San Marino – The World’s Oldest Republic
As an Indian, my knowledge of Europe’s micro nations never extended beyond Vatican City. It was fascinating to discover that a tiny nation perched on the mountain tops and surrounded by Italy was indeed the world’s oldest republic (since 301 AD). To get to the Republic of San Marino, one must first reach Rimini and then board a shuttle bus that departs to San Marino at the cost €5 pp one way. As the bus arrived, I shed my Singaporean habit of abiding by the queue. Like the true Indian / Italian, I jostled with the crowd to ensure that I get to board the bus ! The view during the bus ride is not that great and it roughly takes 45 – 50 minutes to reach San Marino. The official language of San Marino is Italian and the currency is Euro.
Per legend, San Marino was founded by a stonemason Marinus who was later venerated as Saint Marinus in 301 AD.
Due to the Diocletianic Persecution because of his Christian sermons, he took refuge in the nearby town of Mount Titano where he built a chapel and a monastery. This led to the foundation of the city we know as San Marino today. In 1631, the Papacy recognized the independence of this state. During 1797 when Napoleon invaded Italy, San Marino was left in a precarious position to maintain the alliance with the Papal State and creating a new one with France. The Bishop of Rimini who had fled to San Marino was accused of being an instigator of crimes against the French. When the letter of arrest and surrender was issued by the French, San Marino politically co-operated with the requests of French while they also helped the Bishop to escape from the border. This strategy was devised by the then Captain Regent Antonio Onofri who also managed to earn the respect and friendship of Napoleon. In an agreement, Napoleon offered an enlargement of the territory to San Marino which was politely declined by Antonio Onofri. The justification offered by Onofri was “Wars End, But Neighbors Remain”. Napoleon ordered to exempt San Marino from any tax.
During the later stage of Italian unification in the 19th century, San Marino gave refuge to Italian soldiers and the nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. Because of these events, after the unification of Kingdom of Italy a treaty was signed in 1862 to confirm San Marino’s Independence. During World War II, the neutral San Marino was a refuge for 100,000 civilians from neighbouring parts of Italy.
As I walked up the hill from the bus stop of San Marino, I noticed a well dressed guard in bright orange coloured uniform straight out of Govinda (the Indian movie actor) movies!
With a view of the beautiful Titano Mountains, the guard faces Porta San Francesco, the ancient watch tower in San Marino. It was built in 1361. Inside the gate is the recent commemorative plaque of San Marino recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As one enters the gate, to the right stands the oldest church in San Marino – Church of Saint Francis and next to it curiously is the Museum of Torture 🙂 .
The Torture Museum has a collection of over 100 devices invented by man to inflict pain and punishment. San Marino has some bizarre and quirky private museums apart from the state museums. As I walked on the cobbled stones and climbed the steep road ahead to reach the next square, I noticed the house of refuge with red windows that sheltered Giuseppe Garibaldi and his followers.
Further up ahead, the narrow bending roads led to Piazza Garibaldi with a monument of Giuseppe Garibaldi on the square.
Another climb up the hill is the Piazza della Liberta. Right in the middle of the square is San Marino’s own statue of liberty built in white marble. This symbol of freedom is represented as a warrior advancing fiercely with one hand stretched forward holding the flag. The head is crowned with San Marino’s three towers and it represents the fortified city of San Marino.
Palazzo Pubblico (Government Palace) behind the statue of liberty is the place where official ceremonies of the Republic of San Marino are held. The change of guards takes place inside the three gothic arches of the palace. There is a bronze statue of Saint Marinus popping out from the corners of the palace.
Inside the palace is the Parliament Council house on the top floor. The grand picture of Saint Marinus dominates the hall.
There is a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln across the hallway. The government of San Marino proposed an alliance with the United States and thereby granted honorary citizenship to honest Abe. The humble letter took Lincoln by surprise as it had 2 columns (with perfect Italian on one side and imperfect English on the other). Lincoln accepted the offer in 1861 and replied “Although your dominion is small, however, your State is one of the most honored in all of history”. The translation of Lincoln’s letter in Italian can be seen under the plaque of his statue.
