Going places: Discovering ancient Christian site of Aquilea, Roman city of Grado and Trieste on self-guided bike tour

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Exquisite 12th century frescoes in the crypt in Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, dating from 313 AD © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stage 3 of our eight-day Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour again offers a choice of a 28-mile ride (if we take a boat) or 55 miles without. Of course we bike.

We stop at the 38.4 km mark at Marano Lagunare, a delightful, picturesque village (which is where we could take the boat).

We find ourselves in the center piazza and a marvelous restaurant, Trattoria Barcaneta, for lunch. It is so peaceful and quiet and utterly charming and colorful.

As we ride the bike trail, we come upon a set of Roman ruins of a colonnade behind a fence, oddly alongside a road. Then, a tower comes into view, looming above a wall of tall trees. I must investigate, and check the notes the tour operator has provided.

I realize that this is Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

This proves the highlight of the day: the massive Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta dates from 313 AD, when the Dict of Milan ended religious persecution and the Christian community could legally build a place of public worship. The first church was destroyed and over the centuries has been rebuilt four times, each time using the stones of the earlier buildings. As it stands today, the basilica is in Romanesque-Gothic style, with a 73 meter-high tower.

The inside is breathtaking: the entire floor is Roman mosaic from the 4th century, only uncovered in 1909-1912. The 760 sq. meter floor is believed to be the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic of the western world. But more awaits:

I walk down to the Crypt of Frescoes, incredibly beautiful and amazingly rich color. The structure dates back to the 9th century and the frescoes date from the 12th century. 19 scenes tell the history of Hermagora and the origins of Christianity in Aquileia.

It is a lovely complex, and we enjoy some refreshment – ice cream and drinks – at the café and sit under tall trees. It restores us for the rest of the ride. We don’t have that much further to go.

Grado

The rest of the ride is extremely pleasant, capped with what feels like three miles over a dam, with water on both sides, to get into Grado, another gorgeous seaside beach resort, this one with yachts.

We arrive in time to make it down to the beach by 7 pm (when we discover they don’t charge the 2E fee to use the beach at that hour), and get to swim in the Adriatic before going in search of a dinner place.

Grado is interesting – our hotel is along the beach and is a string of modern hotels that have you thinking a little bit of Miami Beach. Our guidebook says that Grado, known as a golden island, is the only good beach resort on the Upper Adriatic, and has an exceptionally picturesque old town and a fascinating history.

Indeed, just a couple of blocks away, it’s like a completely different world: we find ourselves in Grado’s Old City, standing over an excavation of Roman ruins of a military camp (fort), a town square with a Basilica della Corte that dates from the 4th century (one of the oldest in Italy), and a delightful pedestrian walkway loaded with shops and restaurants in an old historic section.

All the restaurants are booked solid (we haven’t yet learned the trick of phoning in advance for reservations, which would be facilitated by the dining recommendations in our guidebook), but we find a small innovative place that serves tapas-style.

The town is extremely picturesque and at night the promenade is lighted, there is an interesting fountain with colored lights you walk under like a tunnel, and it is simply delightful to stroll.

Other attractions include the Basilica di Sant’Eufernia which dates from the 6th century and is located in Campo del Patriarchi. The bell tower was built in 1455. There is also a statue of Archangel Michael, the symbol of Grado, on the tower.

Our guidebook also makes note of a boat trip to the island of Anfora, a picturesque fishing village in the heart of the lagoon. Some parts of the lagoon are designated nature preserves, harboring some 260 species of birds.

Here again, we just fall under the spell of this place.

It has been another utterly perfect day.

Stage 4: Aquilea/Grado – Trieste (43 miles/70 km or 25 miles/40 km) + train

Day 5 of our eight-day self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria bike tour starts off magnificently: the ride from Grado begins with another glorious miles-long ride over a dam (a different one from yesterday) giving stunning views and refreshing breezes. It continues through a landscape of rocky caverns and farmland, along the seacoast, finally coming to a delightful swimming beach (this is why you should carry swimming things). This part of the ride, the first 24 miles, has been fantastic. Then we come into Monfalcone, a busy city of shipyards and cruise ships, where we get lost. And here we make a bad choice for our route to Trieste.

