Yesterday we walked past some intriguing signs pointing to a Roman Theatre in Trieste, so today we took a stroll to find it.
We did… but also so much more!!
After a picturesque and VERY hilly walk, we arrived on the aptly named Via Teatro Romana, where right in the centre of the city is a beautifully preserved Roman theatre built in the 1st century AD. At that time, it was outside the city walls of “Tergeste” in an area then by the sea. In the Middle Ages it was hidden by the houses that were built over it. In 1938 it was excavated and restored, and continues to be used for its original purpose – plays and music – although it no longer seats the 6000 people it did in Roman times.
From the theatre we climbed the first of today’s many sets of stone steps to reach the Garden of San Michele, located between Via San Michele and San Giusto. The 6,000 square metre (1.5 acre) garden is spread across two levels and connected by white limestone stairways, with large shaded areas and a fountain in the centre (as is the case all over Europe during this very dry summer, the fountain is dry too). The garden is quite new by Trieste standards, built in 1954 as part of a program that ran from 1947-1954 to help the many unemployed after the end of WWII.
Then it was up more steeply inclined roads, along a portion of Roman wall from the first century, in an area called the “Antiquarium”.
At the top of the Hill of San Giusto we were rewarded with magnificent views and not one but four amazing sites: the J J Winkelmann Antiquities Museum and Lapidarium; the ruins of a Roman forum and civil basilica; the Cathedrale di San Giusto Martire (Cathedral of Saint Justus the Martyr); and the Castello di San Giusto fortress.
Our first stop up the hill was a peek into the Orto Lapidario (collection of stone artifacts) outside the Winkelmann Antiquities Museum.
We had never heard of Johann Joachim Winkelmann. To be fair, we’d never heard of a “lapidarium” before either (it’s a museum that exhibits stone artifacts).
Winkelmann was an 18th century art historian who was murdered in Trieste (in the course of a robbery) in 1768. The robbers got away with 4 gold medals worth about 700 lira; I have no idea what that would be in today’s terms, but the real cost was the loss of a historian who has come to be referred to as “the father of archeology” for his work in identifying the difference between and the eras of Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman antiquities and art.
In addition to pieces of ancient statuary and stele (vertical stone monuments) the garden area also includes a classical style temple built in 1874 as Winkelmann’s memorial. The 1833 tomb inside it is a cenotaph; his actual remains were buried under San Giusto Cathedral, and ended up mixed in with all the other bones in the ossuary there.
The current museum, opened in 1925, houses not only Roman and Greek items, but an excellent collection of Egyptian items donated in the 1800s by various Trieste citizens, pre-historic Stone Age items, and even some El Salvadorean Mayan items donated by a Trieste collector.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the holographic display showing how xrays of the bones from mummified remains could be turned into 3-D “faces” – like something from a CSI or Bones television series!
After the museum, it was time to head into the cathedral.
In the 14th century, the people of Trieste wanted a large cathedral and to achieve this under budget they united two pre-existing churches and reused elements from the area’s Roman remains. The result is an asymmetrical façade, in which the 14th century Gothic rose window is off-centre.
Inside, it is the incredible sparkling mosaics above the 3 altars that make the biggest impression. The church interior is quite dark, but by “donating” a Euro, electric lights come on that illuminate the mosaic half domes and make them absolutely gleam.
The pillars holding up the cathedral roof are a combination of reclaimed Corinthian columns from the forum, and “new” 14th century workmanship.
The base of the bell tower incorporates the ancient Roman propylaea, the porticoes which lead to the Roman city that was once located here. There are viewing through which some of the ruins can be seen; it is possible to climb the bell tower and look down into the porticoes, but honestly it was just too hot for another tower climb.
Between the cathedral and the Castello we could walk between the rows of cypress trees that once framed the Roman Forum, and touch (or sit on) the ancient columns that are what remains of the ancient Roman city.
From the ruins, we ascended more stairs and ramps into the Castello di San Giusto, the fortress built in the mid 1400’s to repel potential attack from the Turks. It was almost funny to read about how lucky the Hapsburgs were that the Turks did not attack Trieste, since apparently after touring the completed fortress the Imperial Engineer declared it woefully inadequate.
The large interior parade ground with its scallop-patterned stonework was being readied for tonight’s Pink Floyd tribute concert.
The castle definitely dominates the city of Trieste, and offers the most incredible panoramic views of the Gulf and the surrounding landscape in every direction.
Inside the castle is an armoury museum. Mildly interesting, but not as good as the views.
After walking the fortress walls, which brought back fond memories of walking the city walls in Dubrovnik, we noticed the entrance to the Lapidarium of Tergeste.
Just… wow. We had no idea this was here, and what a treat! It definitely reminded us of the “basement” of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, with it’s stone tunnels and side passages, except that this was further underground.
The mosaics spanning the second half of the first century BC and the first half of the first century AD, many of them excavated intact from the Villa at Barcola on Trieste’s waterfront, were a real highlight.
Oh, by the way, was there food? Of course! There were tramezzini (ready-to-go sandwiches pre-made with fillings that always involve mayonnaise, and are available at every decent bar or coffee shop between noon and around 2 pm) at our midday rest stop.
At the end of the day there was spinach ravioli and spicy sausage pizza at our neighbourhood pizzeria, whete the waiter already knows we “need” a half litre of Prosecco to start.
How long were we walking and gawking? Only about 5 hours, and unbelievably not even 10,000 steps, but it felt like we’d packed a lot into our day. Plus, every direction we look there are more things we “need” to explore further. Someone told us that they thought 2 weeks in Trieste would be far too long. Based on our first couple of days, I don’t think so.