Friday, July 17, 2015

One Day in San Marino

Tucked quietly away in eastern Italy - about 10 miles from the Adriatic coast - is the tiny little country of San Marino. At a mere 24 square miles (about a quarter of the size of Salt Lake City), it's the fifth smallest country in the world.

The Sammarinese speak Italian and use the Italian currency (the Euro, nowadays.) In spite of their tiny size and proximity to a much larger and more powerful country, they've been an independent country for somewhere between several centuries and nearly two millennia (depending on who you ask.) They have a proud history of independence, industriousness, and torture.

Fortunately, it turns out that it's not just a country for Europe completionists - it's small, but it's a beautiful and historical place worthy of a visit for anyone visiting the region.

I made the Italian coastal city of Rimini (which, tangentially, happens to be the birthplace of one of my favorite filmmakers, Federico Fellini) my base camp for the journey into San Marino.

(Also tangentially: It was on the bus in Rimini where I encountered the nice but logorrheic Italian who talked to me nonstop - in Italian - about Italian-American films and filmmakers for a full 25 minutes. "Sapete Francis Ford Coppola è italiano? Egli è il Dio della pellicola! Il Padrino, La conversazione, Apocalypse Now! Molto bello! Bellissimo! Martin Scorsese! Robert de Niro! Bellissimo! Bellissimo! Mi piace sottaceti e cannoli! Vuoi essere mio amico? Devo pesci nuotano, volano gli uccelli devo, devo l'amore di un uomo fino alla morte." Note: I don't speak Italian.)


Since Rimini is the most popular stopover for those hoping to visit San Marino, there's a cheap bus service from the city center that offers several trips a day into the country. So I hopped on the bus, and we drove away from the coastline - and up into the beautiful Apennine Mountains. Forty-five minutes later we were in the city - and country - of San Marino.

The first thing you notice about San Marino: It's in a gorgeous setting. The capital city (and the only real city in the country) is located on the slopes of Mount Titano which rises steeply above the surrounding countryside and provides lovely views in every direction.

It also makes walking the streets a pain, since they're pretty much all on a slope - but that's the price you pay for beauty I suppose.

My first destination was the three ancient defensive towers that stand over the city. It's a bit of a hike up through the city, but the views from the tops of the fortresses were spectacular. The three towers are connected by a scenic path that runs along the top of the mountain.

After exploring the towers (only two of the three are actually open to the public), I went back into the city to visit some of the other historic sites.

For such a small country, San Marino has a pretty extensive heritage. I unfortunately wasn't there during the right time of year to witness the changing of the guard, but I was able to go inside the Public Palace and see the senate chambers and - oddly enough - a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

From there, it was on to the very modern and clean State Museum, which held a wide variety of important historical artifacts ranging from prehistory to the modern day.

And then there was the Torture Museum. I don't know why I went in there. Apparently San Marino, like most of the medieval world, liked to employ torture against its prisoners. They found inventive - and sadistic, and evil - ways of punishing/extracting information.

On a more pleasant - if bizarre - note, there was an art exhibit going on throughout the city, which included these, uh... Things...

Even with the unpleasantly steep streets, it was nice to just wander around while I waited for my bus. The architecture in the city is lovely. A particularly pleasant moment was walking by a school of music and hearing some piano music floating through the open windows. It was one of those small but memorable moments that can't be captured on camera - or in writing.

...As the sun began to set over the Apennines it was time to head back to my hotel in Rimini.

Adventures in the Vatican (or: Social Anxiety Ruins My Day)

Big cities... Ugh.

I left my (very nice) hostel at about 8:45 to head for the Vatican. Unfortunately, the metro was hellishly busy, and during the 25 or so minute ride I felt something akin to what sardines must feel when they're packed into cans. Except those sardines tend to be dead, which gives them one advantage.

And because I had humans pressed up on all sides of me (and one particularly annoying lady repeatedly trying to push me further back into the train), I was naturally worried about pickpockets and (like Alanis) I felt compelled to keep one hand in my pocket (with my wallet) and the other on my bag.

It was stressful.

...But the ride finally came to an end, and I made my way (along with seemingly 3/4 of the people on my train) along the pleasant old strada to the Vatican, where I looked forward to a few frolicsome hours of leisurely making my way through the various museums and chapels that make up this ancient and sacred city-country.



