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YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsSan Marino

Her World

Europe's Disneyland

August 23, 1987|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a nationally known magazine and newspaper writer

It is a tiny and ancient place, the Republic of San Marino, a collectible among nations and rife with idiosyncrasies. Its national anthem has no words. It boasts of a "standing" army of 120, as if there were no room to sit down.

RSM, as it is designated on bumper ovals, claims to be the smallest independent state in the world. It covers 23 square miles on the slopes of Mt. Titano, a rugged escarpment that juts 2,500 feet above the Adriatic and is surrounded by Italy.

A red brick road winds up toward thousand-year-old ramparts and turrets that bristle with heraldic banners and T-shirt stands. San Marino is a medieval museum, a souvenir state that thrives on tourism and the mementos that travelers covet.

Elegant Postage Stamps

High on any shopping list are elegant postage stamps that feature lacy flowers, San Marino coins, historic weapons and, for reasons not altogether inappropriate, the faces of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Walt Disney. If San Marino were to have a sister state--a place of like spirit and good will--it might be Disneyland. Both are fanciful settings where one can escape the real world.

San Marino is big on costumes and parades. Its bells ring funny; the clock in the palace tower tolls the hour and then adds a merry plink for each quarter.

The oldest military order dates from the 1300s and consists of crossbowmen who were trained to defend the mountaintop. Now they aim for victory in international sports competitions; teams in tights and tunics demonstrate their prowess in the Cave of the Crossbowmen.

Crossbows, from miniatures to chest-high models, are prized souvenirs in the shops that line the steep stone lanes. At 61 Contrade Santa Croce a shopkeeper greeted me as he raised his awning for the day.

Shelves of T-shirts were clean and orderly and stacked by colors and sizes. His prices were less than in the open stalls by the ramparts. He asked where I was from and we began the conversation in English. He said he was a native, one of the 23,000 residents of this little republic.

No Crime Problems

"It feels safe here," I said, making small talk as I held up a large T-shirt.

"It is safe," he said with an earnest nod. "We have no crime problems. Young girls can walk safely at night. Car radios are not stolen--except sometimes in summer by tourists from Milano or Bologna. And the banks are like Switzerland. The authorities can find out, but they are not likely to."

Only recently did citizenship become possible for foreigners, but you have to live in San Marino for 35 years to qualify. Italians who marry a San Marinese appreciate the blessings of the state.

"For the citizen, everything is free," the shopkeeper went on. "Health care, schools. And the weather is mild. Oh, maybe three feet of snow in winter, but the warm wind from the Adriatic melts it soon and it is so pretty.

"Our shops are open every day from March through October. After that we work when we feel like working--but always on weekends. It is a wonderful way to live."

Bought T-shirts

I could not argue, so I thanked him for his English. He thanked me for the chance to practice. And I bought two T-shirts that were blue and white, the national colors; they bore the plumed towers of the San Marino coat of arms.

The national colors also cropped up on the monogrammed towels at the Grand Hotel San Marino, a no-frills establishment with knockout views of Italian hills that seemed tossed and torn, like waves at their crest.

The Grand Hotel is aware that souvenir hunters know no season when they're out to bag a trophy in such a rare state. A sign in my bathroom warned that the chambermaid is responsible for two hand towels, two bath towels and two washcloths. If any are missing at check-out time, the maid must pay.

Of course, I did not dare. I would no more steal in San Marino than I'd sing their national anthem.

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