San Marino is not on many travelers' Italian bucket lists, which is a shame, yet logical. The venerable little mountaintop country - officially called the Most Serene Republic of San Marino - could barely fill a thimble. And though it is surrounded by northeastern Italy, it isn't, technically, Italy. A landlocked speck overlooking the Adriatic coast, it is overlooked by almost everyone.
But for day-trippers looking to pass a few hours outside Florence, this is a sovereign state worth a detour. And not simply to pin another country in your travel map or get a rare stamp on your passport.
No need to apologize if you haven't heard of San Marino outside of trivia games. It is one of the world's tiniest nations, larger than Monaco and Vatican City, but eclipsed by the European microstates of Andorra and Liechtenstein. Dating to the Roman Empire, it's also the world's oldest country. According to legend, it was founded on Sept. 3, 301, by St. Marinus, a Christian stonecutter fleeing religious persecution who saw its sky-high location as a protective godsend.
Constitutionally governed since the late 16th century, the Lilliputian state has grown little in the years since. It covers 24 square miles atop Mount Titano, and has just 31,000 residents.
That's small. Imagine Inver Grove Heights, Minn., which has several thousand more residents than San Marino, as a very, very, very subordinate member of the United Nations - its mayor, the republic's head of state; its police force, a wee army. When I was there last fall, the military unit was posted beside the town center's handsome Public Palace, guarding the neo-gothic administrative area where the republic's legislative council convenes monthly. They looked spiffy, playing pretend, resplendent in formal uniforms with elaborate braiding, epaulets, and helmets crowned with cascading white and blue ostrich feathers. I have seen more authoritative figures pop out of cuckoo clocks.
Though San Marino does not punch above its weight when it comes to culture, history, or the food and drink scene, it provides gorgeous sightseeing. I saw breathtaking panoramas and endless photo opportunities of pointed arches and polygonal balconies. Duty-free boutiques range from swank to seedy, all in the ambience of a daffy, slightly sinister Disneyland.
Where else can you see store shelves full of local wines custom-labeled with striking portraits of Adolf Hitler, a sieg-heiling Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and racy nude female pinups? How many tourist gems send visitors to see fairy-tale-pretty sights atop spires by climbing steep, vertigo-inducing interior ladders up, up, and up through increasingly claustrophobic platforms? Is there another place so calm and relaxed where any visitor can buy a submachine gun?
San Marino has Europe's most relaxed gun laws, with a number of shops in the capital selling AK-47s, pistols, revolvers, knives of all lengths, archery supplies, and crossbows.
Exploring it, I felt like the American innocent in The Third Man, hearing jaunty zither music in a world out of joint. Still, I found it almost irresistibly appealing.
Spotless cobblestone walkways radiate from the walled medieval town center between beautifully preserved buildings. They slope dramatically to the town square and across the ancient settlement, allowing me easy access to every museum, cafe, and shop.
A brief hike brought me to the stunning neoclassic Basilica di San Marino, a newcomer built in the early 19th century. Ten minutes farther in different directions were the three signature crenellated citadels, two of which are open to tour. Their views from on high were awesome, but I didn't need to climb those inside ladders to the peak for lofty views worth a hundred photos. Everywhere around the city walls are sweeping 360-degree vantage points. I could see breathtaking vistas across the Italian countryside, and, on cool days during my autumn visit, fluffy clouds floating just below eye level.
I could feel the republic's wonderland mood coming from a long way off. The approach by bus southwest from coastal Rimini covers about 30 miles of open farmland. The city of San Marino, the capital, looked far-fetched the minute it came into view. Miles across the countryside, the craggy destination appeared, rising implausibly straight up. Its three tall fortress and prison watchtowers are plopped atop Monte Titano, the region's highest, scrawniest peak. The sheer limestone formations rise above the flatlands like a giant spinal column, peaking more than a half-mile above sea level. It suggests the kind of mountainous country where governments generally tumble off the precipice.
It is. Under fascist rule through World War II and a Communist-led government in the 1970s, this odd democracy has shown a flexible tendency to travel in whatever direction the prevailing wind is blowing. The fickle politics sparked a tiny civil war in 1957, with no casualties, apart from one man who shot his own foot.
With its long, diverse, and often troubled antiquity, San Marino has remained firmly under the tourist radar - except, perhaps, for the rich inclined to hide money. San Marino uses its own limited-edition euros, allegedly in creative ways. Like the tax haven Cayman Islands, it has been criticized for shifty banking laws and what European investigators have called a less-than-zealous pursuit of money-laundering. It is not and may never be a member of the European Union. Yet, with no natural resources and a manufacturing base best known for collectible postage stamps, its gross national income per person is the 11th-highest in the world, according to the World Bank. (Italy is 30th.)
San Marino hosts about two million visitors a year, largely Italians bringing empty suitcases to its sloping warren of streets for tax-free shopping. The many stores offer luxury jewelry, clothing, perfumes, leather handbags, and cigarettes. And, of course, there are those wines with unsavory labels, and oodles of guns, plus toys that are near-exact replicas.
The Mall of America, which does not market tasteless abominations, annually draws 20 times the customers with half the ground-floor walking space. That said, the diminutive walled capital is far prettier, more charming, and less crowded after summer's peak tourist season. Once you are there, those gravity-defying sheer drops and tacky retail sideshows pay off with standouts in every direction.
Four-star hotels and restaurants for well-to-do visitors - where coifed women with sizable diamonds and men in well-cut suits sip wine - were available for relaxation and people-watching on a small-town scale.
Driving the winding, nosebleed-steep switchback road up toward the old citadel's central gate, changing course as often as San Marino's government, is a challenge to anyone with motion sickness or fear of heights. (Those without the phobia can use the high-tech gondola that runs up and down Monte Titano, the main link to the present day in a place otherwise pleasantly unscathed by modernity.)
The trip, though it may feel death-defying, is worth sweaty palms - for the ancient beauty, the curious hint of the underworld, and the endless views.
San Marino doesn't feel real, but it's make-believe beautiful.