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Postcard from San Marino

San Marino - Italy border San Marino-Italy border
San Marino City Walls
San Marino City Walls

Good grief! Having gone on Ireland trips to such far-flung places like Georgia, Albania or Israel, and not just survived, but lived it large, I was expecting somewhere in the heart of Europe like San Marino to be a doddle. Not a bit of it.

It's partly my own fault, for believing the old cliché about San Marino being little more than a mountain top. It fact it's a country 60km2 wide (roughly half the size of Dublin city). Founded in 301 AD, San Marino is Europe's oldest republic and the Sammarinese are fiercely proud of their independence and hate being mistaken for Italian.

San Marino is not walkable, not just because of its size, but because of the curious lack of pedestrian pavements. The car is definitely king here, and anyone wishing to leg it, will find themselves strolling along narrow roadsides hoping they don't get run over by oncoming traffic.

Upon arriving in San Marino (flight to Bologna, train to Rimini, then bus) I found myself staying in the Ixo Hotel in the Dogana district on the border. And a very swanky place it is too; all designer matte black furnishings, flatscreen TVs and fitted bathrooms. I had chosen well. What's more, on entering the dining room on the morning of the match, I found the San Marino team was staying here too, tucking into their breakfast. I did briefly consider spiking their coffee, but then I thought "Nah, there is something seriously wrong if I need to knobble San Marino before Ireland can beat them." Well…

No problems with the food around here of course. This must be the first time that travelling Irish fans have not been found congregating around a MacDonald's since the local fare was familiar, fair -priced and fab. The pizzas here are simply too good. They have a lightness and delicacy about them that is a world away from your local dial-a-pizza stodge.

The town (as opposed to the country) of San Marino is indeed a mountain top. A turreted fortress atop Mount Titano to be exact. Just 750m above sea level, but it feels a lot higher on the bus zig-zagging its way up there. Within the walls of the city lies a charming, hilly, cobble-streeted town that is difficult to navigate, even with the aid of a map. The Cesta Fortress, at the very top, affords spectacular views of the whole country, once you've negotiated the 80° steps to the vertigo-inducing top tower.

View from Cesta Fortress View from Cesta Fortress
Ireland v San Marino
Ireland v San Marino

I also did the tour of the nearby Museum of Torture. The exhibition there of over 100 items is disturbing testament to man's ingenuity for causing pain and death. What was depressing was not just the thought of people historically subjected to these iron maidens, spiked stocks, water tortures and the like, but the fact that, as the exhibition pointedly states, many of these torture weapons are still in use around the world today.

The San Marino v Ireland, Euro 2008 qualifying match was on at the Stadio de Serravalle. A cosy wee ground that was little more than a glorified training pitch. Around 2,000 Irish fans made the journey here, making up about four-fifths of the attendance. They came expecting a stroll and a massacre of the hosts. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. The Irish side produced a performance devoid of any passion or pride, creating little in the way of chances and constantly gave the ball away.

I feared the worst when it was goalless at half-time, but 4 minutes into the restart, Kevin Kilbane got onto the end of a cross to head Ireland one up. But the anticipated opening of the floodgates never happened. Unbelievably, in my opinion, they actually attempted to settle for that. Ireland were trying to sit on a 1-0 lead, I could understand if it was against Holland or Brazil, but San Marino?!?!?

Such complacency was punished when Manuel Marani took advantage of a mix up between Henderson and Dunne and, although tripped, crawled along and headed the ball on the ground as it trickled over the line in slow motion. The Sammarinese went berserk. They were about to snatch their first ever point in European qualifying history, that is until Stephen Ireland struck a late winner with practically the last kick of the game in the 4th minute of added time.

Once the immediate joy of winning subsided, I actually felt sorry for the locals. They had been great hosts, provided terrific hospitality and their team, part-timers to a man, was so close to creating history by obtaining their first ever point in competitive football. I had a lovely time in San Marino, and would come back again. But next time, I'll stay somewhere nearer San Marino City and hire a chauffeur!


Arrivederci.


Cathal