Friday 30 September 2016

San Marino: It's a small world, but a fairytale short break

Italian Insider

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Rocca della Guaita, the most ancient fortress of San Marino, Italy
Rocca della Guaita, the most ancient fortress of San Marino, Italy
The wall of Guaita fortress is the oldest and the most famous tower on San Marino.
Three castles hallmark San Marino's Old Town

San Marino is a microscopic state, but it makes for a fairytale break says Thomas Breathnach.

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Set the mood

I was in the midst of a Mediterranean chorus. A kestrel darted through the vineyards. Church bells echoed from a chapel. In the distance, a farmer chugged his rusty Fiat Panda through the olive groves. Mustering just a few more steps, I knew I'd be rewarded with the perfect evening panorama - the Apennines gently folding their way down to seashore horizons.

This wasn't Tuscany I was wandering through, however. Nor the hills of Sicily.

In fact, I was losing myself in the postcard and piccolissimo nation of San Marino. The medieval micro-state may typically serve as a honey trap for day-tripping tourists and philatelists, but it quickly became clear that this land is worth far more than just a passport stamp.

Insider Intel

Enclaved by the Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche, San Marino said non grazie to Italian unification in the 1860s, and has remained a poster child for democracy ever since. The cherry is its capital, but the pop-up-fairytale countryside is the real surprise. My journey brought me along the rustic by-lanes of Acquaviva and Fiorentino communes, which offer some of the best vistas in the country. Be sure to pack some piadinas (local flat-bread sandwiches), for your picnic.

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Guaita Fortress

Guilty Pleasure

San Marino may have a viticulture industry smaller than a Napa Valley wine estate, but good things come in small casks. Thanks to a unique micro-climate, where Adriatic zephyrs whistle off sun-drenched hillsides, tiny vineyards yield outstanding harvests of plummy Sangiovese grapes. The result? Wines that put the vino in divino.

To sample the produce, I bee-lined to Consorzio di San Marino (consorziovini.sm), a crossroads co-op, where farmers from across the republic converge to pool their bounties. Beyond the tractor bellows, I visited the site's stylish produce store which, for both visitors and locals alike, acts as a discount wine outlet from heaven. Try the delicious Tessano!

Cheap Kick

Amid the many curious attractions in San Marino city, one highlight is a wander along the three castles which hallmark the country's old town. From the foothill town of Borgo Maggiore, a number of cypress-lined routes twist and turn along their way to the summit. I got there early, before the hordes of Russian tourists and selfie-stick masses arrived. Aloft in the old town, it was a serene and panoramic walk along the ramparts. History abounds in the world's oldest republic... and it needn't cost a cent!

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Top tip

Keep an eye out for the TuttoSanMarino card - an official state discount pass available at most hotels. It offers reduced admission to local sites, bargain parking and a 10pc discount off many local restaurants. It's free, too. See visitsanmarino.com for more.

Get me there

The city of Bologna is the best gateway to San Marino - I flew from Dublin with Ryanair (ryanair.com). A car is a must for the hills, and Argus (arguscarhire.com) offers zero excess rates for Bologna Airport from €21 per day.

For one of the world's wealthiest countries, lodgings are refreshingly low key and affordable. I went budget in the stellar Hostel San Marino (hostel-sanmarino.com; from €15) before upgrading to a classic townhouse at Hotel Joli (hoteljoli.sm; €24pps).

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