The Top of the Aegean
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
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.