Trieste feels more middle European than Italian - but then it stands right on the fault-line that for years divided our continent
Fancy a weekend in Italy - or maybe a weekend in the Balkans? Trieste gives you both. For not only is it the least Italian of the big Italian cities - having been developed as the great port of the Austro- Hungarian empire - but you can walk from it into Slovenia, the first of the former Yugoslavian republics to achieve its own national identity a decade ago.

Trieste is not part of the normal Italian tourist circuit. Partly, I suspect, because of its physical location but probably more because it lacks any of the real alpha tourist attractions that people go to Italy to see. It did, however, seem an ideal way to use up a few Airmiles and spend a weekend with a daughter who had been staying in Italy.

Look at a map and the location immediately strikes one as odd - as though the town ought not to be in Italy at all. This is unsurprising, as it wasn't until 1918. Trieste is stuck up on the top right-hand side of the Adriatic at the end of a narrow sliver of Italian territory, little more than a mile wide at one point, between the mountains and the sea. It does now have a direct air service to London on BA, but the airport is at Ronchi, an hour's taxi ride away towards Venice. It is linked to the mainline Italian rail network and is a useful port for anyone trying to get a boat down to Albania - but it is rather at the end of the railway line and not too many people want to take a boat to Albania these days.

As for "sights", the key ones have nothing to do with Italy. Trieste was a modest town under the Romans, eclipsed by Aquileia, the great port they built on the coast. Trieste's golden years came in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was developed by the Austro-Hungarian empire as the port for Vienna.

The development came in two phases, the first started by the Empress Maria Theresa, who saw its potential as a port. So there are a mass of 18th-century neo-classical public buildings. Look up and you see ranks of statues of naked men and women waving swords and firing arrows out to sea.

The second phase came after about 1870, when the Sudbahn or Southern Railway was completed, giving a fast rail link up to Vienna. Between the station and the rest of the town are rank upon rank of even more exuberant late 19th-century commercial palaces, offices of insurance companies, trading houses, banks and shipping lines. These too are almost without exception decorated with statues of naked men and women, testimony to the wealth generated by the empire, and the equally flamboyant taste of its commercial barons.

Since Trieste does not appear to have been severely bombed in the Second World War and since there has been relatively little new building since 1918, what you are looking at now is essentially an Austro-Hungarian creation. It is a middle-European commercial city that happens to have been transplanted to the Mediterranean and become part of Italy.

The Hapsburg legacy lingers not just in the architecture but also in the hotels and the food. We stayed at the Duchi d'Aosta Hotel, another statue-adorned edifice, built in 1873, on the main square. The public rooms have the dark wooden panelling and heavy curtains of central Europe rather than the marble and light of the Mediterranean. And if you like it (we actually ate Italian) you can try the central European "buffets", where you get your stove-boiled pork, and the Austrian-style coffee houses.

For the true middle European experience, however, Slovenia is a few moments away, for the border is only 15 minutes in a cab. Go straight inland and a couple of miles on the far side of the border is the famed Lipica stud farm, where since 1580 they have bred Austria's white Lipizzaner show horses. Nowadays the horses that perform in Vienna are bred in Austria, but the stables are still turning out stock for their own display and occasionally for export. You either go to one of the twice-a-week shows and see the horses dance to Mozart or, as we did, walk round the stables to see the stars backstage, and wander among the mares and their foals in the paddock.

Then we walked back into Italy. It was about an hour-and-a-half's brisk march along the country road, through the border posts and into the little town of Basovizza for the two-mile bus ride back down into Trieste. We would have walked the whole way had camparis and the Saturday evening parade of Trieste's citizens, dressed in their finery, not beckoned so strongly.

So now you can wave your passport in the general direction of the border officials and stroll across the southern end of Winston Churchill's iron curtain "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic". Look up to the hills and all that marks the great fissure that divided Europe for 40 years is a faint line in the vegetation. Less than 10 years ago Slovenia had to fight for its independence from Yugoslavia, and we are all horribly aware of what has just happened a few hundred miles further south. But for us, crossing from East to West was a peaceful afternoon's walk in the hot sun.

The fabric and the location of Trieste, then, tell a story both of the historic divisions of Europe and of its cultural identities - the way as you move across the Continent you slide imperceptibly from one culture to another. Its charm lies in the quirky mixture of the two.

Hamish MacRae used Airmiles to travel to Trieste. The only airline that flies direct from the UK is British Airways (0345 222111), with a daily flight from Gatwick; because of the monopoly, you may find it tough to get a fare below pounds 150. Alternatively, get a cheap flight to Treviso from Stansted on Ryanair (0541 569 569) and continue on by train. There is only one tram route remaining in Trieste, but the journey is worthwhile; it starts in the centre and wends up to the village of Opicina for 1,500 lire (50p).

For accommodation, try the Pensione Centrale at Via Pochielli 1 (00 39 040 639482), which costs pounds 12 per person per night. Alternatively, contact the Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254)

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