SOME parts of Europe are doing considerably better than others, and these are the small countries.
In an increasingly global society we forget that there are autonomous places like Andorra, Monaco and Luxembourg who are proudly, confidently, quietly and very successfully going about being wealthy and respecting their own unique traditions. Another is San Marino.
The total area of this country is 61 square kilometres (24sq miles), and it is surrounded by Italy. The nearest airport is Rimini, on the Adriatic, 27 kms (17 miles) away, and frequent buses connect the airport and the railway station to San Marino. The countryside is flat and uninspiring, mountains appear on the horizon and part of the mountain range is San Marino. There are no border formalities, only modest Euro standard road signs with San Marino on one side and Italy on the other. It is rather an anti-climax.
The population of around 31,600 people live in a country that has no natural, flat areas. It is mostly one huge mountain area. The country's symbol, also seen on the blue and white flag, is of three castles which dominate from Mount Titano. La Guaite, La Cesta and Il Montale are perched on the edge of precipitous peaks, the highest at 749 metres above sea level (2,457 feet).
San Marino is the oldest republic in the world, founded on September 3, 301AD, by Saint Marin. Incredibly, it has managed to hang on to its independence, despite Garibaldi's unification of Italy, Napoleon, Mussolini or Hitler. There are elections every five years but San Marino manages without a Prime Minister. Instead, two Captain Regents are elected every six months, on April 1 and October 1, to run affairs. San Marino has the Euro as its currency but is not a member of the EU. It mints its own Euro coins, much prized by collectors, as are their postage stamps, and is the smallest member of the Council of Ministers and the UN.
The inhabitants, who call themselves Sammarinese, have an extremely high standard of living and probably the longest life expectancy in Europe, with main industries being wine, cheese, banking, stamps and coins. Amazingly, it has no debt and runs a budget surplus every year. The food is excellent, and any country that has a chocolate layered cake as its most well-known delicacy can't be bad.
San Marino has always been a country of principles. For example, it made Abraham Lincoln an honorary citizen for his stand against slavery and during the Second World War no fewer than 100,000 refugees were given shelter here, more than 10 times the resident population of around 10,000 people at that time. Another claim to fame is that between 1945 and 1957 it had the world's only democratically elected Communist government.
San Marino seems to have a surprising amount of armed forces, including the Guardia di Rocca, who ceremonially changes the guard at half-past every hour from 08.30 to 18.30 between April and September. Then there is the Crossbow Corps, the Army Militia, the Military Ensemble, and the Gendarmerie and the Police. These forces have colourful uniforms and their functions range from the purely ceremonial or symbolic through to highly efficient crime fighters.
As there is no room for an airport, and not even a lake, San Marino has no air force or navy but has an agreement that Italy would come to its defence against any foreign aggressor.
On arrival, my bus climbed ever upwards and finally arrived in the central bus park, which was just a piece of roadway really. From here it is a zig-zag walk up through the town and onto the battlements. The castles are connected by walks, and there are many stone stairs, so it is not wheelchair accessible.
Tourism is one of the top income earners, and the low taxes make goods very attractive. Walking through the old town it was surprising to find a shop that sold guns, including sub machine guns, as well as swords, knives and cross bows. Apparently there are no restrictions on gun sales, and they are sold to anyone. This looks very odd to us Scots, and the incongruity was enhanced by adjacent shops that sold fridge magnets, postcards and other tourist trinkets.
The shops were all small and local, no sign of a supermarket at all, although there may have been some on the outskirts somewhere. The tourist office will stamp your passport with a special visitor visa stamp at a cost of 5 Euros, so that was given a miss. Public toilets are everywhere, although they are not in good repair and rather smelly. The toilets in museums are immaculate, though.
In 2008 UNESCO designated San Marino city and the neighbouring Borgo Maggiore (they are connected by a cable car) as World Heritage Sites, which clearly indicates how special they are.
Many festivals are held throughout the year, on saints and religious days, and there are lots of other events that will appeal to the tourist. The wonderfully austere castles, ancient walls and fortifications, and elaborate old churches, make it a fascinating place to visit and explore. On the surface, you think that you are just in a part of Italy, but dig a little and the true character can be found.
A small country it may be, but it will take you far more than a day to see it all. There is good information available at www.visitsanmarino.com