Italy's relaxation of its travel restrictions for double-vaccinated Brits has many of us eyeing up the options for an autumn getaway. And why not? Come September, cities like Venice are no longer tourist traps (Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows aside) and yet the balmy weather remains. Many visitors head to Italy for Venice alone but they miss a trick by foregoing the beautiful nearby port town of Trieste – beloved by Italian holiday makers and yet untouched by Brits. With the Venetian authorities rumoured to be considering turnstiles on the periphery of Venice, Italy's most iconic city increasingly feels like a museum. And so, for those left hankering for a slice of living, breathing Italian culture, Trieste is the perfect tonic.
As soon as Italy first scrapped quarantine for UK visitors, I booked a trip to Venice, where I planned to roam the squares great and small, dive down passages and nip into churches and museums with novel ease. After my onslaught of Venetian culture, I would jump on a regionale veloce and, two hours later, step out in a more off-piste but still wondrous corner of Italy: the former Habsburg port of Trieste, where the sights of a fascinating history combine with some of the best sunbathing and swimming in Europe.
Venice is hot in June, so after checking into the extraordinary Belmond Cipriani, a 1950s luxury hotel at the far end of the Giudecca, with vast gardens and vineyards, and rooms overlooking its own quiet, turquoise inlet, I went straight down to the swimming pool – the largest on the lagoon. Slightly heated and filled with sea water, it formed a blissful expanse, and I very much enjoyed paddling about in the quiet under the eye of the San Giorgio church cupola. Once dry, I nipped onto the hotel’s private shuttle boat to San Marco square, keen to reacquaint myself with the city and desperate for a perfect Venetian sunset.
Too late for churches, I traipsed about in circles for a while, finally making it to the beautiful quay at Fondamente Nove, which overlooks the mysterious San Michele cemetery, where Ezra Pound and Stravinsky are buried. Most bars and restaurants of note are closed on Mondays (it was a Monday), and though my old favourite, alla Vedova, famous for its smashing meatballs and other cichetti, was open, its lovely indoors bar area was still closed, so I grabbed some meatballs and wine in a cup to-go. I headed off on a vaporetto to Dorsoduro for dinner at Ca del Vento, a beloved Puglian osteria with good pasta and seafood, but a terrible burrata and vegetables main course – my attempts to find veg in Italy are always, to the astonishment of friends, totally doomed.
Venice, like London, is a web of infinite complexities, and also like London, while dazzling pearls are in abundance, it is also easy to go far wrong and I wanted my remaining two days to be perfect. So I enlisted the help of Giada Falchetto, a beautiful, accomplished guide fluent in Russian as well as English, who knows the city’s food and history like the back of her (29 year old) hand. I’d met her on a previous visit at the bar at al Vedova while she was showing around a chic Dutch couple and kept her card.
She met me at my new digs, the breathtakingly elegant seat of hushed luxury that is the Aman, converted from a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal. Giada’s romantic and business partner Loris, met us and as we wove our way through San Polo, deep into Dorsoduro, Giada pointing out the best fried fish vendors, wine bars and pasticceria along the way (Pasticceria Rizzardini, the oldest in Venice and right on the Aman’s doorstep, was my favourite spot, though Rosa Salvo in St Marco has the best custard creams, apparently).
We nipped into the San Pantalon church, which quietly has the biggest ceiling canvas painting in the world, and then manoeuvred to the Pugni Bridge, where Venetians from competing clans used to fight it out with punching bouts, and now the site of a floating market. We had ombre (small thimblefuls of cheap sweet wine) and seafood-topped cichetti at the iconic Al Botegon, before continuing on to the insider’s favourite district of Canareggio. We wove past a hidden gem, the Mendicolo church, dark and vaulted with gold, on the edge of Dorsoduro, and then surfaced on Canareggio’s Fondamenta de la Sense, an epicentre of lively refreshment.
The next night to thank her, I invited Giada to dinner at the Aman, which – despite its extremely high nightly price – serves simple, excellent food at genuinely affordable prices. But the draw is the setting: although we weren’t in the private room with a Tiepolo on the ceiling (George Clooney likes it when he’s in town), we had dinner in one of the vast 18th century chambers impeccably restored in high baroque opulence, with intricate marble fireplaces, Venetian mosaic wallpaper, gold brocade and a view onto the Grand Canal. With Americans still staying away, the Aman right now is a unique oasis, rather like staying in a wonderful museum.
The next morning, after coffee and fresh juice on the Aman’s private dock, I caught the two hour train to Trieste. The former sole port of the Habsburg Monarchy, to which it belonged from 1382 to 1918, the city is a beautiful, culturally diverse intersection between Europe’s East and Western blocs, in a crook of terrain near Slovenia and Austria. Its treasures are evenly divided between the ancient (the Roman Theatre in the centre is one impressive instance) and the more modern, with particularly strong 18th, 19th and early 20th century gems, including the palace-laden Piazza Unita D’Italia, Europe’s largest seaside square; the enormous, beautiful synagogue (built in 1908); the stunning, pillared commodity exchange, founded by Empress Maria Teresa in 1755, and the world-class Revoltella art gallery.
But if you have time for nothing else – or prefer to spend your waking hours sunning yourself off one of the most beautiful coasts in Europe – then go to the Miramare castle. Built in an idiosycratic fashion in the 1850s for Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, the Miramare is a Disneyland castle of opulence and strangeness that forms a mesmerising feature of the coast, between the tree-studded sea terraces of Barcola and the marine reserve and harbour of Grignano. The Archduke himself designed the castle’s 54 acres of grounds which features a French formal garden and Middle Eastern Cyprus groves. The interiors are fascinating too. Maximilian was Commander of the Navy and circumnavigated the world between 1857 and 1859, and the couple’s bedroom and the archduke’s office are done up as the cabin and the stern wardroom respectively of the Novara, his warship. Maximilian oversaw work on the castle until 1864 when he set off for Mexico; he reigned briefly as emperor before being shot. An Aztec eagle and other Mexican motifs can be found around the castle.
From the Miramare, on a hot day, you can wind your way down on foot to Grignano, where to the right there are free swimming terraces, as well as two excellent paid-for ones: my favourite is the Riviera Hotel’s beach, with comfy chairs, plenty of pine trees for shade, several ladders down to the clear lagoon, and a good, if pricey bar. Another prime spot for a free swim and sunbathe is in front of the Miramare hotel, a bend in the coast that offers a beautiful view of both the castle and Trieste harbor. And ladies should not miss a chance to go to the Lanterna Pedicin, the women and children’s half of a gender-divided swimming complex, which has a charming, completely unique atmosphere.
Food in Trieste reveals its Austrian and Italian heritage: the go-to buffets for Germanic ham and potato salad are Da Pepe and Trattoria da Giovanni, but my favourite way to spend an evening was at Al Ciketo, for ham, cheese and little mini breads topped with dainties, and a wonderful assortment of wine by the glass, followed by seafood at Al Sorgente, where you need to book in advance.
Trieste hotels are grand but relatively inexpensive: the ritziest is the Savoia Exelsior Palace, a 19th century behemoth with balconies overlooking the harbour; those who want the best access for swimming might prefer the modern Miramare or Riviera, five or so km out of the centre. I stayed in Palazzo Talents 1907, a nifty apartment hotel that was sparkling clean and central (about €80 per night in high season). Pairing high luxury in Venice with the lower-key dazzle of Trieste is a perfect way to experience the best of the Adriatic this autumn.