Trieste’s Unity of Italy Square after a summer storm has passed through. The other two sides of the square are at least as grand.

This trip is all about four weeks in southeast Europe – Slovenia and Croatia – and then four weeks in Scandinavia – Norway and Sweden – but we decided to elbow in a little corner of Italy while we were in the area. Trieste was once one of the great cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire: the fourth city, it turns out, after Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, and the most important seaport the entire empire. Since it was annexed by Italy after World War I, though, it’s become a bit forgotten. It is Italy, but it’s not really Italy, at least not the way Naples or Florence or Rome are really Italy. Still, as the capital of one of Italy’s 20 regions, Friuli Venezia Giulia, we wanted to give it a try.

And … meh. The food wasn’t as good as it is in the rest of Italy. Heck, it wasn’t even as good as the food in Slovenia. It didn’t have that same historic imperative you get in so much of Italy. And while it’s right on the Adriatic Sea, you got little sense of that from the city itself as it’s largely cut off as far as tourists and pedestrians are concerned by all the industry and port services. I felt like taking city officials on a trip to Barcelona and showing them what you could do with a great city if you opened up the sea.

Mark on our balcony one evening

There were a couple of noteworthy experiences. The Unity of Italy Square (formerly the Great Square) is said to be the largest sea-facing square in all of Europe. The three sides not facing the sea are built up with massive imperial Austrian buildings, truly awe inspiring. The problem was that it’s so big they really haven’t filled it up with cafés and restaurants and all that stuff that would make it appealing. In fact on a hot sunny day – pretty much the norm this time of year – you want to avoid the square because it’s so inhospitable. Still, it’s beautiful to look at.

And then there’s the Miramare Castle, some four miles up the coast from the city center. It was built by Archduke Maximillian of Austria, the younger brother of Franz Joseph, the guy who ruled the empire for 68 years. When you’re the Number 2 guy in that situation you don’t have so much to do. For a while he was commander-in-chief of the imperial Navy, and later viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, but his liberal politics angered his brother/emperor and he was dismissed from both jobs. So instead he built this really beautiful castle and park starting in the mid-1850s just north of Trieste.

Miramar Castle, home for a while at least for Archduke Maximillian and his wife Charlotte

Sadly for him, he didn’t really get to enjoy it that much. While the castle was still under construction in the early 1860s Emperor Napoleon of France offered him the title of Emperor of Mexico. He eventually took the job and moved to Mexico City but – once the U.S. Civil War was over – U.S. officials had the leeway to enforce the Monroe Doctrine blocking European powers from intervening in the Americas. By 1866, in the face of U.S. pressure, France withdrew its support for Maximillian. Ultimately he was captured by the Republican forces under Benito Juarez and executed. His wife Charlotte, who had gone back to Europe on her own to plead their case in both Paris and the Vatican, was considered mentally unstable and not told of her husband’s death. Instead she spent the next 60 years living in insane asylums.

OK, but back to the castle. Beautiful location, right on the coast and really wonderful restoration work with the wall paper and furnishings throughout much of the castle authentically Maximillian’s. One small section of the castle had been renovated in the 1930s by some Italian Duke who had been given the property and was somewhere between depressing and hideous. Fortunately the bulk of the property retains its historic presence. Oh, and the park surrounding the castle was huge, beautiful, and peaceful. All in all a worthy morning’s outing.

Otherwise there wasn’t a lot to do in Trieste. We tried to find good restaurants but the cuisine of the region just doesn’t match the rest of Italy. We did laundry – that’s always exciting – and did some shopping to prepare for the remaining seven weeks of the trip but all in all it was less exciting than we’d hoped our one stop in Italy for the year would be.

Next it’s on to Croatia: one stop on the beach and another in lake country before we start a two-week boat/bike trip in Split.

Very near the main square is this canal that runs from the sea to … nowhere as far as we could tell. Just a couple hundred meters before it just ended. Not sure what it was all about but it was at least pretty.

Nearly every item on every menu we saw was seafood. Most of it was beautifully prepared and presented but ultimately not that good. This was an exception, a great seafood mix.

Here I am at a sidewalk restaurant waiting for lunch

This was a classic Trieste restaurant. Had a good reputation, good reviews, nice setting … and bland food. Beautifully presented but kind of flavorless. There was a family of four sitting next to us, parents and two young adolescent kids. Those kids were not going to try a damned thing at the restaurant. They were, however, determined to show their parents and anyone around how completely bored they were with the whole thing. How fun!

OK, the food wasn’t great. But espresso in Italy is one of the great treats on earth.

A street scene on the way to dinner one evening

A lot of sailboats in the harbor

The view from our balcony our final morning. Neither ship was there the night before but when we saw these two tied up in the morning we realized the old town area would be swarmed with hordes in a couple hours. Seemed like a good time to get the heck out!

Vic & Karen enjoying Venice

We like Italy. I’ve liked it since I first experienced it in 1973 and we spent more time there than any other country during our five-plus-year round the world adventure. So when we had a chance to take my brother and sister-in-law to Europe we weren’t surprised at all that they chose Italy.

Vic & Karen had a tough 2018. That was the year their little grandson Dex lost a nearly four-year battle with cancer. A couple months later we took Dex’s surviving brother Mat to Europe and this time it was their turn. Karen had never been across the Atlantic and Vic’s only experience was when he was in the Army in the 1970s, so this was going to be new for both of them. I’m pretty sure they had a good time, and even more certain we did.

First stop was Venice. And then you have to do a gondola ride, right?

