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How to Get to Heaven: San Marino, City in the Clouds

Posted by on February 4, 2014

Having failed to find God in Vatican City, it was with some surprise that I came across him on a mountain road in San Marino.

While Vatican is the world’s smallest country, lesser known San Marino is the world’s third smallest country, and if you want to be picky, the world’s smallest “constitutional republic” (read, real country). This title has been disputed by Nauru, a single island nation in the Pacific, but Nauru also owns shitloads of ocean, so they can fuck off, basically.

Back home, knowing nothing about San Marino, I decided to Google it, and got this.

San Marino

The image that inspired my trip to San Marino

The only problem was, I didn’t know what it was called, where it was, or how to get there. I wanted to go to this exact spot and take this exact photo, but I couldn’t find any concrete information.

So I decided to write this post, telling people exactly how to get to San Marino, or more specifically to San Marino City, the capital, or even more specifically to Guaita, this particular tower. This post should help give you an idea of how to make the journey and what to expect when you get there.

Walking out of Rimini train station, you’ll see a bus stop dead ahead with a kiosk next to it and a big yellow sign saying “tickets”. Don’t be too hasty. Further inspection will reveal a much smaller sign that says something like “…for all destinations except San Marino”.

However, on a nearby lamppost, a laminated piece of A4 with an arrow will direct you to “tickets for San Marino” on the other side of the street. Just outside of Burger King – you really can’t miss it – you’ll see three bus shelters. Imagine there’s a fourth. That is where you get the bus to San Marino, and where, in due course, a strange old lady will appear, set up a small table and sell you the necessary tickets, which are €4.50 each way. She will then disappear again without warning. Buses run every now and then until roughly 6 or 7pm, seven days a week (we made the return trip on a Sunday without difficulty). I think this is the timetable we used.

Rimini, which I’m told is a beach resort, despite the fact that there is no coast to be seen for miles around – at least according to the large city map outside the station – was slopped by an impenetrable blanket of dark, grey cloud. There wasn’t a hope in hell of getting that photo of San Marino on a miserable day like this, but we’d come this far.

The bus wound through the damp foothills, at some point crossing from Italy into San Marino, and passed through the depressingly boring-looking Dogana – San Marino’s most populous town. The modern highway took long, sweeping bends higher and higher up the mountain, the bus coming almost to a standstill due to the gradient and visibility becoming almost non-existent as the fog encircled us, first in light wisps, but before long an all encompassing mass.

Then suddenly the bus poked its nose through the top of the fog, which was in fact the clouds, and almost instantly we were bathed in golden sunlight.

“There is a God!” I yelled…then immediately remembered there isn’t, and took it back.

I’ve seen uneven clouds, that rise and fall with the land, in Switzerland, Peru, Bolivia and so on, but never to my memory seen a place on land that pokes up above them, like an island at sea, or that otherworldly landscape seen from a plane window, or like Cloud City in Star Wars, or the mythical home of the Gods at Mount Olympus, which I’ve been to, and which wasn’t like this at all.

In Cloud City

San Marino: City in the Clouds

San Marino City above the clouds

Above the cloud in San Marino City

Mountain peaks were islands in a sea of cloud

Distant mountain peaks, islands in a sea of cloud

Arriving at the bus stop in San Marino City, the highest capital in Europe, we took the glass elevator up to the next level of streets then ran up the narrow, golden-cobbled passages of this seemingly ancient city, racing a new, higher bank of cloud that threatened to take away the sun once again.

Vampire Museum San Marino Museo dei Vampiri

The Museo dei Vampiri (Vampire Museum) in San Marino

These winding roads are steep and we lost the race, pretty soon smothered once again in the blanket of moisture.

Droplets of moisture gathered in my hair like tiny pearls. Ancient paths and bridges disappeared into the void mere feet in front of us. Perched on the old, stone city walls and looking down into the abyss, we had no concept of how far we had to fall, except that it was a very, very long way.

I began to realise that this was actually a once in a lifetime experience, to be walking around in the clouds. The views were incredible, in their in own blank, grey way.

Path in fog in San Marino City

The path disappeared into the clouds

Fog Clouds in San Marino

Standing beside the Abyss

There are three towers in San Marino City, each one sitting on one of the city’s three peaks. This is the best part of the country. Away from the souvenir shops, the three peaks are skirted on one side by a sheer drop and linked on the other by forested paths and crumbling stone passages that anywhere else would be long gone. The whole town, including the peaks is easily walkable in an hour or less.

The first tower, Guaita (and also known on the local signs as simply “Tower 1″), is the oldest of the three, built in the 11th century.

“Tower 2″ is called Cesta (pronounced like “Chester”) and is on the highest peak.

“Tower 3″, Montale, is the shortest, the least old and generally a bit of a reject. Nevertheless, we sat beside it enjoying the moist mountain air and the view of the white-speckled woodland.

Forest path in San Marino City

My favourite part of San Marino

Just when I thought this country couldn’t get any better, the cloud dropped and the sunny day returned. It was unimaginable to think that if we’d spent the day in Rimini we’d be having one of the dullest, darkest, wettest days of our lives.

Ancient stone passages, bridges and city walls in San Marino City

Ancient stone passages along the city walls

Guaita the oldest of the three towers of San Marino

Guaita, the oldest of the three towers

Sea of Clouds in San Marino

Contemplating the Void

Back in the centre, the drinker in me was happy to discover that most of the souvenir shops were in fact tax-free liquor stores selling novelty alcohols, many with labels detailing parts of the female (and male) anatomy. Prices ranged as low as €6 for three bottles of wine and €9 for three bottles of Italian liqueurs, which led me to once again question whether this was in fact heaven…or, at the very least, that heaven on earth that Belinda Carlisle was always banging on about.

Sunset in San Marino

Sunset in San Marino City

Waiting for the bus, we watched the most incredible sunset of my life.

San Marino Sunset with silhouetted buildings

A gap in the silhouetted buildings

Lastly, I should point out, I’m pretty sure that photo I found on Google at the beginning was taken from a helicopter. I can’t see where else the photographer could have been standing to get that view. But I still thoroughly recommend making the journey to San Marino.

Best San Marino sunset

Not the photo of San Marino I wanted, but even better

4 Responses to How to Get to Heaven: San Marino, City in the Clouds

  1. Visit

    Hi Roy! Congrats for the article and the awesome photos. The photo you found on google was not taken from a helicopter, but from the top of the ‘Second Tower’ Cesta! On the highest peak of Mount Titano.

    • Roy Duffield

      I can’t quite believe it, but you obviously know better than me. ;) All I know is that if it looked that beautiful in thick mist, it must be incredible on a clear day!

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