San Marino: It's a small world, but a fairytale short break
San Marino is a microscopic state, but it makes for a fairytale break says Thomas Breathnach.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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).