San Marino is one of those places we have always thought we would like to visit, and yet in truth we weren’t even one hundred per cent exactly where it was. We found where it was reasonably easily; a swift drive from Anghiari up the worst duel carriageway that must be known to man, then that old chestnut of plotting ‘shortest route’ on sat nav meant a pretty hair raising trip over the mountains. Our first view of the republic was from above the cloud level, we could see the iconic towers of San Marino poking through the clouds, giving our arrival a very Disney-ish feel.
A slight disappointment on the border, again, ok there is a sign but it is a very poor one, blink and you will miss it. We just snapped it, including the lamp post, as we realised we were in another country. Nothing else would have told you as there were houses each side of the sign so we guess you can live in San Marino and your next door neighbours live in Italy. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world maybe they could do with investing in something from the ritzy country signs catalogue. First impressions other than signage problems: its very clean; its very, very hilly; if you stay at the bottom it will be foggy; everyone drives even more like a lunatic than in Italy, there are no pavements so you risk your life if you walk anywhere; its nothing like Gibraltar which we thought it may be (a positive).
There is only one campsite in the country which has a) lovely showers b) washing machines c) a pizza parlour – so all in all it’s our kind of place. Iain booked us in and forgot to mention we had an email quote, very good plan as they offered him a much lower price. How that works we do not understand but just rolling up secures a better price than an email quote or their last minute best offers on their website, we didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth just paid and said nothing. The only downside of the site is the bloody peacock that wanders around outside the van, he terrifies me by standing outside the shower block doors refusing to move, its a bit like a Mexican stand off so I have to get their early to be sure I am going to make it inside in good time 😉
Not sure if its because its a bit of an expensive campsite but we did have another motorhome try and share our pitch last night. We were in bed, it was well after 11pm and there was an 8 metre van trying to park up on the pitch opposite. After 15 minutes in and out of the pitch they gave up, drove onto our pitch – probably less than 10 inches between vans – and got out to go put on their electric. We were stunned, no one can be dumb enough to think you share pitches, each pitch has a hedge around it, there are 200 pitches and only eight are being used. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry they were chatting, opening lockers and generally setting up camp with us. Then at midnight they had a change of mind, packed up and moved off to another pitch at the bottom of the site. If they had stayed we were up for asking for 50% reduction on the pitch fee for the night. This morning we moved our van over so no-one else is getting on our pitch with us tonight 🙂
Before we arrived we had read several accounts of people finding San Marino it a bit grey, gloomy and fog ridden. It would seem that this is a regular occurrence as yesterday we woke up to a pea souper where we could just see over to the next campervan. However, based on the previous days arrival when the towers were above the cloud we thought that sunshine would be out there somewhere. We caught the bus up to the old town centre, about half way the bus passed through the top of the clouds and it was bright sunshine all around us. The bus winged its way right to the top of the mountain, and then just as quickly started its way steeply down again with us still on it. After a couple of minutes debate I sent Iain to tell the driver we had wanted to get off at the old town – and we had obviously missed it and were 10 minutes back down the hill. Driver nods knowingly (that dumb tourists look) and says “no problemo”, he radios another bus driver and nods to us to come to the front, a few minutes later he stops and sends us over the road to another bus which is now patiently waiting to take us back up the hill again! That’s what we call service and all for €1 each.
Porta San Francesco – entrance to the old town
Off the bus, at last, we are waved into the old town by a very formal police officer who’s sole job is to wave pedestrians across a road with pretty much no traffic. We entered through the Porto San Francesco and it was like another world, one that has existed since 301 AD and is the oldest Republic in the world. UNESCO gave the Republic world heritage status back in 2008 and its very easy to see why. Whilst there are more museums and monuments than a country five times the size would be proud of, the first thing that strikes you is the views. From the top of Mount Titano you can see for miles over the Italian countryside, on a clear day you can see Croatia but not today. We could see for miles but mainly cloud with just the odd mountain top poking through, which was even more spectacular when those tops had fortified villages perched on them.
One of the things I very much wanted to see was the changing of the guard at the Public Palace, where the army wear a natty headdress with red pompoms. Having checked we knew it took place at half past the hour, but each time we tried to see it nothing was happening. To make sure we didn’t miss it for a third time we ordered cappuccino (having learned not to ask for ‘latte’ as it means ‘milk’ and that’s what you get a glass of) at the pavement cafe outside the palace and waited, again at the appointed hour nothing happened. This is the time to re-read the tourist literature, and find that changing of the guards takes place from May to September only! Our luck changed when we wandered into the Basilica of Saint Marinus just as the mass was starting and the choir sang Adeste Fideles, even the most ardent non Christmassy person would have struggled not to be moved.
Basilica of Saint Marinus
Public Palace – Piazza della Liberta (minus any changing of guards)
A must see was the three iconic towers on the top of Mount Titano that San Marino is probably best known for. The narrow streets climb fairly steeply up with tourist tat shops all around, it has to be said though it was good quality type of tat which runs right through from kitschy souvenirs to hellish expensive shops selling designer wear, sunglasses and perfume. Leather goods are everywhere, handbags and purses, jackets and belts all stamped genuine Italian leather. The other things that amazed us was gun shops, there were several and every type of gun imaginable was on the shelves, not behind glass, not locked – apparently San Marino has the freest and most unrestricted gun laws in Europe.
After a lengthy climb up through the streets we reached Tower 1, built in the 11th century, it was the country prison until 1975 but now houses a museum. Tower 2 is at the highest point on Mount Titano at 2800 ft above sea level. Luckily there is a lovely cafe there where we stopped off for coffee and cake to fortify us for a walk along to Tower 3 which is the newbie as it was only built in the 13th century 🙂 There is a walkway between the three towers, but its a health and safety nightmare, sheer drops down over the cliffs with not a rail or even a piece of rope between you and certain death. Not having a great head for heights it wasn’t a walk we lingered on, more of a case see each tower, take a photo and get back on safer ground.
Tower 1 – Guaita
Second tower – Cesta Third Tower – Montale
San Marino is a photographers heaven, both in terms of the views and the monuments. Add to that the Christmas markets, Santa Clauses touring the streets playing carols on bagpipes and amazingly blue skies and we have had a wonderful run up to Christmas and not sure where we could have found a better place to stay for the festive period.
Sammarinese Santa’s complete with bagpipes
Working on our usual principal of eating native it is becoming a little worrying the amount of Nutella Iain is consuming, the jars in the pavement cafes here were bigger than anywhere we have seen before, luckily there is no way they are going to fit into our fridge!
Tomorrow being Christmas Day, our plan is to do little other than a visit to the Christmas markets, a walk in some sunshine and find the best pizza we can for Christmas lunch (courtesy of my Dad and step mum and Rick and Kerry – thank you all for our ‘Christmas dinner’ money xxx).
To you all – we wish you and yours the very Happiest of Christmas and hope you enjoy celebrating it wherever you may be. x
The choice is hot chocolate, gluhwein or hot beer – not sure we can even try hot beer!