Some of the smallest countries in Europe including the Vatican (smallest) and Liechtenstein (fourth smallest), share the unusual trait of not having a train station or any railway line running across them. Whilst walking one evening through a quiet part of fellow small and officially railway-less San Marino, I was rather surprised to discover an unnamed station platform and a long section of railway line hidden away in its Parco Naturale, one kilometre or so east from the Old Town.
The line didn’t appear to be under construction. It looked serviceable but there were no signs promoting any sort of service on it or even pointing to its existence. It was only by chance that I spotted the line from the side of the road above. Maybe it was some sort of private track that only serviced goods up and down the Mount, but there were no physical barriers around it nor any placards nearby to suggest it was private property. It was rather eerie and not the most inviting sight I had so far come across in San Marino. Ever the curious traveller, I decided to follow the line along to see where it would lead me and whether I could discover more about it.
If it was some sort of disused line that had been left here to rot, I was intrigued to know why this tunnel was in such good repair, and more importantly still wired up to the national grid to light it up inside. Hoping it wouldn’t lead me into the path of a speeding train, I set off into the tunnel.
Dug out from the solid rock of Mount Titano, the tunnel twisted and turned for some distance with no sign of ending. With nothing but pure rock surrounding me, thoughts of earthquakes and sudden land slips kept running through my head but my curiosity and the continuously good artificial lighting along the route persuaded me to carry on. I had gone too far in to turn back now. After a further fifteen minutes of walking, I finally saw something ahead other than rock and strip lights.
I walked on cautiously, no longer on the track but close to the now concrete-skimmed walls of the tunnel just in case that train container suddenly decided to move towards me. It was completely closed up with no signs of life either electrical or human. As I passed it I could finally see the tunnel’s exit leading out into the open and what looked like a train carriage parked just beyond it.
Luckily, the train carriage remained stationary and I escaped out of the tunnel unscathed. It was parked close to some buffers marking the end of the line. The carriage looked vintage but all of the windows were closed and obscured with blinds, and the doors to the carriage were shut so I couldn’t look inside it. There was no one around to ask what on earth was going on, but from a sandwich board standing next to the carriage I finally learnt what the tunnel was called, what the train line was once used for and why this carriage was here.
The Montale Tunnel is one of seventeen tunnels that was cut out of Mount Titano to make way for a single track railway line that once connected San Marino’s Old Town to the neighbouring Italian city of Rimini. The line took three years to build and the first train ran along it in 1932. Although San Marino was a neutral state during WWII, Italy was not, and as it had been Mussolini’s administration that had funded the railway project, the line became a strategic target for the Allies. During an English bombing raid in June 1944, the line and several of its tunnels were seriously damaged along both the Italian and San Marino stretches of it.
The “White Blue” electromotive AB 03 was the last train to travel along the line before services permanently ceased a month after that fateful raid. It carried Italian refugees from Rimini into San Marino. The surviving tunnels, including Montale, were used to shelter those refugees and 100,000 others for the reminder of the war.
It seems odd that San Marino didn’t rebuild and reinstate the line after the war. Maybe the reason was that the country wanted to distance itself from the railway’s links with fascism, or maybe it was out of respect to the casualties of war. Or it could simply be that modern-day Italy just doesn’t want the line rebuilt across its territory.
In recent years, the Administration of San Marino has commissioned a project to recover the railway tunnels and route within its own territory, but to convert them into a tourist attraction rather than as a working track. Montale Tunnel and its section of line have so far been rebuilt as part of this project. The unnamed station I came across was presumably the original San Marino Old Town station. The next stop along the track was originally Borgo Maggiore, but the reclaimed track only runs up to Via del Voltone just outside the Old Town’s city walls where I discovered the refurbished “White Blue” electromotive AB 03 carriage.
Although it was gratifying to have found something that probably few other tourists to San Marino had discovered as so few venture beyond the old city walls, it did make me wonder why San Marino wasn’t promoting this heritage site more, or indeed at all. Although the guides I had collected from both my hotel and a local tourist office did indicate its location off Via del Voltone, there was nothing in these guides to encourage me to visit it nor anything to explain how I could reach it easily if I was planning to do so.