The regular (recommended) route would have us riding 43 miles along the coastal road (we are told this isn’t a bike trail but there may be a bike lane) taking in Duino, Sistiana, Miramare, and Barcola. Our FunActive guide Anthony (I recall too late), has described riding along cliffs that you can climb down, passing the castle of Miramare high above the Bay of Grignano, situated in the middle of a park, which is a major attraction (not to mention the castle has a Manet exhibit, which I only learn about after we arrive at our Trieste hotel). Anthony also said how the ride can be reduced to 25 miles by taking a train into Trieste.

We don’t do either. Instead, we take a “variant” route from Monfalcone into the “hinterland” (the thought of “hinterland” had really excited Eric) that brings us into Slovenia (no border crossing or passport required back and forth to Italy).

As it turns out, this adventure adds 17 miles to the 43 of which most of it is up and up and up, on winding roads (at one point, my “can do” attitude fails and I walk the bike up the last quarter-mile to this section’s “top” feeling defeated).

There are no charming villages. No beautiful sights or vistas. Even the restaurant that is marked on the map is closed. We ride through what is supposed to be a preserve with trees on both sides, but there are no real views or scenery.

Finally, we come back to the Italy border where there is a tiny rest stop (no bathroom though). I rejuvenate with an ice cream bar, sitting on an air-conditioned porch (I think I am close to heat exhaustion), and recover myself for the final trek into Trieste. Chalk this up to the “physical challenge” part of bike touring that gives you something to boast about forever more. And adventure. After all, it could have been the most fantastic off-the-beaten-track discovery anyone had ever seen.

We make the final climbs and then find ourselves, indeed, at a scenic overlook (actually somebody’s driveway) with a sensational view of Trieste. But after taking our victory-photos, we realize that now we have to bike down this narrow, busy road with its hair turns that (seemingly) goes on for miles.

We feel like we are coming down a corkscrew and finally are deposited into the traffic and hubbub of a bustling major city.

Trieste

Trieste is like culture shock after our time in the tranquil countryside. But we see regal, if drab and aging, buildings, evidence of an important city.

Somehow, Eric finds the way to our hotel, located on the fringe of the historic Old City (I clock the day at 54 miles of which I estimate 12 miles are uphill). We quickly drop our things and go out to explore while there is still light. It’s a short walk to the main square.

All at once, I am transported: the architecture evokes Vienna rather than Venice – majestic buildings in neoclassic style. Indeed, Trieste (as much of Slovenia just across the border), was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was once the Empire’s most important Mediterranean port, and interestingly, with the European Union, has again become a major gateway into Europe, rivaling Koper, Slovenia’s major port, for commerce.

The city puts out an outstanding tourist map, giving background to its history and guide to important sites like the Museum of History and Art and Lapidary Gardens, the Castle Museum and Lapidarium, the Victory Lighthouse (built 1922 honoring sailors lost in World War I), the Opicina Tramway built in 1902 linking city centre with the plateau. It offers tours to Roman Trieste and literary tours.

And as I discover (too late to take advantage): Jewish Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba, created inside an old rice husking factory, was the only extermination camp in Italy and declared a national monument in 1965; Via del Monte, a Jewish community with a cemetery used for 400 years, a Jewish Temple, and a Jewish Community Museum, the newer Jewish Cemetery, a synagogue which dates from 1912, and some other sites.

Unfortunately, we have arrived in early evening, and are only able to explore what we can by foot in the old city, to get a flavor of the city.

Here too, Eric puts out his radar (app) and finds Osteria de Scorpon for dinner (the risotto with black ink is excellent). This area reflects its heritage as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and goulash is a regional specialty.

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com, info@biketours.com)

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