If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia. For simplicity’s sake we abbreviate the region’s full name to Friuli. Depending on your interests, Friuli may be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food and other specialties, and wash it down with fine local wine. While Friuli is not exactly undiscovered by tourists you usually won’t be fighting crowds to see what you want. Like most regions of Italy, it has belonged to many nations over the years. Unlike most regions of Italy it remains multicultural, an exceptional mixture of Italian, Austrian, and Slavic influences. This article explores Trieste, Friuli’s capital. A companion article examines several other attractions in this beautiful region.
Trieste, population about two hundred thousand, is the largest city of the Friuli region. Like so many other cities in Italy, Trieste was originally settled thousands of years ago. Like so many other cities in Italy, Trieste went from one occupier to another changing rulers over the centuries. Unlike other cities in Italy, Trieste was definitely part and parcel of Mittleleuropa (Central Europe) as the major port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And unlike any other Italy city, Trieste only joined Italy in 1954 putting an end to the short-lived Free Territory of Trieste founded in 1947. The 1975 Treaty of Osimo dealt with the question of ethnic minorities and the border with Yugoslavia. Slovenia became independent in 1991 and in 1992 declared that it would recognize this treaty. One can well imagine that with such a unique history Trieste would be a unique place to visit. It is.
As soon as you get to Trieste you’ll notice its ubiquitous coffee houses. Some of them have been in business for hundreds of years. Among the best is the Antico Caffè San Marco, as old world as you can get. See if you can wow the regulars; ask for a Bicerin, coffee served in a glass. As you hang around one of Trieste’s alternatives to Starbuck’s your thoughts might turn to Trieste’s most famous expatriate, James Joyce, who resided here from 1904 to 1915 and from 1919 to 1920. It was in Trieste that he finished Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and began his masterpiece Ulysses. You might try to track down the 45 plaques on buildings associated with his life in Trieste.
As befits its internationality, Trieste is home to a variety of historic religious buildings representing many faiths. The Serbian-Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity and Saint Spyridion was built in the mid-Nineteenth Century and shows a strong Byzantine influence. Be sure to go inside to view its beautiful frescoes and icons. The Israelite Temple of Trieste was built slightly more than a century ago. Its exterior style is said to be late Roman of a type found in Fourth Century Syria. The building was closed in 1942 because of the Italian Fascist race laws but reopened after World War II. It is the largest synagogue in Italy.
The Trieste Cathedral is dedicated to its patron saint, San Guisto (Saint Justus), martyred at the beginning of the Fourth Century. It was initially built in the Sixth Century on Roman ruins. Shortly after it opened for worship a Lombard invasion destroyed the Cathedral. Then in the Ninth and Eleventh Centuries two basilicas were constructed on the ruins. In the Fourteenth Century these basilicas were joined and in a sense the Cathedral was rebuilt. Excavations during the 1930s revealed the remains of a Roman forum and other buildings. The Cathedral is adjacent to a castle of the same name. Walk on its ramparts for a great view of the city and its surroundings.
Other Trieste churches of interest include the Eleventh Century Roman-Gothic Basilica of San Silvestro constructed on the site of the oldest church in Trieste, the Seventeenth Century Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Chapel of Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health) with a Seventeenth Century Sculpture that some believe to have saved Trieste from a cholera epidemic in 1849. This church is next door to the Protestant Church of Saint Sylvester.
There’s one great characteristic that Trieste shares with other Italian cities; demolitions can unearth hidden treasures. For example in 1938 during a routine excavation the Teatro Romano (Roman Amphitheater) poked its head out of the rubble so to speak. This amphitheater is nestled in the middle of the central business district, near the foot San Giusti hill and is very well preserved. Make sure to see the Arco di Riccardo (Arch of Richard), named for King Richard the Lionhearted. This Augustan gate built in the Roman walls approximately two thousand years ago is located in Trieste’s old town.
You can’t have an international historic city such as Trieste without a fine collection of museums. Here are some of them. The Civico Museo di Storia ed Arte (City Museum of History and Art) contains antiquities from Egypt, Greece, and Italy including art and artifacts from the Roman Amphitheater. Check out the museum’s Orto Lapidario (Lapidary Gardens.) The Civico Museo Revoltella e Galleria d’Arte Moderna (Revoltella City Museum and Modern Art Gallery) started with the personal collection of Baron Revoltella, one of the guys who constructed the Suez Canal (not with his own hands). It focuses on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Italian artists. For a change of pace visit the Museo del Mare (Museum of the Sea), one of the best such museums in the Mediterranean.
The Castle of Miramar, about four miles (seven kilometers) northwest of Trieste is quite recent, dating from the 1850s. It was built for the Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his Belgian wife Charlotte and includes beautiful extensive gardens and a greenhouse featuring tropical plants and butterflies. The chapel includes a cross constructed from Novara, the flagship on which Maximilian set sail to become Emperor of Mexico. In case you’re not all that familiar with Mexican history, he got the job thanks to the French Emperor Napoleon III. It only lasted for three years and he finished his days in front of a firing squad. That’s what you get for leaving such a paradise.
Trieste is an international academic and research center. Among its institutions are the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the International School for Advanced Studies also specializing in physics, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
The Gratta Gigante (Giant Cave) about 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of Trieste is the biggest tourist cave in the world. Its main room is over 160 feet (100 meters) high, almost three times as long, and about 100 feet (65 meters) wide. It’s big enough to contain Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the largest religious building in the world. The lighting of the cave’s stalactites and stalagmites is spectacular. You’ll find a Speleological Museum at the entrance to the cave. There are an estimated 1500 caves in the Trieste area.
What about food? Trieste cuisine is surely one of the most international in all Italy. Its foreign influences include Hungary for meat and fish goulash, Austria for coffee and a wide variety of pastries, Yugoslavia for grilled meat, and Germany for wurst and sauerkraut. Let’s not forget Italy’s influence and even that of the nearby Carso plateau, known for potato, bread and plum gnocchi (dumplings), pasticcio and crespelle (filled pasta envelopes), potato and spinach rolls. And the list goes on.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Paparot (Spinach Soup). Then try Gulash Triestino (Goulash Triestino Style). For dessert indulge yourself with Gubana (Nut and Dried Fruit Roll.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Friuli wine. Friuli ranks 14th among the 20 Italian regions for acres planted in wine grapes and 13th for total wine production. Approximately 48% of its wine production is red or rosé (only a little rosé), leaving 52% for white. The region produces 9 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine and 1 DOCG white dessert wine, Ramandolo. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 60% of Friuli wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation, this is the second highest percentage in all Italy.
Carso DOC is a red or white dry white wine from the small region between the Isonzo River and the city of Trieste on the Slovenian border. Carso is produced in a dozen styles, sometimes from international grape varieties and sometimes from local ones. Some parts of its growing area are subject to a vigorous winter, while others near the sea have a Mediterranean climate. Surprisingly enough these zones may be separated by only a few hundred meters. Look for the red Carso Terrano and the white Carso Malvasia.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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