Their choice – as it would be for most people – was to see Venice, Florence, and Rome. I mean, who wouldn’t? Since Mark and I have been to all three places lots of time there wasn’t a lot new for us to see or much to say about it here, for that matter. They are all beautiful cities with stunning art and history, but they also all suffer from massive tourist crowds. It just seems worse and worse every time we go and, to be honest, I don’t think Mark & I will go back to Venice or Florence again. Rome is big enough to handle the hordes, but Venice and Florence are just swamped. Both are incredible and beautiful, places you need to see, but there may be a limit as to how many times you need to go.

Along with those three must-see cities, we added a couple brief stops in central Italy. After Florence we drove to Casole d’Elsa, a tiny town in the province of Siena. No real reason except to experience a little of rural Italy in a beautiful hotel. And it gave us the opportunity to take day trips to Siena (beautiful, as always) and San Gimignano. We hadn’t been to the latter in over 20 years and while you’d like to say that these old Italian towns with histories going back many centuries don’t change, they do. A little more upscale than we remember, certainly more tourists.

The towers of San Gimignano

Speaking of day trips, from Casole d’Elsa we were heading to Assisi in Umbria. En route we stopped to visit old friends and former classmates Sarah & Eric. They both joined the foreign service after graduate school and after their careers in various spots around the world they’ve settled on an olive farm in the tiny, tiny town of Paciano. They made us lunch, gave us a tour of their 200-plus olive trees, and, before bidding us adieu, gave us a little can of their homemade olive oil. Fabulous!

The view from Sarah & Eric’s olive orchard

Assisi was another of those “haven’t been there in over 20 years” places. Beautiful, peaceful, historic, slightly off the standard tourist route, and needless to say great food. Then it was off to Rome and more of the tourist hordes.

The beautiful medieval streets of Assisi

And thus we spent two weeks with my brother and his wife. To our surprise, we found ourselves eager to get back to New York; that whole nesting thing seems to have taken hold. And of course the prospect of returning to the city where we had finally closed on our dream loft the day before leaving was exciting. I mean, now that we had closed we should be able to start construction pretty quickly, right?


Karen and the Grand Canal


Artsy Venice

Who says we don’t know how to be good tourists?

Mark documenting our gondola ride

Vic & Karen enjoying Florence

We might be a little jaded about Florence but I never tire of this view of the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River

Mark in Florence

The fabulous Mary Magdalene could be reason enough to return to Florence some day

The Arno River

A nice little walk outside Casole d’Elsa … and a rainbow!

On the way to Assisi we stopped for lunch with old friends Sarah & Eric. Great fun!

With Sarah

For a couple years we would come to Rome and the Trevi Fountain was closed off for renovations. Now it’s clean, beautiful, and unbelievably crowded.

John, Mark, Pat, and Jeanne celebrate their parents’ 80th birthdays

Earlier this year Mark’s parents both turned 80 so to celebrate we rented a house in Tuscany and got all the kids, spouses, and grandkids together. It was honestly a wonderful experience. With the families spread out from California to Virginia to wherever we happen to be we don’t all get together very often. It’s great fun to watch the grandkids grow up and renew their friendships. And on top of all that the villa a bit outside the little town of Gavarrano was fabulous, big enough for all of us, lots of spaces to hang out alone or with others, a pool for playing in. All that and two women, Anna & Rosa, who cooked and cleaned. It would be a challenge to think of a single thing not to have loved about the week.

And rather than trying to describe it all, we’ll just let the pictures tell the story.

Meals were a major event during the week. We were a few miles out of town so we had dinner every night at the villa, with Rosa cooking most of them. The food was great and I was crazy about this semi-outdoor dining area in a passageway between the two buildings that made up the old farmhouse. Big enough for all 17 of us, with cool breezes blowing through, it was just about perfect.

And since we were celebrating birthdays, here’s Mark’s mother blowing out the candles

Our villa was a mile-and-a-half up this dirt road at the top of a hill, which meant it was incredibly private and quiet up there. And beautiful, with what seemed sometimes as all of Tuscany laid out in front of us

We did a few day trips around Tuscany, the first to Siena, our favorite spot in Tuscany

Siena’s Duomo

The ceiling

Then there was Pisa with the cathedral in the foreground and that crazy leaning thing in back

One day was a trip to the beach at Castiglione della Pescaia, a nice beach area with what looked like a beautiful town behind it

Jeanne is always the one taking the pictures but is never in the pictures. Here she is with her kids Jamal & Leigh

A little excursion was a hike up to some castle ruins just a little way from our house. In retrospect the ruins weren’t interesting enough to justify the climb (and the unsafe conditions up there) but we did at least get a good picture of Nico.

The excursions were fun but the best part was all the time hanging out with each other. Here’s Mark with a few of his nieces & nephews

Me and Ava

Ava, Alma, & Jasmine

Jasmine, Ava, and Leigh

Jasmine & Leigh

Jeanne & Mumpy

Love this picture of Pat & Jenny!

And just Jenny

Just Mark, looking very serious

And peering over his espresso

Me & Mark with Jamal & Leigh

Lydia, Jamal, Leigh, & Molly

Alma & John

And John, our purveyor of great wines

Early in the trip John and Alma drove up to Massa Marattimo, an impossibly cute hill town with a great wine store. After that he went back pretty much every day – this time with Jamal – to pick out wines for the evening meal.

Mark & Leigh

Jeanne wanted to read Irving Stone’s classic fictional biography of Michelangelo “The Agony & The Ecstasy” but had trouble finding it in print. Here in Tuscany, though, you can still find it on the bookshelves.

And finally, the food was great, as you would expect in Tuscany. And having your own cook and cleaning staff for most of the meals wasn’t all bad….