I wrote most of this on the train going from Rimini to Venice as I traveled through the Italian countryside. It has sat on my laptop for half a year since my fittingly short stay in one of the world’s smallest countries, San Marino.
I love tiny countries so traveling to San Marino was a high priority during my time on the Italian Peninsula. San Marino is not just one of the smallest countries in the world weighing in at 60km2 (or 23.2mi2), but one of the oldest. It was founded 301 by Saint Marino who was persecuted by Roman and came to the mountain to live as a hermit. Since then it has almost continuously been a independent republic.
Like most countries its size, it makes a lot of money from tourism, postage stamps and coins. On my way out of San Marino I counted over 30 parked tour buses. If you walk around the central part of the country, which isn’t hard to do, it is mostly restaurants, snack bars and souvenir shops.
Despite its size, San Marino is a real honest to goodness country. It is a full member of the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries. As of 2007 they even have an ambassador to the United States, although I have no clue what he does all day. He could probably have dinner with every citizen of San Marino that visits the US and still having nothing to do. Most countries who have relations with San Marino have ambassadors who are also appointed to Italy. Outside of the Vatican and Italy, there are no embassies inside the territory of San Marino.
The big question I had running through my head during my entire time in San Marino was, “why does this country exist?”. There have been countless tiny republics, duchies, kingdoms, dukedoms, and principalities in Europe over the centuries. During the renaissance most of Northern Italy was a collection of independent republics (Venice, Milan, Florence, etc), yet other than San Marino none of them survived the unification of Italy in the 19th Century. I would have assumed that between the Renaissance Wars, the unification of Italy, Mussolini, Napoleon, and Hitler, little San Marino would have been absorbed by someone at some point. Yes it never happened.
How they remained independent through almost two thousand years of European history is a bit of luck, geography, and politics. Here is how they managed to make it to the 21st Century as the world’s smallest republic:
1) Geography. San Marino is built on a small mountain with very sheer cliffs. This made it a very easy to defend. It is land locked which means there is no important seaport and the land is not the best for agriculture. This made San Marino a very unattractive target for invasion. It would be difficult to conquer and there would be little benefit to doing so.
2) Politics. In its simplest definition, a republic is a country without a monarch. Almost all of Europe prior to the 19th century was divided up by various aristocrats. Because San Marino was a republic it never had to deal with wars of succession and much of the political intrigue in Europe during their history. Being a republic was a strength as it was for other republics in the Italian Peninsula such as Venice (however, Venice was too successful making them too ripe of a target during the various wars)
3) Luck. In the last two hundred years there have been several major events which would have threatened the independence San Marino had things not worked out for them.
- Napoleon had an important advisor which came from San Marino, which resulted in him sparing San Marino. In fact he offered to give San Marino more territory, but they smartly declined to avoid future bad feelings with Italians.
- They escaped the unification of Italy because Guisseppi Grimiladi and other Italians who worked towards the unification of Italy received sanctuary in San Marino. They agreed to not absorb San Marino into Italy in thanks for receiving sanctuary.
- In WWI they were initially allied with Austria, but under threat from Italy they send a token force to the front line including a medical unit.
- During WWII they were officially neutral, but they were bombed by the Allies when they thought that German forces were hiding in San Marino. The 60 people killed during the bombing were the only causalities during the war in San Marino.
To visit San Marino take the train to Rimini which can be reached from Bologna if you are coming from the north. You can catch a bus right outside the Rimini train station which will take you to San Marino. Buses leave every two hours or so. I showed up without a hotel reservation and had to check with three hotels before I finally found a room. You might want to make sure you book ahead if you want to stay within San Marino, or alternatively you can stay in Rimini and take a short day trip to San Marino. As with other EU countries, there is no passport control at the border so you probably will not get a San Marino passport stamp.
What makes San Marino an interesting places to visit is its uniqueness and history. There are no grand palaces or cathedrals, but its tenacity through the centuries has made it worthy of at least a short visit if you are in the region.