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April 28th 2019
A thunderstorm at sea and rain in the Park
This morning the sky was cloudy and a splash of rain was falling… That’s why I made the plan to go to the Castello di Miramare Castle, about 10 kilometres to the west of Trieste. It is one of the touristic hotspots in this region, especially because the interior and the furniture haven’t changed since the times when Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg (1832–1867), Emperor’s Franz Josef I. younger brother, and his wife Charlotte of Belgium lived there (from 1860 to 1864).
After Maximilian’s passing away in 1867 and Charlotte’s departure to Belgium a few years later, the Castle has known several more inhabitants, until it has been opened to the public in 1955 by the regional authorities.
In short the history of the Castle is as follows. When in 1855 Maximilian had been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Navy and travelled to Trieste, that in those days was still part of Austria, he rented for himself and his wife and their retinue a palazzo near the town. Eventually he wished to have a residence to himself and decided therefore that a castle should be built on a then still barren spur of rock on a cliff pointing into the sea, near the small place of Grignano. He chose the Viennese architect Carl Junker (1827–1882) and for the interior the designers Franz en Julius Hoffmann. Tragedy is that Maximilian have controlled everything with such care and an eye for detail, but he has never been able to enjoy it and hasn’t seen the result of the project… He was in 1864 appointed Emperor of Mexico, and has been due to several political complications executed in 1867.
The Castle is built of white limestone from Istria (the territory in Slovenia to the east of Trieste) and is therefore visible from afar, but also because of its location on the headland protruding into the sea: especially from Trieste. In 1986 a wide zone in the sea around the cliff on which the Castle is standing, a protected nature reserve has been created under the custody of the World Wildlife Fund, Italian Branch, which has been marked out with buoys.
This morning I went to the railway station, but I just missed the train: the next one would depart only in two hours (it was a Sunday, therefore fewer trains are scheduled…). That’s why I took, advised by a gentle lady at the information desk of the railway company, the bus, Line 6, which ends in Grignano, to the west of the castle’s park. The bus was crowded, because more people had chosen this destination as their daytrip… A few stops before the terminus I got off the bus, because I wanted to walk along the seaside. There was a thunderstorm at sea, with many flashes of lightning and a beautiful interaction between light and clouds. There was a lot of wind, but the rain drifted off towards Croatia.
After a breezy stroll along the water I joined a large group of people who had parked their cars or had left a coach. In the meanwhile it had really started to rain and we had to open our umbrellas. Even now the appearance of the Castle and the sea was impressive.
On an information panel I read that in 1860 the paved road that has been built from Trieste to the Castle was completed. A high, white entrance gate with a tower and battlements was built to keep the cold Bora wind out; it was later named the “Porta della Bora“. Maximilian has also ordered that the slopes along the driveway should be planted with holly oaks (Quericus ilex), of which the leaves look like holly, and as undergrowth laurel trees and snowberries. The Castle itself came in sight. The forecourt with the castle is imposing; a beautiful holly oak grows near the pergola of the castle. No-one stayed outside for long to admire the architecture: everybody entered to visit the castle. An audio tour was available, but for me the information on the panels was just fine.
Maximilian intended that all rooms should have sea view. As a Navy man he was passionate about the sea. Even in this covered and rainy weather lots of light entered the rooms, which were furbished totally in the fashion of the second half of the 19th century, with mainly dark-coloured curtains, furniture, parquet and wall cladding. The view towards the sea really was very beautiful.
The interior was very luxurious – it was clear that no expense was spared to show off with this castle: especially the second floor was truly extravagant and dressed for ostentation. In the stair well on the first floor I noticed a kind of large round bowl, like a fish tank, with on the rim four small dragons of bronze, intently staring into the bowl as if they were fixing their prey. Something very special!
Both Maximilian and Charlotte were interested in art, music and literature. That showed in their (up till now authentic) library, on the ground level. Here again are views on the sea. On the second floor the so-called Hall of the Windrose: in the nice coffered ceiling a large compass rose is placed, another sign of Maximilian’s predilection for navigation.
Outside again I walked into the direction of the park in which I had been more interested. I was able ‘though to have a closer look on the impressive façade of the Castle. It has been built in a neogothic and renaissance style – typical for the 19th century. The thunderstorm was still grumbling in the distance and the sky covered with clouds added something sinister to it…
After Charlotte completely disturbed by Maximilian’s death had returned to Belgium, the Habsburg family kept on using the castle. During the First World War all furniture was taken to Vienna, but it was returned to Miramare after the war. After the First World War Trieste was allotted to Italy: the furniture however was successfully reclaimed from Austria. After renovations and refurbishments the Castle was opened for the public as a Museum. Only in March 1955 it got its museal function back. Between 1931 and 1955 different inhabitants stayed in the castle. During the German occupation the castle housed a training institute for Nazi-officers as from 1943; the furniture of the castle was transferred to different other buildings. From 1945 at first troops from New Zealand and later on from England were stationed in the castle. Eventually the castle became Headquarters of the “Trieste United States Troops” (TRUST), the 88th Infantry Division, the Blue Devils, the division of the American troops, who have controlled between 1947 and 1954 the Free Zone of Trieste. To commemorate this part of history after 50 years a memorial has been installed on the lawn near the Castle.
