Free spirits in the world’s oldest republic

Although my last post was a paean to train travel, we couldn’t take a train to San Marino, the fourth microstate on our tour. A tiny independent realm located roughly a third of the way down the eastern side of the Italian boot, San Marino once was accessible by train. But Allied forces destroyed the line during World War II, and instead of being rebuilt it was replaced with a highway. So most visitors drive to San Marino. The other way to get there is on a bus from Rimini, the nearby Italian city on the coast. Steve and I boarded one of those Sunday afternoon.

Storm clouds drained the color and light from the sky, but after a half hour or so we began to get glimpses of a promontory rising up in the distance: Mt. Titano. It was on that peak that a pious stonecutter from Croatia fled and lived as a hermit at the beginning of the 4th Century. His name was Marinus — later Saint Marinus, aka San Marino.From what I could make out, his beatitude resulted from his being a kindly and inspiring fellow who persuaded lots of people to become Christians. Legend has it that he also miraculously cured the dying son of a local noblewoman, who was so grateful she gave him the mountain and some land around it. San Marino thus enjoys the distinction of being the only country in the world founded by a saint. On his deathbed, Marinus supposedly whispered to his countrymen, “I leave you free of domination by other men.” Repeatedly, Steve and I heard that freedom, independence, and self-reliance continue to be core values of the modern Sammarinese.

That alone might have made me love the place, but San Marino has more going for it — at least the old heart of the community on the top of the mountain. Walled and fortified over the centuries with three massive towers, it’s a daunting place to penetrate even today. Our bus deposited us in a parking lot more than halfway up the promontory, near the base of the old walls. An elevator took us up to a higher level……but then we started trying to follow Google Maps’ directions up the stony warren of streets. We quickly got lost…

Here’s Steve, smiling despite our confusion.

…and for a while were scared we might have to haul our bags up several flights of steep stony stairs.

This photo shows only about a quarter of the total stairs up to the next level.

A policeman finally pointed out a path we could roll up. Here I have to say that if you hate slogging up and down steep inclines (not to mention stony stairs), San Marino might not be your idea of a vacation paradise. But then you would miss out on vistas such as these.We finally made it to our hotel, got a good night’s sleep, and awoke to a wonderland bathed in sunshine. In the tourist office, I was able to buy a stamp:

That’s Oscar, holding in his arms Federico Fellini, who was born in nearby Rimini.

San Marino has its share of museums, churches, and other modern attractions (a torture museum, a vampire museum, a sort of Italian Ripley’s Believe It of Not). Its streets are jammed with shops selling jewelry, leather goods, souvenirs, and startlingly realistic toy guns.None of that interested us much, but we were dazzled by San Marino’s three great towers. This tiny enclave for more than 1700 years avoided being overtaken by those who coveted it (including Cesar Borgia, Napoleon, and various rapacious clergymen and nobles). The story of how that happened is so complicated, it made my eyes cross. Clearly luck had something to do with it; probably good diplomatic skills too. But the towers also deserve a bunch of the credit. One looks just right for locking up Rapunzel.The biggest and oldest tower feels like part fort/part castle.We poked among the nooks and crannies and I reflected that being Rapunzel here might not be so bad, providing one got a room with a view.

We left San Marino Tuesday morning (9/21) and took the bus to the train to Rome. There we had roughly two days in which we visited Vatican City and packed in lots of sightseeing with our old friend Megan (who lives in Rhode Island but coincidentally was in Rome just when we were passing through).

The Vatican is the smallest of all the microstates, and I plan to write a proportionally short post about the time we spent there. But now it’s Friday afternoon (9/24) and we have arrived in Malta after a hair-raising journey. I’ll describe that next.

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