I had never heard of Trieste until we got an invitation to visit. Our friend Ugo was filming a movie there, and we decided to join his wife Rasha when she went to visit him over a long weekend last September. It is wonderful to have absolutely no expectations of a place, or even how to say its name. The Italians call it Trieste (with the accent on the last E) The English boringly call it Triest (TREE est) and the Slovenians call it a rather unpronounceable Trst. But once we had found it on the map, we booked a cheap flight with Ryanair and packed our bags.
It turns out that Trieste has been around a hell of a long time. It was granted colony status by Julius Caesar in 177 BC, and a hundred and fifty years later Caesar Augustus had the city walls built in the Roman tradition. Being a strategically placed port city with a deep harbor, it has remained important to the region for all of its 2200 years of history. In 1382 it became part of the powerful Austrian Empire and remained so for hundreds of years. Many of the most beautiful buildings in the city were built during the reign of Empress Marie Therese of Austria (mother of Marie Antoinette) and during this period the city joined Vienna, Prague and Budapest as the jewels in the Austro-Hungarian crown. After World War I the Austrian Empire was dissolved, and Trieste became part of the Kingdom of Italy. With the invasion of next door neighbor Yugoslavia in 1941, World War II took hold of this part of Italy. By 1943 the Nazi's had fully taken over this useful port city and it became the only place on Italian soil to have a concentration camp and crematorium. Sadly, three thousand Jews, mostly of Slavic descent were murdered in Trieste before the end of the war.
Since those dark days, the city has grown and prospered even though the population has remained the same (about 200,000) as it was at the turn of the century. It has become a huge commercial shipping terminal and one of Europe's most important centers for trade and transport. And because of its mild climate, it has become a favorite destination for the Italian silver haired set. I loved it from the minute we arrived.
It's a thirty minute taxi ride into town from the airport, and the drive along the coast is dotted with small beaches, rocky points and windswept trees. The Adriatic Sea is an inviting deep blue and hundreds of people were perched on the rocks absorbing the reflecting sunshine. We passed grassy areas with beach huts selling libations and fit tanned men playing volleyball. I wanted to jump out of the taxi and join the fun, but we had to get checked in and drop our bags first.
Our hotel was located in the center of town, in the magnificent square called Piazza Unita d'Italia. A huge meeting point for everyone in the city with the stunning City Hall at one end and the sea at the other. The day we arrived a crowd had gathered to watch a hot air balloon take off from the square. We sat outside in one of the many chic cafe's sipping locally grown Prosecco and watched the huge yellow balloon take to the sky. Little boys cheered and old men grinned at the spectacle before them. I was entranced by the refection of the setting sun off the gilded facades of the grand buildings all around us. It was a magical moment, and I got the feeling I was the only American who had ever been here.
Our hotel was in a glorious old building that had been kitted out in high Italian fashion. The service was only passable (which is as good as can be expected in Italy) but our room was beautiful and had a full on sea view. In the distance we could actually see Venice on the other side of the bay. All of this was a very affordable $175 a night including breakfast. Miles away from Venice!
The first day we set out to the eastern part of the city to check out the harbors and visit the set of the TV show that Ugo was working on. I met the Thelma and Louise of Italian day time drama and dutifully had my picture taken with them. I pretended to know who they were, and they pretended to care. After an hour or so, we were bored with the goings on, and decided to drive over to the other side of town and check out the beaches. Ugo would join us at the end of the day when the director finally yelled LA FINE!
The popular beach is called Barcola, and it seemed that everyone in town was laying out on the rocks that slide down into the clear warm waters of the Adriatic. We strolled the length of the boardwalk admiring the hot bodies on parade. It is a university town and the locals are a mix of Italian and Slavic which makes for a fantastic assortment of eye candy. Rasha and I stripped off for a swim in the sea while Freddie went to buy some provisions at the beach hut. A glass of wine here costs one euro. Needless to say, by the time Ugo showed up to collect us, we were bombed and babbling on about how much we loved this place!
In the evening we dressed up and decided to do what most people can only imagine doing. We went to another country just for dinner. As Slovenia is just six miles away, and is part of the European Union (no passport needed), we drove to a sweet fishing village called Piran to sample the local seafood. There was a festival going on in the town square with some strange Slavic folk dances set to out-of-date techno music. This bewildering scene seemed to make perfect sense to the locals who were all crowding in to get a better view. We hurried away down the promenade to a restaurant called Pavel 2. Apparently better than the rival establishment next door called Pavel's. I had lobster with white truffles tossed in fresh pasta. Oh yeah.
The next day, back in Trieste, we made our way on foot through the outdoor markets along the canal, selling all kinds of edible delicacies. We sampled more locally grown wine and tottered to the old station where we caught the Opicina tramway that took us up the mountain to a little Slovenian town whose name is unpronounceable. There's not much to the town, but the ride up has spectacular views across Trieste and the bay. We found a cafe and stuffed ourselves with goulash and more cheap delicious wine, before heading down the hill and back into Italy. Somehow or another, we ended up back at Barcola beach to watch the sunset and drink more wine. Imagine that.
The following day was a Sunday, and Ugo was off work and free to do our bidding. We put Elvis's greatest hits in the CD player and drove to Venice. But for that story, you will have to look at last month's column. As grand and gorgeous as Venice is, we were truly excited to be coming back to Trieste for the evening. We went out on the town, which started with a loud, gregarious outdoor meal with Ugo's work mates, including Thelma and Louise. It was a seafood restaurant on the boardwalk with a very drunk owner that kept putting bottles of liquor down on the table for us to sample. The bill for all this came to just twenty Euros each. I hope the guy is still in business on our next visit! Afterwards we made our way into the narrow streets of the old part of town where the bars blasted hip electronica and all those pretty young things were holding up the walls.
The final day we visited the The Miramare Castle built on the water front in 1860, about three miles up the coast from Barcolo beach. It is a stunning setting with acres of gardens, ponds and statues. There is a little bay full of cat fish gulping at the surface where visiting boats can tie off. The castle itself is gorgeous and imposing made of white travertine marble. It juts out into the sea in front of a giant boulder, and there are terraces that beg you to come and pose for a photo. It was the perfect spot to say arrivederci to Trieste.
If you are planning that once in a life time trip to see Venice before you die, make sure you treat yourself to a few days in this beautiful, undiscovered city. Trieste is the antidote to Venice. Tell your friends, but let's keep it our secret.