover, and you can see an itinerary for each day of your trip. This can be useful if you want to see several places on the same holiday, but don’t want the worry of having to organise it yourself. 

They have modern coaches with lots of legroom, wifi, and air conditioning. They also allow you to book by phone, which can be handy if you have any questions or would prefer to speak to a real person.

Leger Holidays

Leger Holidays also has Christmas market coach trips. They have packages going to Bruges, Arras & Lille; Bavarian Christmas Markets in Nuremberg, Bamberg & Würzburg; and Copenhagen, Lübeck & Münster. 

For something different, try their tour Christmas Markets in Ypres & Lille and Battlefields of the Western Front. You can even spend Christmas in the Bavarian Forest.

They also have a phone number to speak to someone who can help you.

National Holidays

National Holidays have some interesting packages if you want to go away for the whole of Christmas and new year. You could visit Lake Garda in northern Italy, with an excursion to Verona. Or you could go to Tossa de Mar in Catalonia, Spain, with an excursion to Barcelona.

Coach holidays in 2020

Beyond the Christmas Markets, there’s a wide world of coach holidays in 2020. 

If you fancy a classic train ride, take a coach to the Glacier Express in Switzerland, and take the 180-mile journey from the pretty Alpine resort of Zermatt, close to the Matterhorn, on to Davos or St Moritz. 

Disneyland Paris is always popular, and you can go there by coach too.

Specialist tours
In the spring, you can visit the European bulb fields. Keukenhof Gardens is one of the largest flower gardens in the world, where you can see seven million tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and flowering bulbs!

You could also go to Sicily, In the Footsteps of The Godfather, and explore the places where Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy was filmed.

Many coach tours visit several cities—like a cruise but on the road! Shearings run a trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest; a fireworks tour Rhine in Flames which takes in Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, and Bonn; or the Great Cities of the Danube from Passau to Linz, including Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava.

Foodies will like special coach tours tailored to their gastronomic needs. Italian Flavours, Ferrari and Pavarotti visits many high-quality food producers, the Modena home of opera singer Pavarotti, and Maranello, famous for being home to the Ferrari motor racing team. 

Tuscan Sights and Culinary Delights mixes the beautiful scenery of Turin, Pisa, Elba, Lucerne, and Reims with pizza, artisanal pasta, and salami.

If you’re planning ahead, in September you could take a coach to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, one of the world’s most histor