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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone