It would have been difficult to top yesterday's unexpected adventure in Florence, but we did have another exciting trip planned for today: San Marino. From the moment I booked our flights to Bologna, San Marino was on my list of places that I really wanted to visit. Going to a new country for the first time is always really exciting, and there's something particularly intriguing about tiny countries. We had an amazing overnight stay in Andorra a couple of years ago, travelling there and back from Toulouse in a minibus driven by an absolute maniac, and we did a day trip from Saarbrucken in Germany to Luxembourg back in 2009 when we were fleeing a particularly bad Esperanto event. Both were fun experiences, so I was keen to add San Marino to my list of visited countries which are so small that they really shouldn't exist.
There aren't any trains to San Marino, so the most convenient way to arrive is via a bus from Rimini. There are several buses a day, departing at 75-minute intervals and taking approximately 45 minutes to reach San Marino. Because the timetable was relatively infrequent and it was difficult to know in advance how much competition there would be for tickets, I was keen for us to get to Rimini as early as possible so that even if we ended up missing out on one bus, we should be able to catch a subsequent one. After a much speedier breakfast and putting-on of suncream than usual, we set off for Bologna Centrale on time to catch the regional train to Rimini at 08.35.
Somewhat naively I thought that catching a train at that time of the morning ought to guarantee it being reasonably quiet. I couldn't imagine there being vast hordes of people commuting from Bologna to Rimini, and it ought to have been too early for the majority of holiday makers. I was therefore absolutely aghast when a jam-packed train rolled into the station and very few passengers appeared to get off. Expecting the train to be a bit longer than it actually was, we had been standing pretty far down the platform, with the result that there was really only one carriage door through which we could board. Numerous other people had made the same mistake, and there was a far from good-natured scrum as we all attempted to board. Babel and I managed to squeeze ourselves on, though a tenacious old woman managed to shove herself between us at the last minute. It was immediately apparent that it would be standing-room only in the carriage, and so we positioned ourselves as best we could, grabbing hold of whatever handles or seats were within our grasp. It was cramped, but not unbearably so, until the pushy woman, evidently not impressed that she - as the most important person in the universe - was required to stand, began to manoeuvre herself into our personal space. She was travelling with a girl who appeared to be her daughter and a reasonably large suitcase. She tackled the suitcase first, positioning it and repositioning it in such a way that other people had to shift to make room. Then she sent her daughter squeezing down to the other side of the carriage for some reason which was unclear. A couple of minutes of relative peace passed until the daughter reappeared and, in order to be polite, I stepped back slightly and moved my arm from the handle I had been hanging on to in order to let her past me. But this bloody woman, rather than letting the girl move past me as was clearly the intention, seized upon this temporary new space and instructed the girl to stand in it; i.e. to stand directly in front of me, holding on to the handle which I had blatantly been using for the entire duration of the journey to this point.
Words failed me. It was extremely fortunate that a few minutes later, the train reached its first halting point and a gentleman a few metres away got off, allowing this obnoxious woman to seize upon his seat like a vulture. Otherwise I think it is extremely unlikely that I would have survived the entire 90-minute journey without slapping her.
In general the conduct of passengers on the train was extremely bad. On the other side of Tim there was an elderly nun who was clearly quite frail and not in the best condition to be standing on a crowded train. There were several young people sitting in her vicinity, but none of them offered to give up their seat. Babel had to spend a significant portion of the journey holding the carriage door open with one arm to prevent it closing, swinging into her and knocking her over.
Fortunately for both our tempers, about halfway into the journey there came a station where a significant number of people got off and we were able to find seats. Not quite as relaxed as we'd been anticipating, we arrived in Rimini at 10am nevertheless with plenty of time to spare before the published departure time of the San Marino bus at 10.45. I was slightly disconcerted to see that there was already a significant crowd of people standing at the relevant bus stop, however, and began to panic that we wouldn't be able to fit on the bus when it came, so we got ourselves into as advantageous a position as possible in the general queue/scrum and hoped for the best. Things actually turned out significantly better than we had been hoping, because the bus turned up as early as 10.20 and began to let people board. Despite having been reasonably well placed in the first instance, the continental queuing methodology meant that we reached the door of the coach at the exact point at which the driver decided it might be full. There were a few moments of uncertainty over whether we would be allowed to get on but fortunately the entire back row was still free and we were able to secure ourselves a couple of seats. Phew!
