Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a region that was, until recently, unexplored by Americans. But as more intrepid travelers venture into Friuli’s pre-Alpine hills and Adriatic shore towns, they’re discovering one of the most diverse regional cultures (and cuisines) of Italy. Friuli is an amalgam of Italian, Slavic, and Austrian influences, evidenced most dramatically in its cosmopolitan capital, Trieste.
Trieste has a complicated history of serial conquest. For the better part of a century, the port town was constantly traded between Italy and Austria. Trieste was the fourth largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after Vienna, Budapest and Prague. And its port provided the Austro-Hungarians access to the world westward. As such, Trieste was a vibrant center for international commerce in the late 18th and 19 Centuries.
Just 70 miles up the coast from Venice, Trieste now sits near the borders of Slovenia and Croatia. Its central square, the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, is surrounded on three sides by imposing 18th- and 19th-century buildings and on the fourth side by the Adriatic Sea. Unlike Venice (or Dubrovnik, for that matter), Trieste is not overrun by tourists during the holidays. So you can take time to wander the coastline, canals, ruins, and alleyways that harken to Trieste’s varied past and conquerers.
Like Tangier and Verona, Trieste has played host to many artists and many works of art. In the fin-de-siecle, Trieste emerged as a hub of painting and literature. James Joyce wrote most of “Dubliners,” all of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and portions of “Ulysses” during the 10 years he lived in Trieste. (Trieste’s native son, Italo Svevo, is said to have inspired the character Leopold Bloom.)
The Austrian mandate for religious tolerance permitted a Jewish community to thrive in Trieste. Today, a neoclassical synagogue built in 1912 still stands near the city center. Though it suffered damage during World War II, the building was fastidiously restored to its original character and its a shining example of the imposing architecture that characterized Trieste for much of its history. Five miles from there is Castle Miramare, the residence of Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian. The grandness of the building in comparison to the quaint city center is breathtaking. It’s as close to time travel you’ll find this side of Florence.