Saturday, June 09, 2012

Trieste (Italy) & Ljubljana (Slovenia)

Day 1
ICTP, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics is nestled, and for once this word is perfect, in a small wooded bay on the Adriatic coast. It’s an idyllic spot and this is the second time I’ve been invited to give a lecture here. The great thing about the audiences in this institution is that they come from all over the world. Over the two days I spoke to people from Peru, India, Bangladesh, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Ukraine, Philippines, Palestine, Chile, Italy and Korea.
Trieste is tucked away round the north east corner of Italy down a finger of land on the Adriatic coast, so it feels cut-off from mainland Italy. It’s seen grander days, when part of the Hapsburg Empire, and the huge main square, railway station and architecture speak of better times. But it’s unmistakably Italian with more ice-cream parlours than anywhere else I’ve been. Seafood spaghetti and fish in the restaurant below the ICTP by the harbour. Taken out by the delightful Enrique, Marco and Carlo for a pizza along the coast. Carlo's a real gadget freak and was showing his bag of accessories for his iPhone - fisheye lens, sensors....various apps. The bus back was full of singing Italian teenagers - no aggro, just high spirits.
Day 2
All day at the conference but Gil managed a trip into Trieste and some shopping.  
Day 3
Before leaving for Ljubljana we had a walk, then coffee and cake in the grounds of the Miramare Castle. It’s a protected area and full of birds and butterflies but it’s the vista down to the sea and white castle that make it such a fantastic spot for a bit of relaxation.
The bus to Ljubljana climbed up to Opicina then down and across the wooded Slovenia to Ljubljana.
Now I’ve been to some attractive cities around the world but the cosy centre of Ljubljana takes some beating. It has a beautiful river that turns at a right angle through the centre, with several attractive bridges, flanked by cafes and restaurants, all sitting below a castle on a wooded slope. Above all, it has the intimate atmosphere, not of a busy city, but of a provincial town - relaxed. We had an al fresco meal in Marley & Me; Slovenian Wine, a Slovenian sausage dish (damn juicy), beef, chocolate and pear cake - superb. Then a walk along the river past the cafes, across the Dragon Bridge, Triple Bridge and beneath the willow trees. Sometimes a new place just makes you feel just dandy. This is such a place.
Up the next morning for a stroll around the market and up the funicular to the castle. From the top of the Tower you can see that the city is surrounded by green, wooded hills, with much higher mountains beyond. The highlight was the Steve McCurry Photography Exhibition, set in an underground exhibition hall. His fantastic image of the Afghan girl with the red/green eyes is one of my favourite photographs. Her ragged clothes match the colour of her eyes and I’ve never seen a photographic portrait that is as good as the masterpieces of portraiture in paint. It’s up there with Vermeer and Rembrandt, a terrifyingly beautiful image. Other images that I remember include a long wall of portraits, a group of laughing Sadus, debating monks literally wrestling with each other (we’ve lost the art of debate in the West), shepherds in the Yemen.
This is a tiny country, with only 2 million people but this town is certainly not short of money. The roads were pristine, houses looked new, prices high and farms wealthy. Then again, it must be a net recipient of the Common Agricultural Policy and European money. I have no idea if it’s economically healthy or not but I have a feeling that the dozens of EU flags in front of the many municipal buildings suggest that chickens may be coming home and getting ready to roost.
A boat trip downriver followed by a pizza, Slovenian stew and beers on the riverside in the sun to the sound of a busking classical guitarist, was a pretty good way to spend a Wednesday. In the evening we had another stroll and ate at Julija, where we had an excellent Slovenian red wine, recommended by the waitress, gnocchi with pear and cheese and goulash, followed by a layered Slovenian cake, whose name escapes me, but I highly recommend.
One of the bridges had a fine art installation, just sheets of white linen that contained strings of white lights. You had to push through the ribbons of linen across the whole span of the bridge. It reminded me of the Gormley mist room at the Hayward some years back.
Our last day. So we strolled through the Tivoli Park, had a coffee in a Jazz Café (always worth doing in a new city). Before lunch we had a couple of Aperol Spitzer’s to whet our appetites then a walk round the side of the castle where there’s a street of small hotels and and the Spajza restaurant. We had an 11 euro lunch, in their beautiful garden, of fish in a lightly curried sauce, stuffed squid, liver, cinnamon parfait and coffee. Astoundingly good.
What a gem of a place. I’ll be back.