On Tragedy, Love, and Hope: Stories from Two Italian Castles

Trieste, Italy

My host in Trieste is a thirty-something post-doctoral student from Turkey. On our first night together, when she invites me to have a drink with her friends, I find that the online guides I have read touting Trieste as a cosmopolitan city are true. Situated on the Adriatic Sea, and only a few kilometers from both Slovenia and Austria, Trieste boasts a unique blend of many languages and cultures. I enjoy the cocktail hour (here they call it aperativo) in the open air bar of the historic part of town with women from Indonesia, Argentina, China, and of course, with my host, Ayse. Most of the women around the table are single, like me. But they are in their twenties and thirties and still have love to look forward to. While I, in my forties, cannot see love either behind me or before me.

Right away Ayse and I hit it off. Maybe it is because I am newly single after more than two decades of marriage. Maybe it is because she is newly hopeful after almost two decades of being disappointed in love. Next week she flies to America to see if she can rekindle that love. Three weeks ago I flew away from America, hoping that travel will rekindle–not love–but joy. Joy that was lost to me for so many years. But will it be possible for me, as a single woman, to find that joy again?


I have chosen to travel Europe using an online bed and breakfast site that allows me to book rooms in people’s homes. I am feeling a little too old for hostels and a little too alone for the sterile, two minute interactions of hotel clerks. So far my BnB accommodations have worked out well, and already I have enjoyed engaging with my hosts in the many different cities I have visited across Europe. But in Trieste, Ayse and I find an unusual connection. On Saturday it thunders and then pours. So rather than trying to sight-see, I spend all day with Ayse in her kitchen, drinking Turkish tea and talking about life and love and fragile hopes.

Miramare Castle

On Sunday the blue sky encourages us to get out of our pajamas and out of the city. Ayse takes me by bus to Miramare Castle. As we walk its fifty-four acres of perfectly laid out landscaping, patterned after English gardens, Ayse tells me the story of the original inhabitants of the castle.

Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was born in 1832 and was the younger brother of the Emperor of Austria. When he first visited Trieste at the age of eighteen, Maximilian loved the city on the Adriatic sea. By the age of twenty-two he was given the title of Commander in Chief of the Imperial Navy and was responsible for opening the port in Trieste. Two years later, after a world-wide naval tour, Maximilian came back to Italy and decided to settle down in his beloved city. One day while he was sailing, he was caught in a storm off the coast of Trieste and found refuge in the tiny harbor which is known as Grignano. Maximilian took it as a sign that he should build his house there on the rocky cliffs above, and work began on the castle and grounds, which he named Miramare.

In most love stories the romantic and tragic are played up, while many real facts are not always remembered. The way Ayse has heard this tale and narrates it to me, Maximilian was very much in love with his bride, Charlotte, princess of Belgium. He had tenderly designed his castle and its gardens with the intent that they would live there happily all their lives.

But then Napoleon III (who was Napoleon the Conqueror’s nephew) made a conquest of Mexico and decided to appoint Maximilian as its ruler. Charlotte was very supportive and went so far as to change her name to the Spanish rendering of Carlota. But when they moved to Mexico in 1864, it wasn’t long before the royal couple realized they were in danger from uprisings of Mexicans who felt their country should not be ruled by foreigners. Carlota sailed back to Europe, begging both Napoleon III and the Pope to take action to save her husband. But because at the time it was politically expedient to ignore the situation, these authorities did nothing.

In 1887 Maximilian was shot by firing squad. He was only thirty-five. For a short time after this tragedy, Carlota lived at Miramare castle, but because of her grief, she went insane. Her brother then brought her back to Belgium, where she existed in seclusion until her death at the age of eighty-seven.

By the time Ayse finishes the tale of Maximilian and Carlota, we have walked through all the gardens and grounds and are at the castle itself. Its white walls push up from the cliffs, and its turrets reach into the evening sky. The sea also feels full of discontentment–of pushing and of reaching and of falling back–all this that is inside of me, as well.