(pauses for breath)



As I approached the dome of St. Peter's, I began to notice the crowds.

Big crowds. Lots and lots of people. All waiting in lines.

I walked by them, hoping that they were maybe trying for an audience with the pope or maybe a Krispy Kreme had just opened up in the area or... Something.

Then I reached St. Peter's Square, and I saw the line - indisputably heading towards the ticket office and entrance - that stretched across the entire (very large) square and beyond. And beyond. And beyond...

Thoughts of running away filled my head. I mean, St. Peter's Square is officially part of the Vatican, so I could say I'd been in the country. That's what matters, right?

But then I thought about the 10,000 touts I had passed on my way, each offering "Skip the Line VIP tours." Suddenly I understood the appeal of what they were selling. I went and sought one out (haha, just kidding - all I had to do was turn around and one was on top of me asking me if I wanted a tour.) After he went through his spiel (I didn't understand a word of it) he guided me towards the tour agency office. I was a bit worried I was being had - these kinds of street tours don't exactly have the best reputation - but I figured it was a choice between that and skipping the Vatican altogether.

I ended up paying quite a bit more than I had hoped for, but I got my tour ticket and was able to skip the lines (though I did still have to wait through an interminable history lecture while we waited for our entry time.)

My tour guide had an adorable accent, and I only understood about half of what he said - but it didn't really matter, because I was getting into the Vatican!

And then we got into the Vatican, and the crowds didn't end. Oh no.

The crowds didn't end.

The whole damn place was jam packed - every inch of every area open to the public was packed with people. There was no point - except the very end - in which I wasn't trapped in the middle of an enormous crowd. I spent two hours squeezing past people, trying to catch fleeting glimpses of whatever work of art we were supposed to be looking at, and frantically trying to figure out where my guide had disappeared to among this seething mass of human bodies.
There he is! Right in front of the piece of modern art...
There he is! Right in front of the piece of modern art.

Crowds make me anxious, so within about 30 minutes I was about ready to head for the nearest exit. It didn't make it any better that occasionally I'd catch a glimpse through a window into the Vatican gardens and see that there actually are areas of the city - inaccessible to us commoners, of course - that aren't filled with people.

But I stuck it through, and I did get to see some pretty cool stuff. The various museums are positively overflowing with works of art, ranging from the Greco-Roman period to the Renaissance and on to the present day. Some of my favorites were the enormous tapestries from the 15th and 16th centuries that covered entire walls, and the wonderfully detailed sculptures (with their nethers hilariously chopped off many centuries ago by a particularly pious pope.) The Sistine Chapel was nice, I guess (and, yes, completely filled with people. I couldn't turn around without running into someone.)

My favorite part, though, was St. Peter's Basilica. It came right at the end of the tour, and the place is so enormous that even these crowds couldn't fill it. It's beautiful inside, and it felt considerably more like a church - and more, well, spiritual - than any other place I had been on the tour. I hung out there for a while, enjoying the beauty and feeling of the place.

And on my way back to my hostel I ran into a restaurant, directly outside the Vatican Walls, called "Habemus Pizza." Which is delightful.

All in all, the Vatican was worth it. But I don't think I'm ever going back. I hope so, at least.

I really hope so.


I also stopped at the Castelo San Angelo right beside the Tiber. It was nice, but I think I've already reached my saturation point with these ancient stone fortresses. I prefer the fine art of the museums and churches.

And, in my futile attempts to find a metro station, I also wandered through one of those charming narrow, authentically European streets filled with boutique fashion shops and gelato parlors. I may have indulged in the gelato. Twice.

I did NOT get to the Colosseum. In fact, I didn't even see it. Which is kind of funny, since my hostel was about a ten minute walk from the site. But oh well - I'm pretty sure I'll get back to Rome someday.
But not the Vatican.


I wrote this post while riding on a train heading east out of Rome and across the peninsula to Rimini and San Marino. I rode through some beautiful green and hilly countryside, and the train (or at least my car) was less than a quarter full. It was quiet. It was calm. In other words, it was the perfect antidote to my 24 hours in Rome.