Austria Slovenia and places to visit
Tivoli Park, the setting for that indispensable series of nineteenth-century Austrian buildings: Opera, museum and art gallery, all still dressed in varying shades of peeling 'Kaiser' yellow.
The Opera is, surprisingly, not the work of Helmer and Fellner but of two Czech architects who preferred Neo-Rococo to Baroque revival and were tunefully called Hrasby and Hruby. The interior is the usual display of red and gold, though considerably less lavish than the nearby theatres in Rijeka or Zagreb. As always in Central Europe, standards of performance vary, but the Slovenes have a natural talent for singing and when properly drilled the chorus can match that of any comparable house in the country.
The art gallery nearby is well worth a visit. None of the painters' names will be familiar, but there is evidence in these canvases of both inspiration and technique. The usual 'empire' portraits of the local gentry are followed by several rooms of late nineteenth-century portraits which would be welcome in the collections of any London gallery.
The third member of this cultural triumvirate is the Ethnographical Museum. As Slovenia has become developed, the costumes on display here are never to be seen outside these rooms or at some folkloristic gala performance. Aprons are no longer worn in the hills, as they are in the villages of Slovakia or Transylvania, and the car has completely replaced the horse and cart.
It is one of the delights of Ljubljana that, within a few minutes' walk of here, along Latterman's Allee, the town can be quickly forgotten among the chestnut-lined paths of the woods. A series of Plecnik lanterns leads the way past an old villa, once the property of Marshal Radetsky, up to a hill crowned by a single-towered church. Near this an old cottage houses a museum dedicated to Ivan Cankar, a nineteenth-century Slovene writer inspired by its views over the hills. Below this, the path runs down to a small Bosnian restaurant whose charcoal grill can be smelt for miles and where the local wine and Balkan cuisine leave an impression of a culture which is no longer wholly Central European.
Between Ljubljana and Trieste, the railway runs across embankments over the Ljubljana plain, whose muddiness made the construction of this part of the line almost as difficult as that involved in bridging the Semmering Pass. On a clear day the line offers a spectacular retrospective view of the city and the Julian Alps beyond.
The Piranesian remains of an impressive viaduct blown up during the war can be seen on the right as the train ascends past Kamnik. Postoyna is renowned for its caves, of which the celebrated Adelsberg grotto, recorded in the Middle Ages but rediscovered only in 1818, is the most spectacular. In some, balls took place regularly each Whit Monday until the First World War. The spectacular illuminations of these occasions cannot be imagined, although the guide will point out a number of contemporary prints which attempt to recapture these festivities.
At Postoyna, a new bleak landscape appears as the railway penetrates the limestone plateau, or 'karst'.This treeless landscape was perhaps best described by Schinkel, the nineteenth-century German architect, when he wrote of it on his first journey to Italy as a place which seemed to have suffered 'the most horrible revolutions of this earth'.
Pola and Istria
Further east, the single-track line to Pola and Istria takes the train through uninhabitable country still mercilessly swept by the fierce north-east bora wind. Here, even at the edge of its inhospitable mass, there is still something arid and forbidding about the gashes of white rock which can now be seen.
The surface is intersected by gorges and partly covered with underwood and loose stones. Numerous funnel-shaped cavities known as 'Dolines', slight depressions in the landscape, can be observed flashing past as the train gathers speed. On a clear day, the view to the east across this uneven terrain can stretch right across the heart of Istria, while to the west on the day after the end of a bora, a bright blue will be seen stretching from the distance into infinity as sky and, as later becomes apparent, sea meet on the azure horizon.
From Villa Opicina there follows the most picturesque fifteen minutes of railway travel in Central Europe, as the train cuts through the lime-stone rock and begins to descend in a sweeping curve along the coast. To the west the gaunt silhouette of the castle of Duino rises in front of the oil refinery and shipyards of Monfalcone. Fortunately for Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet who enjoyed Princess Thurn und Taxis' hospitality here before the First World War, in the months during which he wrote his Duino Elegies these modern eyesores had barely been con¬templated.
Every year in October, scholars from all over Europe descend on Duino to hear a series of lectures on the poet, followed by a ricevimento for their benefit. As well as professors and writers, there is a sprinkling of that old aristocracy of Central Europe who, looking over the balcony at the blue Adriatic guarded by jagged rocks, seem more than capable of reciting from memory the verses of the first elegy: 'Wer wenn ich schrie, harte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen'. They may have nodded off during the more complex perorations of some learned professor from Barcelona, but they still know their stuff.
As the train continues to descend, a sudden gap in the rocks reveals the sea deep below, giving the impression that there is nothing but a sheer drop between the track and the ocean. In fact, there is an almost equally spectacular road beneath, constructed by the 'Duce', cutting through the rock with almost as fine views. The train rattles down past the wooden pavilion of the former Habsburg station at Miramar, as the castle floats past below.
