The two million or so annual visitors to the ‘Most Serene Republic of San Marino’ – or ‘San Marino’ for short – are certain to have taken a photo or three of the country’s iconic fortress towers. In fact, it is more than likely that the towers and their immediate surroundings were the only sights these tourists would have taken snaps of as hardly any non-resident inside the world’s fifth smallest country ventures beyond the peak of Mount Titano and the Old Town (the City of San Marino) perched on top of it.
Always striving to be different from the crowd, I wanted to take a photograph that was recognisably ‘San Marino’ but stood out from the endless, typical shots of the fortress on the Mount often found on Instagram. So, for two days back in June 2015, I set myself the task of capturing that unique snap…. although I did take endless, typical shots of the fortress as well (and uploaded a fair few of them onto Instagram). The place is so photogenic, I just couldn’t resist!
Most visitors to the Major Fortress walk right past the church and head straight for the fortress walls and Guaita to savour and photograph the stunning views beyond.
As with the Major Fortress, attempts to engage visitors with insights into San Marino’s history are made at Cesta. The Museum of Ancient Weapons hosted inside the Second Tower, displays a large selection of weapons, armoury, swords and shields dating back centuries.
This vast collection made up of two thousand pieces, was once owned by a single and rather enthusiastic resident of San Marino. Although anyone outside the country might question how healthy this individual’s obsession with weapons was, the endless replica swords and guns one can easily – and disturbingly – buy from the many souvenir shops in the Old Town may suggest his ‘passion’ barely raised an eyebrow in his native country.
The displays are spread across four rooms inside the tower. These rooms were once used by the country’s garrison in centuries gone by. Yet again however, this rich insight into San Marino’s history appears to be in vain as most visitors walk right past the displays without a second glance and go straight out onto the terraces to capture more stunning views across the Mount. Who can blame them with vistas like these:
Most tourists to San Marino visit the country as part of a day trip. Often this means that there is only time to explore the streets of the Old Town and visit Rocca Maggiore and Cesta before the last bus to Rimini leaves as early as 7pm (depending on the time of year). Maybe because of this time constraint and maybe because it is not as impressive, the Third Tower – Montale – further along the ridge of the Mount, rarely attracts the kind of numbers of visitors the First and Second Towers regularly enjoy on a daily basis. Most tourists are probably not even aware that there is a third tower. Others are probably put off by the distance and the rocky, less maintained path to it from the Second Tower.
There is another tower in San Marino that is as popular with tourists (and their cameras) as Guaita and Cesta, but unlike Montale it is not a fortress tower. It is the Clock Tower of the Public Palace found in the centre of the Old Town.
My guidebook wasn’t particularly flattering towards San Marino’s Old Town. The word “ugly” was often used in the descriptions. Most of the buildings making up the Old Town are arguably not architecturally attractive, and as in the case of the Church of Saint Barbara in the Rocca Maggiore, others have been ‘restored’ beyond historical recognition and interest.
One historical building within the Old Town that seems to have avoided San Marino’s over-indulgence in ‘restoration’, is La Chiesetta di San Pietro (the Little Church of Saint Peter). Three-quarters of the church may well have been demolished in 1826 to make way for the Basilica next door, but what is left of it is charming. The centuries old church is said to stand on the spot where Saint Marinus built his monastery a millennium ago resulting in the formation of San Marino.
The main altar inside the little church stands in front of the rock face in which the church is built into. Two carved rectangular spaces around one-and-a-half metres long, one metre deep and half a metre high can just be made out behind the altar. Apparently, these cavities are believed to be beds where Saint Marinus and Saint Leo once slept. The rock is said to have good thermal qualities so would have offered the men warmth at night, but probably little else in the way of comfort.
As my last evening in San Marino drew to an end, I realised I had taken hundreds of photos in and around the Old Town, but had failed in my quest to capture that one unique photo of San Marino. On the way back to my hotel I passed the Public Palace one last time.
The Piazza Libertà in front of the Palace was now completely quiet with not a soul about. All the tourists, and even the guards, had gone home for the evening. In the centre of this square stands the country’s own Statue of Liberty. The Statue is nothing like the more famous American one, but is just as symbolic… for the people of San Marino at least.
Just as I was leaving, I turned around to look at the Square for one last time and finally caught the shot I had been after:
Buses to San Marino leave from the neighbouring Italian city of Rimini, where the main airport (Federico Fellini Airport) that services San Marino can also be found. The first bus stop on the route is just outside Rimini train station. There are around ten buses to and from San Marino daily, every 75 minutes or so. The journey takes around half an hour depending on traffic, and tickets for the journey can be purchased on the bus for around €5 one way (2016). The buses are more like coaches and they certainly stand out with images of San Marino covering even some of the windows. There are no trains to or from San Marino. More information can be found on the Visit San Marino website here.
Entrance to the First and Second Towers costs €4.50 per tower (2016). This is also the price for entry into the Public Palace. Tickets can be bought on entry.
The Combined Museum Pass for €10.50 (2016) is a good investment if you are planning to visit the Public Palace as well as Guaita and Cesta. Make sure you return the Pass to any of the participating tourist sights’ ticket offices once you are finished with it to be refunded the €1.50 booking fee (2016).
If you are staying in a hotel in San Marino, make sure you are given a free TuttoSanMarino card at check-in. With it the Combined Museum Pass is even better value at the discounted price of €7.50 (2016). There are other benefits one can enjoy with this card, as detailed on the Visit San Marino website.
Opening times for all the main tourists sights in San Marino can be found here.
The Changing of the Guard takes place outside the Public Palace hourly between 9.30am and 5.30pm every day from May until September.
A mysterious train line, buying replica guns and trying desperately to escape off Mount Titano: alternative things to see and do in San Marino not necessarily listed in the guide books
Trying not to find pleasure inside the Museum of Torture, and trying not to laugh inside the Museum of Vampires. Alternative tourist activities in San Marino