My journey from the world's oldest Republic to one of Italy's most scenic regions
The idea of visiting Europe's third smallest state (after the Vatican and Monaco) takes me back to my very fist trip around the world in 2009. Back then, while spending a few days in Bologna, I tried visiting it as a day trip, but failed miserably after having reached Rimini's train station way too late, and couldn't catch the last bus of the day.
When the opportunity presented itself again, I invited a good friend from London to join me, spending a few days visiting quaint small towns in the Italian countryside and once again trying to discover the tiny little country that claims to be the world's oldest republic! I had heard interesting remarks about the country's history, but had no idea that it was set in such a stunning hilltop location, and did not expect to find such immense natural beauty all around it.
From Ancona to Rimini
Our flight schedule couldn't have worked out better: Arriving early on a Thursday, then departing rather late on a Sunday, giving us four full travel days to cover a small territoy; from Marche to Emilia Bologna. The plan was to discover San Marino and spend some quality time together, visiting small-sized, non-touristic Italian towns, at an easy pace, and running away from London's cold weather into the warm winds of the Adriatic coast.
We flew into Ancona on a low cost carrier flight, and quickly jumped into a regional no-frills train that would take us following the coast into Rimini - one of Italy's main resort towns.
Claimed to contain over 1000 resort hotels, Rimini may be seen as a busy destination for domestic tourism, and although it might see its share of visitors from Eastern European countries during the summer, it was rather calm during our stay, much to our privilege.
Walking from the train station into the centre of town only took us a couple of minutes, and the city's cleaning and organisational level impressed me right away. Emilia Romagna is indeed one of Italy's richest and most "manicured" regions, and it certainly looked very different than many of the other smaller and bigger Italian towns I had visited before.
There, we were able to get the Italian experience we were craving for, sitting down at beautiful Piazzas appreciating the country's gastronomy, walking under its beautiful Augustus Arch, crossing the old Tiberius Bridge while indulging in authentic Gellato ice cream, and just soaking up the overall atmosphere of this historical town that dates back to 268 BC.
I must admit that its 15km of beaches were somewhat disappointing to us. The water seems clear and warm, but it all seemed very deserted and closed for the season. For a moment I thought I was just being a beach snob, being from Rio de Janeiro, and having seen amazing beaches worldwide, but nearby Cattolica, a town only 15 minutes away by train, was in fact, a much nicer beach, that felt cosy and pristine even off season. It felt smaller, more intimate and authentic – certainly my recommended Italian beach destination to anyone interested in enjoying the Adriatic warm waters in that region.
The whole point of reaching Rimini was to find ourselves a base from where we could catch the 30-minute bus journey into San Marino. We left very early to catch the first possible bus – for I was not taking any chances of getting so near it and failing again!
The ride up to San Marino took us through the mountainous landscape that border the little country, and even from a distance, we could anticipate that we were in for a treat: The sight of San Marino's famous "Three Towers" from a distance was truly awe-inspiring!
Upon reaching San Marino, we started what would be a whole day of walking through cobblestoned streets, up and down the hill. The higher we got, the most beautiful the landscape below became, and much to our privilege, it wasn't a very busy day, tourism wise. Entering and exiting San Marino is a formalities-free process.
There are no border checks or anything as such, but one can indeed feel being in a separate country, as it does feel a bit richer up there, better preserved and just overall more historical. Speaking of history, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded in 4th century AD. With an estimated total population under 30,000 people, Borgo Maggiore and San Marino City are the two cities to constitute the so-called "Most Serene Republic of San Marino".
The Three Towers are the biggest attractions to be visited, although only two of them can be entered, holding museums inside. But the landscape surrounding the towers is, in my opinion, the biggest attraction: a true green oasis with trails going up and down rolling hills, very unspoiled and relaxing. The autumn colours made it yet nicer, and a perfect picnic location for the local wine, sundried tomatoes and cheese we had packed from a delicatessen we spotted in the tiny citycentre.
After a full day enjoying my 106th visited country, we tried hitchhiking back into town, trying to avoid waiting 40 minutes for the Rimini bound bus. A car stopped right away: a police car. At first, we thought the very polite policeman would give us a ride, but instead, they stopped to inform us that hitchhiking was not permitted in San Marino – that we would have to walk into Italy and hitch a ride from there. We had a good laugh at it – the perfect proof that we were indeed in a different country! A short while later, the bus came, and we were back in good old hitchhiking-friendly Italy for another night at a beautiful and historical "piazza" sampling one of the world's most delicious cuisines.
Ravenna, Gradara Castle and the ride back to Ancona
An hour away from Rimini towards the North West, lies Ravenna – another very historical small to medium-sized Italian town, full of history and cultural attractions.
It was a Sunday morning, and street markets were happening all around. Locals were out and about, walking around with their families or cycling everywhere - Ravenna had a very relaxing atmosphere indeed.
The Basilica of San Vitale and its many Roman mosaics is a must-see for anyone interested in Art History. Ravenna is altogether a great destination for Roman ruins, history and architecture. Like many other Italian towns, Clock Towers, Old Churches and pedestrianised streets are everywhere, making it a truly enjoyable town for an afternoon stroll.
The postcard-picture-perfect ancient village of Gradara and its Medieval Castle are only 15km away from Rimini, and were a major highlight to our trip, following San Marino. It is located 142 metres above sea level, boasting amazing panoramic views of Italian hilltops from within its medieval walls. Visitors have the opportunity of entering the marvellous and well-preserved Gradara Castle, as well as venturing above the walled city walls, breathing fresh air, and on a clear day, seeing as far as San Marino and the Adriatic Sea.
As interesting as the Castle was, just strolling around the village was our best experience, followed by having a delicious talian cappuccino accompanied by a heavenly pistachio biscotti.
Our few hours in Gradara were our last few hours before having to head back to Cattolica by bus, in order to catch a train back towards Ancona and its airport. But before that, we enjoyed our last delicious pasta dinner at a seafront restaurant in quaint little Cattolica.
By the time we reached Ancona's airport (AOI), it felt like we had been travelling for a whole week! Italy's great and affordable train system make regional travel extremely easy and fulfilling. Rather than trying to go everywhere in four days, we chose to discover a particular region, and the more we thought about it, the more we realised just how much we had managed to do: we had ventured into two very historical Roman towns, into an Adriatic resort town, into an entirely different country of its own as well as into a Medieval walled village and castle! And all at a very slow pace, sleeping well, eating well and hanging out.
A perfect country for a short getaway, Italy has it all (even other countries within it!), I can't recommend it enough!