Alternative Travel Destinations – San Marino
Alternative Travel Destinations is back for a fourth instalment! And this time we are going to one of the smallest countries in the world, San Marino. Located in north-eastern Italy, this is a truly tiny place – its population is slightly over 30,000 (roughly 1/250th that of London) and it has an area of just 61 km².
It also holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest sovereign state, having been founded in 301AD by an Italian maverick who had grown tired of life under Roman rule. When founding his new country he didn’t really go too far – in fact, San Marino is totally surrounded by Italy, one of only three nations to lie wholly within another state (the other two are the Vatican City, also in Italy, and Lesotho, in South Africa). It is essentially a small mountain that rises out of the surrounding countryside, kind of like a mini Kilimanjaro.
Arriving in the country is a rather underwhelming experience, it must be admitted. Apart from a small sign that announces your arrival, you would hardly notice the difference, and I would challenge anyone to tell the difference between an Italian and a Sammarinese. But you have to be patient because these are just the borderlands, and as the bus winds its way up towards the main city you’ll start to realise how brilliant San Marino really is.
In general it’s not too dissimilar to many of Europe’s other medieval towns, except it’s very well looked after and everything is on a much smaller scale. We spent some time walking around, admiring the churches and piazzas, and peering up at the tiny buildings that loom over the narrow cobbled streets. Occasionally we would stop to stroll around overpriced shops or to back up against walls to let people on scooters zip past, and we even found a place that stamped our passports. Jackpot.
Wandering the winding streets is a good way to spend an afternoon, but San Marino’s main draw is the trio of ancient forts, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, that sit atop the country’s three main peaks. They are easily reachable on foot – this is the 5th smallest country in the world remember – and they offer spectacular views out across Italy. They are also absolutely tiny, and it does make you wonder just what they were trying to protect. Tourists can stroll along the battlements and climb up the small towers, and one of the forts also has an ancient prison you can peer into.
In short, it’s a great place. It’s true that some of Europe’s other micro-countries aren’t exactly worth visiting – Liechtenstein, for example, is basically just an average Swiss village that would receive minimal tourist numbers if it wasn’t an independent state – but San Marino is different and I heartily recommend it.
Most people visit San Marino as part of a broader trip to Italy’s Eastern coast, and this is probably the best way to go. The country doesn’t actually have an airport or a train network so you will have to go via Italy and then take a bus or drive. Rimini is the best place to set off from – it’s a slightly grubby seaside resort, but it’s got a lot more options for hotels/hostels/restaurants and is only a 45 minutes away. Just make sure you don’t go for a swim, the water is filthy…