Monday, April 8, 2013

The Republic of San Marino: A Country on a Cliff

One of the world’s smallest countries, San Marino’s status as a republic goes back to 301 A.D, making it the oldest republic in the world. With a constitution dating back to 1600, it also has the oldest constitution still in effect. According to legend, the rocky land was given to the stonecutter Marinus by local nobility as a present for his charitable acts to the community. In his honour, the land was named 'Land of San Marino,' and later changed to its present-day name, Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino, or 'The Most Serene Republic of San Marino'. Despite occasional invasions, San Marino has survived the last 1700 years completely intact, despite attacks by other self-governing Italian city-states, the Napoleonic Wars, the unification of Italy and two world wars.

There are three towers in San Marino: Guaita, Cesta and Montale, 
each located on the peaks of Monte Titano

Today, San Marino is one of the world's wealthiest countries, has the lowest unemployment rate in all of Europe, has no national debt, has a budget surplus and it's people have one of the world's highest life expectancies. It also has the most unrestricted gun laws in Europe, so anyone can obtain a sub machine gun or any other light duty weapon which might be required for a daily outing in the Italian countryside!

The main entrance to Castello della Guaita in San Marino

Aside from its gun laws, San Marino is spectacular, rising proudly above the Italian landscape, perched high up on sheer cliffs that rise implausibly from the flatlands of Romagna. From the top, an unfolding panorama of rolling hills, rocky outcroppings and beautiful green countryside cascade out in every direction. The city is built vertically on the side of Monte Titano, which makes for some tough walking, but it's well worth the effort, with stunning views to the Adriatic, Po River Valley and on a clear day, to Croatia. A tangled knot of cobblestone streets with a medieval castle and three fortresses make San Marino a unique destination. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008, the city of San Marino is protected by its Tre Castelli, or three towers: Guaita, Cesta, and Montale. The towers are pictured on the coat of arms, the flag and the traditional cake of San Marino. The oldest tower served as a prison briefly and was constructed in the 11th century. The second tower is a bit younger and was built in the 13th century, and the third was built in the 14th century — the only tower not open to the public. 

Just inside the gates is the Museo della Tortura — we gave it a miss

San Marino has the most unrestricted gun laws in Europe, so the winding streets are full of shops selling sub machine guns and other light duty weapons

Shop after shop, the plethora of weapons being sold in this tiny nation is astounding

The tranquil Palazzo Pubblico in San Marino

A statue of Garibaldi, who sought refuge in San Marino in 1849 after fleeing Venice, 
is honoured by this monument in Piazza Garibaldi

A maze of cobblestone streets and graceful archways lead up the hill 
towards San Marino's 'tre castelli', or three castles

It's an brisk climb, but well worth the effort

A little friend we met on the way up

The entrance gate to 11th-century Castello della Guaita, 
the oldest of San Marino's three castles

A small chapel is nestled inside the gates

The stone carved 'Tre Monte' symbol of San Marino, is embedded in the stone wall

View from the top of Castello della Guaita over the surrounding countryside

A steep climb up a ladder and through a narrow opening leads to the top of the fortress

Narrow winding turrets traverse the roof of the castello

The spectacular view from Castello della Cesta to Castello della Guaita

The view from Cesta to the 14th-century Castello della Montale, which isn't open to the public

In Castello della Cesta, there's a museum of ancient weapons 
in the Museo delle Armi Antiche, one of the Musei di Stato

Some of Cesta's collection of ancient weapons

Food and meals are an important part of life in San Marino. The cuisine is Mediterranean, emphasizing fresh and locally grown produce, pasta, and meat. And although it's similar to that of the Romagna region of Italy which borders this tiny nation state, the cuisine of San Marino features its own typical Sammarinese dishes. It's best known for the Torta Tre Monti or 'Cake of the Three Towers', a layered wafer cake covered in chocolate depicting the three towers of San Marino. 

Torta Tre Monti or 'Cake of the Three Towers', a layered wafer cake 
covered in chocolate depicting the three towers of San Marino

San Marino Bustrengo, a fig, honey and apple raisin cake

Other popular local dishes include bustrengo, a rich cake made with raisins; cacciatello, a mixture of milk and eggs; and zuppa di ciliege, cherries stewed in red wine and sugar and served on local bread, or its best known Torta Tre MontiLocal savoury favourites include faggioli con le cotiche, a dark bean soup flavoured with bacon and traditionally prepared at Christmas; pasta e cece, a soup of chickpeas and noodles flavored with garlic and rosemary; and nidi di rondine - literally, "swallow's nest" - a dish of pasta with smoked ham, cheese, beef, and a tomato sauce, which is then covered with a white sauce and baked in the oven. San Marino enjoys the highest life expectancy for males of any nation in the world, so maybe their dedicated diet of pasta, wine and dolce deserves a closer look! 

Nidi di Rondine
Serves 6-8

1 package lasagna pasta noodles
3/4 lb prosciutto or ham, sliced thin
1 1/3 cup Fontina or Emmenthal cheese, thin slices
1 1/2 cups marinara sauce
Parmigiano Reggiano to sprinkle on top

Béchamel sauce:
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
2 tbsp Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
salt, to taste

For the bechamel, whisk the milk and flour in a saucepan, then add the butter and place the pan over moderate high heat. Keep whisking until sauce thickens. Season with salt, nutmeg and the 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

To pre-cook the pasta, cook just 3 lasagna pieces at a time in salted boiling water. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen towels. Turn them over to dry on both sides. Pre-heat the oven to 375°F.

To fill and assemble the 'swallows nests', coat the bottom of a large baking dish with 1 cup of marinara sauce. Spread a thin layer of béchamel on the pasta pieces, then sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and place slices of prosciutto or ham and cheese on top. Roll up each in piece into a cylinder. Place them close together cut side up in baking dish. Continue the process until the dish is full. If there's space left, use crumpled balls of foil to fill in the space and keep the rolls upright.

Dot the top of the pasta roses with the remaining marinara sauce and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top of the “roses” are crisp and golden.

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