24 hours in Trieste

Old gold ... Miramare Castle.
Old gold ... Miramare Castle. 

Margaret Turton explores a location whose use as a meeting point for several cultures has inspired a suitably rich history.

The author Jan Morris describes Trieste as "a loitering kind of place". Loitering or meandering, it's a wonderful city to explore. Visitors arriving by air usually stay in Venice, leaving you to experience Trieste's charms without the crowds. Those coming by train arrive just steps from fine city landmarks: the Canal Grande; blue-domed Serbian-Orthodox Church of San Spiridione; and Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia, to name a few. Climb a hill and you're rewarded with panoramic views across the Adriatic Sea. On the summit there's a Habsburg castle and a Roman forum. A Roman amphitheatre occupies the hillside below.

Ditch your bag and slip on comfortable shoes, grab a map from your hotel or one of the city's tourist offices and have a great day in Trieste and along its coastline. You'll be back in time for dinner at a historic Viennese-style cafe.

8am

Start at the square named Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia. Stand back and marvel at its scale. This expansive square opens onto the Adriatic and is surrounded on three sides by elegant Viennese-style buildings that characterise the Habsburg era, a time when Trieste throbbed with self-assurance as the key sea port of a vast empire ruled by the House of Austria.

Stroll or pull up a chair. Caffe degli Specchi is a famous meeting spot. Diagonally opposite is the old headquarters of the shipping company Lloyd Triestino, known as Lloyd Austriaco until the empire's demise and Trieste's annexation to Italy after World War I.

If it wasn't for pedestrians in modern-day garb, Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia might look much the same as it did in 1914 when the body of the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria arrived by sea, en route from Sarajevo. The same goes for when cheering crowds swelled this space for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's visit in 1938.

9am

If you didn't bring a map, pick up a free one from the Trieste Tourist Office in Via dell'Orologio, a laneway off Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia. Then set off for the Roman amphitheatre, passing through Piazza della Borsa, Stock Exchange Square. Just beyond here, shops in laneways of the old Jewish area sell curios, antique prints and books. Keep an eye out around Piazza Vecchia and Via del Ponte. Now head to Via del Teatro and the amphitheatre, which held performances and gladiatorial contests when Trieste was a Roman colony.

Mussolini did much to remind the Triestini that their city belonged to Rome long before the Habsburg Empire existed. With this in mind, archaeologists excavated the amphitheatre in the 1930s and today passers-by have a clear view of the remains of the stage, stairs and seating and, at the back, massive Roman walls.

Walk on to Via del Trionfo to see the Roman gateway, Arco di Riccardo. Near here you can ascend San Giusto hill by following Via Cattedrale. You'll be rewarded with a beautiful panorama, more glimpses of Roman Trieste and monuments left by subsequent rulers.

10am

San Giusto hill is the very heart of the old Roman settlement and is often referred to as Capitoline Hill. It was here, under Mussolini, that excavations threw light on the civil basilica and the forum. Their remains lie beside the mediaeval Cattedrale di San Giusto. More remnants of Roman Trieste - objects excavated from the amphitheatre, basilica, forum, necropolis and city walls - are displayed in the Lapidario Tergestino. It's in the bastion of Castello San Giusto, a 15th-century Habsburg castle built on the remains of an earlier Venetian fortress. The castle and its armoury are also open to the public.

Impressive stuff and so, too, are the 360-degree views over pastel-coloured buildings to the Adriatic Sea and, to the rear, treetops stepping up to the distant highland. Castello San Giusto, Piazza Cattedrale is open 9am-5pm. Admission of €4 ($5.15) includes entrance to the Lapidario Tergestino and Armoury.

11.30am

When you're done with the castle and views, walk in the direction of a tall Mussolini-era column-and-fountain ensemble. This leads to Scala dei Giganti, a 265-step staircase that has you back in the city centre in minutes. You can rate a regime's success in part by its endurance. It was 1382 when the Triestini tied themselves to Habsburg fortunes through a free act of allegiance. Both groups flourished until World War I, largely because a merchant class evolved as Trieste became a huge maritime emporium. Proceed to Piazza Goldoni from the stairs. This is near modern Trieste's major shopping street, Via Carducci, though keen shoppers will find other distractions on Trieste's city walks. Be aware, however, that many shops close from 12.30-4pm for the siesta.

12.30pm

Trieste is also known for its literary links. Giacomo Casanova, the great seducer of women, lived here for two years from 1772. The city features in his memoirs, Florence to Trieste. A century later, Richard Francis Burton translated The Thousand and One Nights. James Joyce, of Ulysses fame, had lengthy, prolific sojourns here between 1904 and 1920.

Joyce fans enjoy following the well-trodden James Joyce Trail armed with brochures from the tourist offices, but in a city as compact as Trieste you can be sure that any coffee house, restaurant or hotel - or brothel, for that matter - of a certain age has a connection with the author. Whatever footpath we tread, Joyce trod it, too. If you're keen, or hungry, slip across Via Carducci to Caffe San Marco at 18 Via Cesare Battisti, a favourite meeting place of Joyce and his literary companions.

Cross back and proceed towards the Canal Grande, keeping an eye out for the blue-domed Serbian-Orthodox Church and other architectural gems. Minutes later you'll see the canal. This was created in 1756 to allow sailing ships to unload their cargo in the heart of the great emporium. But we're here for Joyce. And on a bridge over the canal his life-size bronze depicts a contemplative man.

1.30pm

It is food that reminds me that this city is a meeting place of cultures - the Latin countries to the west, middle Europe to the north, Slavic regions to the east. People in a rush order "rebechin", a "lunch on the run" involving snacks of sausage, pork or ham, and eat while standing at tables in small, buffet-style restaurants. I like sit-down establishments such as La Tecia at 10 Via San Nicolo, where you can't beat another local specialty, the hugely satisfying Jota soup (pork, bean, sauerkraut), for about €8 a bowl.

This is not the place to come for a slap-up degustation meal, I confess. Still, it's pleasant, quick and hearty, and we're on our way to see the "royal" Trieste.

2.30pm

Barcola, Trieste's swimming spot, is four kilometres from town. It's a good, flat walk along a pleasant coastline, but the real showpiece here is Miramare Castle, eight kilometres from town. Walk it, take a bus (€1.50 a ticket) or a cab (about €10), but don't miss it. In 1860, Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Austrian emperor, completed this castle of gleaming white stone. It's intimate, yet Miramare retains all the trappings of an era that oozed confidence.

You can wander through the Archduke and his consort Carlotta's private quarters, plus a throne room built in anticipation of Maximilian's elevation to Emperor of Mexico. This disastrous scheme to make Mexico an Austrian colony resulted in Maximilian's execution in Mexico in 1867. Miramare Castle, Viale Miramare, is open from 9am-7pm. Admission €6. Ask a tourist office for seasonal timetables and bus routes.

7.30pm

Trieste was where empires and individuals could conceptualise their most radical ideas. Lively discussions occurred in establishments around town. Caffe Tommaseo on Piazza Tommaseo was one such place.

It's the oldest of the Viennese-style cafes here; a haunt of Habsburgs, Joyce and other luminaries, and minutes from great bars. Expect to pay about €25 for dinner.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice for about $2020 low-season return including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Venice (6hr 45min). See emirates.com. Trains from Venice to Trieste take about two hours and cost €18 ($23) in first class. This journey can be included in a European rail pass. See internationalrail.com.au.

Staying there

Hotel Victoria, Via Alfredo Oriari 2; +39 040 362415; hotel victoriatrieste.com. Rooms from €95.

More information

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