Later, as I research more of Maximilian’s and Carlota’s story, I sense that their unrest also seems to match their castle’s. Did they truly love each other? Historians report that Maximilian had a lengthy affair in Mexico, and that Carlota was in Europe and away from her husband far too long to be able to refute rumors that the child she bore was the son of a Belgian military officer. And yet, Maximilian’s last words as he stood before the firing squad were, “Poor Carlota.” And Carlota, even in her compromised mental state, brought many of the possessions that she and her husband had shared, to Belgium, treasuring them for the rest of her life.

Ayse and I drink a last cup of tea together in her flat the morning I have to say goodbye. We talk again of love and of hope and of disappointment–of how life is always a pushing and a reaching and a falling back. But with the ultimate falling of Maximilian and “poor Carlota” in our minds, Ayse and I promise each other that no matter what happens–in love, in hope, or even in disappointment–we won’t stop pushing and reaching toward joy.

Ventimiglia, ltaly

On the opposite side of Italy, just two blocks from the Mediterranean Sea, I sit with my Ventimiglian hosts in their villa, drinking wine and chatting about my sight-seeing plans.

“Oh, but you must take the bus and go into the mountains–to Dolceaqua,” says Elizabeth.

“Yes,” agrees her husband, Pierre, “then you will get to experience what a real medieval Italian town is like. Even though there is tourism, the people who live there hold strongly to their traditions.”

I see the ruins of the Doria castle high on the hill long before I alight from the bus, but rather than go there first, I am busy with shooting pictures of the village and its people. I am especially taken with the bridge which crosses the Nervia River and connects the ancient (twelfth century) part of the town, called Terra, with the “newer” (fifteenth century) part called Borgo. Monet painted this bridge in all different shades of light, and I try unsuccessfully to get a similar feel from my camera.

It is late afternoon before I climb the steep, cobbled lanes to the ruins of the castle. Like many ancient Italian towns, Terra’s streets and dwellings begin at the bottom of the hill and wind their way up to the pinnacle, which is crowned by either a church or a castle. I walk by the shops and studios of artisans and painters and casually read the small historical plaques hung for the tourists (that thankfully are written in both Italian and English). My mind is in a quiet haze, mimicking the air around me, and I almost miss the final, obscure plaque whose title is “The History of the Michetta.”

After glancing at the first couple of sentences, I am fully alert and read on with focused attention. Another castle with a tragic love story? What kind of coincidence is this? But this tale is even more grim than that of Maximilian’s and Carlota’s.

Doria Castle

In the fourteenth century, a young couple, Basso and Lucrezia, were deeply in love, and so they happily celebrated their wedding together. But that very night, before they could consummate their marriage, the marquis of the castle, Imperiale Doria, commanded soldiers to take Lucrezia by force.

He intended to practice “the inhuman right of jus primae noctis“–the law of the first night–in which the lord steals the virginity of each serf-bride that lives on his lands. But because Lucrezia resisted the marquis so violently that he could not have his way with her, he threw her into the dungeon. She starved to death within its rock walls.

Enraged by his lost love, Basso vowed to take revenge. He hid in a bail of hay that was on the back of a donkey, and so entered the castle. As he faced the marquis with a dagger, rather than kill the evil lord, Basso demanded that an edict be written, abolishing the law of jus primae noctis. The next morning the women of the village celebrated the edict and its freedom by creating a pastry, called the michetta. It is shaped like a rose–a symbol of the female body. And so from then, even to the present, the festa delia michetta is celebrated in Dolceaqua.

Perhaps this castle’s love story is not so grim as I first thought. Didn’t Basso turn the passion of his grief towards gaining freedom rather than furthering death? And didn’t the women of the town create celebration out of tragedy?

Back across the river on the Borgo side of Dolceaqua I sit outside a small bar and sip my red wine. The castle of Doria rises above me, and over it the image of Miramare superimposes in my mind. I have not had to face a firing squad or an evil marquis. I have not been touched by insanity or pained by starvation. From the perspectives of these castles, my own life–with all of its pushing and reaching and falling back–is still one of hope. Hope that joy can be found. Hope that I can turn my small tragedies into celebrations. And hope that there is more contentment before me than behind me.

I get up from the table to go in search of a bakery.

I want to taste that michetta.

All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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