As I walked towards the narrow street going past the Public Palace, I came across the Tourism Office. One of the interesting experiences is to get yourself a San Marino passport stamp for €5. One of my memories about San Marino was having a hearty conversation with Roberto in the Tourism Office. The warmth of his smile transcends to his eyes as he spoke proudly about his country. He explained to me the significance of the letters in the stamp. DFR 1717 was stamped on my passport. DFR stands for “Dalla Fondazione Repubblica”. It signifies that this is the 1717th year since the republic was founded. He further added that every year they change their official documents to reflect the current year. It sounded like a tedious procedure to me !
He further asked me if I had noticed a statue in front of the tourism office. Smiling at my ignorance, he explained that the statue was of a mother and child and it was dedicated to the victims of the bombing during WWII on 26th June 1944. During WWII, Britain thought that San Marino had joined hands with Fascist Italy and dropped bombs on Mount Titano. San Marino denied these reports and maintained neutrality. Roberto sighed and added that the Queen of England apologized only years later for this deed. I added saying that Indians (better than most others) can understand this. To this, he chuckled and agreed – yes, you guys know better !
An easy way to reach to the top is by Cable Car ride or the toy train that drops you at the foot of the Towers. The cable car connects the two towns Borgo Maggiore and San Marino. One can find the toy train at the drop off point of the bus station.
There is a small statue of Bartolomeo Borghesi in the middle of the square. The view of the Titano mountains is amazing from this place.
Right before the descent is the Cava dei Balestrieri (Crossbowmen’s Quarry). There is historical evidence that the crossbow was used to defend the walls and the independence of the community. Till today, national crossbow tournaments take place every year reflecting the long and unwavering tradition of San Marino. While talking with Roberto I realized that I missed the tournament by a week 🙁 . It would have been great to see a glimpse of a Game of Thrones moment in reality !
Tracing back my steps to Public Palace, I further climbed up to reach my Hotel Cesare where I spent the night.
In front of the Hotel is the Museum of Curiosities. An impressive museum with unique collection of incredible facts ,objects and personalities. I found it interesting, stimulating and educational. There were some Indian personalities who made it to the list by growing long fingernails and hair.
One of the challenges and unique experiences is to climb the Towers of San Marino. Guaita, Cesta and Montale are the three pinnacles of Mount Titano and some of the best views can be seen from the top of these towers. Montale is the smallest of the towers and strategically has the best look-out position. It is farthest from the two towers. Unlike the other two, one cannot go inside the Tower Montale. These towers represent the symbol of San Marino. It features on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, Plaque outside the Parliament house, On the Flag of San Marino and the postal stamp of San Marino.
The basement of the first tower was used as a prison for the most dangerous criminals. Cesta Tower houses the Museum of Archaic Arms that dates back from Middle ages till the end of 1800s.
Basilica di San Marino is the main church of San Marino. It is dedicated to Saint Marinus, the founder of the Republic. The church was closed due to the service hence I could not peek inside.
The city is overrun by tourist shops selling all kinds of items – leather bags, perfumes and so on. While taking a stroll, my eyes fell upon this cute duck store.
The State Museum of San Marino is organized in four floors with archaeological finds from San Marino and works of art. A replica of statue of liberty can be seen on one of these floors
The Museum as such is non impressive but I found one particular object rather interesting. One of the two wafer irons shows the motto: “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (FREEDOM IS WORTH ALL THE GOLD IN THE WORLD). This statement -more than anything – epitomizes the Republic of San Marino through the ages !
The food is heavily influenced by Italy.
During the night, I went out for a stroll exerting myself on the undulating pathways of San Marino, I found a familiar face smiling at me. She was the same lady who greeted me at the Public Palace. She was pleased to find me staying in San Marino for the night as mostly they find day trippers to San Marino. We exchanged pleasantries and then parted for the night. My memories of San Marino are these interactions with Sammarinese (People of San Marino) and walking on the cobbled paths of the city. One gets the feeling of a classic small fortified town community where everyone knows everyone. I had a similar feeling when I visited the Jaisalmer Fort in India. The landlocked tiny micro nation is indeed a small country with a giant heart !.
Watch my San Marino Travel Video on YouTube
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