Never having been to Trieste, Michael and I chose to make this northeastern Italian city our jumping off point to traveling in Eastern Europe. A short 2 ½ hour train ride from Venice, Trieste is so different a city in every aspect.
For starters, Trieste has not been part of Italy for the majority of its existence, and I’m talking centuries. For over five hundred years Trieste was part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. But in the 20th century alone, the city changed national hands several times, first going from being the Hapsburg’s major seaport to being annexed by Italy after WWI. During the latter years of WWII it was occupied first by German troops, then, briefly, by Yugoslav partisans. Post-war Trieste was declared an independent city-state but remained under a UN-authorized, joint British-American protectorate until 1954. At that point, the Trieste region was divided in half, with the northern sector, including the city, going to Italy and the south to (then) Yugoslavia. To this day, Italian is only one of the “official” languages, although now the most commonly spoken in the city, but with Slovene, Croatian and German competing in usage, the first two, especially, in the countryside.
Another feature we noticed immediately was the lack of tourists, even in the main square, Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia (above). Certainly, May is before the height of the tourist season, but in wandering through many popular sites we saw few tourists. For sure, we were the only Americans within earshot. Moreover, when we were asked our origins, natives were surprised that we were American. I’m not sure that their surprise was because there’s a singular lack of American tourists in Trieste or whether we just didn’t meet their image of what Americans are like as people or tourists. Being us, we arrived at our dubiously three-star hotel, duffle bags in tow, looking like aging ‘60s hippies out of a time travel warp. Maybe it’s no surprise the Triestians were surprised!
In all, we liked Trieste and found parts of it quite interesting. We did some typically touristy things, as well as just hang out spritzing with the locals during the pre-prandial hour(s) along Trieste’s own Canal Grande.
Without a doubt, our visit to this delightful little castle 9 km north of Trieste was the highlight of our stay here. We caught a local bus from Trieste to the plaza at the foot of the castle, then walked about a half mile up the hill and through the impressive gardens and shaded footpaths to Miramare. Luckily, we arrived between two large tour groups and had the castle pretty much to ourselves. We shelled out extra Euros for the audio tour, which was well worth it.
Miramare was designed and built 150 years ago by the Archduke Maximilian of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as his Adriatic vacation home. The castle is beautifully decorated with immaculate attention to details in both construction and interior design. Much of the interior reflects a nautical theme, a nod to Maximilian’s tenure as first an officer, then commander-in-chief of the Hapsburg navy. Other rooms display baroque and Oriental themes, all beautifully appointed.
Maximilian was the younger brother of the emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Joseph, a rather enlightened and long-reigning ruler for his time. Maximilian was not quite as fortunate. Cultured, educated, and somewhat a progressive, reform-minded idealist, Maximilian succumbed to the persuasions Mexican monarchists and Napoleon III of France and accepted the throne of Emperor of Mexico in 1863. His was a short-lived reign.
Despite efforts of both Maximilian and his wife to bring reforms to and relieve the stunning poverty of much of the Mexican populace, the country dissolved into revolution in the mid-1860s. Captured by revolutionary forces, Maximilian was executed by a firing squad in 1867 at the age of 34, despite international pleas for clemency. His wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, suffered a massive nervous collapse from which she never recovered, despite outliving her husband another 60 years.
As short and tragic as his life came to be, Maximilian’s legacy shines on through his brilliant, beautiful creation, Miramare. It is truly a jewel not to be missed.
San Giusto Cathedral & Castle, Trieste
Back in Trieste, a small, steep hill overlooks the port city of Trieste. At the foot of the hill are some Roman ruins, primarily an open air amphitheater, dating from 2nd century, C.E. (The Romans controlled the area around Trieste from about 177 B.C.E. to the empire’s downfall around 500 C.E.)
Near the top of the hill is the Cathedral of San Giusto, or Saint Justin, the patron saint of Trieste. The church is built on the ruins of both an earlier Roman civic hall or forum, and later Christian churches. The present cathedral was completed in the late 1300s, but the interior has beautiful mosaics dating from the 12th century:
The interior of the castle is mostly off-limits, although it does offer a small lapidary museum which was quite interesting. The battlements offer a panoramic view of the port and city, as well as open-air seating and a small cafe. We spent a pleasant hour eating a picnic lunch and enjoying the sun and view.
Museo de Risiera di San Sabba.
A more somber side trip was to the Museo de Risieria di San Sabba south of Trieste. A former rice-husking plant, the facility was converted in WWII by German occupying forces into first a POW camp, then a deportation camp and crematorium — the only extermination camp in Italy. Thousands of prisoners were executed at Risiera, including 5,000 of Trieste’s 6,000 Jews. The bulk of the approximately 10-15,000 killed during the single year the crematorium was in operation were primarily Slovene, and some Italian, partisan fighters or sympathizers.
At the end of April, 1945, the Germans torched the crematorium and several other buildings as the troops fled before the advancing Allied forces. In 1965, the entire site was declared a national museum. Where the crematorium and human warehouse once stood, a metal sculpture now reaches for the sky, symbolizing the smokestack and rising human ashes and smoke of a horrific past.
The Trieste bus system is efficient and inexpensive. A single ticket allowing bus travel for 60 minutes costs €1,10. Tickets are most easily purchased at a tabacchi or newsstand. If you are going to either Miramare or Risiera, you will need two tickets per person, one for the trip out, the second for the return. Upon boarding the bus, you punch your ticket in the little yellow machines stationed throughout the bus. It seemed the tickets were rarely checked, but if caught cheating, you will be the embarrassed recipient of a hefty fine.
Bus # 24 goes to San Giusto Church and Castello.
Bus #36 goes to Miramare; get off at the last stop and walk up the hill through the gardens to the castle.
Bus #8 drops you about two blocks from the Museo Riseria. Go south about 1 ½ blocks, turn left and the museum entrance is a ½ block further on the right.