From Aquileia To Muggia:
Skirting Italy's Second Largest Lagoon
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If you're interested in ancient Rome but can't travel that far south, take this two-day trip which starts in Aquileia (right), the well-preserved ruins of a strategic ancient outpost. Founded in 181 BC, it eventually grew to have upwards of 100,000 inhabitants. Of course, as everywhere in Italy, the town's buildings and monuments were mercilessly pilfered in later centuries, but this remains the most important archeological site in northern Italy, and it's well worth visiting the forum, circus, cemetery and river port. The basilica preserves western Europe's finest early Christian mosaics in the form of an unforgettable 700 square-yard pavement. And be sure to visit the stunning Byzantine frescoes in the crypt. If you still have time left, the Archeological and Paleo-Christian Museums are both artistic treasure troves. Aquileia

Traveling south on SS352 you'll soon reach the picturesque Marano Lagoon, smaller than its Venetian counterpart but far less polluted, thus home to countless migrating waterfowl. The road strikes out across a sort of causeway, finally reaching its southernmost destination in Grado. What a heavenly paradise this small town is! Its narrow streets immediately remind you of Venice's smaller canals and alleys, its churches are amongst the oldest in all Christendom, and its homes display the exquisite brickwork of the Middle Ages. Time seems to have forgotten this ancient fishing village, and yet right next door is a state-of-the-art beach resort and world-renowned health spa. On an island in the lagoon is a delightful monastery, Barbana (left), which you can visit by boat or vaporetto. Every year on the first Sunday in July, the villagers stage a colorful boat parade to the monastery.

From here, our trip proceeds by ferry to the spectacular cliffs of Duino, northernmost spot on the Adriatic's eastern shore. (An alternative route is along the provincial road to Monfalcone, then on SS14 to Duino; if you're a birdwatcher, take a quick detour on SS55 to Lake Dobergo, where hundreds of waterfowl congregate year round). Duino, which overlooks the spectacular Sistiana Bay (right), is a lovely fishing-village-cum-resort-town hidden near two clifftop castles. The older one, dating from the 11th century, is little more than ruins now, its tower and arches the only remnants of a glorious bastion that defended local residents from the Venetians as well as the Turks. The newer one was built in the 16th century and is now home to the fabulously wealthy Princes of Torre e Tasso (as well as the United World College of the Adriatic). Hikers can leave their cars here and walk for awhile along the rugged sentiero Rilke (Rilke footpath), which winds along the cliff edge and through thick forests, past territory inhabited by the rare pellegrine hawk, on its way to the other end of the bay.

Miramare Castle Continuing along on panoramic SS14 you'll come to Grignano, where you should plan to spend at least half a day. First you'll want to see the Miramare castle (left), built in the 19th century by the Hapsburg prince, Maximilian. Younger brother of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, Maximilian fell in love with this spot and immediately began construction of this extravagant seaside palace. But he soon was sent by his brother to Mexico, where he became Emperor and was assassinated by revolutionaries before he was able to see the completed building. Today it is a museum, an excellent example of the 19th-century European royal residence. Its park is one of the continent's most glorious. Nearby is Europe's only underwater marine park, home to the extremely rare Stella's otter and 10-15 pairs of breeding marsh harriers.

Several detours are possible at this point, one to the nearby Grotta Gigante, perhaps the largest visitable cave in the world, and another on the provincial road to the delightful hill towns of Monrupino. Pay a visit to the impressive Rocca Monrupina, or stop in Rupingrande at the interesting casa carsica (a living museum of the unique local customs, which have been heavily influenced by nearby Slovenia). A third detour from here is into Slovenia itself, a wonderful (and safe!) part of the former Yugoslavia.


Trieste is just down the coast now, and you should plan to spend a day in this Austro-Hungarian-style city. Our itinerary takes us a few miles further south, along the exceptionally beautiful SS15 to the seaport of Muggia (left). The last outpost left to Italy after the divisions of World War II, this delightful little town looks like a miniature Venice, with a beautiful 13th-century cathedral. Be sure to visit the church of the Assunta, a 10th-century jewel set on a hill overlooking the town and its bay.

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In Aquileia, the basilica is in Piazza del Capitolo and is open daily 7:30am-6:30pm, with a lunch break in winter (no charge). The Museo Paleo-Cristiano, on Via Sacra, is open daily 9am-1pm (no charge). At Via Roma 1, the Museo Archeologico is open 9am-2pm.

Miramare Castle is online here.

Information about the underwater marine park at Miramare is available from the World Wildlife Fund's website.

There are guided visits to the Grotta Gigante every half hour from 9am-noon and 2-7pm, every day but Monday (winter hours are 10am-noon and 2:30-4:30pm) (tel. 040-227-312). Their web site is online here.

The Casa Carsica in Rupingrande is open 11am-12:30pm and 3-6pm on weekends and holidays only (no charge). Phone 040-630-261 for information about bus service to the site.

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