If one is asked what they know about republics, they will probably think of France and the bloody revolution that deposed the French king, who was later executed. America, a former British colony that is now the richest country in the world, also springs to mind, and Germany, Russia and Japan are all countries no longer governed by a king or an emperor. However, one might not know which country was the first ever republic. It was none of these countries, however rich they may be, but rather a tiny enclave entirely within Italy called San Marino. Only 1/3 times the size of Washington DC, San Marino has existed ever since the Dark Ages without a strong king, duke, emperor or religious leader to keep the country safe, and paradoxically, this is the reason why it still exists today. The city-state has survived feudal wars around it, Napoleon's invasion and the reunification of Italy to remain independent to this day.
San Marino is built on and around Mount Titano, on the border between two regions and near to the Italian city of Rimini, and is just 24 square miles in size and has a population of less than 30,000 people. Despite, or rather because of, its small stature, the country is, politically, economically and socially, a brilliant place to live. Men have an average life expectancy of 80 - the highest in the world. San Marino is one of the richest per capita countries, and its unemployment rate is the lowest in the world. It is the first country to have complete wi-fi access and it is also a tax haven, although with the current economic crisis the world is facing, the country's banks have been forced to take steps to be more transparent.
So how has a country 5000 times smaller than its engulfing neighbour Italy managed to keep its sovereignty for a time spanning three millennia?
San Marino was thought to have been founded in 301 A.D. by Marinus, a stonemason by trade and a devout Christian. He was originally from Rab, an island belonging to modern-day Croatia, but had moved to the nearby city of Rimini to escape religious persecution. He joined the church there and was eventually ordained. However, things took a turn for the worse for him when a woman announced that she was his estranged wife, and to escape all the commotion he fled to Mount Titano, where he took refuge. There he stayed, and built a monastery and a chapel. After a short time, a small Christian community had developed around the mountain. There must have been something charming about the close-knit group that had formed there, as Felicissima, a lady of Rimini who owned the land, granted the area independence, saying that the people of Mount Titano should always remain united. Marinus was canonised, and later on the area was renamed San Marino - St Marinus in Italian - in honour of its founder.
Saint Marinus building the monastery chapel - the birth of San Marino.
By the Middle Ages many Italian city-states had broken away from the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal land to become independent. For San Marino, of course, life on its own without an absolute monarch or ruler for life was nothing new, and for most of the big Italian city-states, freedom would be short lived and authoritarian rulers soon took over. Their sheer size made them targets for aristocratic families on the make, and by the start of the 16th century, of the major cities, only Venice retained their republic status. Little San Marino, however, had managed to keep as it had been since the 4th century, though it had needed some luck along the way. In the 1400s it was caught in the middle of a war between the Malatesta family of Rimini to its north and the Montefeltro family of Urbino to its south. Due to luck and good analytical skills, it took the side of the Montefeltros, and after the Malatestas were beaten, San Marino was given more land.
In 1600 San Marino adopted its first written constitution, which is even further evidence of San Marino being the world's oldest republic even if you do not believe the St Marinus legend. But 1400 years after it was founded without an absolute ruler, other countries were catching on. In nearby France, the ruling elite had been overthrown in a bloody revolution, with the royal family eventually killed and the country ruled by a Directory until 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte took control. Some of his first targets to invade were various regions in Italy. But Sammarinese citizens worrying about the liberty of the country could relax; Napoleon didn't feel the need to invade, and when asked why he said: "Why, it's a model Republic!" Napoleon eventually chose to gift San Marino with more land, though they turned that offer down - a wise decision, as they did not want the countries with land taken from them and given to San Marino to try and get them back by going to war. He also made the country a tax haven, a status that has stood to this day.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man responsible for unifying Italy in the 1860s, chose not to incorporate San Marino into the new peninsular country. This was because San Marino offered a refuge for him in his darkest hours; when he was fighting French, Austrian, Spanish and Neapolitan troops and his wife died in the process. As a reward for the sanctuary the country provided, he respected their wishes to remain independent.
During the Second World War, San Marino was ruled by the Fascist Party but remained neutral, though 63 people were killed when the Allies bombed the country in the mistaken belief that it contained supplies for the Germans. After the war the Communist party was voted in, making San Marino the first country in the world to democratically elect a Communist party into power. Communism was voted out in 1958 but was voted in again from 2006 to 2008.
