Check out my new travel “Highlights” on Afar.com: a mountaintop malga and a beach of golden sand.
After a couple slices of putizza—a spiral cake filled with chocolate, dried fruit, and nuts that we had purchased at Pasticceria Penso the day before—Mike and I headed out to Piazza Oberdan to catch bus #44 to Duino. The ride took about 50 minutes; we had contemplated getting off at Sistiana (the town just before Duino) in order to walk along the Rilke Path to Castello di Duino, but since we didn’t spot the road signs for Sistiana until it was too late, we went ahead and visited the castle first.
Dating back to the early 15th century, Castello di Duino is best known as the home of the royal Thurn und Taxis family during the 19th century. Today, it houses a museum full of princely memorabilia, including a piano once played by Liszt and a massive dollhouse that belonged to Princess Eugénie of Greece and Denmark. Although the yellow-walled castle is not nearly as striking as Castello di Miramare, the two do share some similarities. Both are perched on a cliff overlooking the sparkling sea and surrounded by lush, manicured gardens. While Miramare’s gardens are much more expansive, Duino’s network of pathways, lined with cypress trees and statues, is ideal for a romantic stroll.
After touring the castle, we walked down to the harbor to Ristorante Alla Dama Bianca for lunch. The sunny weather was perfect for sitting at an outdoor table overlooking the water. First, we shared an appetizer of frutti di mare gratinati (scallops, razor clams, and mussels baked with a breadcrumb topping). Next, I had ravioli filled with shrimp and tossed with melted butter and poppy seeds, while Mike had orecchiette with shrimp and tomato sauce.
After lunch, we made our way back up to the castle and found the entrance to the Sentiero Rilke. The path was named after the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was a frequent guest of Princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis. It is said that Rilke penned the beginning to his famous Duino Elegies while wandering along the sea cliffs near the castle on a dark and stormy day.
Beginning at Castello di Duino, the path hugged the meandering coastline all the way to Sistiana. Shady pine forests alternated with breathtaking vistas—of evergreen shrubs clinging to the rock face and precipitous, white limestone cliffs plunging into the sea, all set against a pristine backdrop of sea and sky. The trail finally emerged upon a sapphire blue bay dotted with sailboats. As the access to the path was hidden in the trees behind a campground there, it is perhaps fortunate that we missed Sistiana on our way that morning, for we may never have found the entrance.
Back in Trieste for dinner, we stumbled upon what has become one of my favorite restaurants in the region—Ristorante La Tecia. Partly it is their creative take on regional cuisine and their rotating menu of local dishes, but even more so I have come to appreciate the casual and welcoming atmosphere. It was a spot I returned to many times on future trips, always feeling comfortable dining alone—and even once accompanied by my four-year-old son.
On this particular evening, we were seated at an outside table in the middle of Via San Nicolò. I started with the salame all’aceto balsamico (slices of salami cooked in vinegar and onions and served with polenta), while Mike had the orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with artichokes and smoked ricotta cheese. Next, I had a rollata di crespelle (crêpes rolled up jellyroll-style with nettles, ricotta, and breadcrumbs), and Mike finished with bocconcini di struzzo (cubes of ostrich—yes, ostrich yet again) with a sauce of gin and tarragon. We also shared a plate of verdure in tecia (sautéed vegetables) that has given the restaurant its name—a tecia is a cast iron skillet. At La Tecia, the assortment of vegetables varies with the season; this evening it included peas, red bell peppers, zucchini, cabbage, and potatoes.
By the next morning, the sun had returned, although there was a bit of a chill in the air. We began the day with more pastries at Pasticceria Penso: a slice of apple strudel and a “domino,” the latter being a bite-sized rectangle of cake layered with rich chocolate buttercream, covered with bittersweet ganache, and whimsically decorated with white frosting dots.
From Piazza Oberdan, we took the tram uphill to the town of Villa Opicina, marked by a monumental obelisk that was erected in 1830 to celebrate a new road between Austria and Trieste. The pedestrian path Via Napoleonica stretches westward about two miles from the obelisk to the village of Prosecco. Although we turned back before reaching Prosecco, we had plenty of opportunities to admire the stunning, panoramic view of the sea.
Returning to Opicina for lunch, we stopped at Ristorante Diana, one of several restaurants along the highway that specializes in cuisine from Trieste and the Carso. They were fully booked but agreed to serve us if we could eat our meal in the next 75 minutes. I ordered pasticcio di crespelle con carciofi e funghi (a lasagna of sorts, with layers of crêpes, artichokes, and mushrooms) and the capriolo in salmì (stewed venison). Mike had a plate of prosciutto di struzzo e cinghiale (cured ostrich and wild boar) and the stinco di vitello (braised veal shank). As a side dish, we shared a dish of carciofi gratinati (artichokes baked with a breadcrumb topping).
After lunch, our plan was to take bus #42 to the Grotta Gigante, but as happens so often when traveling, we just missed it. As we waited for the next bus to come along, we enjoyed some refreshing cones from the gelateria across the street (me: cioccolato, stracciatella, and yogurt; Mike: pistachio, panna cotta, and amarena).
