Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part III – Saints Be Praised

The next morning, we awoke to a threatening sky - an ill omen? Once again over breakfast we made plans for our day. There are two countries which reside inside Italy. Can you recall their names? One is Rome's nearby neighbor of course, almost a suburb, the Vatican. The other is probably better known to the stamp collectors among us, San Marino. With Riccione being relatively close to San Marino, we decided to head that way but not before some drama and renewed heartburn.

I clicked to unlock the door of our rental car and began to organize and rearrange things, finishing by finally loading our suitcases. Not a problem. All packed, we got inside and when I went to start the engine, I couldn't find the key. With the car being our lifeline, all I could imagine in my momentary panic was how long it would take to get another key, especially this being Sunday morning. That would surely be a story to relate. It was almost the equivalent shock you feel when you discover your wallet or purse missing. Then, recalling that I'd unlocked the door only moments before, I knew that although the key was not in the ignition, it had to be nearby. Together we looked around ... on the floor, under the seats, behind the seats, under the car, on the roof, in my pockets ... no success. Next we began to unpack the car hoping to find the key under the very next item we removed. Again no joy. I was getting more nervous by the minute with images of what might be involved to get a replacement key. I fantasized on how I'd have to explain and hopefully get "the daughter" to call EuropCar for us, the long ensuing wait we could expect, possibly even the need to stay another night until Italy returned to a normal workday schedule once again. The only consolation to my imagined scenario was that at least we knew where to eat (Gambero Rosso) and that we could easily get a room (Albergo Astra). I also knew I should have gone to church that morning! There was still time to go and pray to Saint Anthony - the patron saint of lost belongings. Just the thought must have helped for when I checked again, there on the floor carpet between my seat and the parking brake handle lay the errant key. Though I couldn't really distinguish the black key against the black carpet between black vinyl seats, I finally felt it. Whew, our relief was palpable. Thank you St Anthony! After what seemed like a long frantic delay, but really only minutes in duration, we were at long last underway. The key hadn't gotten far after all and neither had we. On to San Marino.

The ride from the coast to San Marino under the brooding clouds of an incontinent sky was all of about 10 km. We were heading West along the San Marino Superhighway toward Mount Titan (Monte Titano), a prominent ridgeline in the Apennine mountain range rising starkly ahead of us. These mountains were in harsh contrast to the flat plane of the coastline. The Republic of San Marino is dominated by rugged terrain. In fact and hard to believe, it has no natural level ground; it is entirely composed of hilly terrain. As we climbed from one country into another, nothing seemed to change - the houses, the architecture - everything about us appeared the same. We were in Italy by another name. This was nothing like the difference we sensed when entering Italy from Germany two days earlier. A simple pennant above the road announced our distinction - without fanfare we had arrived.

The mini-state of San Marino is all of 24 square miles, about a quarter the size of Boston. With an equally diminutive population of just over 30,000, it has the smallest population of all the members of the Council of Europe (note: San Marino is not part of the EU). We were headed for its capital, San Marino City. As the continuation of a monastic community founded in 301AD by a stonecutter of the name Marinus, San Marino is the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. Tradition has it that its namesake, Marinus, left the island of Dalmatia (then Rab) in present-day Croatia in 257AD looking for work. His destination, as ours had been the day before, was Rimini (read Part II) where he worked as a mason. Roman Emperor Diocletian had issued a decree calling for the reconstruction of Rimini's city walls, which had been destroyed by pirates. This was also during the religious persecutions by this same emperor. Marinus was eventually forced to flee Rimini to nearby Monte Titano following sermons he shared on the Christian faith. Safely atop Monte Titano, a community soon developed around the small church he built that over time became the seed for the sovereign state of San Marino. Since that time and largely due to its inaccessible location, San Marino has managed to survive, prosper and preserve its cherished independence. Even Lady Luck played a hand as for instance when, following the French Revolution, Napoleon pushed through Italy. Emperor Bonaparte promised to guarantee and protect the independence of the Republic but only due to the quirkiest of circumstances - he simply seemed to like and had befriended the head regent (think President) of San Marino. So much for the value of friendship, especially if you have friends in high places! Much later during the Italian unification period, San Marino served as a refuge for many people persecuted because of their support for unification. In grateful recognition of this support, mercurial Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state. It also helped when during both WWI and WWII that the Republic remained neutral. George Washington's counsel to avoid foreign entanglements and stay out of foreign wars surely seemed to work for lilliputian-like San Marino!

