'Austrian city' with an Italian address

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sure, you can have your tiramisu and eat it, too, in Trieste, same as anywhere else in Italy.

But hold that fork. You're as likely to be tempted by apple strudel or Sacher torte, especially in the city's many 19th-century, Viennese-style coffeehouses. They are so classy that TV's favorite snob, Frasier Crane, would forsake the Café Nervosa for them in a macchiato moment - maybe even before he realized Trieste was the stamping ground of cultural glitterati such as James Joyce and über-Austrian Sigmund Freud. (Joyce finished "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Dubliners" in Trieste and wrote key parts of Ulysses here. Freud was in town studying the sex lives of eels.)

Once the fabulous port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste (population 230,000) is an Austrian city with an Italian address.

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Located where you'd grab the Italian boot to pull it on, Trieste is directly across the Adriatic Sea from Venice, which is indirectly responsible - we'll get back to this - for Trieste being a travel anomaly.

In the 1960s, the city began reinventing itself as a modern, bustling hub of scientific research, and now it attracts science and technology professionals, and students from around the world.

Happily for visitors, though, it still dresses the part of a Hapsburg city: Austrian-designed streets splendid with neoclassical architecture, a sea-facing town square, harborfront promenades, and museums that once were trophy homes of merchant traders and bankers who made their fortunes in Trieste.

There's also a Canal Grande, just don't expect gondolas.

Up the coast, in view of downtown, sits Miramare, the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico's dream castle, built when he was a plain old Austrian archduke and rear admiral in the navy. (Miramare is where he accepted the throne of Mexico in one of the biggest career blunders of all time. Fired is one thing, a firing squad something else.)

Since the BC years, Trieste has been, successively, a freewheeling colony of Istrian fishermen and traders, a colony of Rome, an independent city-state rivaling Venice for sea power, and a Hapsburg pro-tectorate. It was united with the rest of Italy in 1918, annexed by Germany in World War II, free territory after the war, and, since 1954, officially Italian again. And those are only the highlights.

With the former Yugoslavia outsideTrieste's back door, the city is an intense mix of Italian, Austrian, and Slavic influences in food, faces, and attitudes.

We didn't expect a lot of Trieste because travel guides tend to dismiss it with phrases such as "quite pleasant" or "run-down haughtiness." (Ouch!)

But we were captivated by this city "caught between the rocks and the sea," as the Triestines themselves describe it. "Rocks" refers to the Carso, a rugged limestone plateau with bluffs that provide a dramatic backdrop for the city and its harbor.

Taking the second of two Trieste exits off the autostrada from Venice, we made a seemingly innocuous left turn and suddenly all of Trieste and its harbor appeared below, as if we'd opened a pop-up book. We saw not only the city, which sprawls along rocky hills, and the sparkling Adriatic, but across into Slovenia, and miles down the coast to Croatia.

The reverse view, from central Trieste up toward the Carso, is an eye-popper, too. Strolling the harborfront at night - and that's fine because Trieste has one of the lowest crime rates in Italy - we saw so many lights on coastal slopes the effect was like being in an Italian fairyland.

Castello Miramare

Day or night, Miramare dominates the view north from downtown. Built on a promontory that juts into the Bay of Grignano, the castle is a ghostly presence on two counts: in appearance, because it is made of snow-white limestone and is illuminated at night, but also because its design was an obsessive personal endeavor for Maximilian.

To wander Miramare's sumptuously decorated rooms is almost to feel the breath of Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium. The furnishings are vivid references to his childhood in Austria, his Hapsburg relatives, her family, his travels and naval career.

At the time they sailed for Mexico in 1864, the couple had lived in the castle more than three years, but several rooms still were under construction.

From Mexico, Maximilian continued to micromanage design, sending back detailed instructions and trees for the castle's gigantic park, which includes both woodlands and formal gardens.

Standing on Miramare's terrace, in the blinding sunlight of a late morning in March, as Adriatic waves crashed against the rocks below, I was stuck by an irony: We were seeing the fully realized expression of Maximilian's vision, something that he never saw.

Become a pedestrian

Trieste is a walker's city, and the best place to start is its grand,seafront town square. The Piazza Unità d'Italia is the heart of Trieste, open to the Adriatic on the west and enclosed with magnificent 19th-century architecture.

If built today, the square surely would inspire yelps about the extravagance of the glittering gold mosaics on the Palazzo del Governo, or the allegorical statuary on the onetime headquarters of a shipping company.

The social center of the square is the Caffè degli Specchi (Cafe of Mirrors), opened in 1839 and nicknamed "Trieste's living room." Sooner or later, everybody in town saunters by its windows. The cafe's interior is a sea of blue-velvet sofas, pristine white linens, and, of course, mirrors. It's one of eight historic coffeehouses in the city, each with its own personality, all revered by Triestines.

