Monday, May 14, 2007

San Marino - a timeless fairyland

As the crow flies, San Marino is a little over 80 miles from Assisi but our navigation aids would not come up with a route shorter than about 140 miles for the journey. Thus we plotted our own route that came in at about 85 miles.
Six and a half adrenalin pumping, white knuckle hours later, we fully understood how the longer route would have been a case of discretion being the better part of valor. A fairly active earthquake fault runs through Italy in this area - Assisi was badly damaged in 1999 closing St Frances Basilica for a couple of years of repairs - and it's almost as if the authorities have given up on some of the minor roads. When we encountered a road sign that simply said !Franas!, we checked it out in the dictionary in case it was something important. Turned out it just meant Landslide, so we pressed on. Well, with 25% grades, many shifts down into first gear, questionable bridges, missing sections of road and the usual ration of ridiculous hairpins it was, to say the least, an unforgettable journey. One blessing, dubious though it now appears on afterthought, was not having to pass other vehicles on the eight foot wide roads since we never saw any other vehicles for many miles of the trip. Suffice it to say, we finally reached our goal and made mental notes never to repeat this particular part of the trip! Even at that, the countryside was just outstanding.
Not only is San Marino the smallest Republic in Europe, it is possibly the oldest one in the world, having been established around 301 CE and successfully avoided rape, pillage and other forms of usurpation ever since. Built on the craggy rock of mount Titano it sits a couple of thousand feet or so above sea level. It has its own police force, pretty tidy looking in their yellow shirts, a Palace Guard in stunning green and red uniforms and a miscellany of Militia, Gendarmerie and Guardia, each in spectacularly creative uniforms. With a population of around 30,000 (about the same as the Principality of Monaco) it covers an area of 23 square miles (less than 5 miles square), has a GDP just under a billion dollars (USA is 13,000 billion) and relies massively on tourism. In fact, the whole place is reminiscent of a medieval Disney attraction made of stone, built as it is, on a precipitous rock formation in the middle of nowhere with three film-set looking castles perched on the cliff top. It even has rides that challenge Disney's best in the form of buses that scale the switchback roads to the city gates at breakneck speeds, providing heart-stopping glimpses of one thousand foot falls through the panoramic windows. Beyond administrative offices, three castles, some churches and colleges, there is little else within the city walls that is not intensely focused on exchanging irrelevant knick-knacks for tourists Euros. Yes, San Marino, although not part of the EU, has been allowed to use the Euro and has also been a member of the United Nations since sometime in the nineties. With no airport, no seaport, no railways except a 1 mile cable-car up to the tourist trap it is clearly a thriving example of "Build it and they will come!"

The first "attraction" through the gate is
the somewhat sobering Museum of Torture

The first castleThe second castle - could have been built in HollywoodSecond castle from a different angleThe view from castle #2 included Rimini and
the Adriatic Sea about 15 miles to the east
The third castle never grew to more than a single towerEven the artwork had a distinctly used air about it
Basilica del Santo - Basilica of the Saints - is regarded as
a major historical blunder. It was built in the early
nineteenth century on a site cleared by demolishing
a 5th century church - one of the oldest in Europe

The office of the Secretary of State
A tourist trap street with generally
ungracious proprietors

No comments: