Trivia Quiz: Name two countries that have another two countries ensconced in their midst? Answers: South Africa (Lesotho and Eswatini/Swaziland) is obvious, zero points!; the other trickier one is Italy, with the Vatican City and – drum roll – San Marino! Other than being the whipping boys of European football competitions from time immemorial, I knew very little about San Marino. Not even where it was. ‘Europe’ was my best guess, but that’s kind of inherent in the European bit of the competition. Nary a team of Innuits has ever made an appearance.
There’s a lovely straight train line in Italy of about four-hundred kilometres running from Milan to the coast, skirting footballing goliaths and minnows such as Ancona, Ravenna, Bologna, Parma, Sassuolo, Piacenza and, of course, Inter Milan and AC Milan. It’s when roving along that map trying to find Modena that I stumbled upon San Marino. The history goes that in Roman times, stonemason Saint Marinus established an independent monastic community on the awesomely named Mount Titan circa 301 AD. Then . . . everyone seems to have quietly forgotten about it. San Marino was occupied by the son of the Pope once in the 16th century, until dad intervened and removed him like a chaste school bully. And one time, the nephew of another pope attempted to conquer the republic but incredibly got lost on the fog in the way there. How embarrassing!
Given tourist season was yet to kick off in a pretty-bloody-cold February, only half a dozen of us boarded a fifty-seater bus from Rimini on the Italian coast. Four of those got off before we even arrived at the lofty citadel. I parked myself in a fancy hotel with a less fancy view of a wall, and excitedly went straight to bed in preparation for my night’s working. Huzzahh! In between working nights talking to Australian comrades though, I pottered around the old citadel, which you can traverse in about an hour from end to end.
With barely any tourists, it was very easy to strike up conversations with those that had bothered to venture out. I met a few Britishers wandering around, basking in glorious and unexpected sunshine. When they holidayed in the area two years ago, they built igloos in the copious snow. Despite the lack of people, San Marino has its charm. There is an abundance of curiosities such as the torture museum and vampire/werewolf/weird things museum, all of which were open the one day of the week I wasn’t in town. No one I met seemed to know why these oddities existed. The only shops readily doing business were hawking guns thanks to San Marino’s very liberal laws on firearm ownership. However, the views from the citadel into where the peasants lay beyond is extremely pretty (beyond the peasants, obviously), with splendid light shows of orange and purple pastels during never-ending sunsets.
This tiny country also has some claims to fame: it is the oldest constitutional republic and oldest surviving sovereign state in the world. Astonishingly, in 1861 San Marino wrote to Abraham Lincoln congratulating him on his recent presidency, and made him an honorary citizen (another trivia question!). Also, it’s one of the wealthiest countries in the world in GDP per capita, which is even more miraculous considering most shops are shut. They must sell a truckload of guns, or ingest money by osmosis or something. As for their footballing prowess, little can be expected from a country of only 24 square miles and a population of roughly 30,000. As yet, they have never won a competitive game. According to this morale booster from Wikipedia ‘San Marino's national team is sometimes considered the worst national side in the history of the sport.’ Ouch! Come visit, you may make the team!
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