Trieste and Slovenia

Tuesday 1st May 2007, Duino, near Trieste
The bar on this campsite is named Rifugio Rilke and Ian suddenly realised that the nearby village of Duino was the place where the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had, over several years, composed the Duino elegies in the early 1900s. He had attended lectures on them many years ago but had never been able to fathom their meaning. Perhaps a walk in the footsteps of Rilke might mean that he will read them with new understanding once back in England. (It's doubtful however whether Jill will do likewise!)

So this morning we set off along the rugged, stony coastal footpath to discover the village of Duino with its castle and tiny fishing harbour. The views of the castle on its rock, the brilliant blue of the Adriatic, the cliff top flowers and the white limestone cliffs were quite dramatic. They are formed by superficial karstic phenomena and erosion has shaped them into tall stacks and strange grooved formations pitted with holes. Along the cliff top are several remains of wartime bunkers dating from the First World War, built by the Austro-Hungarians. They are used today as panoramic viewpoints. Under the castle there are also German bunkers from the Second World War built by the Todt organisation, that was also responsible for many of the bunkers we have seen on the Normandy landing beaches. The cliff top route, known as the Rilke trail, offers a wide view across the gulf of Trieste from the Isonza river to Savudrija Cap in Croatia.

Duino castle from Rilke's walk

Cliff top flowers, Duino

Karstic rock formation and view towards Trieste, Duino

Limestone pillars on the cliffs at Duino

The castle of Duino has been in the family of the Dukes of Thurn and Taxis since the 19th century. It became a meeting place for the literary and musical figures of the age and welcomed not only Rainer Maria Rilke, but Paul Valéry (we last encountered him, or rather his grave, at Sète in Southern France last year) as well as Mark Twain, Johann Strauss and others. Rilke was a regular visitor and would walk the cliff tops as he composed lines for his elegy. We have decided that he was onto a good thing. As a guest of the castle during his repeated visits, his writing provided an excellent excuse to return. We imagined him sitting in the sunshine overlooking the sea as he agonised over a suitable word to rhyme with "pumpernickel". "It's no good Duchess" he would lament over the evening seafood risotto and chianti, "I've only managed lines 13 to 17 of the third elegy today. There's nothing for it but to come back again next spring for further inspiration!"

Down by the harbour we watched a fisherman cleaning his catch of cuttlefish in a bucket of water on his boat. His hands were completely black with the ink and as he emptied the bucket overboard into the clear green water it swirled black and cloudy.

After a coffee under a shady umbrella watching the ships crossing the bay towards the harbour at Trieste we started the long steep climb back up to the cliff top. Fortunately there was a slight breeze and the path was frequently overhung by trees. On our return we were none-the-less delighted to share a chilled tonic water from Modestine's fridge and relax for an hour beneath the pine trees.

Returning to the campsite, Duino

The path along the cliffs in the opposite direction leads down to the yachting marina of Sistiana we'd noticed this morning. It looked so perfect with the sun reflecting from the hulls of the sleek white craft on the blue water, surrounded by steep cliffs and green woodland. Once we finally reached it however, it was to discover the area was crowded with holiday makers, many trying in vain to park. There were traffic jams and countless motorbikes along the jetty. On the beach of sharp grey stones it was difficult to thread a way between the beautiful bodies laid out to roast. Nobody however was actually bathing. We know we are old and boring but we really cannot see any pleasure in simply lying exposed on a hot beach soaking up the sun. Other than a few bars there was nothing at all to do so we soon made our way back up the cliffs again where there was a welcome breeze on the top and the wider view was so much better than down below.

Marina at Sistiana, near Duino

This evening we ate a mixed grill with salad in the open-air campsite restaurant beside the swimming pool. It was an interesting experience as everyone else was Italian and seemed to know each other. It was unbelievably noisy as everyone shouted so much we expected blows at any moment. It was all very cheerful however and we realise that's how it is in Italy. It became really chilly before we'd finished our meal and we are glad to now be warm inside Modestine with mugs of hot tea. It's the coldest we've been since we arrived in Normandy nearly a month ago.

Wednesday 2nd May 2007, Duino, near Trieste
The Italian extended May bank holiday ended last night and so too did the long spell of hot weather we have enjoyed for the last few weeks. This evening we are almost alone on a chilly, rain splattered campsite with a slight wind moaning through the pine trees that surround us.