The drive to San Marino was a bit of an adventure in itself. Leaving the outskirts of Rimini behind us, we joined a motorway from which we already had a clear view of a high mountain topped by a fortress. You could have blinked and missed the actual border of Italy and San Marino, marked as it was by a small unobtrusive sign, but it was soon apparent that we had crossed it by the proliferation of duty free shops. The country turned out to possess a greater geographical area that I had realised, and we travelled for a while upon the flat before we reached the base of the mountain and began to wind our way up it. The driver had to negotiate some serious bends in the road as we made our way upwards and every time I thought we must have got as far as public transport was permitted to go, we swung around yet another corner. Eventually we arrived in a large car park where the bus disgorged its passengers, most of whom transferred to a small blue land train which, for an extortionate fee, would trundle you around San Marino and ensure that you didn't have to do anything complicated like walking on your own two feet. Babel and I swiftly walked in the opposite direction.
San Marino proved to be absolutely charming. The free map we had been issued with wasn't really in enough detail for us to establish where we were at any given point in time, so initially we just wandered, working on the premise that it was best to do as much uphill walking as possible to get it out of the way. After an hour or so exploring the main streets and squares, we were starting to feel a bit peckish and decided to have an early lunch. It was slightly overcast by this point and threatening rain, but we got an outdoor table with a fantastic view out across San Marino and beyond. The prices in the restaurant seemed very reasonable, so we ordered a couple of lasagnes and a jug of white wine. The wine was nice, albeit slightly fizzy, the waiter brought our lasagne very promptly and all in all everything would have been absolutely perfect ... except for the fact that the portion of lasagne was about the size of a crumpet. We tried to eat it slowly, we really did. I cut mine up into tiny little pieces and interspersed them with sips of fizzy wine, but it was all to no avail; within less than five minutes we both polished off our plates and were still starving.
This was when Babel suggested that we order pizza and chips. My first reaction was that it would be rather too embarrassing, given that we'd just eaten one of this restaurant's main courses, to follow it up by ordering another one. But on the other hand we were ravenous, and we had got back from Florence too late to have any dinner the previous night, so we requested to see the menu again and the long and the short of it was that we ended up sharing a spicy Diavolo pizza and a plate of fries between us.
The first few spots of rain were falling as we got to the end of our pizza, so we quickly paid and headed off to see what else San Marino had to offer. After the relentless heat of the past few days, a sprinkling of rain was actually quite pleasant and at no point was it heavy enough to impede our enjoyment of the day or to justify the plastic ponchos which we saw some tourists wearing. We climbed uphill towards the first of the three towers which dominate the skyline of San Marino.
We could see the first of San Marino's three castles so decided to visit it after lunch:
Radio at the foot of the first castle:
The first castle was easily the largest. Its ramparts had a steep uphill slope, reflecting the ground on which it stood:
This is how precariously it seems to be perched. We weren't aware of this until after we'd clambered all over it:
Radio at the first castle, our next target in the background:
We could see the second castle in the distance ...
... and this was the path to it - the Great Wall of San Marino!
Getting closer to it!
The third - and final - tower in the distance:
Although we did encounter some tourist bottlenecks at times, we also found a lovely path through the trees between the second and third towers which was practically deserted, and so we were able to enjoy the beautiful views in relative peace.
By the end of the day, our pedometers were registering less than six miles; the laziest day of the holiday to date. They did, however, also record that we had climbed the equivalent of 72 staircases, which I think redeems us slightly. San Marino was a beautiful place and I would definitely go back one day, although I don’t think anything would ever induce me to catch the 08.35 train to Rimini again!