TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip through Trieste during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talking of bucket lists, my next destination is high one on mine. When I was 14, this already travel-obsessed teenager was confused on seeing “The Sound Of Music” that Captain Von Trapp was a naval captain in the Austrian navy.
“How could landlocked Austria have a navy?” I asked myself, putting Rodgers and Hammerstein down as New World ignoramuses. And then it would eventually dawn on me that until 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire did have a giant navy, whose Adriatic home port was Triest, which after World War I became the Italian “Trieste.” Ever since reading Jan Morris’ exquisite “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere,” I’ve been obsessed with Trieste (“obsessed with Trieste” has a super lilt
to it) and it is to that city some call “Vienna-Sur-Mer” that I traveled to on three trains from Milan.
Milan’s vast Central Station was busy, busy, busy, and everyone was masked, masked, masked. Its vaulted roof, soaring skylights, gorgeous frescoes and marble columns date “merely” from 1931. But to me they seem 19th not 20th century. The train for Verona left from Binario #10, and I am assured it is second-class only, which is certainly not the end of the world.
But as I trundled my suitcase along the platform I spied that magic “1” and I boarded a first class coach, which truth be told, didn’t seem first-class in the least. Nor did it feel like it, with open windows and no air-conditioning and sticky floors. At Verona, I changed to a bullet-train lookalike to haul me to Venice-Mestre, and then went back on a clunker to Trieste. On only one of the three trains did anyone look at my ticket.
As the train moved east, the architecture that is more than a century-old starts to no longer look Italian. As we wheezed through San Giorgio di Nogaro, the station seemed positively Balkan. The railway here now follows the Adriatic shore and I am reminded that this is the famed route of the much-vaunted Simplon Orient Express, which ran from 1921 until its demise in the 1970s. Agatha Christie and all Ratchett’s murderers would have passed these very shores in their Calais coach from Istanbul.
Trieste is the final station before northeastern Italy becomes Slovenia. A slightly vexed driver woke from his torpor to drive me through streets once thronged with Hapsburgs to the grand promenade where hundreds of ships once docked. In 1869, the British steamship Dido hurried from this spot to Port Saïd to become the first ship to sail through the Suez Canal after its grand opening.
At the turn of the 20th century, Eastern European immigrants entrained for Trieste from Romania, Hungary and Ukraine, where they climbed down to the steerage hold of steamers that would take them to Ellis Island. In the 1930s, Italy’s gorgeous art deco Rex and Conte di Savoia would sail from this vast harbor to win the trans-Atlantic Blue Riband, only to have it snatched away by the Normandie and the Queen Mary as they raced to New York.
My Mercedes drove up to the Savoia Excelsior Palace Hotel, a giant pile that sits on the waterfront promenade lined with one giant art-nouveau edifice after the next. Suddenly I realize this whole avenue is a rehearsal for the Bund that would rise a quarter-century later in Shanghai.
When the Savoia Excelsior Palace Hotel opened its ornate wrought-iron doors in 1913, it was considered the grandest and most luxurious hotel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, outstripping Vienna’s Imperial and Budapest’s Gellert for opulence. It’s still grand. I made my way through a revolving door to the reception desk where bemasked clerks seemed to be standing on plinths. They are solemn yet welcoming. We bellow at each other through our masks and the COVID-era glass partitions and I checked in.
The vast lobby was full of clearly recently installed rectangular couches, chairs and settees upholstered in velvet and gold welting that seem to fit perfectly with the grandeur of the soaring columns topped by gilt Corinthian capitals. A lot of work and taste and money has gone into making this grande-dame fit for the 21st century.
At the top of the lobby, the Palm Court where Crown Princes and Arch-Dukes once took tea, has been transformed into a vast space that could easily have been imagined by Firmdale Hotels’ Kit Kemp. Dark grey walls and clever lighting reveal burgundy, lime and gray couches, more settees, more tables, walls of art-books and modern paintings. And next to it all stands an exquisite glass encased four-feet-long model of the Rex, its elegant lines, its outdoor pool, its promenade decks, topped by two rakish red and yellow funnels that imply both cosseting and speed.
I’m droning on about the ships that made Trieste immortal because there in the harbor, opposite the hotel (and I later discover, parked opposite my suite’s balcony) was the enormous MSC Splendida. This ship is so giant that on its first post-pandemic visit to the Venice Lagoon a few days earlier, Venetians booed and cat-called at this monster’s intrusion into a La Serenessima, which had seen no cruise ships large or small since the outbreak of COVID.
The Splendida has not a trace of aerodynamics or nautical allure. It is rectangular, like a massive housing project that parenthetically just happens to move. It accommodates 4,800 passengers and crew in thousands of cabins, many with balconies. To compare it with the stylish sweep of the Rex immortalized inside the hotel is to compare the Chrysler Building with a suburban Sam’s Club.
My suite is, however, was quite lovely. It was minimalist, attractively furnished, crisply sheeted, with a balcony that faces the art deco ship terminal and what can be seen of the majesty of Trieste’s harbor that isn’t obliterated by the hulk of the Splendida. Curiously, it had a kitchen, although equipped with nothing but an electric kettle, paper cups, beverage paraphernalia, and one of those inevitable only-in-Europe coffee-pod machines whose mysterious workings require a 40-minute instructional course on YouTube.
I showered, unpacked and ventured out into the early evening. I was already starting to like Trieste. Sidewalks were full of restaurant tables at which hundreds of happy Italians were celebrating the end of lockdown and the beginning of the rest of their lives. The streets behind the hotel are pedestrians-only, and the evening passagiata has the usual to and fro of Italians young and old, plebian and patrician, eating gelato, walking dachshunds and chihuahuas.
