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The mediaeval relic of San Marino

Posted in Historical articles, Travel on Friday, 29 July 2011

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This edited article about San Marino originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 998 published on 25 April 1981.

San Marino, picture, image, illustration

La Rocca, the citadel on the summit of Mount Titano in the Republic of San Marino

Every year crowds of tourists head for what the Italians call the Emilia-Romagna, the area high on their eastern coast where the blue Adriatic Sea borders seemingly endless beaches, and smart hotels gleam white in the sun. Most of the towns and cities in the Emilia-Romagna are strung out along the old Roman road known as the Emilian Way. Few of the motorists who speed along this road stop to consider the fact that only 30 kilometres inland from the busy holiday centre of Rimini is the oldest republic in the world – San Marino.

Strictly speaking, San Marino is not in Emilia-Romagna. In fact, San Marino is not part of Italy at all: it is an independent republic, a fascinating leftover from the Middle Ages that has shown itself almost totally resistant to change. San Marino consists of no more than about 65 square kilometres of mountainous land, and one might imagine that it has managed to stay free only by keeping so quiet that nobody realises it is there. On the contrary, San Marino welcomes visitors, because tourism is one of its few sources of income.

Drive out to San Marino on Route 12 and you will soon find that the road winds upwards, for the little republic is over 700 metres above sea level. San Marino’s capital is, of course, San Marino, a time-mellowed walled town cut deep into the mountainside.

The whole place looks extraordinarily like a film set, an idea that is not all that far from the truth. Over the years a number of American film companies have used San Marino as a setting for spectacular period melodramas. They willingly repaired whatever towers and fortifications happened to be falling down at the time, with the result that the old town now presents an exceptionally well-preserved exterior to the thousands of tourists who visit it every year.

After exploring the central Piazza della Liberta and having made an expedition along the ancient ramparts of this very Italian-seeming old town, most visitors consider it a good idea to find somewhere to have lunch. This is not a great problem, as there are half a dozen good hotels and numerous cafes and restaurants eager to be of service.

Lunch in San Marino is likely to be a serious business and not something to be rushed, for this is the centre of an area famous for good food. The pasta, such as spaghetti and macaroni, made from ground wheat, are specially famous, as are the hams; but many people choose a well-known dish called zampone, which is made by stuffing a pig’s foot with highly seasoned pork, boiling it for several hours, then cutting it into thick slices and serving it with a salsa verde, or green sauce. The result is delicious.

According to tradition, San Marino’s story began around AD 300, thanks to Marinus, a wandering Christian stone-cutter who fled to Mount Titano to escape persecution. The legend is probably true, and certainly written records exist referring to the monastery of San Marino as early as 885. In the 13th century, San Marino came under the protection of the powerful Montefeltro family, and later had its independence recognised by the Pope.

In more recent times San Marino seems to have managed to retain that independence through the sound common sense of its 60 councillors, who have firmly refused to allow their tiny country to expand. When no less a person than the French Emperor Napoleon III offered them more territory they politely refused, saying that they wanted the mountain on which they lived and that was all. It was a wise decision, for San Marino has no strategic importance and is small enough to pose no threat to anyone else.

There are about 4,000 people who live in the town of San Marino, and about 20,000 citizens in the republic as a whole. Vines have always grown well on the volcanic soil on the slopes of the mountain, and they produce a strong red wine. Most of this is drunk by the inhabitants of San Marino, and it has never been a great source of income.

There was a time when a considerable amount of money was made from the sale of noble titles, and anyone wishing to be a count or countess could usually be obliged – at a price. This custom belongs to the past, and San Marino now relies mainly on the export of building stone, the tourist trade and the sale of its own postage stamps. These were first issued in 1877. The design of the stamps is changed frequently, in order to encourage collectors, and in addition San Marino issues its own coinage, which circulates legally in Italy.

If anyone does consider invading San Marino it should be pointed out that all male citizens between the ages of 16 and 60 are liable for military service and the country can raise a citizen army of nearly 1,200 men!

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