Leaving the Caffè degli Specchi, gazing on the Adriatic, I imagined the dread that locals must have felt when they saw the Venetian fleet coming to invade them - a regular event in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Exhausted and desperate, independent Trieste, in 1382, put itself under the protection of Austria. A shrewd move, because in the early 1700s, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire needed a southern port, Trieste hit the urban development jackpot. The Hapsburgs invested a fortune spiffing up Trieste as a free port.

The centerpiece of their work was the Canal Grande, built so ships could unload cargo directly into surrounding warehouses. Around the canal they developed an entire "modern" neighborhood, the Borgo Teresiano, named for Empress Maria Theresa. Later, the Austrian designers would develop other areas of Trieste. It's easy to identify these Hapsburg neighborhoods on a map because of their neat, rectangular streets.

With shipping traffic vastly diminished today, the Canal Grande is a small-craft marina, but the sea-facing Church of Sant' Antonio Taumaturgo still sits majestically at one end.

Between the canal and town square are two other prime examples of the city's neoclassical architecture: the Verdi Theater and the Palazzo della Borsa, originally Trieste's stock exchange.

In contrast to the orderly streets of Hapsburg Trieste, the cittavecchia or ancient and medieval city, is a ramble up and around the hill of San Giusto. This "old city" includes Roman ruins, most interesting among them an amphitheater unearthed in the 1930s.

Climbing the steep hill is a huff-and-puff proposition, but the panoramic view from the top is worth it. The medieval castle doesn't offer much, but it's exhilarating to walk its ramparts.

Also on the hilltop is San Giusto Cathedral, formed from two earlier churches.

This old section of Trieste was untouched by the Austrian redevelopers, whose work along the harbor began paying off almost immediately. Free of taxes and duties, revitalized Trieste attracted merchant traders, shipbuilders, and shipping and insurance companies that continued the building boom.

How the other half lived

Those who made the most money rewarded themselves with stunning palazzos, several of which are now public museums.

Among the most successful traders was the Baron Pasquale Revoltella, a financier of the Suez Canal. The bachelor baron bequeathed his home to the city, along with oodles of money to support it.

Now the Revoltella Museum, it provides a peek at how wealthy Triestines lived in the 1800s (lavishly), and its airy modern wing is a rich journey through Italian art of the 19th and 20th centuries, including a fascinating collection of moody works by Triestine artists.

This moodiness would have puzzled me if I hadn't read a beautifully written book called "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere," in which author Jan Morris offers the intriguing notion that Trieste's complicated history has left it a city existing outside strictures of time and national boundaries, forever suspended in sweet melancholia.

Not that Trieste is a depressing city. But it's certainly less gregarious than other cities in Italy.

The one truly somber site in town is the Risiera di San Sabba, a rice-husking plant that became the only Nazi death camp in Italy. Initially it was a way station for prisoners being transported to Dachau or Auschwitz, but an estimated 5,000 people were executed at San Sabba before the Germans blew up the crematorium as they fled in 1945.

Today the site is a museum. Exhibits describe its history with dark eloquence.

In good times and bad, Triestines have enjoyed long walks along the waterfront. Driving into town one Sunday evening, we found ourselves in a traffic jam and speculated on the cause. It was merely the first warm evening in months, and half the town was out ambling.

Walking tours

Trieste's tourism department deftly picks up the walking theme with brochures of thoughtfully designed, self-guided itineraries. Following the Joyce itinerary, based on research by the Laboratorio Joyce in Trieste, one can track the Irish writer's footsteps to 36 checkpoints relevant to his life and work in Trieste (1904-1915 and 1919-1920): places he lived, the Berlitz school where he taught, the cafes he favored. It's a great framework for a city jaunt.

Another itinerary tracks the daily life of Joyce's friend and student, Italo Svevo, one of Italy's most esteemed modern literary figures.

Others focus on museums, architectural styles, places of worship, historical residences, and nature walks above the city, including a favorite path of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. (Sorry, no Freud itinerary. He wasn't in town long enough to leave tracks.)

The most respected denizen of Trieste, in any era, is the Bora, a famously fierce north wind that blows down from the Carso.

Eager to experience the Bora, I snapped to attention every time the slightest breeze riffled leaves during our visit. Was the Bora on its way? Finally, one evening, as we crossed the seacoast road near the science center where our daughter studied, a very strong gust lifted up my long coat, and I almost did a Mary Poppins down the road.

"The Bora!" I shouted triumphantly.

"Uh, no," said my daughter, rolling her eyes. "Not even close." She was living in Trieste on her semester abroad.

The wind that night, she explained, was wimpy, a mere Bora wannabe, nothing like the real thing, which can blow at 75 miles an hour.

The Bora never did put in an appearance during our stay, but that's OK. It seems a perfectly fine excuse to return to Trieste.

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