In fact, the impression I got during my two day stay in San Marino back in June 2015, was that San Marino doesn’t encourage its visitors to go beyond Mount Titano even though the country covers an area of over sixty square kilometres that stretch out way beyond the foot of the Mount. My two guides erroneously entitled ‘San Marino’ were actually two glorified maps of San Marino’s Old Town and the area immediately around the Mount. I couldn’t find a detailed map of the whole country anywhere. This, together with the apparent absence of any other bus routes running through the country besides the San Marino-Rimini route, was a real disappointment. There was nothing at the Old Town bus station to even suggest how one would go about reaching another part of San Marino without a private car.
Determined not to be put off, I decided to try and reach another part of the country by foot instead. I took the cable car at the western end of the Old Town down to the town of Borgo Maggiore at the bottom of the Mount.
Admittedly, there wasn’t a great deal to enthuse a tourist in Borgo Maggiore, but it did have a charm that the Old Town leering down above it lacked.
The Church houses a large painting of Saint Agatha, the patron Saint of San Marino. Every year on the 5th of February, the painting is carried along in a religious procession up the Mount to the Pieve in the Old Town. This ceremony celebrates San Marino’s liberation and return to a republican state after an Italian Cardinal forcibly ruled the country for a short period until February 1740.
A more unusual sight in Borgo Maggiore – if one survives crossing the busy highway that cuts it off from the rest of the town – is the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary Our Lady of Consolation.
A church has stood on this spot since the eighteenth century, but the last one was flattened during the bombing raid that also destroyed the Rimini-San Marino train line. Giovanni Michelucci’s controversial redesign has divided opinion ever since the church reopened in 1967.
There was nothing else around the town to point me to anything else of interest, and it was only after I had returned home to England and was studying one of my guides to compile this post that I spotted a symbol used to mark out Montale Tunnel appear elsewhere on the map in an area west of Borgo Maggiore. Apparently, the Borgo Maggiore Tunnel leading out to the original Borgo Maggiore train station has also been recently rediscovered and rebuilt. But yet again, how on earth is any visitor to San Marino to know it is there when the country barely promotes it? This second location wasn’t even detailed on the other guide I had!
I really wanted to see and discover more of San Marino, but with endless winding carriageways on which resident cars constantly re-enact old San Marino Formula One races that once took place along them (slow down!), it was virtually impossible to cross these roads safely and walk to anything further afield. So eventually, I gave up my quest and returned to the top of Mount Titano.
I may not have discovered more of San Marino’s territory, but having spent time walking around the Old Town during the evening when all the day-trippers had returned to Rimini, I do believe I discovered more about San Marino’s mindset. The city is littered with statues, some commemorating local historical events and heroes, but nearly all are of the female form… the naked female form.
Another obsession San Marino seems to have is with weaponry. Although the country has a strong military past, I don’t think its medieval garrison had access to automatic machine guns, yet the Old Town’s souvenir shops are awash with replica versions for tourists to buy.
There was one final side to San Marino I was thankfully happy to discover: its beauty against the setting sun. I found a nice, quiet seating area close to the Rocca Maggiore and waited for the sun to set. The evening was warm, the long shadows across the vista were breath-taking and the atmosphere was peaceful… that was until the sun touched the horizon and a local campanologist suddenly began to ring the bell in the Tower behind me in a way that seemed to be warning the country of an imminent attack! The bell rang out continuously in a loud, shriekish, ear-bleeding tone until the sun finally disappeared behind Italy. In response to the welcomed return to silence, I am sure I heard a collective sigh of relief rising from the Old Town below me.
Apparently, there is a tourist toy ‘train’ that meets some of the Rimini-San Marino buses at the Old Town bus station and will take passengers around Mount Titano passing the Montale Tunnel opening and electromotive along the way. I’m afraid I have no further information about this route, its timetable or ticket prices. To reach Montale Tunnel by foot, turn right on Piazzale lo Stradone away from the Old Town, follow it along to Viale Federico d’Urbino then around the roundabout onto Via del Voltone where the tunnel mouth can be seen after half a kilometre. These are all busy roads so take care walking along them.
The San Marino Cableway between San Marino Old Town and Borgo Maggiore departs every fifteen minutes daily from 7.50am until around 7pm depending on the time of year. Ticket prices can be found on the ‘Useful Information’ page on the official Visit San Marino website here.
More information on the San Marino-Rimini bus route can also be found on the Visit San Marino website here.
Trying to capture the perfect picture postcard shot of San Marino
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