It was the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa who laid the foundations of modern Trieste. She decided that the city should become a free port – a gateway between East and West – and planned that part of the city which to this day is called the ‘Città Teresina’. The picturesque grand canal, the church of Saint Anthony and all those other churches, temples and synagogues serving different religious communities sprang up and are testimony to the immense religious tolerance this city has been famous for.
Maria Teresa also took down the walls of the old town built around the cathedral and the castle which dominate one of Trieste’s hills. We decided we’d take the bus to the top of the hill. First, we passed the old Roman theatre.
At the Piazzale della cattedrale the view was already extensive. Before San Giusto stands the remains of a Roman basilica and, indeed, the base of the cathedral tower is built on a Roman temple. The cathedral itself is fascinating. Basically it’s two churches banged into one so it has two apses, one of which has magnificent byzantine mosaics, and double aisles too.
The best thing about San Giusto, however, is its magnificent rosone or rose window.
We almost thought we’d come to the conclusion of our Trieste town visit but were encouraged to visit the castle where we were promised the best views of Trieste bay. This was quite correct!
We enjoyed visiting the armoury, the dungeons now filled with roman statuary and walking along the bastions themselves.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this wonderfully windy spot. A slight bora – Trieste’s notorious wind which blasts its way through the mountains from the east and is meant to drive people mad – was starting up and we needed to make our way back home.
But we still had to visit the haunted Miramare castle.
Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. The walk to it is via a dramatic piece of coastline.
Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.
Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.
Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.
Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care or, as they now say in Italy, ‘in una struttura.’ She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.
The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face. Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?
After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.
But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.
Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).
As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.
Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeeded him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.
One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.
No wonder, however, that the castle od Miramar is haunted…….