A “second city” is generally considered to be the second-largest or runner-up among culturally significant capitals in a region. In this second story in a series, contributor Brittany Chrusciel invites readers to reconsider these standalone European cities as desirable, first-rate destinations. Read the first story in the series, “For France beyond Paris, we’ll always have Lyon.”
The speedboat skipping through the ancient canals of Venice is a common plot device used in action flicks from “Casino Royale” to “The Tourist.” But in order to capture a diplomat’s limo riddled with bullets flying down narrow, cobblestone streets in a high-octane car chase, Amazon Studios took to the city center of Trieste, Italy, for its upcoming film “Heads of State.”
Trieste is located on the Gulf of Trieste, a 95-mile stone’s throw across the Adriatic Sea from Venice and the Venetian Lagoon. Both Northern Italian capitals, Venice and Trieste are the seats of the Veneto and the Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, respectively. But where Venice is known as the epitome of European architectural romance, Trieste remains well tucked into a thin strip of land bordering Slovenia.
As Venice struggles to limit ship traffic and tourists from literally collapsing its historic treasures into the sea, Trieste is a nearby Italian city that’s ready to step into the spotlight.
Venice has the canals. Trieste has the Adriatic coast.
The peerless charm of Venice is its circulatory system of canals. With no cars or formal roads, visitors are forced to literally step into local life on foot or join the slow-moving fray by gondola. You won’t find this element of time travel in Trieste, where traffic is unfortunately ubiquitous. But with its protected harbors giving way to the Adriatic, Ionian and then Mediterranean seas, Trieste has secured its place as a ship-building epicenter and burgeoning cruise port.
Fincantieri shipyard in neighboring Monfalcone has built more than 100 cruise ships across 18 brands since 1990. It’s estimated that one in three cruise passengers sails aboard a Fincantieri-built ship. That said, it makes sense that Trieste is among the first ports that some passengers experience on an inaugural sailing.
With the cruise port just steps from the city center (the windows of the Savoia Excelsior Palace hotel face the ships straight on), it’s a wonder that Trieste is not more utilized as a port of call beyond an infrequent embarkation destination. A preserved Roman theater dating to the first century is located just a 10-minute walk from the port; art museums can be found clustered only five minutes away. Eataly, the renowned restaurant and Italian market, is on the water, is two minutes from the dock. Gelato? Scoops are sold on every corner.
Venice has the Piazza San Marco. Trieste has the Piazza Unita d’Italia.
Venice’s St. Mark’s Square is the main piazza of the city, featuring a bounty of landmarks including the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile. But with so many coveted sites concentrated in one public square, the “drawing room of Europe” often feels more like an overcrowded concert venue.
Trieste’s sprawling, waterfront Piazza Unita d’Italia (“Unity of Italy”) is its main square. It’s at the very least where all of Trieste comes together, meeting by the grand fountain for a coffee date or casual conversation. Beneath a goliath Italian flag, strollers of the square can admire the Austro-Hungarian architecture of Trieste City Hall and the former headquarters of the Italia Marittima company. The piazza has even served as a concert venue for a crowd of 15,000 Iron Maiden fans in 2016, demonstrating its impressive size. But it’s more likely you will stumble across friends and couples sipping Aperol spritzes at the cafes lining the perimeter.
Harry’s Bar, an expat haven known for inventing the Bellini, calls Venice its original home. But an expanded Harry’s concept is set right on the piazza of Trieste, with a bar, bistro and pastry shop as well as the fine dining establishment Harry’s Piccolo that has earned two Michelin stars. For those who can’t bear to leave, Harry’s is incorporated into the Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta, a Relais & Chateaux property.
Venice had Henry James. Trieste had James Joyce.
American-British novelist Henry James, known for “The Portrait of a Lady,” was not unique in his travels to Europe during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. But it was Venice he traveled to time and again, totaling nine years and the publication of “Italian Hours” in 1909.
Irish novelist James Joyce was born just a few decades later than James, publishing “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” the year that James died (1916). And while their names and the names of their novels were similar, Joyce opted for Trieste as his own artistic escape. Joyce first came here to teach English at the age of 23 in 1905 and returned numerous times over the next 15 years.
Known as a “second Dublin” for the author, Trieste influenced much of Joyce’s writing; it’s where he worked out the details for his most famous characters, Molly and Leopold Bloom of “Ulysses.” It’s also where both of his children were born. There are even words from the Triestine dialect in “Finnegans Wake.” To learn about his literary impact, visitors can find the small Joyce Museum, documenting his relationship with Trieste. Take a photo with Joyce, whose statue is out on promenade along the Ponte Rosso bridge over Trieste’s Grand Canal.
Venice has the spritz. Trieste has Prosecco.
Italy’s bitter orange Aperol spirit has taken off in popularity in recent years. But it was a century ago in Venice that the idea of a spritz — an aperitif of Prosecco, bitters and soda water — was formulated.
While Venice can claim this refreshing cocktail in its many forms, you can’t have a spritz without Prosecco, Italy’s iconic sparkling wine. For that, you can trace production to nine provinces of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions. However, the name comes from the village of Prosecco, located within the city limits of Trieste.
Italian wine has been regaled since ancient times, but the first mention of Prosecco can be dated to the early 16th century. Early fans of the “medicinal properties” of this region’s wine include Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder, born around A.D. 23.
Today, visitors to Trieste can either take a daytrip to the wine-growing region about two to three hours outside of the city or simply enjoy a crisp glass at any bar or cafe. Two recommendations: nondescript Gran Malabar, with hundreds of varietals, and Caffe Tommaseo, the oldest cafe in Trieste.
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