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July 8, 2019

Most Serene Republic of San Marino

The second of San Marino’s three towers, the Cesta, is located on the highest of Monte Titano’s summits.

The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is a geographical curiosity. Based on land area it is the third smallest country in Europe behind only Monaco and the Vatican City. Population-wise, only the Vatican has fewer residents than San Marino.

For a small country San Marino can claim a long history. The “city-state” claims status as the oldest constitutional republic in the world with an origin that dates from 301 AD. It was established more than a century before the fall of the Roman Empire. Unlike Rome, San Marino survived the barbarians. It also survived Napoleon, who after a brief negotiation promised to guarantee and protect the independence of the Republic. Indeed, Napoleon even proposed extending San Marino’s borders, an offer that was refused by San Marino in fear of later reprisals from the neighboring states.

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The enclave of San Marino is surrounded by Italian territory, making its existence all the more intriguing. Before Italy unified in the 19th century, San Marino was one of several independent states on the Italian peninsula. Logically it would have been wrapped up in the move towards regional unification, a movement that it supported. But it in the end San Marino remained independent. Ironically the Republic of San Marino stayed separate from the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in part because of its help with Italian unification. The Republic provided refuge for revolutionaries persecuted for supporting Italy’s unification. In recognition of this contribution, Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers, accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state. And thus San Marino remained independent by supporting unification. As always, skillful diplomacy was at the heart of San Marino’s continued independence.

A smaller curiosity is San Marino’s hosting of 26 Formula 1 races, none of which were held on its own soil. Monaco, 30 times smaller than San Marino, manages to hold a Grand Prix entirely within its borders. San Marino, with substantially more land, never has held its Formula 1 race inside its own borders. From the start the San Marino Grand Prix was always about the brand and not the geography.

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Past the geographical and historical anomalies the Republic of San Marino is attractive country dominated by its hilltop city. The pictures don’t lie. San Marino with its historic medieval castles perched on the top of a steep rocky hill is a spectacle. The narrow steep streets are spotted periodically with grand public buildings. With it all San Marino manages to combine eye-popping angles and historic buildings with some of the trashiest tourist shops around. It is at times an awkward clash of the old and the new.

After spending a night in a hotel on the top of the hill we worked our rental car out of its awkward parking spot and headed down and out into the countryside. We had set a mission to visit all of San Marino’s nine administrative divisions or castelli. With the aid of Google Maps we worked out a route that took us through the castelli we hadn’t seen on the way in. Inevitably in the unfamiliar terrain there were a few wrong turns, some of which had us crossing over into Italy. Accidently leaving small San Marino is hard to avoid. In the end our plan worked out but it turned out to be more of an adventure than we expected.

We came away from our extra credit excursion with the understanding that tiny San Marino is more than just a hill town. Indeed, San Marino has a surprising amount of agricultural land spotted with small rural villages, all without the souvenir shops so common at the top of the hill. In the end our haphazard circumnavigation San Marino is one of our lasting memories of the place.

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I had been curious to visit San Marino for years. The country was on our tentative itinerary several times, only to be dropped because the visit wasn’t conveniently reachable on the route.   Finally in October of 2018 we made our way to see the city on the top of the hill. We spent one night there. With the stop we completed visits to all of Europe’s small countries.


  1. Who is head of state of San Marino?

    Comment by douryeh — July 8, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

  2. […] the world’s second-largest country is actually a vast patchwork quilt of Tuvalus, Palaus, and San Marinos. If it comes to it, we can weave our roads and pipelines through the gaps between the little […]

    Pingback by Nation-to-nation. | Stuff I Done Wrote - The Michael A. Charles Online Presence — May 9, 2020 @ 6:12 am

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