San Marino is a small Italian speaking town on top of a noticeably stark hill called Monte Titano, within sight of the Adriatic Sea.
This is however what claims to be the smallest and oldest continuous democracy in the world, a hundred and twenty square kilometers of freedom in the midst of Italian oppression. I exaggerate but in the past when the Republic was surrounded by the Papal States San Marino was a haven of freedom for rebels and the oppressed trying to flee. Garibaldi took refuge here after the fall of the brief Roman Republic in 1849, eventually escaping to the coast and getting a boat.
San Marino's historic lack of access to the sea may be what saved it from being overrun and absorbed by one of it's larger neighbors during it's tumultuous history since 301 AD when as legend has it the village was founded by Saint Marinus. Nowadays it's a member of the micro states club of Europe and recognized by the United Nations but it is not part of the European Union though it uses the Euro and it's citizens speak Italian.
The license plates on it's cars do not conform to European standards,
And one can drive in and out of the Republic without stopping to show documents as there is a customs union with Italy. The main approach road from Rimini the largest nearby city on the coast, is an ugly four lane. This may be a land of freedom but it's not a land of beauty.
Even though San Marino hails itself as the ancient bastion of liberty this is not where Tea Party adherents or Ayn Rand nutters want to hold their get togethers as San Marino is very much a paternal government-run democracy and where social democracy rules. With 30,000 citizens it has a history of providing government run jobs in all sectors of the economy. Indeed 6,000 citizens work r the government here, a huge proportion of the total citizenry in a country you can cross by car in twenty minutes.
The entrance to the world's smallest republic is a simple sign over the road (rather ugly really!) which reads: Welcome to the ancient land of freedom.
And the ugly four lane highway continues up the hill in a series of turns and roundabouts through modern ugly buildings...
...looking like nothing quite so much as a shabby industrial suburb. Nothing ancient or historic here!
The state police are called Gendarmes and they do traffic stops and carry machine guns like police anywhere. Municipal cops wear fetching green shirts and maroon pants.
This guy we met four years ago operating a gift shop at the base of the funicular that provides a quick ride to the old town at the top of the Monte Titano. We chatted some more about the crisis and the government debt in San Marino. He said the Americans put a spoke in the San Marino economy when they asked the G8 governments which include Italy to crack down on offshore banking. That has cut income for San Marino a haven for Italian tax evasion.
Compared to forty years ago when San Marino's economy was pathetic things are relatively good now, he said but weakening.
The new town spread out at the base of the mountain, a modern little town like any in Italy as seen from the funicular car- and all too rapid five minute ride up the rock face.
At the top of the ride lies the shopping pedestrian zone. Air guns for sale, slightly cheaper tobacco and fake perfumes and tax free alcohol. Not exactly edifying. "San Marino?" Giovanni's wife said when we got home. "it's too fake for me. Why go there?" Well, if you don't need a frighteningly realistic air gun or cheap cigs, I suppose the only other thing to do is go climb a tower.
There are area museums here and the only one we visited was the ail, a small room in the tower where it was noted that over the centuries the Republic executed eight criminals before abolishing the death penalty permanently in March 1848 when revolution was sweeping the continent. The three towers that guarded the fields of San Marino were staffed every night by volunteers who went back to their fields during the day. As the story goes the peasants did their duty cheerfully as they were not working to the orders of any overbearing nobleman. It sounds rather appealing doesn't it?
The towers did not look quite so pretty back then, they were all touched up and made pretty in the 1950's which was a good thing as the towers are the symbol of San Marino.
Walking the tower was rather like finding oneself suddenly transported into Narnia or perhaps Harry Potter land. Towers and battlements and courtyards, oh my!
A government job and freedom too? Count me in!
I would be happy to pour boiling oil on the heads of Goldman Sachs executives storming the ramparts.
However I would like a well tested harness before getting to enthusiastic.
I did in the end manage to climb the tower and survive. In Part Two.
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