Travels in Italy, A Walk Around San Marino

San Marino View

The bus left more or less on time and drove inland away from Rimini and towards the three peaks of Mount Titano part of the Appenine Mountain Range and each with a fortress built on the very top.

We watched for the state border but with no passport controls we passed through and barely noticed and then the bus began to climb and the road weaved this way and that in extravagant hairpin bends and loops and the engine and the gearbox began to groan and complain.

It was quite a climb because at 1076 feet above sea level and about half way to the top of the mountain the city of San Marino is the sixth highest capital in Europe after Andorra la Vella (3356), Madrid (2188), Bern (1778), Sarajevo (1699) and Vaduz (1403); it is also the fifth highest city in the Italian peninsular.

As it happens I have been to Vaduz, in 2007 on a visit to Liechtenstein and it was probably one of the worst cities that I have been to in Europe, drab and featureless it is on my list of recommended places to avoid and I hoped that San Marino wouldn’t be a similar disappointment.

Eventually the bus wheezed to a halt in a coach park and immediately there were grand sweeping views across the mountains towards the plains and eventually the Adriatic Sea to the east.  It was breath-taking and wonderful.

San Marino Traffic Control

But we were at the bottom of the city and now there was a long walk to the very top, another fifteen hundred feet or so above us and this involved negotiating an awful lot of steps so we set off and entered the city and into a world of mazy streets and secret alleyways that all offered alternative routes to the top.

My immediate impression was that this was a very well maintained city, spotlessly clean with immaculate flower borders and neatly trimmed lawns, quite unlike anything that we had seen so far.  It was a Disney EPCOT World Showcase sort of place where the emphasis was firmly on entertaining the tourists.

It reminded me of Carcassonne, Rocamador and Mont St Michel in France where there is an obvious disconnection with the real world, passing into a place such as this is like temporarily leaving the real world and the route to the top took us past rows and rows of well-stocked tourist shops, restaurants and duty free boutiques.  Thankfully not like Vaduz at all.

San Marino Garibaldi

Inevitably we passed through Piazza Garibaldi and found the statue that I was looking for to add to my collection of photographs and I stopped for a while to reflect on it.  In almost every city and town in Italy there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate the Unification of Italy into one single State but here in San Marino there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate not being included in that unification.

After Garibaldi we passed through the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall of the city with the entrance protected by three members of the Fortress Guard Corps in their bottle green jackets and scarlet trousers and although I know very little about fashion I thought this to be a rather odd combination of colours and then the Basilica of the Saint designed and built, starting in 1826, by Antonio Serra, an architect from Bologna.

San Marino Army Guard

Despite these worthy distractions it didn’t take long to reach the top, well, we didn’t actually reach the top as we declined the visit to the battlements because there was an entrance fee involved so returned instead more or less the way that we had come and found a bar for a late lunch time drink.

We wondered if we should stay a while longer but that would only mean walking the same circuit again so at mid-afternoon we made our way back to the coach park and after another frantic tussle to board the bus returned directly to Rimini and walked back to our hotel along the sea-front which was continuing to be dismantled.

They seemed to be in a rush to complete the job but someone told us that a storm was forecast for the next day and they urgently needed to get things stored safely away.  We ignored the news about the storm and went to the same place for evening meal, we didn’t want to spoil our holiday.  Nine and a half miles walked today.

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Travels in Italy, The Independent Micro-State of San Marino

San Marino Tower

Thirty years ago or so I had an aspiration to visit all of the countries in Europe.  In 1990 this was not such an ambitious target as it is now because there were a lot less countries before the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Today there are fifty countries in all and as European boundaries keeps changing and new countries are being created I am sorry to say that the moving target has eluded me.

The last time that I visited a new country was in 2010 when I travelled to Montenegro in the Balkans.  In 2013 I nearly made it to Andorra but it was such a long and arduous drive through the Pyrenees that I gave up at just about the half way point and turned back to Catalonia.  Catalonia might be an independent country itself one day and I have been there already.

Now I am not nearly so ambitious and there are some countries that I realise that I really have no need to visit, Albania springs to mind, so I am sticking to the obvious places in Europe simply because there is so much that I haven’t yet seen of Spain or France or Germany or of course Italy.

