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'Austrian city' with an Italian address

By Kathe StantonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003


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

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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.

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.