04 March 2018

San Marino has been
flying the flag of liberty
for over 1,700 years

San Marino claims it is the world’s oldest, continuous democracy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is always interesting when a one-country holiday becomes a two-country holiday. When two of us were in Rome last year, we crossed in and out of the Vatican City, which is recognised internationally as a sovereign independent state, despite in its size and population.

San Marino, officially the Republic of San Marino (Repubblica di San Marino), or the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino), is a microstate that is an enclave, and it too is totally surrounded by Italy.

Late last year, two of us caught an early morning train from Bologna to Rimini, and by mid-morning we were on the side of the Apennine Mountains, on top of Monte Titano in San Marino.

The other microstates in Europe – Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the Vatican – are monarchies of one sort or another, and are dependent on their nearest, biggest and most powerful neighbours for their survival. Like them, San Marino is not a member of the European Union. On the other hand, San Marino, claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state in Europe and the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

San Marino stands on rocky outcrops on the side of the Apennine Mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, San Marino is the only surviving Italian microstate. Like Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco, it is an anachronism and a reminder of the time when Europe – particularly Germany, Italy and the Pyrenees – was made up of tiny political units, sometimes extending no further than a cannon could fire from a city’s walls.

San Marino’s territory is about 61 sq km (24 sq miles), and it has a population of 33,562, including 4,800 foreign residents, mostly Italian citizens. It has the smallest population in Europe, and in size it is the third smallest country in Europe – only the Vatican City and Monaco are smaller. It is the world’s smallest republic and fifth smallest country.

Founding saint

Saint Marinus, San Marino’s founding saint, depicted in a bronze statue on a street corner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Marino takes its name from Saint Marinus, who left the Dalmatian island of Arba in present-day Croatia with his lifelong friend Leo. They settled in Rimini, where he worked as a stonemason and was ordained a deacon.

During the persecutions in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Saint Marinus fled from Rimini to the slopes of Monte Titano. There he built a small church and is said to have founded the ‘Titanic Republic’ or San Marino on 3 September 301.

The independence of San Marino was recognised by the Papacy in 1631. Napoleon’s advance in 1797 presented a brief threat to the independence, but Napoleon eventually promised to guarantee and protect the independence of the Republic, even offering to extend its territory. After the Napoleonic Wars, the independence of San Marino was recognised in international law at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The Palazzo Pubblico or Palazzo del Governo is the seat of government in San Marino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When San Marino offered Abraham Lincoln honorary citizenship in 1861, he replied that the republic proved that ‘government founded on republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.’

During the Italian War of Unification, San Marino became a place of refuge, and Garibaldi accepted its wish not to be incorporated into the new Italian state in 1862.

A statue of Garibaldi, who guaranteed San Marino’s independence from the modern Italian state (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During World War I, when Italy declared war on Habsburg Austria in 1915, San Marino’s neutrality gave rise to hostile Italian suspicions that it could harbour Austrian spies, while the presence of volunteers from San Marino in an Italian medical corps running a Red Cross field hospital led Austria to suspend diplomatic relations.

San Marino had a fascist government in 1923-1943, but it remained neutral in World War II and provided a safe harbour for more than 100,000 Italians, including many Jews, fleeing Nazi and Italian persecution. The fascist government collapsed three days after the fall of Mussolini, but when it regained power in 1944 it maintained neutrality intact. In September 1944, it was briefly occupied by German forces, but they were soon defeated by Allied forces.

European integration

A border crossing … the mountain republic is totally surrounded by Italian territory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although San Marino is not an EU member state, an arrangement with the EU allows it to use the Euro as its currency and to use its own designs on the national side of Euro coins. But the small number of these coins means they are primarily of interest to coin collectors.

As a schoolboy, I thought San Marino existed mainly on the revenue from selling collectable postage stamps. But, in reality, the economy of San Marino relies mainly on finance, industry, services and tourism, making it one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita, with a figure comparable to the most developed European regions.

In the narrow streets of San Marino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The capital is the City of San Marino and the largest urban area is Serravalle. San Marino has a highly stable economy, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, no national debt and a budget surplus. It is said to be the only country where there are more vehicles than people.

The Basilica di San Marino is on the site of the mediaeval parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although San Marino has a basilica on the Piazza Domus Plebis, this is not a cathedral, and there is no episcopal see in San Marino. The whole country is a small part of the Italian Diocese of Montefeltro-San Marino, and the bishop lives in Pennabilli. The Church of Saint Francis, founded in 1361 by the Conventual Franciscans, is the oldest church in San Marino. The church has a wooden crucifix dating from the 14th century and frescoes by Antonio Alberti da Ferrara dating from the early 15th century.

