Thursday, May 17, 2012
San Marino was my 90th country. For months I had been working toward a goal of traveling to 90 countries before my 30th birthday, and—thanks to the suggestion of a reader—I chose San Marino as the place to accomplish it. Why? It was close, and I was curious.
What would a landlocked hilltop principality in Italy be like? It was more difficult to find out than I expected. I couldn’t find much information about it online, the tourism board didn’t respond to any of my emails, and nobody I knew had ever been there.
After awhile I decided to let this tiny mystery country reveal itself in its own time. I flew from London to Bologna with a friend on the day before my birthday, and we took a train from the central station to Rimini. Rail Europe had offered me a train ticket, and traveling by rail proved to be a good way of getting from Bologna to the nearest Italian city to San Marino.
From Rimini we took a bus to the principality, winding our way through the countryside and up a steep hill to reach our final destination. The border crossing was so subtle that we didn’t even realize we were in the country until we started seeing signs for various administrative districts.
When the bus reached its terminus high on the hill, we alighted and walked the short distance to our accommodation, the Grand Hotel San Marino. There we were given a warm welcome by the general manager, Alfredo, who talked to us about the country and encouraged us to see the sights.
We checked into our room, a comfortable one with two beds and a good size ensuite bathroom, then took advantage of the free Wi-Fi before setting off to explore the city.
Given that it was a small place, it didn’t take long for us to see it. But what we saw impressed us. Having arrived with no idea what to expect from San Marino, we were pleasantly surprised to find the romantic ruins of fortifications, narrow streets full of shops and restaurants, and wide plazas offering sweeping views of the Italian countryside.
We visited three medieval towers, walked past the city’s cable car, and gazed out over beautiful orange tile rooftops. We strolled by shops selling more tax free goods than I’ve ever seen (including a disconcerting number of gigantic firearms), and stopped into quiet churches to soak up the atmosphere.
After walking up and down the hills and along the cobbled lanes, we found ourselves in a small wine bar. There we enjoyed some local wine from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. We found it surprisingly good to drink and great value, and it took all of our will-power not to have too much of it before dinner.
Dinner was another pleasant surprise. We had passed by a restaurant in one of the city’s squares as we were exploring San Marino, and decided to go back to look at the menu at dinnertime. It had several menus on display, including a run-of-the-mill tourist menu and a tantalizing tasting menu.
Gravitating towards the latter, we rationalized an impromptu fine dining experience. Given that I had completed my 90 under 30 Travel Project that day, it wasn’t entirely unjustified. We walked inside, pointed to our menu of choice, and allowed the host to show us up the stairs.
Righi restaurant’s rustic ground floor area belied the elegance of the dining room on the level above. Gone were the touristy tablecloths and large-print menus. This was all refinement, and just what we wanted for our celebratory meal. We spent the next three hours in a whirlwind of flavors and aromas, with one course flowing blissfully into another as we sipped our wine and talked about future travel plans.
The dinner was a great way to end our day in San Marino. When we finished, we drifted back to our hotel through the narrow lamplit streets under the towering turrets on the high hills above. This fairy-tale country tucked away in the middle of Italy was well worth a trip, and the fact that we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves almost made me glad I found so little information about it before I arrived.
My 90th country may have been located right in the heart of Europe, but it was one of the least known countries I have ever been to. For the sake of future visitors to this mysterious corner of the world, I think we should keep it that way. Don’t tell your friends…