Europe in 1990…

Cold War Europe

… and Europe Today…

Political Map of Europe

So now we were in Italy, the first European country that I ever visited, in the city of Rimini on the Adriatic Riviera and only twenty miles or so away from the independent country of San Marino and it seemed rude not to visit so one sunny morning we walked from our hotel to the bus station and purchased our tickets.

San Marino is the fifth smallest country in the World (it is .0008% the size of Australia) and the third smallest in Europe, with only Vatican City and Monaco being tinier. It is also World’s smallest Republic.  I have been to the Vatican City but not to Monaco.

Nearly fifty years ago at University I studied the ‘Unification of Italy’, it was my specialist subject, but I don’t remember it ever occurring to me to wonder why San Marino is an independent State (perhaps that’s why I didn’t get a First) and not simply a part of greater Italy because Italy is one hundred and sixteen thousand square miles of territory and San Marino is only twenty-three (.02%).  Visiting the country made me belatedly curious.

One explanation offered is that during the wars of Italian unification Giuseppi Garibaldi (he keeps cropping up) in 1849 was on the run from Austrian, French, Spanish and Neapolitan troops and sought refuge for himself and his small army in San Marino where he was given welcome and refuge.  In recognition of this support Garibaldi accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state and in 1862 a friendship treaty guaranteed its continuing independence.

Garibaldi Coin

In 1944 neutral San Marino again offered refuge to over one hundred thousand refugees and Italian Jews displaced by the Allied advance and fierce fighting in Northern Italy at the battle of Rimini.

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

This didn’t take very long. Being so small it doesn’t even get a mention in the Human Development Index or the World Happiness Index although I imagine that if it was included that it would do rather well in both on account of its affluence and wealth.

Being landlocked it obviously has no Blue Flag Beaches.

San Marino has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest nine times and its best performance was to finish twenty-fourth in 2014.

None of this may be very impressive you may think but for a small country (a very small country) it does have UNESCO World Heritage status which is awarded for the entire country. According to UNESCO, “San Marino and Mount Titano are an exceptional testimony of the establishment of a representative democracy based on civic autonomy and self-governance, with a unique, uninterrupted continuity as the capital of an independent republic since the 13th century. San Marino is an exceptional testimony to a living cultural tradition that has persisted over the last seven hundred years.”

San Marino used to have a Formula 1 Grand Prix but it is no point looking for the circuit because that was in Imola in Italy because this was a way that the Italians managed to get themselves two race meetings every year when other countries only had one.

San Marino Bus Queue

Because this was Italy there was of course no queue at the bus-stop, just a disorderly crowd of people that was steadily getting larger and more excitable as we waited.  Eventually it arrived and my worst fears were realised when any semblance of order was completely abandoned and the crowd surged forward like a river breaking its banks into a flood.

Kim is much better in these crowd tsunami situations than I am and she soon left me well behind as she elbowed her way forward through the people as though she was in a rugby scrum and she was on the bus a good five minutes before I was able to squeeze myself through the door and flop exhausted into the seat beside her.

Eventually the vehicle was full and fit to burst at the seams and it pulled away from the bus stop and I began a journey to my thirty-first European country – as things stand only another nineteen to go.

San Marino Landscape

Travels in Italy, A Walk Around Rimini

I was pleasantly surprised by Rimini, I was expecting a ghastly Mediterranean holiday resort but found history, charm, elegance and a busy fishing port.

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Travels in Italy, Bologna to Rimini

Rimini Postcard

I had bought with me to Italy high expectations of Bologna but I am sorry to say that on balance I was disappointed and was happy to leave.

After a final futile search for the lost credit card we made our final packing adjustments and closed the door on the apartment where we had lived for three days.  Odd that, that you can live in a place for three days or three years or three decades and then close the door and just leave.  All you leave behind are memories, or perhaps a misplaced credit card.

We walked to the railway station of course and found it curiously calm.  We purchased our tickets and with forty unexpected minutes to spare found a café in the sunshine for a coffee before returning to the station in good time for our train which rather unusually turned up just a few minutes late.