The border of San Marino during the Second World War. The sign clearly states its neutrality.
So why has a territory so small that it could easily be brushed aside kept its independence for all these centuries?
It is partly down to the territory gained by San Marino in the war between the Montefeltro and the Malatesta family. This ensured that although San Marino was very small, it would not be ignored, while still not posing a threat to other neighbours. Also useful was the friendly diplomacy with the Pope, which helped them to restore their independence during the three short times that they were occupied by foreign militaries, and the fact that they and Italy both speak Italian, though the Sammarinese dialect is a little different. But a key factor was their general hospitality as a country - neutral, but always willing to take in wounded soldiers and treat them well, and reluctant to engage in violent conflict.
The country really is a beauty to behold. The main city and capital, also called San Marino, is a curious, arquitecturally stunning place, much like many other old towns on the Italian peninsula. Red-roof houses line the streets, and wandering up the side-alleys can lead to many nice surprises, such as coming across a charming stone house with washing on the balcony and kids playing outside, or a well-kept shrine. You'll enjoy walking so much that you won't even notice the rule that no cars are allowed in the medieval centre, except to be refreshed by the clean air.
The beautiful old town.
The country has welcomed in tourists with open arms, and the beautiful old-town streets are littered with stalls selling various different souvenirs and products. The city of San Marino is certainly no ghost town, but if you want to sample the stunning views and pleasures of the place without the hustle and bustle of tourists, come in the working week or in the Autumn and Winter to get a true taste of the city. However, come later in the year and you are missing out on some of the country's key events. Every July San Marino hosts a festival where medieval customs and traditions are re-enacted, something anyone wanting to know more about the republic's history would greatly benefit from. There is also the Etno Festival, where you can enjoy music and dancing from artists from all around the world, and the festival is growing every year.
One has to dig very far down to find any issues with the republic. It is lively, beautiful, up to date with technology and efficient - almost nobody is unemployed except for the retired and people incapable of work. However, in terms of healthcare, although San Marino has a public health service, the only hospital in the area is small, albeit with a reputation of care of a very high standard, and in some cases a patient may have to find a hospital outside the country.
It is not a member of the European Union, although it uses the euro and has open borders. However, the left-wing opposition party Popular Alliance has been reported to attempt to join the EU if it gets in power.
Mount Titano, the place where a little community was founded by St Marinus more than 1700 years ago, is known for the three towers on the top of it, Guaita, Cesta and Montale, that can be seen from all around the heart of the country. These three fortresses served to protect the country in the rare occasions when its existence was threatened.
Guaita, also known as Rocca, is the main tower, built in the 11 century. Until 1970 it held prisoners, and the gardens inside its grounds are well worth a visit. Cesta, constructed in the 13 century, houses the Museum of Ancient Arms, and Montale is unfortunately closed to visitors. There is a path going across the mountain that connects the towers, and travellers that use this path will be rewarded with some spectacular scenery, particularly along the Passo delle Streghe (Witches' Pass).
Three Towers of Mount Titano
Visiting the country and its two racing circuits should be high up on the priority lists of those with petrol coursing through their veins. The Misano World Circuit hosts the San Marino Motorcycle Grand Prix every year, though the circuit itself is actually in Italy, causing controversy surrounding the name of the grand prix. The race is one of the most important dates on the calendar of motorcycle racing fans, and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi recorded victories here in 2008 and 2009. If you fancy going to see it, the date for 2011 has been announced as the 4th of September. This year the grand prix was marred by the death of young talent Shoya Tomizawa while racing. For followers of Formula 1 on a pilgrimage to San Marino the Imola circuit, used until 2006, is located between Rimini and Bologna.
The Maranello Rosso Museum of classic Ferraris and Abarths.
Back within the borders of San Marino, the Maranello Rosso Museum provides a fascinating afternoon for many, from Ferrari fanatics to people with a vague interest in cars and some free time. Maranello Rosso is actually divided into two museums. One hosts a range of classic Abarths, but it is the other that really sets the hearts racing - 25 Ferraris from the 50s to the present , many originally owned by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, plus a profile on the life and works of Enzo Ferrari. There is also a shop designed for Ferrari and Abarth enthusiasts, and such is the prestige of the museum that it is known across Italy.