When we arrived here we only intended spending the night before moving on. After relaxing yesterday, simply enjoying the pretty coastal scenery, we decided to extend our stay and visit Trieste by bus today, rather than struggling through the city with Modestine. You cannot buy tickets on the bus but we obtained some from the campsite before boarding the bus that stops at the entrance. Once again we have accidentally transgressed as we caught a bus for which our ticket was apparently not valid and the onboard ticket clipping machine refused to accept them. The driver will never enter into conversation with passengers so we simply sat there without proper tickets for the fifty minute journey through very pretty green countryside of vines, fruit and vegetable gardens, stopping at different villages on the way. In Trieste we melted quickly into the crowds before anyone questioned us and went off in search of the correct bus stop ready for our return journey this evening. We never managed to find it and have to confess to returning on the same bus as we used this morning hoping an inspector didn't get on as it would be really difficult to explain that we had actually paid for the ride and had manually torn our ticket to prove it, but couldn't find the right bus. Fortunately our luck was in.

Jill has been hobbling around with hiking sticks for the last couple of days suffering from very bad back pain. Our progress around Trieste has consequently been slow and difficult but we've still seen a lot, though we have suffered countless frustrations in a failed attempt to load another blog onto the internet. Really, we do keep saying how much trouble we are having but Italy is the most difficult place we've yet encountered for internet access. There are only two internet places in Trieste. They shut from noon until 3.30pm and we need a couple of hours to sort out everything – blogs, emails, banking, searching the internet for campsites, maps, city guides etc. Only one place had a facility for downloading from our USB stick and the only machine was in use. So we had to return at 3.30. Meanwhile the other place was run by a Chinaman with onscreen instructions in Chinese. He only spoke Italian slightly better than we did! The keyboard differs from UK ones and he'd set up his own short-cut function keys so we couldn't find how to use the @ sign. Makes sorting out email rather difficult! We did at least manage to read our emails even if we couldn't reply. Returning to the other shop all went well and we loaded all our images with no trouble until we came to resize them. One mistake with Blogger means the whole file gets lost and it's impossible to find the images again. Somehow we lost the lot yet again. We also lost that amount of storage space from our allowance for images, so we were pretty peeved.

Trieste however is a pleasant city. It is a major port but we never discovered that area, though there were tankers and ferry ships making their way into the port. The city may lack some of the marvels of other European cities of similar size but it has a friendly atmosphere and is full of ordinary people going about their daily lives. Traffic is quite heavy, the city being on a grid system of mainly one way streets. The old town is quite shabby with steep streets leading up to the unusual cathedral and the castle, from where there are views down onto the city and the sea.

Canal Grande or old port, 1756, Trieste

The Cathedral is actually a combination of two basilicas dating from the 9th and 10th centuries that originally stood side by side. Facing walls were demolished and the two churches joined into one with five aisles. Over the side altars are lovely early mosaics reminiscent of those we saw in Ravenna last year. One of the Madonna and child dates from the 12th century. Low arches, frescoes, oil paintings, ornate marble tombstones set into the floor and carved wooded pews all add to the charm of this particularly pleasing building.

Mosaic in the Basilica, Trieste

Cathedral and Roman forum, Trieste

Down in the main city again we discovered streets of large, 19th century buildings in a mix of styles – Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Eclectic. These included the stock exchange, the theatre, the railway station, the main post office and a number of banks and commercial buildings. There were coffee houses from the "Belle Epoque" with a Viennese feel, a legacy of the days when Trieste belonged to Austria.

Palazzo del Governo, example of Eclectic architecture, Trieste

The Piazza Unità d'Italia is a huge square facing directly onto the sea. Built in 1879 it is bordered by several massive buildings including the Palazzo del Governo and the Town Hall. When we arrived the square was being used for schools sports day with children running round a course as parents cheered them on. It all looked great fun from the onlookers' standpoint but we felt sorry for the less athletic children, some of whom looked quite distressed by it all.

Sports day on the Piazza Unità d'Italia in front of the Town Hall, Trieste

Lloyd Triestino (1883) on the Piazza Unità d'Italia with the fountain of the four continents (1751), Trieste

Trieste has many links to literature and the coffee houses originally provided a meeting place for such literary figures as James Joyce, who worked on Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while living for several years in the city, and Richard Francis Burton, famed for his translation of the Arabian Nights, published in 16 volumes in 1885. There are also bronze statues and literary trails to be followed around the town for noted local writers.

The city is also rich in museums having at least eighteen. We had no time to visit more than the municipal library however, housed in a magnificent palace but sadly lacking in technology or open access to resources. There were entire rooms filled with card catalogues for public consultation! There is a James Joyce Museum in the same building.

And of course the city is not without its Roman remains, including the forum on the hill beside the castle, and a theatre.

Roman theatre, Trieste

Considering how frustrating the day has been, reading this over now, we seem to have absorbed much of the atmosphere of this pleasant city in a few very short hours.

