A lesson in democracy

San Marino, capital of the European “microstate” of the same name, is not on most lists of “not-to-be-missed” European destinations. However, this tiny nation, founded in the year 301 and reputed to be the world’s oldest constitutional republic, ranks among our best adventures.

We had read, in passing, about this tiny, ancient city-state, and could not resist the temptation to visit a modern-day anomaly. The lure of the fifth-smallest nation on earth was strong.

My husband and I planned this quick excursion in conjunction with last winter’s Mediterranean/Adriatic cruise. Tiny San Marino is an easy drive — not more than about an hour — from the Italian port of Ravenna.

The world’s longest-surviving republic has known its share of difficult times and has been occupied three times, it is said, by foreign powers. But it has survived, and today it enjoys one of the world’s most stable economies, much of it derived from tourism, and is considered one of the wealthiest countries in Europe in terms of GDP.

Its claim to be the oldest existing sovereign state as well as the oldest constitutional republic is not disputed. San Marino’s 60-member legislature is elected every five years, and dual heads of state, “Captains Regents,” are elected by the council every April and October to serve six-month terms. From all outward appearances, the system of government, with an unlimited number of political parties, seems to work very well.

I think of San Marino now, as the calendar ticks down to our own election and wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know the people and learning more about their system of government.

The few hours we spent there are unforgettable. The mountaintop site of the old city is spectacular and the people we met were lively, welcoming and “real.” There is something compelling about a “parliamentary representative democratic republic” that has survived this long!

With a land area of only 23.6 miles, and a total population of just over 36,000, San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy. Its official language is Italian, and the currency is the Euro, although San Marino is not a member of the EU. There is no official border crossing.

The drive along the coast from Ravenna takes one along modern highways and through charming seaside resorts before turning inland to wind through agricultural fields and vineyards. It’s pleasant. The weather forecast was for cool temperatures with a chance of rain. We knew about San Marino’s strategic location, but we were not prepared for the fog that shrouded the peak as we began the ascent.

We had seen the pictures of “The Three Towers” that cap the crest of Monte Titano, and the medieval wall that surrounds the capital, also named San Marino. We had hoped to see them outlined by blue sky, as they had appeared in the tourist guide.

A roadside cafe on the way to the old city beckoned us, and we enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate with local workmen and uniformed highway police before pushing onward. It was grey and overcast, and the aerial tramway that would have whisked us to the summit on a sunny day was not running.

Not knowing what to expect, we pushed on and were able to park just outside the gate of the medieval city. Passing through the gate was like stepping back in time, or entering another world. Cobblestone lanes not much wider than a primitive wagon path greeted us, and even though the mist hung heavy all about, we were enchanted.

We could not see the valley below, nor could we see the crenelated towers above, but we were content to walk the steep lanes, peering into shop windows, catching glimpses of gardens and marveling at the statuary and art that punctuated plazas and wide spots along the narrow walkways.

We stopped at the upper station of the tramway, impressed by the engineering expertise it had required, and we looked over the edge of the city wall, disappointed at the mist that still blocked our view of the valley below. We ducked into the nearby Visitors Center to have our passports stamped as proof of our visit.

We strolled to the city’s beautiful basilica, marveling at the skill and endurance it must have taken to construct on top of the mountain in 1836, on the site of an earlier church that dated to the 7th Century. We were enthralled, and could have spent longer inside, but because we were on a strict time schedule, we decided to make our way back to our rental vehicle.

When we emerged, the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. We could not leave without once again making our way to the city’s encircling walls to gaze in awe at the countryside far below us.

Although Ravenna has its own attractions, we were more than pleased by our decision to forego the eight UNESCO world heritage sites located there and head instead to a tiny nation-state with a long history.

It remains a fond memory.

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