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San Marino: The country behind the stamps

The Fortress of Guaita overlooks San Marino. Photo by Max Ryazanov

MANILA, Philippines – Like most kids of my era, I had a cherished stamp collection from countries all over the world. Among the most coveted were stamps from Monaco, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra and the Vatican – the most intricately-designed, colorful, eye-catching and usually larger-than-usual postal seals.

Blame my juvenile innocence or my knack for leaping to conclusions, but I had always attributed the largest envelope imprints to these nations which I imagined were vast, kingdom-like realms with the most grandiose castles and fortifications, massive military forces and expansive farms and fields, to boot.

Thanks to the encyclopedia, which were the go-to source – way before the Google and the Internet – I found that these nations were little more than tiny specks in the map, which I scoured and verified over and over, in complete and utter disbelief. Due to these discoveries, it has since become part of my bucket list to visit these minute, tucked away havens.

So, on a recent Mediterranean and Adriatic cruise on the Rhapsody of the Seas, Ravena was one of our ports of call. I realized this was the closest I’ve ever gotten to San Marino – just some 80 kilometers away – and I wasn’t about to let this chance go by.

Regarded as one of the world’s oldest independent states, the micro territory is situated within Italy, between the borders of the Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche regions. With a population of 32,019 in 2016 – the city of Rome has 2,9000,000, for reference – it is said to have been founded in the 4th Century by a Dalmation stone mason, who later became a saint who the country has been named after. He fled religious persecution and sought refuge in the steep, craggy exterior of Monte Titano.

We learned that by the Middle Ages, an autonomous body had settled, which grew into one of the many miniature divisions that had propagated all over the peninsula. Through grit, determination and luck, San Marino – out of all the locales that have staked their claim – alone has managed to hold on to its independence, even surviving the unification of Italy in the 19th century.

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We searched for the ever-elusive parking space as close to the old walled gates as possible, for we were warned by our driver that we would have a walking tour, so we should conserve our energy. The surroundings are characterized by virgin forests and rolling hills, towering mountains and vast landscapes, as well as sturdy fortifications which, we learned, were built over three different ages.

We began our walking adventure at the Porta Della Frata, which was followed by several up and down steps that ascended and descended, flanked by historical heritage buildings, churches of various vintages and periods, vine-sprawled stone homes, monuments of the heroic and the whimsical and intimate pocket parks, and even aromatic flowers in pots.

Our long trek finally led us to the heart and soul of the city, the Piazza Della Libertà, home to their very own version of the Statue of Liberty. It proudly stands guard, for behind it lies the Palazzo del Governo. Planned and built by architect Francesco Azzurri, it was constructed on the ruins of the previous 16th-century palace, and is now abode to one of the most quaint government offices I have ever seen.

Opened to the public since 1894, the mini-fort proudly bears the San Marino coat of arms – three mountains with three silver towers, topped with a single crown of gold.

The country’s military force might be among the smallest contingents in the world, but they serve and protect with gusto, as their unfailing duty. In the summer months, these fancy-uniformed militia perform a changing of the guard at half past the hour, a ceremony you definitely must not miss.

We then made our way – still on foot – to the St. Francis Church, a museum and art gallery all in one, which we almost missed, because to our untrained eyes, the building looked so dilapidated and could have been easily overlooked. But once inside the brick upon brick barriers, it screamed of history and heritage.

We prayed at the Basilica del Santo, a neoclassical church designed by Antonio Serra, erected on the ancient prayer site. Relics are said to be kept under the altar – the right holds the gold and silver Holy Case, wherein the founder’s skull rests, while the left hosts the Throne of Regency, a 17th century prized artwork.

Beside the towering parish is the Saint Peter Church, a structure which contains a precious marble table surmounted by a statue of Saint Peter, made by Enrico Saroldi. On the right, we noticed a commemoration of Pope John XXIII, erected in his honor. According to popular tradition, two niches may be seen, which holds Saint Marino’s and Saint Leo’s bedspaces. We dared not test if the rumors were true!

For such a compact realm, San Marino – surprise, surprise! – contains a plethora of depositories to tickle different fancies. The State Museum, located in Piazetta Titano, has over 5,000 historical artifacts relevant to its background. The cobblestone gallery houses archaeological treasures from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, such as votive bronzes and a gold buckle of a princess named Domagnano, who was buried in the district in 500 A.D.

Strategically scattered all over the streets are several monuments, which contribute to what we might call an open-air museum. For each corner turned, a statue would be discovered! Of note are the Monument to Peace by Oikonomoy, Monument to Melchiorre Delfico by Saroldi, Neutrality by Guguiani, Monument to Bramante Lazzari by Gentiloni and Monument to Marino Capicchioni by Reffi. Busts of figures from recent history such as Mahatma Gandhi and Guiseppe Garibaldi are also popular landmarks.

As luck would have it, we bumped into some Crossbowmen, a military group that competes in international shooting competitions. Up to this day, the men in colorful suits still win laurels for San Marino.

As we were ushered back to the car, we took a last look and what caught our attention were La Rocca o Guaita, La Cesta o Fratta, and Il Montale – the thee dominant towers – which stood tall above the entire republic, shrouded by mist and clouds, beckoning us to return one day to explore the many wonders of the torres full of tales and fables, legends and myths.

 

 

 

 

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