Thursday 3rd May 2007, Pinkpyjama, Slovenia
The real name of this place is Pivkajama but we find it hard to remember, so pink pyjama is the nearest we get. Jama means cave and here we have some of the largest in Europe. There is even one on the campsite, a vast hole in the ground with the sound of the hidden river running through. It scared the daylights out of us when we went for an evening stroll through the woods in which the campsite is situated!

Steps down to the cave just beside Modestine! Pivkajama

It's been an odd sort of day. Trieste is pretty much on the border with Slovenia and having seen the Spanish Riding School in Vienna last summer we decided to make a little detour to Lipica, a few miles into Slovenia to see the stud farm where for over four hundred years the famous Lippizana white horses have been bred. Last year too we made a very brief foray into Slovenia before crossing into Austria. Then we found it a beautiful, rural countryside and promised ourselves we would visit it again at the first opportunity. We can confirm that it is indeed lovely. There was a sense of delight as we passed through a countryside of steep meadows massed with pretty pink, purple and yellow flowers. Minor, almost empty roads took us through crumbling little villages with pretty churches and walls covered with roses. The streets were busy with elderly people chatting as they went about their shopping. Fruit trees were in blossom and even village gardens had their vines. Later, as we passed through some of the small towns it became apparent that it is a less affluent country than Italy. There are factories, some abandoned, all looking antiquated, on the outskirts. Basically though, Slovenia is rural with a low population density and few cars.

At Lipica the tourists hadn't yet arrived but later on it will be very busy to judge by the coach parking area, the casino, gift shop, hotel, golf course and restaurants. Today we had the place to ourselves – except for fields of white horses, many with their foals, which we were surprised to see are dark brown or even black! Expensive guided tours were available but we were content to just watch the horses in the fields and paddocks and even one being given preliminary training in one of the schooling rings. Photos were not allowed so all we have is this one Ian managed to take surreptitiously.

Mares and foals, Lipica Stud

We were concerned that we didn't have any currency for Slovenia and had no idea what it was worth anyway. In the restaurant we found a menu priced in euros and sits (whatever they are.) We worked out that there are about 350 sits to the £. To pay for campsites and food, even for a day, we reckoned we'd need about 7,000sits. Discovering a cash machine we attempted to withdraw our sits. The machine dispensed us 30 euros instead which rather puzzled us! It was some time later we discovered from the campsite manager that Slovenia is the first of the Balkan states to have the euro! We shudder to think that in our ignorance we might have attempted to withdraw 7,000 euros from our account by accident! As it's only about a year since the euro was introduced it is common practice to price things in both euros and old money but we had assumed it was because Lipeca accepted either currency.

Campsites are few in Slovenia and practically the only one between Trieste and the capital, Ljubljana, is here, a popular place for people interested in very large holes. To judge by the small number of people sharing the site with us and the large number of showers and toilets, holes are of diminishing interest. Ian found navigating quite challenging with place names like Ostrožno Brdo, Trnje and Brce to contend with! When we arrived at the nearby little town of Postojna we were relieved to discover that practically everyone we have met has been happy to speak to us in English! Young people know it is essential to learn it and they are eager to try it out on us! In the tourist office, and the campsite it may be expected, but even the girl in the greengrocer's was happy to talk to us. Everyone wished us a nice stay and we felt quite ashamed at our ignorance. We even had to search in our phrase book to know which was the ladies and which the gents loos!

In Trieste internet had been difficult to find and very expensive but in Postojna we were offered free internet access at a couple of places! Unfortunately the first machine had such a slow connection it wasn't capable of running our blogsite and the other place couldn't cope with our USB files. So we are building up a backlog of untransmitted travel blogs.

The day turned very chilly and it started to rain as we hurried back to Modestine. The main cave for which Postojna is famous looked very commercialised so we went off for a drive in the countryside instead. The twisting little roads took us up into the tree-clad hills where white crags of limestone rock protruded through at the summits. Soon we reached the castle of Predjamski Grad, an impressive building from the late Middle Ages built inside the mouth of yet another enormous limestone cave and looking wonderfully picturesque.

Predjamski Grad, Predjama

Church of Mater Dolorosa, consecrated 1449 Predjama

Cave beneath the castle of Predjamski Grad, Predjama

Around 6pm we returned to the campsite and as it was too cold and damp to sit outside we poured glasses of wine and watched a dvd on our computer, snug in Modestine. It seemed rather surreal to be in a land where we understood not one word, camping in lonely woodland overlooked by limestone crags and with a massive hole in the ground near our back door, watching a dated black and white film we'd bought in a charity shop!