I sat outdoors at a fish brasserie, and consumed interesting food that is somehow different from the rest of Italy. There was pasta to be sure, but it was laced with crunchy bottarga and squid. There was raw fish by the plateful, one of which was arranged so gorgeously and colorfully that it resembled an artist’s palate. The only meat on the menu, a filet of beef, was unavailable this evening, according to the waiter whose salt-and-paper gelled hair makes him look, despite the mask, very much like Yair Lapid, and equally dashing. I washed it all down with local white Fruiliano wine. And I looked at the tableau vivant of a world returning to life.
The next morning the Splendida was still looming, and I ate breakfast in a cavernous dining room where I was one of seven guests. I strolled along the promenade to the Piazza di Unità, said to be the largest city square facing the Mediterranean, which seems quite likely even though this is the Adriatic. The three sides of the square are surrounded by massive Vienna styled art-nouveau and baroque buildings beneath which Triestini sit at ranks of café tables.
It’s Saturday morning and wedding after wedding is being conducted, like a Henry Ford assembly line, in the town hall. Outside in the piazza, brides, grooms, flower-girls and celebrants cluster for selfies. Unexpectedly, I see a marble plaque on the entry wall to the town hall with Hebrew writing. I peer closer.
Erected in 2018, it recalls the day in 1938 when Mussolini’s Italy announced the introduction of racial laws similar to those proclaimed three years earlier in Nuremberg. Somehow, with all the pasta and Prada and Fellini and gorgeousness, we’ve allowed ourselves to forget that Italy was nasty too. We’ve done the same with French as we gorge on Brie and Petrus and shroud ourselves in Saint Laurent, conveniently choosing to overlook that it was the 4,600 members of the Paris police, not the S.S., that rounded up 22,000 Jews and immured them in the Velodrôme d’Hiver in the sweltering July of 1942, before dispatching them, courtesy of the SNCF, onward to Auschwitz. But the guilty are gone now, or so enfeebled that they might as well be, so what’s the use of carping? I want to believe the world is better now, even though it possibly isn’t.
I strolled on to the Canal Grande. The water was surrounded by a rectangle of Hapsburg-era apartment buildings. The grand Church of Sant’Antonio Nuovo reminded me of the Covent Garden opera house. In its park, I bought plump cherries and plump apricots from one of a dozen or so market stalls whose counters are cordoned off so I would not infect the stall owner. I passed more apartment buildings, some Hapsburgian, some art nouveau, some Italian art deco, some redolent of Alfred Speer, as I wandered back to the hotel. There were grand Vienna-Budapest-style cafés, each proud of its 19th century interiors and dates of founding that began with an 18. I paused at Boggi, Italy’s grand yet affordable and super tasteful men’s clothier, where I dropped wads of Euros in exchange for a filled shopping bag.
Back in my suite’s unnecessary kitchen, I washed my purchases and discovered the cherries were perfection. As for the apricots, I should have followed my late mother’s soft-fruit dictum that would drive countless London greengrocers of the 1950s to distraction: pay for one, taste it, then decide if it’s worth buying more. A bite of one of these mushy Trieste apricots would have told me I absolutely did not need a half kilo.
There was the sound of commotion outside. I stepped onto the balcony and it appeared the Splendida was soon to depart. Well-wishers waved from a distance, but nobody was on the dock, save for two longshoremen, who lethargically unfurled the ship’s ropes first from the bollard at the stern. And then, after a short drive in their van (their trade union possibly forbids them to trudge the 90 meters), they did the same from the final bollard amidships. Silently, the giant floating apartment house slid away from the dock and swiftly moved into the Adriatic. The sky turned sunset-pink. Finally, I could see the breadth of the bay of Trieste, from Slovenia’s Istrian peninsula at the left to what must be the outskirts of Venice’s outskirts at the right.
In the morning, I left for Piran, a picture-perfect Slovenian port, which I was chiefly interested in visiting to enable me to bring my visited-country total to 107. I’ve been told I need just flash my vaccination certificate to enter Slovenia. But nobody seems to have mentioned that to reenter Italy I need a COVID test. And frankly, I just cannot be bothered to have yet another elongated Q-tip slid into my frontal lobe. So, for now, at 106, my country-list will remain.
Instead, I am directed by the handsome Maximilliano, the concierge whose eyebrows appear to have been shaped à la Ms. Arden or Ms. Rubenstein, to the Hotel Riviera e Maximillian (no relation), where I was assured that for 20 euros I could lie on a shaded sunbed and swim in the Adriatic. I leaped into a cab, emerged at this very lovely four-star hotel, and descend in its tube like elevator shaft about 150 feet to the beach club.
Once there, I installed myself atop a scarlet sunbed, took a dip in the freezing sea, and scarfed down prosciutto, melon and Aperols Spritz. My fellow guests are Italians and Germans, slathering themselves with Ambra Solare and sloshing back gallons of acqua gazzata. All of us seemed to find the mask etiquette a bit daunting in this casual beachside ambiance.
Exhausted by the sun, the alcohol and the racking laughter resulting from reading Rupert Everett’s latest and ridiculously brilliant “To The End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde,” I taxied back to the Savoia Excelsior Royal. It was early evening. I showered away the salt and sun block and, instead of strolling the Austro-Hungarian avenues, I made my way upward into the old town. Suddenly, I was no longer amid Habsburg grandeur, but in picturesque lanes that could be the back streets of Portofino or Villefranche.
Laundry waved from lines, cats stretched in the fading sunlight and all was tranquil. I found an inviting looking restaurant and was warmly welcomed. I ate a silent yet delicious dinner next to a table where two young German lesbians were consuming mounds of pasta and exchanged not one a word of conversation. But as they strolled back to their hotel, they held hands and giggled.