Trieste and Italy’s Far Northeast

We took a short trip to Trieste and the Friuli region, in Italy’s far northeast – a part of Italy where we had never been.


On the drive up, we spent a day in Treviso, a small city of about 85,000 not far from Venice. Ruled by Venice from the Middle Ages, it later became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The city itself is quite charming, with many small canals, some of which have been there since the Middle Ages. The city’s fish market, built on a small island, appears to have its own guard swan.

Even smaller cities in Italy have their artistic treasures, so we shouldn’t have been surprised to find this wonderful Annunciation by Titian (1520) in the Duomo. The astonishingly three-dimensional portrayals of Sts. Peter and Paul flanking the Titian are by Il Pordenone.

The local art museum had a special exhibit on Antonio Canova, a 19th C sculptor who was born near here. I haven’t always been impressed by Canova’s work elsewhere, but I really liked the works exhibited here.

The museum’s permanent collection was pretty good, too.

I am always on the lookout for works by female artists. Here is a portrait of two brothers by Swiss artist Angelica Kaufman (1803).

This painting of houses along Treviso’s canals done by Luigi Serena (1888) looks very similar to a modern photograph.

And I couldn’t resist this portrait of a woman smoking – a highly unusual subject even in the early 20th C.

The civic Pinacoteca was pretty interesting too.

One room was devoted to medieval frescoes of a troubadour saga, “The Story of Otinel”, about a Moor who converts to Christianity and fights with Charlemagne – this scene depicts his baptism. Although most of the troubadours lived in the south of France, works like these suggest how widely their stories were told, even in an era where travel was difficult and expensive.

Any museum with a Madonna by Giovanni Bellini (1480) and a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto (1526) gets top marks in my book. They’re two of my favorite Italian Renaissance artists, not only for the beauty and delicacy of their depictions, but also for their life and humanity.

This museum featured three portraits by Rosalba Carriera, an 18th Century Venetian artist.


Trieste, on a narrow strip of land on the Adriatic near the border of Slovenia. The city’s deep water harbor has made it valuable to everyone from the Roman emperor Augustus (who fortified the city) to modern cruise ships. Parts of the old Roman gates are still visible.

From the Middle Ages to the end of World War I, the province of Trieste was Habsburg territory, which explains the Viennese look of much of its architecture.

The province of Trieste became politically part of Italy after World War I. Towards the end of World War II, the city was liberated by Tito’s partisans, who claimed it for Yugoslavia. The city was administered by the US and the UK until 1954, when it was awarded to Italy – the borders were not finalized, however, until 1975. The primary language is Italian, but many local signs are also in Slovenian.

James Joyce lived in Trieste for a number of years and wrote Ulysses here – we seem to have had similar taste in hats.

The local museum had a special show, Monet in Normandy. Actually there were only a couple of paintings by Monet – most of the exhibit consisted of paintings of Normandy by Monet and his contemporaries.

Here are two Monets: Country Landscape at Sunset (1864) and Fishing on the Seine (1882).

Two Normandy seascapes: one by Eugene Boudin (1865), a friend of Monet’s, and one by an American painter, Frank Myers Boggs (1881), I had not previously heard of.

This painting, by Eugene le Poitevin (1858) is not, strictly speaking, Impressionist. I included it because I enjoyed the depiction of people actually swimming, both men and women – very unusual for its era.

The rest of the museum, which focuses on 19th and 20th C art, was pretty awesome too, but because we had spent so much time in the special Impressionist exhibit we didn’t have time to do it justice.

Some of my favorites include this depiction of women in Burano by Umberto Veruda (1904) – which, apart from the women’s hats, is not so different from what you might see in Burano today – and this portrait of a woman, “The Designer” by Carlo Sbisa (1930).

The city’s Cattedrale di San Giusto, named after its patron saint, dates from the 14th C, and contains beautiful Byzantine style mosaics – similar to what you can see in some older churches in Venice.

On our final evening, we booked a late dinner so we could see the sunset. Trieste is a narrow strip of Italy on the “other” side of the Adriatic – hence the magnificent view.

Seaside Castles

There are several castles located near Trieste which take advantage of the lovely scenery.

Castello di Miramare was built in the 19th C by Maximilian Hapsburg, the younger brother of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. Maximilian was the last governor of what had been the Austrian territory of Milan. When Italy achieved its independence, Trieste remained part of Austria-Hungary, and Maximilian decided to build Castello MIramare as a permanent residence.

Maximilian had been commander in chief of the the Austro-Hungarian Navy, back when the Austrians had a seacoast. The rooms on the ground floor of the castle (unfortunately, no photos allowed) were designed to look like the captain’s quarters on a capital ship of the fleet – the rooms were relatively small, with lots of dark wood, big windows, and low ceilings. The rooms were surrounded by a large deck, which took advantage of the lovely views of the Gulf of Trieste.

Maximilian also spent a lot of time designing the castle gardens. It took a few years to learn what would grow here – Trieste is at the top of the Adriatic, but its climate, with the fierce north-east wind called the bora which comes through in winter, is not Mediterranean. They eventually figured it out.

Maximilian might have been happy to spend the rest of his life here, looking at the sea and puttering around in his garden. Unfortunately, fate intervened when, in 1864, he was offered the throne of Mexico. He left for Mexico from the dock of Castello di Miramare, never to return.

