Travel: Crossbow country wants to make a point

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San Marino sits on a hilltop surrounded by Italy, and its ancient, labyrinthine streets capped with castles are usually packed with tourists. What they don't see, writes Cleo Paskal, is a political and social culture that is one of the most vibrant in Europe.

There isn't a single McDonald's in the Republic of San Marino. There's no Burger King. There's no Gap. But there is a population of 25,000 San Marinese passionately devoted to the perpetuation of the world's oldest republic. There are also an awful lot of crossbows.

A few facts. Yes, San Marino is an independent nation - and a member of the United Nations. According to tradition, it has been independent, more or less, since 301AD, when a Christian stonemason called Marinus the Dalmation hid from the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Diocletian on the peak of the beautiful, forbidding and easily defended Mount Titano.

No, the San Marino Grand Prix is not actually held in the country itself. It was farmed out to a nearby Italian town. The country's total landmass is 62 sq km. It is completely surrounded by Italy. The citizens speak Italian. They celebrate their founding day, 3 September, with - among other things - a world-renowned (in certain circles) crossbow competition and a nationwide bingo game.

San Marino is also stunningly picturesque. Out of the centre of the country juts the majestic Mount Titano, itself crowned by the three medieval forts that have made independence possible. Spectacular cliffs face the Adriatic while the old city tumbles like a veil down the back of Titano, towards the Apennines.

The country's major industry is its past. Most of the 3 million tourists who visit each year come to see a seemingly historical anomaly. They drive straight through the undulating Romagna countryside to Borgo Maggiore, a market town at the foot of the Titano cliffs. Then it's up the funicular to San Marino city itself.

The San Marinese have pragmatically complied with fiscal demands and abandoned much of the lovely old town to the tourists. Few local people still live in the car-less labyrinth of flagstone paths and ancient limestone buildings quarried from the mountain beneath.

In the town, there are abundant museums to cover the span of San Marinese history. Geographically, the most fun are the forts. Up past the castle- like government building, an architecturally diverse range of churches and ubiquitous but non-aggressive souvenir stands, the path leads inexorably to the three forts perched along the edge of the cliffs.

The first two house museums: one an impressive collection of ancient weapons that includes, yes, a plethora of crossbows. As an added bonus, you can roam around parapets, up stone steps, down metal ladders and along sentinel paths that border the cliff's edge.

Potentially sole-destroying, the rugged ramble is a medieval-themed jungle gym for adults punctuated by pauses to absorb the spectacular views down the coast to the Adriatic. On a clear day you can see Croatia.

If you are looking for Ye Olde Country, San Marino is for you. There is even a sunken crossbow pitch where week-long medieval celebrations are held, complete with flag-throwing acrobats, period cuisine and a full tights-for-the-boys dress code.

Yet the hit-and-run busloads of tourists who pose next to the plumed council guards and buy a souvenir pocket crossbow for the children are missing the point. The most fascinating thing about San Marino isn't its past but its present.

The historical obsession with independence has produced a nation which, according to one San Marinese, "breathes politics". Away from the pageantry of the old city, in the restaurants and cafes and market in the foothills of Mount Titano, citizens talk, argue and occasionally yell about politics. Domestic voter turn-out is near 99 per cent.

Political structures are amazingly all-embracing and self-monitoring. For example, the official heads of state are two co-regents chosen from among the 60 members of the popularly elected Great and General Council. The regents are from opposing political parties. There are two so that they can keep an eye on each other. As if that wasn't enough, they serve only six-month terms so that they won't be tempted to build up a personal power base. And, once the term is over, there are three days of hearings in which any citizen can come forward with complaints about the conduct of the regent while in office. If the complaint warrants it, judicial proceedings are launched.

The result is a citizenry that is deeply involved in the running of its country. They know that it is worth their while because their views will be taken seriously. Socially, they have one of the most comprehensive free health-care and education systems in the world.

Most tourists come to take pictures, not talk to the locals. But if you even casually ask about local politics, the floodgates will open.

At lunch one day I met a San Marinese doctor who was setting up an immunity research department at the nearby hospital. He was also a member of the Great and General Council and San Marino's representative at a forthcoming meeting of the European Security Council. He talked openly and casually about affairs of state before running off to see a patient. You have to admire a country where the politicians actually work for a living.

San Marino has one of the most vibrant political and social cultures in Europe. And if that isn't worth protecting with an armament of crossbows, what is?

Meandering to San Marino

San Marino has neither an airport nor a railway station. The most accessible airport to San Marino with international links to the UK is Bologna. Alitalia (0171-602 7111) has daily flights from Gatwick, while British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Heathrow. Some charters also operate. Italy Sky Shuttle (0800 129129) has flights this month for pounds 167 return, including tax.

From Bologna, there are frequent trains to Rimini, whence you can catch a bus to San Marino. For more information, visit the excellent and comprehensive Website