San Marino: The museum was torture. No, really

The mountain republic of San Marino boasts good food, fabulous sunsets and some grisly legends. Adrian Mourby was won over

Occasionally, the painters do get it right. Canaletto painted Venice just as it was – and still is. But when you come across 15th-century landscapes by Mantegna, it's all too easy to scoff at those tall thin pinnacles, a citadel perched on the top of each. They look as if another winter of river erosion would bring the whole thing down. Yet step into the Marrecchia Valley today and those very same peaks rise before you. Each with its own small city or fortress on the top. They have names like Montebello, San Leo and Verucchio, not to mention the strangest of them all: San Marino, the only independent republic within Italy, a little bit that the Risorgimento forgot to incorporate.

Occasionally, the painters do get it right. Canaletto painted Venice just as it was – and still is. But when you come across 15th-century landscapes by Mantegna, it's all too easy to scoff at those tall thin pinnacles, a citadel perched on the top of each. They look as if another winter of river erosion would bring the whole thing down. Yet step into the Marrecchia Valley today and those very same peaks rise before you. Each with its own small city or fortress on the top. They have names like Montebello, San Leo and Verucchio, not to mention the strangest of them all: San Marino, the only independent republic within Italy, a little bit that the Risorgimento forgot to incorporate.

I spent last summer driving round this neglected bit of Italy which lies inland from Rimini and which borders Tuscany in the west. To the east Marrecchia becomes part of the Adriatic coastal plain with bland industrial estates, but the further one goes inland the more these castellated townships pop up on residual calcareous peaks. Those on the north side of this valley belong to the Emilia-Bologna region, those to the south to Le Marche, while the mountain state of San Marino belongs to San Marino.

You can't miss San Marino. At the notional customs point, a footbridge is inscribed with the words "Benvenuti nellíantica terra della Liberta". This little republic is proud of its ancient liberty, all seven square miles of it, and claims to be, per head of population, the most visited country in the world. While the ancient individualism of San Marino has been reduced these days to little more than an independent coinage and some postage stamps, there is still a territorial army and on my first night I caught them on parade in the Piazza della Liberta.

I'd just finished a meal with my children when in tramped 40 men in berets, navy blue T-shirts and orange neckerchiefs. They lined up in two rows and presented their swords while tourists fished out their cameras. Up until then everyone had been photographing the extraordinary view down from Monte Titano but here was something even more remarkable: Europe's smallest army ready to defend its slopes.

In 301 the original St Marinus sought refuge up here from Roman persecution but these days the only thing San Marino needs protecting from is tatty shops selling replica guns and fake designer perfume.

In keeping with its extraordinary position and idiosyncratic constitution, San Marino has some off-beat tourist attractions. There is a Reptilarium on Via Paolo III, a Museum of the Modern Army opposite the Basilica and a Museum of Torture at the Teatro Titano. There are also splendid fortifications on the highest points of the mount – La Rocca, La Cesta and Montale. But mostly San Marino is a place to catch the sunset. The majority of its restaurants have lined up tables facing west so that the sun can be seen disappearing over Tuscany every night.

While staying in San Marino we made a point of venturing out in the car most afternoons. Verucchio was only 30km away and had a splendid restaurant perched on a cliff edge just below the castle. Montebello, a little further down the valley, was very similar with an even better restaurant, Ameria dell'Albana, just below the castle. Best of all was San Leo with a castle 639m above sea level that Machiavelli called "the finest and biggest military machine in the whole region".

Like San Marino, San Leo was named after a saint who fled Diocletian and like Montebello the town has only one entrance gate, rendering it pretty much impregnable. We sat in the Piazza Dante Alighieri, the main thoroughfare of San Leo. It was odd to think that in 1213 Francis of Assissi preached under an elm tree at the bottom of this piazza. The Olmo della predica di San Francesco is still there to this day, but this particular divine olmo is actually a replacement, planted in 1936.

The Dante connection is genuine, however. After his expulsion from Florence the poet came to stay in San Leo and actually mentions the town in the second section of his Divine Comedy. Given that Dante represents Purgatory as a precipitous mountain, it's not surprising the locals claim their town inspired him.

There was one sour note to our visit: the discovery of a museum of the Inquisition opposite the Palazzo Nardini. Here I learned of Count Cagliostro, one of San Leo's less fortunate guests. Arrested in Rome as a heretic, the count was investigated by the Inquisition but refused to recant. Eventually, the Papacy transferred him to San Leo in 1791 where a cell the size of a walk-in wardrobe was built for him in the castle. All that Cagliostro could see through its bars were the twin towers of San Leo's parish church and duomo. After four years the count died, inveighing in his madness against Catholicism. You can't blame him. It was a grim story which added a convincingly grisly hue to this most medieval of landscapes. The children loved it. Of course.

Adrian Mourby stayed at Eurocamp (08703 338 338; www.eurocamp.co.uk) in San Marino (open 18 May-7 September). A week's holiday for a family of four costs from £333 per week, including return crossings from Dover to Calais.

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