Mexico at that time was an independent republic, under the presidency of Benito Juarez. Due to the country’s economic problems, Juarez announced a moratorium on the payment of debt service to foreign lenders. The foreign lenders, many of whom were French or Austrian, were unhappy about this, and with the assistance of Mexican monarchists, the French army invaded and installed Maximilian as Emperor in 1864. It was hoped that a European-installed monarchy would be friendlier to moneyed interests in both Mexico and Europe. To the dismay of his conservative allies, Maximilian upheld some of the liberal policies that Juarez had been starting to implement, including land reform and extending the right to vote. Meanwhile, the US, with the end of its own Civil War in 1865, began providing explicit aid to the Mexican republicans. The French army eventually left, the monarchy collapsed, and Maximilian was captured and executed in 1867.

Why did Maximilian agree to participate in such an ill-starred venture? In the 19th C, was not uncommon for European royals to be installed on the thrones of foreign countries. One of them was King Leopold of Belgium (Maximilian’s father-in-law), but later the thrones of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Norway were awarded to foreign princes. But if you look at the rooms on the castle’s second floor, which were designed to show off Maximilian’s new imperial status, you get the sense that refusing the offer was never really an option. These guys thought a lot of themselves.

These days, the upper suite of rooms gives off a sense of imperial hubris, rather than the imperial grandeur they were originally designed to represent.

They did have a nice Titian though.

The Castello di Duino is situated a little way up the coast on an even more spectacular site. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began his poetry cycle Duino Elegies during an extended stay here just before World War I.

The Castello dates to the 14th C, although it has been expanded and upgraded many times. You can see the ruins of an even older castle, dating from the 11th C, from the grounds.

The castle has been owned by a German noble family, the Thurn und Taxis, since the 19th C. After WWII, it was used as British army headquarters for a while during the post-war occupation. Although the castle is still privately owned, it is today a museum open to the public.

In addition to the castle’s spectacular views, there are some lovely gardens. A great picture-taking spot!


We visited Aquilea the suggestion of the lady who owned our B&B in Trieste, and we’re glad we did.

There has been some sort of settlement in the area around Aquilea since ancient times. Aquilea, at the tp of the Adriatic, was the endpoint of the “Amber Road”, which brought this unusual substance from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, traversing the modern countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia.

In the 2nd C BC, the Romans founded a colony here, and it was an important frontier outpost in the later Roman Empire. The city went into a decline after the growth of Venice, and today, Aquilea is just a small village with a lot of Roman ruins.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta was built in the 11th C on the site of an original church dating back to the 4th C. The church still has the 4th C mosaic floors from the original church – about a century older than the more famous mosaics at Ravenna. Although the mosaics are not in perfect condition, they provide important information about Christianity in late Roman times.

The floor mosaics retain the late Roman style of depicting various types of animals, adapting them to Christian purposes, sometimes in surprising ways. Scholars believe the pairing of a cock and a turtle represent good and evil, because the Greek word for “turtle” was similar to the word for “evil.” The practice of visual puns became well established in medieval times – most famously with the decision to depict the unnamed forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as an apple, a Latin pun (mela, for apple, was close to male, for evil). It was interesting to see this early example.

There were a lot of other examples of animal mosaics, unusual in a church setting – rabbits, peacocks, stags, even an octopus. Their liturgical significance of these animals, if any, are obscure – maybe they just though octopi were cute.

The depiction of the changing seasons and the occupations of the agricultural year – a popular subject to many centuries – also had a liturgical significance – the workers harvesting grain for bread and collecting grapes for wine represent the Eucharist.

Fishing scenes, popular in late Roman mosaics, were adapted to Christian purposes to depict the Biblical visions of the apostles and their successors as “fishers of men.” You can just see the fisherman in the left corner of this photo, along with the inscription of the 4th C bishop which is still legible today.

There are also some 12th C frescoes in pretty good condition – you can still see the brilliance of something close to the original colors.

Discovering Aquilea was a pleasant surprise for us. If you should find yourself in this area, it’s well worth your time.

Udine/Cormons (Friuli Wine Growing Region)

On our way to the vineyards of Friuli, we stopped in Udine. We didn’t spend as much time there as we had anticipated (opting for Aquilea instead). The city has a pleasant historic center. The influence of Venice, the city that dominated the area for many centuries, can been in the famous Lion, and the clock that suggests the more famous one in the Piazza San Marco.

The civic museum included works by Venetian painters Vittore Carpaccio (Blood of Christ, 1496) and Giambattista Tiepolo (Triumph of Virtue Over Ignorance, 1743).

And we enjoyed the art in the cathedral, particularly the dancing angels by Tiepolo – baroque art at its most exuberant.

We spent a few days in the village of Cormons in order to sample Friulian wines.

They make mostly white wines in the region, often blending local grapes like Ribolla Gialla and Friulano. The Friulano grape used to be called Tocai Friulano, but they had to change the name because the Hungarians make a more famous sweet wine called Tokay. The two wines are nothing alike – the Friulano is used to make a crisp dry white wine. But such is the nature of international intellectual property disputes.

They also make some red wine in the area, mostly using non-native grapes like cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, even pinot noir.

We found the wines to be quite wonderful, and surprisingly reasonable in price. We bought a bunch.

You could walk through the vineyards on well-marked trails – obviously a popular pastime. Brda is the name of the region in Slovenian – the border is close enough here that during our walks though the vineyards our phones welcomed us to Slovenia. I’m not sure we actually crossed the border, though.

On our last night, we ate at a one-star Michelin restaurant at La Subida. Highlights of the meal included deer tartare, rabbit with zucchini, and several desserts (you always get more than one dessert in these kinds of restaurants, no matter what you order) – not to mention some wonderful dessert wine. And let’s not forget the spectacular local cherries!

As usual, more photos are available here.