The text on the plaque reads:
Historic Miramare Castle was the headquarters of Trieste United States Troops from 16 September 1947 to 24 October 1954. They secured the borders, preserved peace and re-established freedom and democracy, leading to the return of Trieste to Italy. This plaque is dedicated to those American soldiers, “the Blue Devils”, on the 50th anniversary of their completed mission.
TRUST veterans , 88th Infantry Division Association
Veterans of the foreign wars Post 8862, Italy
Maximilian was a keen amateur botanist and also had a landscape park of 22 hectares created against the mountain slope. Therefore he asked in first instance the designer Josef Laube (to 1858) and later Anton Jelinek. He strived to create a “natural” environment in an artificial way, in which the various elements work together in harmony. In this sense avenues and paths follow the natural lines in the rock formation. The rock was practically barren, so in order to have plants growing there anyway he had large quantities of soil imported from Austria (Styria and Carinthia). He did not only want to create a beautiful garden, but also a location for meditation where there is an interaction between art and nature. Therefore he has collected any pieces of art which he put on display in the garden. For instance halfway the stairs opposite of the castle the inspiring and expressive piece of art “Amazone“, made of zinc by the metal founder Moritz Geiss (1805-1875) from Berlin. Moreover antique statues, columns and vases with or without plants are placed in between the borders and fountains on the steep slopes – including sea view.
At the west side of the park a smaller “Casteletto” has been built, a villa where Maximilian and Charlotte had lived during the construction of the castle. In one of the separating walls a “Fountain of shells” was created: a kind of “grotto” with many St. James shells against a sky blue background. Although the fountain wasn’t in use (yet), it was like a bright spot on this somewhat grey day! Nearby are the greenhouses in which in former days the plants for the many borders have been growing.
Because it still was very rainy, I strolled through the large park completely on my own and ended up at a low wall dividing the park from the cliffs: here a battery of several smaller cannons is stationed against an imaginary enemy from the sea. From this point the castle is visible again.
Maximilian’s original plan was to create a Mediterranean landscape garden, but that didn’t prove to be successful: the temperatures in winter were too low and the Bora wind blew too often. That is why so many rare conifers were planted: the Digger pine (Pinus Sabiniana), originating from California, the Parasol or Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea), the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensisis) and the Black pine from Austria (Pinus nigra). Furthermore many varieties of cedars and blue spruces are growing here. It is wonderful to see how these trees have developed over the past one-and-a-half century on this spot which was originally as to the soil that poor! It is a green peaceful oasis, just what Maximilian had in mind…
Somewhere against a green slope another bronze statue of one of the later inhabitants of the castle was standing: Amadeo of Savoy, Duke of Aoste (1898–1942), a much distinguished commander of the Italian Airforce in the 1930s and early 1940s. He lived with his family in one wing of the castle from 1931 to 1937 – during the visit to the castle it was remarkable to see how those rooms were furbished to the taste of the 1930s, quite more trendy that Maximilian’s and Charlotte’s style! This statue is made in 1971 by the renowned sculptor Marcello Mascherini.
Another romantic spot is the “Swan Lake”, with an small island in the middle on which a hatchery stands. Now only ducks were swimming around or dozing off on the footpath to the so-called “Swiss chalet” that has been built uphill and had served as lodge for the garden staff. Nice detail was the image of a swan in an mosaic at one of the steps to the little lake!
Continuing towards one of the exit gates I suddenly spotted in the high grass two beautiful specimens of the Lady orchid Orchis purpurea! Such a surprise and how huge these flowers were…
Meanwhile it was already past three o’clock in the afternoon and as the rain started to fall again in all its intensity, I looked for the exit that was the closest by, near Grignano, because I knew there was a bus stop. As swift as possible I descended the steps and ran through the pouring rain to the ticket vending machine. The bus was already waiting with its doors opened – inside it was warm and dry! Outside the rain drops were drilling holes into the water of the little harbour. On the way to Trieste the bus was a kind of amphibious vehicle: large waves of water were splashing on the sidewalk…
In the evening the weather had improved and I went for a walk through town to see where I would go for dinner: I chose Cafè Continentale with a dining room in a bright and modern design and a pleasant, youthful staff. As an appetizer I had a cod fish spread with lemon and pistachio on a warm toasted piece of white bread and as a primo piatto a plate of bigoli, tomato and chucks of seared tuna. I didn’t know the pasta variety “bigoli“, but it is a rather firm spaghetti-like pasta, with a nice yellow colour, from the region of Venice, which was originally prepared with buckwheat flour, but nowadays with whole-grain flower. It had a surprisingly firm, but juicy bite. As secondo piatto I had chosen the Fish of the Day, being a fritto misto with prawns and langoustine, a tasty piece of a fish that I didn’t recognise which had to be taken off a heavy bone an a thin steak of tuna. I had a glass of Traminer and the meal was complete.