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.
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.
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.