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San Marino, a Country on a Cliff
The world's smallest and oldest republic, as San Marino dubs itself, is surrounded entirely by Italy. It consists of three ancient castles perched on sheer cliffs rising implausibly out of the flatlands of Romagna, and a tangled knot of cobblestone streets below, lined with tourist boutiques, cheesy hotels and restaurants, and gun shops. The 1½-hour drive from Faenza is easily justified, however, by the sweeping views from the castle of the countryside far below. The 3,300-foot-plus precipices will make jaws drop and acrophobes quiver.
San Marino was founded in the 4th century AD by a stonecutter named Marino who settled with a small community of Christians, escaping persecution by pagan emperor Diocletian. Over the millennia, largely because of the logistical nightmares associated with attacking a fortified rock, San Marino was more or less left alone by Italy's various conquerors, and continues to this day to be an independent country (population 26,000), supported almost entirely by its 3-million-visitors-per-year tourist industry.
tre castelli. San Marino's headline attractions are its tre castelli—medieval architectural wonders that appear on every coat of arms in the city. Starting in the center of town, walk a few hundred yards past the trinket shops, along a paved cliff-top ridge, from the 10th-century Rocca della Guaita to the 13th-century Rocca della Cesta (containing a museum of ancient weapons that's worthwhile mostly for the views from its terraces and turrets), and finally to the 14th-century Rocca Montale (closed to the public), the most remote of the castles.
Every step of the way affords spectacular views of Romagna and the Adriatic—it's said that on a clear day you can see Croatia. The walk makes for a good day's exercise but is by no means arduous. Even if you arrive after visiting hours, it's supremely rewarding. 0549/882670. www.museidistato.sm. Il Torre Guaita and il Torre Cesta €4.50. Mid-Sept.-mid-June, daily 9-5, mid-June-mid-Sept., daily 8-8.
Piazza della Libertà. A must-see is the Piazza della Libertà, where the Palazzo Pubblico is guarded by soldiers in green uniforms. As you'll notice by peering into the shops along the old town's winding streets, the republic is famous for crossbows and other items (think fireworks or firearms) that are illegal almost everywhere else.
Visiting San Marino in winter—off-season—increases the appeal of the experience, as tourist establishments shut down and you more or less have the castles to yourself. In August every inch of walkway on the rock is mobbed with sightseers.
To get to San Marino by car, take highway SS72 west from Rimini. From Borgo Maggiore, at the base of the rock, a cable car will whisk you up to the town. Alternatively, you can drive up the winding road; public parking is available in the town.
Don't worry about changing money, showing passports, and the like (although the tourist office at Contrada del Collegio will stamp your passport for €2.50); San Marino is, for all practical purposes, Italy—except, that is, for its majestic perch, its gun laws, and its reported 99% national voter turnout rate.
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