To the best of my recollection these many beers later, the meandering springtime Italian rail path that took me eventually to Trieste began in Florence and passed through Venice. Make no mistake: In those days, Italian trains could occasionally make it up to full meander, though usually not.
I’d visited Florence earlier, just before disappearing into Umbria for a week roaming around Sienna, Assisi, San Giminagno and Perugia and soaking up equal portions of history, mass market beer and antipasto.
No time was spared for Venice, because I’d been there two years before and found the city packed to the gondolas with disheveled and ecstatic Catholic pilgrims suffering from spiritual hangovers after an ill-timed (for me) papal visit the day prior to my arrival. Surveying the teeming and cluttered scene, I made hasty tracks for Vienna the same evening following a few hours spent walking the historic streets and sniffing raw sewage coursing through murky lagoons.
In spite of all these annoyances, Venice in 1985 had indeed been shabbily gorgeous, and even fairly cheap at the time, yet memories of Mann describing a “Death in Venice” and Hemingway’s subsequent cradle-robbing libido from “Across the River and Into the Trees” went a long way, indeed, but now it was May, 1987, and greater challenges were on the eastward horizon.
Trieste was to be just a brief stopover to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, then a constituent republic of Red Yugoslavia, and the entry point for a month wandering the Communist Balkans and Hungary prior to a departure for Moscow in late June and my long-sought date with the Evil Empire, after which the return trip across the Iron Curtain would include stopovers in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
And so it transpired that the creaking “express” brought me to Trieste, former base of the Habsburg navy and the location of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian’s supposedly haunted seaside Miramare Castle. It was a lazy Friday around lunchtime when I debarked and checked my pack in the baggage room, and although there was ample opportunity to secure affordable lodgings nearby, the lure of the border was much too strong to resist.
Although guidebooks insisted that advance planning wasn’t necessary, and a visa could be obtained easily at the border, I’d taken the precaution of acquiring one from the Yugoslav embassy in D.C. by mail before leaving the States. The posted schedule at the rail station showed two departures for Ljubljana each day, one in the morning and another at 19:30, slated to leave a siding around the corner from the regular platforms.
The Eurailpass ceased its territorial validity outside Italy, but the tickets were dirt cheap, and I was impatient. I pocketed the rough cardboard train tickets and shuffled off to the harbor to enjoyed a fine afternoon meal of grilled local catch and cheap house wine, little suspecting that things were about to get exceedingly strange.
Why? A cardinal rule of budget travel had been considered and then willfully ignored: “Never arrive in a strange place late on a weekend without reservations.”
Especially in the East Bloc.