I didn’t look back as we left Bologna (the sixth most visited city in Italy) and just a few miles out of the city the scenery improved and happily became more picturesque.  To the south were the blue misty Apennine Mountains shrouded still in early morning fog and to the north the fertile plain of the Po Valley, in late September the rich colours of harvest and autumn, umber, terracotta and gold.  The train picked up speed and began to hum and predictably Kim fell asleep.

An hour so later we arrived in Rimini and stepped out of the railway station into streets bathed in a glorious golden glow of late morning sun, we ignored the line of taxis of course and set out to walk the mile or so to our hotel on the beach-front strip.

I have to say that didn’t have high expectations of the Hotel Diplomat Palace on account of how cheap it was at only €40 a night bed and breakfast but the lobby was well-appointed and the reception desk was efficient and welcoming and we were allocated our room on the fifth floor. What a result that turned out to be as we had a top floor room with an uninterrupted sea view looking out over the beach and we congratulated ourselves on our very good fortune.

The beach was a surprise I have to say. Rimini is a popular holiday resort and hundreds of thousands of people visit every year and when they do the beach looks like this…


But when they go home and the sun-beds and umbrellas have gone then it looks like this…

Rimini Beach

In late September the holiday visitor season was over, everything on the beach was being dismantled and stored safely away until the following year and the view from our balcony provided a panoramic scene of ten miles of sandy beach stretching in both directions to the north and the south.

With the accommodation approved we returned to the streets to take a walk along the promenade and to assess suitable dining options for later.  We actually walked further than we originally intended until we reached the swanky marina and could walk no further north so we turned inland and continued to walk to the city centre along the Porto Canale through the fishing port area of Rimini.  From here approximately one hundred boats operate daily and although it was well into the afternoon there was still some busy trading activity taking place.

Rimini Fishing Wife and daughter

Eventually the Porto Canale came to a dead-end so this is where we agreed that we should find a route back to the hotel but we had unexpectedly found ourselves in the trendy district of Borgo San Giuliano, originally a poor fishermen’s settlement but now a charming neighbourhood of small cobbled streets, trendy piazzas, and colourful street murals. This is now one of the most picturesque places in the city and one of Rimini’s most popular areas, with narrow streets and squares, colourful small houses and many frescoes representing characters and locations of Federico Fellini’s films.

The neighbourhood is closely linked to the famous Rimini filmmaker who despite being born and raised on the opposite side of the city is said had a special affection for the Borgo.  In 1994, the Festa del Borgo was officially dedicated to him and many of the most striking murals lining the walls of the buildings depict scenes and characters from his films.

Rimini Borgo Street 2.jpg

The district was once a lot bigger but it a lot of it was demolished during the frenzy of the Fascist redevelopment period of the 1930s and it suffered more damage in World-War-Two.  On account of that it didn’t take a great deal of time to walk around and soon we were plotting a route home with only an inadequate tourist map to assist us.

After several interpretations we eventually arrived back at the coast somewhere close to the Rimini Grand Hotel, an elegant building of shining white stucco and Art Nouveau decoration.  This wasn’t where we were staying of course but I checked later and although it looks like a hotel for the travelling elite it was surprisingly inexpensive. Fellini liked the Grand Hotel and he kept a suite there permanently reserved for himself.

We made our way back to the much more modest Diplomat Palace, sat on the balcony for a while and then went to the beach and had a swim in the sea and collected some driftwood to take back home to reboot the boat building hobby.

Later we dined at a simple restaurant and declared ourselves satisfied that we had changed our plans and arrived a day early.  We liked Rimini.  We had walked seven miles today.

Rimini Grand Hotel.jpg



Travels in Italy, A Change of Plan and a Lost Credit Card

Bologna Towers Mural

Back in Bologna after the morning in Ferrara we continued our walking tour.

I had read in a guide book that a visitor should allow three to four days to fully appreciate the city (the seventh largest in Italy) but we were rapidly coming to the view that only in our second day we were running out of things to see and do.  We are like that, we do things in a rush, I call it speed sightseeing!