We were following signs displaying a sort of black and white bull's-eye, an indication throughout Italy (and I guess San Marino) of the centro storico (historical center). We continued our ascent all the while following these markers turn by turn as we passing through Borgo Maggiore lying at the foot of Monte Titano. Previously called Mercatale (marketplace), Borgo Maggiore is one of the nine communes of San Marino and remains today faithful to its name as the most important market town in San Marino. In addition to the bull's-eye pointers we soon began to notice signs for a tramway. We could see cable filaments in the distance with an aerial tramway rising above the rooftops. This cable car allows Monte Titano to be scaled to the town of San Marino. This became our new destination adding to the befuddled confusion of our GPS traveling companion, Margaret.

Following our cable car ride to the top, we exited into a scenic park accented with life-size statues among its greenery. The park overlooked an aged though well maintained stadium where at just that moment a troop of youthful scouts, armed with their pennants, was entering for some ceremony. Like scouts ourselves, we had free unstructured time to explore and headed off toward the center of the city. I couldn't help but feel that the tram had transported us to some Tuscan hilltop village. Everything about us reminded me of a Cortona, a San Gimignano or, following a similar tram ride, petite Certaldo Alto. It was a beautiful place to stroll - the rusticated cobblestones ageless, the narrow streets boarded by shops and restaurants inviting and the views from the crenellated walls over the valley below and toward the distant sea something reserved for soaring eagles. It's worth coming here just for the view, but save it for a good day, for the only thing out of joint was the weather. By then the pewter sky, minion to the arbitrary whims of Mother Nature, in naked abandon decided to empty its considerable store on San Marino. With our own umbrellas forgotten in the car, we soon retreated into a cafe to idle over frothy cappuccinos waiting for the right moment to emerge. Growing impatient, we 'awning hopped' further down the street until we eventually gave up on the sport and bought an umbrella!

The inclement weather put a crimp to much we could do in this amusement park of the past. One of our first stops was at the majestic Basilica del Santo located in Piazza Domus Plebis and built in honor of St. Anthony. A mass was underway, which gave me an opportunity to thank St. Anthony for his earlier 'key intervention' and see what he could do about the weather! Before turning back, we walked the cobbles as far as Porta della Fratta on the back battlement of this fortified capital stopping at the first of the three well preserved castles dominating the city, La Rocca o Guaita. Like the other two it is perched on the rim of Monte Titano, but with two defensive walls surrounding an inner tower keep, it is the largest. Our only purchase was of a miniature Degas sculpture entitled "Little Dancer of 14 Years". We had seen one of the 23 existing, life-size Degas bronzes at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris years earlier and had never forgotten its haunting appearance inside a glass case. It was in a window and beckoned to Maria Elena, who had to have it. Actually, at first we bought a smaller one only to return for the larger subject moments later. Speaking of window shopping, the citizens of San Marino must love their guns. Store after store displayed all types of automatic rifles and handguns (see photo album). Let me tell you there were many to choose from. They covered the gamut and included the ubiquitous AK-47 with banana clip and all sorts of other military assault weapons and related paraphernalia. It was hard to imagine these weapons were actually real or anything other than simply gas-powered look-alikes shooting BBs or pellets. Some no doubt were, yet others, may others, were the real mccoy. I wonder how far I'd have gotten, following a return ride down the cable car, with a few bandoliers crisscrossing my chest and assault rifles slung over my shoulders?

The rain couldn't diminish our appetites, however. In fact, what better way to dawdle as we waited out the rain? As we had in Riccione, we window shopped eatery menus and settled on Ristorante Pizzeria Da Pier. Truthfully, they all looked similar but this one was particularly beckoning when it began to rain harder! The Da Pier dished-up everything from pizza for the less famished to ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna and wood-oven roasted meats for the starving. Maria Elena is fond of reminding me "this isn't your last meal" but I knew deep down that all my meals in Italia were limited and therefore numbered. I recall a heaping bowl of home-made ribbon pasta in meat sauce topped with parmigiano cheese while Maria enjoyed her reliable rainy day comfort food, steaming soup. Along with salad and a basket of crusty bread with just a welcomed hint of salt, we made a serious meal of it under a clash of clutter decor that included what else but weaponry ... decorative crossbows, flint-lock pistols and spear-tipped axes. I wouldn't want to shy them on the bill and attempt to make a run for it!

By then the rain had quieted down but the sky remained threatening. Following lunch, we waddled to the tramway once again through the park. More interesting art and somewhat unusual statuary bordered Contrada Omagnano (see photo album) including one I thought artistic, though not at all its intent. After all the formal sculptures along this avenue, there lying in, of all things, a bullet-shaped trash container sprouted the curved handle of a discarded umbrella. It reminded me of the ending scene from that Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street", when a cane leaning in the corner of an empty house gave genuineness to a child's belief in Santa. You can neither demand a miracle nor ever push a saint but I know just then that St. Anthony had finally come through for the sun appeared. The umbrella had be a segno (sign). Saints be praised, we were off in search of Spoletto in the foothills of the Umbrian Apennines under dazzling sunshine, a good omen.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Search for Perfection - Part III”.