The Art of European Travel: Florence and San Marino

While living in Sweden gives me the option to take weekend trips almost anywhere in Europe, due to a number of reasons I had not yet ventured beyond Scandinavia save my fall trip to North Macedonia and Kosovo (described in the previous post). But given the darkness and dampness of the Swedish winter, I was certainly ready to travel somewhere sunnier for a few days by February, and planned a trip to Florence, Italy. This trip was unusual, given my usual solitary wanderings, as I went to visit my brother Erik, who was studying abroad there. While due to schedule challenges on both our ends I was only able to spend two days on this trip (while for many people even a week is not enough in Florence) I also decided to make my most of my time in the region and indulge my fascination with microstates by visiting the tiny nation of San Marino.

Enclosed within east central Italy, San Marino is the world’s oldest sovereign state, a remnant of the city-states of pre-19th century Italy. With a population of only 30,000, it is one of the world’s smallest countries by both population and area, though still culturally and linguistically similar to its Italian surroundings. Our trip to San Marino by public transportation from Florence was far longer than what would be expected given the relatively close proximity between Florence and San Marino on the map – due to the mountains in between, our trip required transferring in Bologna and Rimini, though with limited time to explore either city. The city of San Marino itself looks like something out of a fairytale, three towers perched on the imposing peak of Mount Titano, with the narrow streets and historic buildings of the old city in their shadow. Small as the country is, there are however multiple more modern villages in San Marino besides the capital, far less charming but undoubtedly more functional for today’s residents. San Marino’s government buildings seem curiously large given the presumably minimal requirements of running such a minuscule nation, but several were situated in quite picturesque locations. The old city itself has become full of tourist traps, but neither these nor the plethora of weapons dealers (San Marino apparently has laxer gun laws than Italy, so many Italians will come here to purchase their firearms) detracted much from the extraordinary views and well-preserved or restored fortifications, essential in war-torn medieval and Renaissance Italy.

San Marino worked perfectly as a day trip, leaving the Sunday free to explore a selection of Florence’s many highlights. Erik and I stopped in early to the Uffizi Galleries, exploring this extraordinary collection of art a step ahead of the tourist throngs that usually filled the museum. One of the oldest art collections, the Uffizi holds too many masterpieces to count, so many that I could not choose any single art pictures to include here. But the art tour did not end here, as our next stop (after crossing the Arno River to Florence’s south side) was the Medici’s Pitti Palace, also filled on every wall and ceiling with even more precious paintings. Behind this palace, the Boboli Gardens provided some welcome nature in the midst of the crowded city, while the close by Bardini Gardens gave uninterrupted views across Florence’s cityscape. Florence’s churches also hold artwork that would be the highlight of most American museums, and while long lines and lack of time prevented us from visiting the Duomo, Florence’s most recognizable landmark, we stopped in several smaller but still dazzlingly decorated churches in the afternoon. On both days, we enjoyed feasting on the local Tuscan specialties, given Italy’s cuisine far outstrips that of Sweden.

Now given as I took this trip in the beginning of February, you may wonder why I did not write about it until now. Well, my original plan was to combine this blog with one about my trip to Venice the first weekend of March. But as you may know, nature found a way to throw all plans astray, as the spread of COVID-19 forced a cancellation of that trip, and eventually the full shutdown of Italy overall. So I’m grateful I reached Florence when I did – at the moment, it may be some time before anywhere in Italy returns to its normal state.

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