It was time to leave Venice, La Serenissima, the pick-pocketer in chief, the watery city on the edge of the world (or so it can seem) where it’s very easy to spend a lot of money without really realising it.
For many, Venice is the end of a journey; journeys that began in Naples, Rome, Florence or London, the last stop before returning to the real world of waiting bills and commutes to work. I encountered many of these people, as they toured Italy for a week or two. More rarely Venice is the destination and journey, a place for art-lovers, cat-sitters and wannabe romantics who shift between the islands in their search for the perfect vista and lost felines.
The trains rumble north from here towards Trieste, an ancient city that in modern times has changed ownership more times than an unsuccessful football club, the images of Venice’s patron saint – Mark – still lingering. Nearby Gorizia has faced a similar fate, and found itself not on any one side of the border between Italy and Slovenia, but plumb on it. With both countries now members of the European Union this doesn’t matter very much, and it would be easy to wander from one country to the next without realising. There are no border formalities to content with; besides a road sign there is no border at all.
But from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, it mattered a lot. When Yugoslavia lost Gorizia to Italy, it built a whole new town of Nova Gorica: New Gorizia. The frontier line between the two towns, not formerly agreed until 1975, was one of the places the West faced off against the East.
Trains do not cross the border even now; though a bus does, connecting the two rail stations. Jointly administered by both countries, the square outside Nova Gorica station is now hailed as a demonstration of bilateral cooperation and understanding, though its known as Piazzale Transalpina in Gorizia and Trg Evrope in Nova Gorica.
Nova Gorica gives off an immediate sense of a place on the up, and reminds me of Scandinavia. The benefit of having your town taken away from you is you can build a new one to modern standards, with wider roads, cycle lanes, plenty of parkland and apparently better weather too. But perhaps the reminiscence with Scandinavia is just the lack of people on my first afternoon; I never did find anyone in Norway either.
The Solkan Bridge I came to find as part of my Behind the Lines journey is so famous here there is a leaflet dedicated to it in my hotel room. A rail bridge, it has the distinction of the longest stone arch in the world, spanning 85 metres. Everyone started using reinforced concrete after that. Destroyed in the First World War and later rebuilt, it survived World War II without receiving any serious damage.
These are the places I enjoy visiting the most, places which, off the usual tourist itineraries and free of guidebook proclamations, offer the greatest chance of surprise.