When we finally arrived at Grotta Gigante—the world’s largest tourist cave at 351 feet high, 213 feet wide, and 918 feet long—we joined a dozen other people for a guided tour. Upon entering, a narrow tunnel opened into the enormous cavern, which is large enough to fit Saint Peter’s Basilica. The echo of dripping water filled the silence, and we were immediately struck by the chilly dampness. Five hundred steps descended past walls covered with curtains of stalactites in shades of white, orange, and brown. The cave’s stalagmites were tall and slender, with flat tops, the calcite concretions resembling stacks of dishes due to the height from which the water drips. What goes down must come back up again, and although the five-hundred-step return to the surface was quite strenuous, it provided a suitable excuse for my recent gastronomic indulgences!
Back in Trieste for dinner, we found a casual trattoria near the city’s old center, Trattoria La Piazzetta. I had goulasch served with potato gnocchi and a side of patate in tecia. This was the meal that clarified for me how those potatoes were prepared: slightly mashed but still chunky and cooked with beef broth, onions, and bits of pork. The goulasch obviously did not contain tomatoes and therefore perpetuated my lingering dilemma about that dish. Mike ordered seafood linguini and veal scallopini in white wine sauce—happily oblivious to the minutiae of cookbook research that was plaguing me on a daily basis.
It’s time to introduce my husband, Mike. Although we were not yet married at the time of this trip, we had been dating for about seven years. Mike had joined me in Udine the night before, and we were taking the train to Trieste first thing in the morning. As the train was pulling into the station, we noticed masses of cyclists racing along Viale Miramare. Apparently, the Giro d’Italia bike race was in progress.
We made our way to the nearby Hotel Italia where we had reservations, dropped off our bags, and went back out into the chaos. Many streets were blocked off to traffic, and crowds of onlookers filled the squares and sidewalks. Before long, we opted for an early lunch and ducked into one of my favorite spots, Buffet Da Pepi. Given how much Mike loves all things pork, I had been waiting several years to introduce him to their piatto misto, a pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork—including ham, bacon, sausage, and tongue—served with sauerkraut, mustard, and freshly grated horseradish. We also split a bowl of liptauer cheese, which was served with slices of rye bread. As I later learned in Vienna, liptauer is typically mixed with a number of savory ingredients such as onion, anchovies, capers, mustard, pickles, parsley, chives, and caraway seeds, as well as paprika, which colors the dish a vivid pinkish orange. In Trieste, however, I always found liptauer to be white in color; at Buffet Da Pepi, the cheese was light and fluffy with a strangely bitter flavor.
After lunch, we crossed the vast Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, which was jammed with parked cars and people milling about the various kiosks. Our next stop was Pasticceria Penso, where I had made friends with the Stoppar family on my last visit to Trieste. Antonello was working, and after a brief chat—it was nearly time for the bakery to close for the afternoon—we bought two pastries to share: a slice of dobostorte (Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel) and a granatina (a triangle of chocolate mousse reminiscent of the Hungarian cake called rigojancsi). We ate our treats a couple blocks away at the Molo dei Bersaglieri while waiting for the boat to Castello di Miramare.
The ride took nearly an hour, but it was well worth it to approach the castle from the sea. Even though the sky was overcast, the whitewashed Miramare was an imposing sight, perched on its promontory overlooking the dark, churning waters. From the harbor of Grignano, it was a short walk uphill to the castle’s entrance. As soon as we arrived, it started raining—this was the second time it had rained on me there, and I would have to wait and get those elusive “blue sky” pictures another day.
We stayed only long enough to tour the castle’s lavish apartments. Miramare was home to Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph) and his young wife, Carlotta of Belgium—that is, until Maximilian was captured and executed in Mexico. From the outside, the castle’s stark white façade appears to be taken straight from the pages of a fairytale. Inside, the rooms are decorated with sumptuous furnishings, all dating back to the mid-19th century. There were Chinese- and Japanese-style drawing rooms, an enormous red and gold throne room, a library containing around seven thousand books, Maximilian’s study designed in the style of a ship’s cabin, and a music room where Carlotta often played the piano. We had planned on taking the bus back to Trieste, but after waiting for some time, we realized it wasn’t running, most likely due to the bike race. Fortunately, we were able to catch a return boat.
That evening for dinner, I was thrilled to finally have a dining companion, so we splurged on the elegant (and expensive!) Ristorante Al Bagatto. I started with the zuppa di pesce (fish soup), which was unusual—at least in my experience—in that the mussels, clams, and other shellfish had already been shelled. Mike ordered his all-time favorite pasta dish, spaghetti alla carbonara.
Next, even though it was not on the menu, I requested scampi alla busara. The menu did list spaghetti alla busara, but I was more interested in trying the seafood without the pasta, since it was on my lengthy list of recipes to try. The chef was happy to accommodate my wishes, and served a plate of langoustines alla busara—in a light sauce of tomatoes, garlic, and parsley. The shellfish were tricky to pick apart, not to mention super messy. Although they were extremely delicious, it was almost not worth the effort for the miniscule amount of meat inside.
While it was gratifying to cross off another dish from my list, I felt envious of Mike’s yummy-looking plate of fritto misto. Never before had I seen such teeny tiny creatures deep fried in my life! Fortunately for me, Mike has always been generous when it comes to food. Exquisitely crisp, those morsels of baby octopus and tiny fish crunched like popcorn and burst with the saltiness of the sea.
By the time we left the restaurant, rain was pouring down in sheets, and the wind was blowing the drops practically sideways. We were drenched by the time we reached our hotel. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed to finally be sharing Italy with the love of my life.