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

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.

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