When it comes to tiny, San Marino (its official title, The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, is more of an endorsement than a title) is a colossus of the miniaturised: in its entirety it's not much bigger than two or three suburbs strung together. But it is the world's oldest surviving republic.
Originally relying on a subsistence economy, the sheep and vineyards were ditched for kitsch and tourist souvenirs at about the time that Darryl Zanuck 'rented out' the entire republic as an authentic medieval backdrop for his film The Prince of Foxes.
Sensing a unique marketing opportunity, the city reinvented itself as a prime tourist destination, and these days San Marino is packed to the gunwales with tourists buying souvenirs and 'genuine reproductions' of medieval relics. It also took advantage of its proximity to the seaside resort of Rimini to ramp up its postcard production, becoming something of a 'Margate of the Mediterranean' as it churned out generic seaside postcards of the massive-mammaries-and-double-entendre type.
Full country name: Most Serene Republic of San Marino
Area: 61 sq km
Capital City: San Marino
Religion: Roman Catholic 95%
Government: independent republic
Head of State: Captain Regent Cesare Gasperoni
Head of Government: Secretary of State for Foreign and Political Affairs Fabio Berardi
GDP: US$940 million
GDP per capita: US$34,600
Member of EU: No
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Visas: Passport and visa regulations are the same as for Italy. EU citizens require only a passport or ID card to stay or work in Italy for as long as they like. They are, however, required to register with a questura (police station) if they take up residence and obtain a permesso di soggiorno (permission to remain for a nominated period). Citizens of many other countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland and Japan, do not need a visa if entering as tourists for up to three months. Since passports are not stamped on entry, that three-month rule can generally be interpreted with a certain flexibility. If you are entering for any reason other than tourism (for instance, study) or plan to remain for an extended period, insist on having the entry stamp. Without it you could encounter problems when trying to obtain a 'permesso di soggiorno'. Non-EU citizens who want to study at a university or language school must have a study visa. These can be obtained from your nearest Italian embassy or consulate.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1
Dialling Code: 378
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Many events smell of frankincense and myrrh as the largely Catholic population get out and about on their holy days. Religion devotion, however, does not preclude a good old secular knees-up, something the San Marinese are rather partial to, particularly if it involves a crossbow and arrow.
It begins with the Epiphany on 6 January, followed by the Anniversary of the Liberation of the Republic from the Alberoni Occupation and St Agatha's Day (5 February). In a bit of unintended irony, 1 April is the Investiture of the New Regent Captain, while the Formula One Grand Prix whizzes through the city sometime in late April/early May.
May is bookended by Labour Day (1 May) and the feast of Corpus Christi (31 May). The Medieval Days with Antique Crossbows targets late July, while the other popular non-religious festival, National Independence Day (again with the crossbows already!), occurs on 3 September. From here on in until the end of the year it's pretty much all religious events: All Saints' Day, 1 November; Commemoration of the Dead, 2 November; and the Immaculate Conception, 8 December.
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Basilica del Santo
The Basilica del Santo is the heart and spirit of both the city and the republic; inside are the reliquaries and religious artefacts of San Marino, the saint and founder of the eponymous republic.
Although most of the basilica was constructed over the remains of the old parish in the middle of the 19th century, its origins hark back to a much earlier period. It once represented one of the first pre-Romanesque Christian monuments in Italy. Despite the loss of such an historic artefact, the basilica - built to the specifications of the Bolognese architect Antonio Serra - has its own neo-classical and Corinthian-columned attractions, as well as a bit of pre-medieval bric-a-brac left over from the old building. For instance, the solid bell tower was not just built in the 600s, it was rebuilt in the 600s, at the same time that the throne of the Regent Captain was installed.
The inside is made up of three aisles and seven altars, under one of which is a small urn containing the bones of San Marino. Part of his skull resides in a silver casket resting on a marble monument. Like elsewhere in Catholic Italy, the left-over parts of saints and holy men are revered as having the kind of thaumaturgic qualities that you just can't get from your local GP.
From La Rocca you can take a panoramic stroll across to the Second Tower, sometimes known as Cesta or Fratta. Built at an elevation of 756m (2480ft) on Mount Titano, it's the highest-standing of the fortresses, and dates back to the 13th century. It mirrors the pentagonal shape of La Rocca and, like that tower, was also used as a prison. You get the feeling that, for a small republic the size of a few suburbs, it sure had a lot of penal activity and penitence going on.
The San Marino Museum of Antique Weapons is housed in what was formerly the guardrooms and castle-keepers' rooms. The collection of sharp pointy objects that constitute the quaint medieval notion of a killing machine includes swords, knives, lances, firearms, bows and crossbows. There's also armour to protect oneself from the sharp pointy objects. More than 500 objects follow the history of weaponry from the late 800s to medieval times.
Other pieces of the collection, which numbers over 1550 objects, can be found at the descriptively (albeit prolixly) named Centre for Studies on Weaponry from the Middle Ages to the 1900s at the nearby township of Borgo Maggiore.
La Rocca, or more properly the Guaita, or First Tower, dates back to the 11th century, although it was given a few licks and spits in the 19th and 20th centuries. The structure was chipped straight out of the stone surface without recourse to foundations, and promptly pressed into service as a guard tower and refuge post.
The entrance of the pentagonal structure displays the republic's baroque coat of arms, purloined from the Palazzo Publico. It also has a picture-book bell tower (as every fortress should) and, built a few years after the bell tower, a tower of penance - which always comes in handy when you're talking medieval punishment. Up until 1970 the Rocca was still a working prison, but these days tourists are free to roam unhindered around most of the fortress.
The Third Tower (or Montale), like Cesta, dates back to the 13th century and, like the other two, is the familiar pentagon shape. Also, like the others, it was used as, surprise, surprise, a prison! Unlike the other prisons, though, this one has serious porridge going on - it's 8m (26ft) deep and is called 'the tower bottom'. Talk about rock bottom: you don't get much lower in life than the bottom of a deep dungeon in a tower fortress carved out of a rock face.
Re-enforcing the disciplinary feel of the place, Montale looks out on a series of antique rocks placed together to form a primitive wall system that runs from Cesta to the old quarry. The quarry is the remains of the second town wall constructed in the 13th century. In fact the erstwhile citizens of San Marino built no less than three stone walls, all in different centuries, as protection. Over the years paranoia gave way to pragmatism and much of the stone walls was demolished to make way for city expansions.
The Palazzo Publico sits on the site of the old Domus Communis Magna, or Large Communal House (a common medieval household that puts the average shared student accommodation to shame), with best guestimates putting construction somewhere between 1380 and 1392.
The first stone of the public palazzo was laid in 1884 to specifications by architectural designer Francesco Azzurri and, in a gesture that reflected the republic's architectural and cultural orgins, the work was undertaken by local stonecutters using stones extracted from the nearby Mount Titano caves. On the occasion of its inauguration, the now renowned speech on 'perpetual liberty' was delivered by local citizen and early republican Giosuθ Carducci.
The building is all richly carved stone, polygonal balconies, castellated battlements, and memento mories to the republic's saintly heroes, San Marino and San Leo. There are also a number of older art pieces that are worth a look: under the porch you'll find a marble bust of the architect Azzurri, sculpted by Giulio Tadolini; a great entrance hall with coats of arms and tombstones; a bust of Carducci; and a staircase that takes you up to the next floor where all gubernatorial needs are met by a 60-seat counsellor room, congress and hearing halls, and a voting room that looks out upon Pianello, or Piazza della Liberta Square.
Piazza della Liberta in turn overlooks a spectacular view of Montefeltro, the church of San Francesco, and La Rocca.
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