We walked first at what might be described as the new town which was sadly featureless and drab.  Bologna suffered a lot of damage from Allied bombing raids in World-War-Two and hasty ill-considered post-war reconstruction resulted in a whole district of utilitarian concrete buildings.  As the new town expanded Bologna built over most of its  canal network and the water and the history inevitably drained away below the tarmac of the streets and pavements.

We weren’t disappointed to leave this part of the City and made our way back to the historical centre where we made time to have a very late lunch in the market hall where we rested with a beer and some simple artisan food.  All markets seem to have a food hall these days with plenty of good things on offer. The market is always a place to go for good food.

Bologna Statue

We wanted to put the new town far behind us and, let’s be honest forget about it so leaving the market we headed in the opposite direction towards the Cathedral.  We visited it of course but all this did was to confirm Kim’s theory that they are all pretty much the same and I have to say that I can remember little about the visit.

Close to the Cathedral was the Basilica of San Domenico which is best known for a sarcophagus containing the remains of Saint Dominic who was the founder of the Dominican Order of Monks sometime in the thirteenth century.  To prove it there is a x-ray sort of photograph of the interior of the stone coffin which clearly shows a collection of human bones.  Maybe they are Dominic’s.

I like Saint stories but only the hard to believe far-fetched one and I am sorry to report that my research has thrown up nothing much of interest about Saint Dominic in this regard.  In contrast to the Cathedral this church was quite interesting but it was near to closing time and before we had really finished an official came along and told us that we would have to leave.  I was surprised that a church would close for lunch.

St Dominics Basilica

We were in a much more interesting part of the city now with grand boulevards, Renaissance Palaces, all Government Department buildings now and more history around every corner, we liked this side of the city a whole lot better.

On the way back we stopped at a bakery to buy some cake, then at a bar close to our accommodation for a beer and finally to a mini-market for a bottle of cheap wine, this isn’t especially interesting information but I mention it here to provide an audit trail for what was to happen later.

As we drank the wine we reflected on our stay in Bologna, we liked it but the plain truth was that we had seen everything that we wanted to see and were ready to move on.  We were tired of walking and weary of cities, we didn’t like the endless graffiti and we felt a need to get to the coast so we checked with our next hotel in Rimini, they could fit us in for an extra night so we made the decision to move on a day earlier than originally intended.

Bologna Neptune

Even though we were wasting money by leaving Bologna with one night bought and paid for we were pleased with that decision and after we had packed our bags we set off for one last meal in the city.

We went to the same restaurant as the previous three nights.  We always do that, our logic is that once we find somewhere we like why risk going anywhere else and there is enough choice on the menu anyway not to have to repeat a dish.  A friend told me that it is a well known fact that surprisingly you cannot get spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna and maybe that is specifically true but tonight I enjoyed a pasta dish (not spaghetti, I concede) with a Bolognese sauce.

We liked our meal and looked forward to moving on and then I came to pay and discovered my credit card was missing.  Kim said not to worry I must have left it in the room so I paid by cash and so relatively unconcerned we strolled back to the bed and breakfast place.

It wasn’t in the room.  It wasn’t in the room and I know that for certain that it wasn’t in the room because I searched everywhere for it several times over. It wasn’t in the room.  If something is true there is no point wishing it isn’t and eventually I had to concede that it wasn’t in the room, there are only so many times that you can look in the same place and get the same result so I went to the streets and went over the audit trail.  It was in none of these places so I was forced to ring the credit card help-line and report it lost.  Luckily it hadn’t been stolen and used but now I had no credit card for the final few days of the travels.

We walked almost eleven miles today but a lot of that was pacing around the room looking for my credit card!

In the night I had a dream that I had found it inside my pillow case so I put on the lights and searched for it.  It wasn’t there.  Kim wasn’t amused.

Bologna Neptune Statue

Travels in Italy, Windows in Bologna

Window 02

The colours of windows in Bologna are yellow and orange, like the dying embers of a fire, and sage green, like sun-baked fields of Summer, the plaster is dry-cracked and weather-damaged and the flower-pots are faded terracotta and thirsty…

Bologna windowWindow 03Window 04Window 01

Travels in Italy, Bologna to Ferrara

Ferrara Palace

Our original travel plans included several train journeys from Bologna to the nearby cities of Parma, Modena and Ferrara but after eight days we were tiring of railway stations and the pushing and the shoving and the shoving and the pushing and the graffiti scarred trains so we hastily changed our plans.

