Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/20 posted by hidden europe on

The slow train to Trieste hugs the Adriatic coast, giving gorgeous views of the Miramare, a fabulous folly of a fortress built on a rocky plinth by Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The train brings the traveller into the very middle of Trieste, from where it is but a stone's throw to the Serbian Orthodox church, the old synagogue and a hundred other buildings that serve as reminders that this was once Europe's most cosmopolitan port.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It has become all too easy to get from Italy to Slovenia nowadays. Fast trains speed from Venice to Ljubljana in just four hours. In the modern schedules, Trieste is entirely bypassed. But it is still possible to take the old route by which, even as recently as four or five years ago, many travellers made their way by land around the head of the Adriatic. The slow train to Trieste hugs the Adriatic coast, giving gorgeous views of the Miramare, a fabulous folly of a fortress built on a rocky plinth by Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The train brings the traveller into the very middle of Trieste, from where it is but a stone's throw to the Serbian Orthodox church, the old synagogue and a hundred other buildings that serve as reminders that this was once Europe's most cosmopolitan port.

From Trieste an extraordinary old tramway, a remarkable piece of Habsburg engineering ingenuity, climbs up through the pinewoods onto the karst plateau at Opicina. When we last took this route, in the depths of winter, the ascent by tram was like a journey into another world. We alighted into the foggy dusk and damp at the tram's upper terminus, from where we trudged through deserted roads to the old railway station at Villa Opicina. En route plenty of road names in Slovene, for this is a corner of Italy with a substantial Slovene speaking population. Nowadays, the old border station at Villa Opicina is a strange place, with its echoing corridors and empty waiting halls. Few are the passengers who ever board or alight here. Only the officials who busy themselves checking passports. Next year Slovenia joins the Schengen group of countries and even the passport checks will cease. Then probably no trains will ever stop at Villa Opicina, and soon everyone will forget the last station in Italy that marked, for generations of travellers, the gateway to the Balkans.

hidden minorities

The Slovene community in northeast Italy is just one of a number of curious ethnic and linguistic minorities in this region. During a recent visit to Graz in Austria, we were surprised to find how substantial a contribution Bulgarian market gardeners have made for well over a hundred years to the development of horticulture in Steiermark (Styria). Bulgarian techniques of tomato, paprika and aubergine production gave a different accent to the kitchen tables of citizens of the Habsburg Empire. Even late into the last century, one section of the Naschmarkt in Vienna was habitually referred to by the locals as 'Bulgarenreihe' (Bulgarian Row).

The fact that the early Bulgarian migrants to Graz were restricted to a single occupational sector afforded much cultural resilience, and even their descendants continued to speak Bulgarian until well after the Second World War. In the fifties and sixties, restricted access to their homeland (because of the Cold War), intermarrying and German language acquisition fostered a degree of cultural integration into mainstream Austrian society. Yet even today there remains in Graz a small Bulgarian minority - and almost all of its members are still employed in horticulture.

Central Europe is full of such hidden minorities. In the September issue of hidden europe we return to this theme with an article on an unusual Serbian outpost - namely, the Serbian villages in the Zumberak hills west of Zagreb. Here, as elsewhere on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, there are many small pockets of Serbian life and culture. There was a time when these Serbian settlers, often referred to as Uskoks, policed the military frontier that marked the southern edge of the Habsburg Empire: to the north Austria and to the south the Ottoman world. Nowadays, the descendents of those Uskok settlers find themselves uncomfortably astride a new frontier: the outer edge of the European Union.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.