"This is the only country in the world with more cars than people," a filling station attendant in tiny San Marino eagerly tells me. "It's also the only one without any traffic lights. Look it up if you like."

Delighted as I am to discover someone with a shared interest in useless trivia, there's a story behind the statistics. Taxes are lower than in neighbouring Italy so it's much cheaper to register vehicles there. Many Italians do.

The hilltop republic is a short drive from the holiday hotspot of Rimini. Fertile coastal plains give way to rolling uplands which culminate in a series of sharp hairpin bends. All of a sudden, San Marino looms up Rock of Gibraltar-like and, before I know it, I've crossed into Europe's oldest sovereign state.

I park the hire car in the historic centre and join sightseers huffing and puffing up towards three photogenic medieval towers. We're rewarded with sweeping views across the principality and surrounding Italian countryside, although for most visitors, the real reward is a spot of retail therapy.

Sammarinese commercial rents are suffering from a bout of altitude sickness but the sleek and stylish stores do an excellent job of enticing flush-faced foreigners to shop until they drop. The problem is, there's not much else to do. If, say, Pacific Place were dismantled then rebuilt on top of Lantau Peak - and given independent status - you would have something approaching the anomaly that is San Marino.

The micro-nation was reputedly founded in AD301 by a stonemason seeking refuge from religious persecution. These days, residents are subjected to an entirely different form of torment. The San Marino football team are an international laughing stock. The boys in blue have never won a competitive match and they've been trying for 25 years. Until they ended a 61-game losing streak with a 0-0 draw last year, the team of waiters, accountants and furniture removal men were ranked as the worst side on the planet.

To save face, locals wear replica Italy shirts rather than risk the humiliation of being spotted in San Marino colours. Keen to buy an ironic souvenir, I ask in a few shops but receive only bemused looks. I pause, hoping a retailer will rummage around behind the counter and hand me an unmarked brown paper bag when no one is looking, but to no avail.

Back in Rimini, those who make their living from tourism are optimistically preparing for the new season. Hotel managers hold earnest conversations with painters, shopkeepers rehearse rusty sales patter and buff beach attendants spruce up their rented parcels of sand and carry out sunbed stocktakes.

The Adriatic Coast's alpha resort was originally a Roman settlement and there is still evidence of their presence. The amphitheatre may be in ruins but the Arch of Augustus, built in 27BC, survives, as does Tiberius Bridge, which was designed for horse-drawn transport and groans under the weight of modern vehicles. In high season, Rimini counts its visitors in the millions but in these final days before the summer floodgates open, it's almost possible to imagine Caesar and his chums strolling along the golden sands.

I'd like to linger longer but Bologna beckons. I opt for the poppy-flecked back roads instead of the frenetic autostrada where life in the fast lane means dicing with death. Kiwi fruit vines and citrus trees corduroy the rustic Emilia-Romagna landscape on my approach to the ancient town of Verucchio, where a notice announces that the tourist office closes for lunch from 12.30pm until 3pm. If I've learned one thing about Italians, it's that they eat very slowly but drive extremely quickly.

I reach Bologna to find the main square, Piazza Maggiore, crammed with red-shirted competitors limbering up for the annual 10km city run. There's a festive atmosphere at the start line. Fun runners stand shoulder to shoulder with serious athletes while grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between lines up ready to race, jog or walk the course. It's the sort of day burglars wait all year for.

I tag along with some English-speaking stragglers who are treating the event as a Sunday morning stroll. If you're going to amble around an Italian city, Bologna is not a bad one to choose. The route passes through many of the most scenic sections of town. Handsome porticoed streets offer shade from the blazing sun as we mosey past medieval palaces and the world's oldest university.

Bologna once boasted more than 100 towers built by the rich to flaunt their wealth and as lookout posts to defend against invaders. Twenty remain and Torre degli Asinelli is the lankiest of the lot. The winding climb is worth the effort and provides a vertigo-inducing perspective. Don't expect to bump into any students on the way up, though. According to local superstition, those who ascend the 498 steps will never graduate.

In 2011, Bologna was rated first out of 107 Italian cities for quality of life and has remained in the top 10 ever since. For tourists this translates into a safe destination with good public transport and clean air. And if you don't eat well in La Grassa, or "the fat one", as the city is nicknamed, you won't eat well anywhere.

Build an appetite by exploring the narrow, deli-packed lanes of Quadrilatero, then pick a restaurant, any restaurant, and plump for a plate of tagliatelle al ragu. The dish originated here and is better known to the world as spaghetti bolognese. The first mouthful makes my taste buds sing. Mind you, I grew up eating the stuff out of a tin - a fact I decide not to share with the waiter.

After the kind of lazy lunch that a Verucchio tourism officer would approve of, choose from the many pasticcerie (pastry shops), order a coffee and something sticky and watch the Bolognese go about their business - which means they'll probably be doing the same as you.

Italians are famous for living la dolce vita, or the sweet life. Perhaps it's a reference to all the cakes they get through.

Getting there: Lufthansa flies from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, and from there to Bologna, Italy.

 

By the same author: Drinking in the sights of Talinn and Helsinki