The stone brick of the guard tower is cool against my skin, as I lean out to view the fortress of San Marino. Situated upon a mountain that appears to stand apart from any other, and surrounded by comparatively flat lands, the castle is an impressive menacing structure, displaying the strength and power of its occupants. Its walls sit on the edge of a cliff, a sheer and terrifying drop to the land below – one that no one could survive. As I patrol the walls of the tower, I am able to see for miles around, a perfect vantage point to observe any enemies that dare to attack. A full armoury of swords and pistols await in the tower behind me for such an occasion. I turn to the south, away from the castle, to view another guard tower standing erect, providing further protection. It appears that San Marino is impenetrable.
But wait, what is that in the distance? A puff of white smoke, or only a cloud? A bird, or something more sinister? As it comes closer I can make out the large expanse of its wings, stretching much further than that of any bird. Its black scales glitter in the sunlight. A long gainly tail gracefully sways behind it. A deafening roar escapes its teeth-lined mouth, as it opens its jaw wide and spews fire across the land. My heart pounds hard enough to leap out of my chest. It is a dragon. And we are all doomed.
Well, at least that is what I imagine.
San Marino is the perfect place to envisage dragons, damsels in distress, knights patrolling towers wielding swords, and even vampires. Although, don’t expect a king – it is said that San Marino is the oldest republic on earth. It was founded by a Christian stonemason in 301 AD; is the fifth smallest country in the world; and many of the buildings date back to the 12th Century.
Because all the best sights sit upon the top of Mount Titano, you should expect quite a lot of up-hill hiking. My favourite location was the second guard tower, De La Fratta, which gives the best view of the first tower and fortress, Guaita, and any dragons. Inside De La Fratta there really is an armoury; a museum of weapons used by San Marino soldiers over the centuries. The third tower is much smaller than the other two, and has a wonderful view of the surrounding lands from its base, but you are unable to enter or climb it. Therefore, if you’re short on time, I would skip this tower.
The views from the top of first tower, situated within the city walls, stretches for miles and miles around, only interrupted by the view of the second tower – but what a view! To get to the top you have to climb a few rickety stairs, a ladder, and scramble through a narrow manhole. Take a few deep breaths before attempting the climb if you’re scared of heights, or give it a miss all together, there are plenty of other fabulous views from other locales.
The main streets that lead to the Guaita Tower, and a few others nearby, cater so highly to the tourist trade it unfortunately gives the impression of a pretend town – as if it’s a Disneyland attraction. But away from those streets the city regains its medieval charm and it’s incredible to be surrounded by structures that have barely changed in centuries.
You can get a glimpse of history mixed with modern practises by visiting the Palazza Pubblico (a.k.a. Public Palace, or Town Hall), which is where the San Marino parliament is held. The Chamber of Grand and General Council is adorned with paintings and tiles from another age, but the desks, where the members of parliament sit, have had microphones installed, and a few hold computers and a printer. It was fascinating.
In other areas of the Palazzo Pubblico you’d believe you had just stepped back in time to the 14th Century into a stately castle. I imagined myself laced into a burgundy medieval gown slowly descending the grand staircase to meet my guests below. If you time your visit right, you can watch the changing of the guard. They have several a day, so just check the times on the sign out front. It’s a short ceremony but lovely to see the guards in their green and red noble uniforms.
The city of San Marino is not that large, so you should still have plenty of time get a workout from climbing the steep hilly streets, or visit the many museums and art galleries. One museum that is a bit different from the others is the Vampire museum. Enter if you dare!
Eat at Ristorante Righi
There are plenty of places in San Marino to have a meal, many of which have amazing views. So it is hard to choose which restaurant to go to. However, I highly recommend the Ristorante Righi which sits in the Piazza della Liberta. From your table you can gaze at the Palazzo Pubblico, or out across the square to the distant mountains. They serve a gourmet menu at a reasonable price. The service was incredible, as was the meal I had, which was the special for the day: Pigeon. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, because I’m a very fussy eater, but I really did. It was seasoned with stuffing and presented whole like you’d have a turkey on Christmas day. There was pasta on the side which was also infused with Pigeon. But if this doesn’t appeal to you, they have a full menu of gourmet Italian cuisine that you can choose from.
Stay at Hotel Rubens, Rimini
San Marino accommodation can be quite expensive, so I stayed in nearby Rimini by the Italian coast. Hotel Rubens had amazing accommodation for only €33 per night twinshare. The room was simple, but clean and had everything we needed. A bonus was the massive balcony. The beach was a short five minute walk, as were shops, restaurants and the bus stop. They provided a large spread of choice for breakfast, hosted by their sister hotel across the road.
How to Get to San Marino
There is no train line to San Marino, but you can get a bus from the Rimini train station or Bologna Airport.
To get to San Marino from Hotel Rubens, we caught a local bus to the Rimini train station (buy tickets from a Tobacci shop), where you can get a coach bus direct to San Marino. The bus departure point is across the road from the train station entrance, a few metres from the Burger King. You need to buy a ticket from the Tourist Office (next to the station) before the bus arrives – cost is €5 one-way or €9 return. The Tourist Office will also advise of the timetable (times vary from season, however, they generally come once per hour at minimum).
Click here for more information on getting to San Marino
Enjoy your visit to San Marino more by wearing comfortable shoes (there are a LOT of steep hills). Remember to drink lots of water – with all the exercise you’ll do, you will need it! If you would like a stamp in your passport to show you have visited the country, the tourist office will happily provide one for a cost of €5. And to really enjoy San Marino, just let your imagination run wild!