The country in the clouds

Today we left Italy and visited San Marino – a 45-minute bus ride from Rimini. It was both a horizontal and vertical journey.

The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is a tiny little country perched on a very high mountain top, just over 24 square miles, and it has the smallest population of all the members of the Council of Europe. Founded in 301, it is the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. Why is it an independent state inside of Italy? During the contentious Italian unification process in the 19th century, San Marino was a refuge for people persecuted because of their support for unification. Ironically, in recognition of this support, Garibaldi accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state.

The country’s economy mainly relies on finance, industry, services and tourism. Despite having an extremely small economy, it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, no debt and a budget surplus. It is also the only country with more vehicles than people.

Based on that, we expected to see lots of Mercedes and streets paved with gold. Instead, the outskirts of the historic center looked a lot like suburban New Jersey – and not in a good way. Lots of junky stores and defunct businesses. But the center is very carefully manicured, and is the place to go if you run out of perfume, watches, jewelry or designer sunglasses. Oh, and lots of things that look like real guns – though the shopkeeper of one laughed when I asked if they were real. “Oh no – just for fun!” Better not show up with one of their fun toy machine guns on the streets of New York…

The weather today did not give us good views of the beautiful vistas that we know stretch below the center. But even better, we had the most amazing fog rolling in and out, which created quite the romantic mood. It was, however, somewhat disturbing to look down and see…nothing.

We trekked up to the first of the three towers that are the icons of San Marino, and key to its defensive system. This tower, built i 1253, was used as a prison till 1960 (!) and has a room with graffiti from the mid-19th century.

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of the government of San Marino. It is a 19th-century building, and quite beautiful. They take their government very seriously here, and we were quite proud to see that Abraham Lincoln had been made an honorary citizen in his lifetime, and was very complimentary about San Marino in return.

So, we are now equipped for “Jeopardy” (or “Eggheads” to give some context to our UK friends) when they ask us to name the three smallest countries in Europe. We should get double points for having visited them all: Vatican City; Monaco; and now, San Marino.

It was a good day, fog and all.

Don’s Food Corner

As a youth – a very young youth – there were two places I was obsessed about visiting. The first was Davy Crockett’s birthplace, which we finally got to see three years ago. “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee/Killed him a bear when he was only three . . .” It was a thrilling experience.  The second was San Marino.  Someone gave me some stamps from San Marino.  (I think they thought I would start a stamp collection or something.)  Well, there’s no stamp collection, but that single stamp from San Marino made this tiniest of tiny countries, isolated in the middle of a larger country, made the place seem magical.  And it turned out to be as magical as expected.

Of course, I wanted a magical meal to match my expectations.  A restaurant was selected which we found, after climbing up and down some steep hills.  I walked in and was greeted by a gigantic television blaring a gangsta rap video.  No.  This is not going to fit with the medieval surroundings and my childhood vision of San Marino.  We moved on.

A nearby hotel restaurant looked sedate and had an interesting menu. We settled in and ordered.  As our order entered the kitchen, the waitress went over to a television on the wall facing us and turned on a gangsta rap video. What’s with gangsta rap and San Marino?  Are they working out the impulse for medieval warfare and torture that they don’t have an outlet for elsewhere? Is this why there are so many weapon shops for game warfare? Because I knew the MTV streaming would ruin the meal, I asked for the TV to be turned off.  They turned off the sound, but not the visual.  OK, a compromise.

The meal:

As a starter, we had what was billed as praline di baccula fitte.  We were able to determine that it was some type of cod that was deep fried and served Venetian-style.  (We’re getting close to Venice.)  How that translates from “praline” I still don’t know. It arrived as deep-fried cod balls on top of a puree of creamed onions. (It’s the creamed onion puree that makes it Venetian-style.)  The cod balls seemed to be formed with something else as a binder. More onions? Softened bread crumbs? In any case, they were perfectly deep-fried as we would expect in Roman style. A most satisfying, if not particularly light, first course.

Then, we both went on to a pasta dish.  Jo selected a ravioli dish that promised “pumpkin” pasta with a filling of prosciutto and mushrooms with a carbonara sauce. The color of the sauce suggested that it contained “pumpkin” as well. It was very finely done and delicious, but we’re not sure “pumpkin” in the right translation for what is being used. We’ve encountered this before. It tastes like no pumpkin we’ve ever tasted, but that could be because we’ve only tasted Libbey’s. We’ll give the Italians who keep serving us this “pumpkin” the benefit of the doubt and surrender our limited pumpkin experience.

Spotting a pasta dish featuring octopus, I leapt for that one.  Served on a thick spaghetti, the sauce had a generous amount of octopus, cut into bite-size pieces, and prepared along with celery root. The sauce was dark and I suspect the octopus was simmered in this sauce for a long time. It was a meaty and dense sauce that you wouldn’t normally expect from octopus, which was not rubbery in any way. For me, it was a very unusual approach with octopus that I would be surprised to ever see again. That, of course, makes it memorable.

We had some very nice white wine produced in San Marino.  Since there is very little land here to grow grapes — and we saw no evidence of any vineyards — the yield must be very small, making it another memorable treat for the visit to San Marino that has consumed 60 years of anticipation.

5 thoughts on “The country in the clouds

  1. So who’s head honcho of this quirky little place–and is it entirely free of Italian governance? Does it make all its own laws–like the obligation to play gangsta rap in restaurants?
    And when will you add Liechtenstein to your ‘It’s a small world’ tour? I think you owe it to your fans.

    PS Ravenna looks stunning. Definitely one to see.

  2. This most Serene of republics has 60 people governing every corner of it, and they trade off being the two head honchos every six months – if I got any of that right from the Italian video. Lots of processions are involved. I guess if it were invaded Italy would come to its rescue, but it isn’t part of the EU – just uses its currency to keep things simple. While the gangsta rap thing seems voluntary, I think it speaks to a disgruntled generation wishing they were somewhere else. Liechtenstein – two years away! Have they got gangsta rap? Goes so well with fine wine.

  3. In Leichtenstein they make sausage skins and false teeth and move money around in a no-questions-asked sort of way. ( Says my ‘Rough Guide’ ). So, no time for gangsta rap.
    I don’t know how we’ve managed to miss Ravenna. We came late to Italy and the city–though known–doesn’t feature highly on UK tourist itineraries. Time to change that, I guess.

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