So far Northern Italy had been something of a disappointment and it occurred to us also at this time that Parma, Modena and Ferrara might all be rather similar, the same even as Bologna in fact (they are all very close by) so we agreed that we would visit only one and we chose Ferrara because at only thirty miles to the north it was the nearest.

As it turned out the railway station was surprisingly quiet today and train travel was quite straightforward and the journey to nearby Ferrara took just about fifty minutes.  I didn’t however like the gipsy beggars who kept getting on and off and leaving slips of paper explaining how poor they were, how many children they had and how they had no money.  I ignored them of course and held on tightly to my wallet.

Stepping out of the railway station into this UNESCO World Heritage city it immediately felt different, the air was fresher, the grass looked greener, there wasn’t a tourist bus in sight and most importantly there were no beggars and no graffiti.  It was all rather a nice surprise.  We walked to the centre and then found a pavement table in the sunshine and simply sat and enjoyed it.  It was all delightfully tranquil, not like Bologna at all.

Ferrara Palace and Moat

Historically Ferrara was the domain of the powerful Este family, in power and prestige rivals to the Medici of Florence who endowed the city with its signature building – a huge castle complete with moat positioned right in the city centre and we sat beneath its towering red brick walls, finished our drinks and set off to walk the streets.

The Este’s managed the city through the transition from medieval to renaissance and planned and built a city that seamlessly passes from one age to another and back again and we soon found ourselves in a perfectly preserved historical city that has probably remained effortlessly unchanged for hundreds of years.

It was most noticeable that the streets were quiet, almost deserted.  Ferrara is less than a hundred miles away from Venice you see and everyone who visits this part of Italy goes to La Serenissima, a sort of sponge which drains the tourists away from places like this.  Ferrara welcomes less than a quarter of a million visitors each year, Venice is a tourist sweatshop that endures thirty million, almost double the resident population.

I like Venice, who doesn’t like Venice? everyone likes Venice, but I don’t like staying there, it is just too busy and expensive.  I blame the cruise ships most of all, I hate the cruise ships and the swarm of visitors that they deliver.  The last time I visited Venice I stayed in nearby Padova which was a really good way of seeing Venice without staying there.

Ferrara Cathedral

In Ferrara we walked first to the main square and the Cathedral, a formidable Romanesque building with a dazzling façade of shining pink and white marble which provides a stunning contrast to most of the city that is largely built of terracotta brick.  We headed towards the entrance but it was closed today on account of interior construction work.  It seems the Cathedral was damaged in an earthquake in 2012 and the repair work is ongoing.  I sighed, looked at Kim and watched the blush of disappointment spread slowly across her face.

Ferrara Street

So we turned our backs on the Cathedral and wandered off into the network of streets and alleys that leaked away from the main square into a medieval labyrinth of shadows and secrets, shafts of sunlight spearing through the occasional gaps in the buildings, a criss-cross of tiny jumbled streets, packed with churches, cloisters, old palaces and houses.  Eventually we came to the city walls which remain complete and encircle the old centre.  We walked for a while next to the red bricks until we were in the Renaissance part of the city where all is space and dignity with parks, palazzi and grand houses.

It was a gentle walk but Ferrara is only quite small so soon we were back at the castle so with things still to do in Bologna we made our way back to the railway station.

If I had been disappointed with Milan and Bologna in Ferrara I was beginning to fall in love with Italy again.  On the train back to Bologna I reflected on a good day and wondered now if we had been a bit hasty in our decision not to visit Parma and Modena.  Kim fell asleep, she always falls asleep on a train journey.

Half way back it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a statue of Garibaldi.

We had seen Girolamo Savonarola who was born in Ferrara in 1452 and was the famous medieval Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. He was known for his book burning, destruction of what he considered immoral art, and hostility to the Renaissance.  Even Christians have fundamentalists!

Ferrara was certainly different!

Ferrara Savanarola