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The Top of the Aegean

Trieste, Italy

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The city of Trieste, in north-eastern Italy, has had something of a checkered past. Part of the problem is its location. Situated right at the top of the Aegean, a little across the water from Venice on the right hand side of the ‘leg’ of Italy, Trieste has been a meeting-point of cultures – and, sadly, armies – for many years. For a long time it was an independent city. When, however, Italian unification came along in the second half of the nineteenth century, it got itself absorbed into Italy.

Really, it could have gone either way. Although the rulers and leading business people of the city have always been ethnic Italians, very many of the workers and those living in the city’s large suburbs are speakers of Slovenian. At the end of the Second World War, Yugoslav troops got to Trieste just a day before British and U.S. forces arrived – and there was some confusion over whether the city would go back to Italy or become part of Yugoslavia. To sort the problem out it was decided that Trieste should become an independent republic once more – which only lasted until 1954, when it eventually wound up as part of Italy again, albeit losing some of its land to the Yugoslavs. Either way, for nearly fifty years Trieste had the dubious honor – along with Stettin on the Baltic coast to the far north – of being one end of the Iron Curtain.

Even today Trieste still feels like a border town, even though it is growing hugely in prosperity. This prosperity has much to do with the city’s role as Italy’s gateway to the emerging markets of Eastern Europe. As you disembark from your cruise ship you’ll notice that there’s a lively, optimistic feel to the place. A lot of building is taking place, and the locals – who were always a bit chary of being seen as too western in the days when their immediate neighbors were hardcore communists – are at the cutting edge of Italy’s booming consumer economy.

Most cruises that cover the northern Aegean visit Trieste, usually immediately before or after calling in at the city’s near neighbor, Venice. Trieste is a beautiful city in its own right, but has always suffered a little at the expense of Venice. It can be hard work sitting next to the most beautiful girl at the party, and nobody would dispute Venice’s claim to be the world’s most beautiful city. It seems that cruisers’ memories of Trieste – which would otherwise be very strong – are somewhat clouded by this unfortunate closeness.

In fact, Trieste has rather more in common with Venice than perhaps its residents would like to admit. One of these things is its food. Like Venetian food, the cooking of Trieste is heavily oriented around frutta di mare – fish and other seafood. Triestan Sardini in Saor can be every bit as good, or even (whisper it) better than the version of this classic northern Aegean dish you will find in Venice. If there’s one difference, it’s that Triestan cooking tends to look a little more eastward: if you visit one of the wonderful street cafés or restaurants of the old town you’ll find more than a few dishes that are influenced by the goulashes of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Also, because Trieste is close to Vienna that it is to Rome – and even contains a sizeable German-speaking population – you find it easy to locate some solid Austrian cooking in the form of schnitzels and cake.

There’s a great deal to see and do in Trieste. If there’s one site you shouldn’t miss it’s the Miramare Castle. This magnificent white marble structure, which sits in beautiful gardens on the tip of one of the peninsulas that jut out from the city into the sea, was built in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was originally intended as a home for Archduke Maximilian of Belgium and his wife Princess Charlotte. Maximilian, however, was one of the most ill-fated European royals of recent history: invited to become Emperor of Mexico, he was overthrown in a coup and shot by Mexican republicans. Charlotte, who had returned to Europe to seek assistance for her beleaguered husband, descended into madness from which she never recovered.

Neither ever saw Miramare again – which is shame, because it must be one of the most beautiful royal residences in the world. If your cruise’s schedule permits, it’s well worth exploring the gracious salons of the castle and its lovely gardens. These, like the city of Trieste itself, are among the forgotten gems of Europe.

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