The central station at Trieste does justice to this journey - elegant Grecian columns, high arches and booking hall all preserve the spirit of nineteenth-century Habsburg pride. From here a road leads to the right of the wooded square towards the sea and the riva. The ten-minute walk to the city centre shows immediately how prosperous the port was before the last war. Palace after palace rise to the left, proclaiming banks or insurance companies whose headquarters were once here. Across the bay, towards a Mussolini-style lighthouse, stretch the half-abandoned warehouses of the port.
With Trieste's secession to Italy after the First World War, the port which had been the unique commercial lifeline of an empire of twenty nations became just one of many Italian ports, and the slow decline began which has made Trieste, sitting on a bay which is all but empty of ships, something of a ghost city. At night the riva, with the curtain shutters of its palazzi blowing in the wind, is deserted and only the buildings along it testify to the cosmopolitan life which once flowed through its streets.
A small canal to the left terminates rather dramatically in the church of Sant' Antonio, a Neo-Classical building brilliantly situated by its archi¬tect Peter von Nobile, who designed the Burgtor in Vienna.
Along one side of the canal, facing the sea, is a rather jazzy twenties building which once housed the British consulate. Along the other side runs the long Palazzo Carciotti, the headquarters of the captain of the port, pulling an effete classical face with dome and portico towards the sea. Next to it is the even more chaste Greek Orthodox church, whose silver iconed interior reveals clearly how much wealth the Greek community of the city amassed in the nineteenth century. For those with brains and energy who came to the 'free port', fabulous fortunes were to be made, and the Greeks were not alone in acquiring them.
The large bank next to the church was once the Hotel et de la Ville,
where Mahler stayed when he conducted at the opera house. Its con¬version, however sympathetic, into a commercial institution sounded Trieste's death-knell as a city on the circuit of distinguished European travellers, and what luxury hotels remain cannot begin to recapture its style.
Where to go in Trieste
Further along the riva is the Cafe Tommaseo, one of the most civilized cafes in Europe, where it is still possible to hear a waiter disputing points of Virgil with some eighty-year-old barone assisted by a leading critic of the Corriere delta Sera. The asymmetry of the interior means that the mirrors between the potted plants reflect the light in an almost theatrical way, and there are times when the rooms with their crumbling ceiling and caryatids seem to constitute a stage rather than a mere cafe.
Fortunately, because a number of heroic irredentists plotted against the Austrians here, there seems to be no danger that this magnificent institution will be harmed.
A biscuit's throwaway from Tommaseo's rises the orange and red Neo-Classical Teatro Verdi, a splendid copy of La Scala in Milan and one of the few theatres in Italy to have retained its interior intact, never having suffered from fire.
Performances here at their best rival those of any opera house in Italy, with the added advantage that the theatre is far more intimate and colourful than most. The audience are still shown to their seats by bicorned footmen in eighteenth-century dress and on gala nights, when Piero Capucilli or some other native of Trieste is singing, the stage is strewn with roses thrown with abandon from the countless logge. In few parts of Central Europe do they take Verdi as seriously.
Behind the Opera is the nineteenth-century arcade - alas damaged by fire in the twenties - known as the 'Tergesteo', containing a comfortable cafe once decorated with excellent nineteenth-century paintings but now rather empty after a prim restoration. From here it is only a few steps to the Piazza Unita, bounded on one side by the sea and on the other three by imposing nineteenth-century palaces of the amministrazione.
The Lloyd palace, with its rather nervous pilasters, is a work of the Austrian Ringstrasse architect Ferstel, who seems in this design to have mellowed his usual heaviness to exploit the more southern light.
In the building next to it, past the Hotel Duchi d' Aosta, is the former hotel in which Winckelmann was murdered. Austrian police records note that the great eighteenth-century scholar and founder of art history was stabbed to death by a man of low repute - a squalid end to someone dedicated to the canons of classical beauty.
An arch through the rather heavy Town Hall leads right to a maze of ruined Venetian streets, revealing that, for all its stuffy Austrian clothes, the heart of the town is undeniably Italian. Even during the empire, this was one of the least prosperous parts of the city, a picturesque setting for the hero of some Italo Svevo novel but not for any of the fashionable bourgeois merchants.
The shuttered windows are strewn with laundry and an army of cats spring from evil-smelling drains. Most of the houses are still lived in, although on the oldest of them faded advertisements for Dubonnet or 'chambres fibres' evoke a previous existence of more energy. This picturesque squalor would have been familiar to James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for many years before the First World War.
As the road ascends, a Roman arch named rather bizarrely after Richard the Lionheart, who legend says was shipwrecked here after the Crusades, appears propping up a restaurant which is open past midnight. Where once countless sailors caroused, there are now only a few pensioners enjoying their prosciutto and Merlot before winding their way home.
From here the road continues to rise until a garden offers a retrospective view of the harbour and the hills towards Venice. At the bottom of the gardens, laid out in true municipal style in the sixties, is the forlorn ruin of the English church, which for the last five years has been woefully neglected by the Triestine authorities, so that now, with half its roof covered in creeper and part of its interior exposed to the elements, it has become a grotesque ruin - a sight predictable in Marienbad but curiously disturbing in a city normally so diligent in the preservation of its architectural heritage.