No matter who you are, you likely have not been to—or ever heard of—the small yet U.N.-recognized nation of San Marino. If you have, odds are you could not place it on a map. Of the handful of European micro-states, this mountain enclave east of Tuscany is perhaps one of the least known and least influential. Furthermore, San Marino is so off the beaten path that public transport does not even reach it.
No trains or city buses operate from Rome or Bologna to the nation’s capital, also called San Marino, and so my only option is to buy a 5-Euro ticket with Rimini-based company, Bonelli Bus, which makes the 45-minute trek several times a day into the mountain micro-state. When I board, the bus is nearly empty and when I reach the capital at 7:40 only a few more people have boarded en route. I enter a small restaurant next to the bus station, and buy a lemon soda and a piadina, in effect little more than an Italian quesadilla, for breakfast as the fog obscures the valley below.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the country, and to a much greater extent the capital, is a mountaintop kingdom sealed off geographically from the rest of Europe, and for that matter the rest of the world. One gets the feeling of being somewhere remote, climbing through the clouds to San Marino, without actually being very far from some of Earth’s busiest cities. For this reason, San Marino has maintained its independence for hundreds of years as few nations have thought it worth conquering. On a cloudy day, it seems entirely plausible that they evaded capture simply because no one knew that the Sammarinese were even here. In this way, a stroll around the city of San Marino feels either like heaven, some extraterrestrial land, or else, like some kingdom that rests above the clouds, only accessible via a magic beanstalk.
To travel here in the morning is especially surreal. Before the dozens of souvenir shops with signs in Russian, Italian, and English open for the day, I feel as though I have the whole country to myself. It is only when the fog burns off that tourists start driving in from the Italian border to snap photos of themselves, in the land likely missing from many an Italian tour book, in front of a mountaintop castle that could be anywhere in central Europe. My piadina breakfast is deliciously simple, and when I am done I take a public elevator up the mountain switchbacks and walk through the abandoned streets until one of the towers of San Marino, depicted on the nation’s flag, opens for business. I elect to visit the oldest tower (from the 11th century), because it is supposed to give me the best view of the city’s other two, each built on separate peaks of Mount Titano. It runs me 5 Euros to climb up, but is more than worth it to see the peak of the kingdom practically perched atop an umbrella above the clouds.
Though completely exhausted by my 5-country no-bed challenge, I am afraid to leave San Marino too quickly. I have fulfilled my requirements: eaten the local food (piadina), stepped out of the bus station (and climbed a mountain), and taken in a cultural display (the tower museum). I wish to see what the other two towers look like up close, so I choose to walk the path connecting all three on my way to lunch. Between the first and third, I see many other tourists walking along the stone path. These are the suckers who paid for the 7.5 Euro combo ticket, thinking they would get any extra satisfaction from the second, much newer, tower. I do not buy a ticket, and merely want to lose myself in the micro-state. Past the second tower, a stone path, lampost, and overgrown greenery commandeer the landscape and I step through a wardrobe outside Rapunzel’s tower into Narnia. Before long, I lose all my New England Eagle Scout sensibilities and begin to think everything is poison ivy, snakes, and thorns, certain that everything in this wet humid mountaintop will kill me. Oh how far I have fallen from that brave boy who spent his eighteenth birthday alone in the Green Mountain wilderness. College has made me soft.
Ironically, the third tower is guarded by the least menacing possible stand-in for Alsan the lion: a thin tabby cat with a yellowish belly who quickly rolls over onto her back when she sees me coming to say hello. She has a nametag with “Joli” engraved on it, and quickly gets bored with me, slinking off into the bushes. I emerge from the forest to find the nation’s local TV and radio station, which happens to share a building with the national congress. It is not busy so I assume congress is not in session. For all I know, the station might not be on air. I can imagine how challenging it would be to operate a 24/7 TV and radio station for so few people. Who is there to tune in?
A popular local restaurant offers a 50-cent discount on pizza if you order take-away, and I am happy to sit in a park and scarf down a couple slices while sweaty tourists climb the steep switchbacks that lead to the top of the mountain at midday. I resolve to only go downhill from here. Tossing my pizza paper into a trash can, I find several shortcuts—small residential alleys and staircases leading directly down the hill—which leads me back to the bus station where dozens of Russian tourists are rushing to get pictures of the farmland below, babbling about how glad they are that they took a tour and did not drive here themselves. There are few public parking lots because there is little even land. I board my bus, likely cheaper than the SlavExpress, and head back to Rimini satisfied that I have seen all there is to see in San Marino.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.