The Chiesa di San Francesco, was built by the Franciscans in I351-1400 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, it is said, more than 97 per cent of the people are Roman Catholic, but there is no state religion and there is a tiny Waldensian and Jewish presence.

The Burial of Christ … a 15th century painting in the Chiesa di San Francesco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A model democracy

The Palazzo Pubblico or Palazzo del Governo is the seat of government in San Marino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Marino is a multiparty democracy, and the Captains Regent are both heads of state and heads of governments. The 60-member elected parliament is known as the Grand and General Council, and there is an independent judiciary.

In the past, San Marino was ruled by the Arengo, chosen from among the heads of each family. In the 13th century, power was handed over to the Grand and General Council, and the first two Captains Regent were nominated by the council in 1243.

The Statue of Liberty by Galletti outside the Palazzo Pubblico, donated by Countess Otilia Heyroth Wagener (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Marino claims to have had more female heads of state than any other country. Twice a year, on 1 April and 1 October, the council elects two Captains Regent as the heads of state, holding office for a six-month term. This system of two heads of state is said to be modelled on the Roman consuls in the Roman Republic, and the Council is the equivalent of the Roman Senate. The present Captains Regent are Enrico Carattoni and Matteo Fiorini.

San Marino’s military forces are among the smallest in the world. National defence is, by arrangement, the responsibility of Italy’s armed forces. Different branches have varied functions, including performing ceremonial duties, patrolling borders; mounting guard at government buildings, and assisting police in major criminal cases.

They include the exotically-named Crossbow Corps, the Guard of the Rock, the Guard of the Grand and General Council, known locally as the Guard of the Nobles, the Company of Unformed Militia, the Military Ensemble, which is a ceremonial military band of about 50 musicians, and the Gendarmerie. In addition, there is a modern police force.

The Guita Tower is the earliest of San Marino’s three castellated towers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Marino has been a member of the United Nations, since 1992, it has its own university, postal systems, banks and car registration numbers, and its own national football team. However, the San Marino Grand Prix never took place there: it was staged at Imola, about 100 km north of San Marino, but was removed from the international calendar in 2007.

San Marino has its own national university (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Marino has 220 km of roads, but public transport facilities are limited. There is no airport and no rail links to nearby Italian towns and cities. But there is a regular bus service between Rimini and the city of San Marino that is popular with both tourists and workers commuting to San Marino from surrounding Italy. The bus stops at about 20 places in Rimini and inside San Marino on the journey between the train station in Rimini and the bus station in San Marino.

A 1.5 km cable car also connects Borgo Maggiore at the bottom of Monte Titano and the City of San Marino at the top of the rocky mountain. But the cable car was not running this when I visited San Marino. Perhaps because the tourist season was over, it was a good opportunity for an overhaul.

Another passport stamp

Did I need another visa stamp on my passport? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The tourist office beside the cable car terminal offers €5 tourist visas. A visa costs as much as the bus journey from Rimini, and it is not necessary. Should I have got my passport stamped?

I certainly did not need a visa. San Marino has an open border with Italy, there were no checkpoints as the bus crosses the border, not just once but twice on each leg of the journey, and before I even reached the tourist office I had travelled along most of the roads through this tiny republic, and walked most of the streets of the old town.

But did I want a visa?

I had brought my passport, but ought I pay for a visa I did not need?

Very few countries these days bother to stamp my passport, even when they demand to see it. Switzerland is outside the EU but has never stamped my passport. I have walked in and out of the Vatican City and through Saint Peter’s Square on many occasions … but no-one ever asked for my passport as I stepped in from Italy, let alone offer to stamp it.

Britain may soon leave the EU, so I may be confused about which queue to join at an airport; but are they are going to reintroduce passport stamps for EU citizens queuing at airports? The only European country that bothers to stamp my passport these days is Turkey, and that is probably because it earns a hefty amount of foreign currency by charging tourists for visas.

A heavily-stamped passport is a rarity for EU citizens these days, even those of us who think we are well-travelled. The only other stamps on my present passport are from a visit to the US many years ago.

Of course, it could be costly filling a passport too quickly. At one stage in the 1990s, while I was working as a journalist, I had to apply for – and pay for – a second passport. My latest stamp in San Marino says goodbye to another visa page in my passport – five gone, 23 to go. I am sure, however, this one is going to last until it’s due for renewal later this year.

Afterwards, we had lunch at La Capanna, a restaurant looking over the rocks of San Marino and out to the Adriatic coast of Italy. The view was worth it, whatever about the visa.

Tables for two in a café in the streets of San Marino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in March 2018.

San Marino’s independent banking system is an important part of the thriving economy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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