Skinny Smugglers, a French King’s Body, and the Odd European City Home to the Other Cold War Wall

gorizia, a small city on ItalySlovenia border, is one of the coolest places in Europe: a late Habsburgian underworld, dotted with Balkan eccentricities that somehow smuggled into Italy, pizza and all. It’s incredibly quaint, fascinatingly beautiful, and home to some of Europe’s weirdest footnotes. In 1947, the city was split between Italy and Yugoslavia – a Solomonic judgment that left a Cold War border running through houses, streets, cemeteries and – most evocatively – a square with the name Piazza Transalpina. This is the “other wall” of the Cold War – and one that is still surprisingly little known.

Yugoslavia gradually developed into a new settlement called Nova Gorica, now SloveniaThe Two’s ninth largest city reunited in 2004 when the fence on Piazza Transalpina, “the last wall dividing East and West”symbolically destroyed.

Of course, unlike Berlin, these are technically still two different cities in two different states, but it makes sense to treat them as a single unit – and not just for historical reasons. These days, the border is barely visible (often the only sign you’ve switched countries is the language on the traffic signs), and both countries use the Euro as their currency. Many will live in one country and work or send their children to school in the other. When Slovenia chose Nova Gorica as a candidate for the title of European Capital of Culture 2025, it made perfect sense for them to invite Gorizia to join the trip. The success of their joint tender can be seen as a testament to their (post)historical model, and a tribute to the Schengen Agreement, now in its 28th year, which transformed the dream of a Europe without borders. world into reality.

At Piazza Transalpina – today a peaceful square with a line in the ground to indicate the barely discernible border – I met David Kožuh, a local tour guide. Half of Slovene square is dominated by the majestic Nova Gorica train station, inaugurated by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1906. In addition to hop on a train to perennial favorites, Lake Bohinj and Bled, the house The station also hosts the State Borders exhibition, one of several “museum on the border” has emerged in Nova Gorica over the past few years.

David told me: “The Yugoslavs were the first to enter Gorizia. “They occupied the city for 40 days before retreating. For the Slovenes, this is 40 days of freedom. For Italians, it’s 40 days of hell. This is one of those places where the historical record has to bend a bit to account for different points of view.”

Gorizia is a puzzle. The city is predominantly Italian, but with a large Slovene minority, this group became the majority as the city gradually moved towards semi-rural suburbs and hilltop villages. Both Italy and Yugoslavia felt that Gorizia was theirs. How to solve this?

Join the Alliance Committee, made up of experts from the Four Great Allies. They arrived in Gorizia on March 3, 1946, and had a day (yes, a day) to decide on the border. The result is consistent with Solomon’s period: Italy has about 80% of the urban population and the majority of the population story center. Yugoslavia has a railway station and nearly all of the eastern hinterland of Gorizia, sparsely populated but strategically valuable areas, including the valleys of the Isonzo and Vipava rivers and most of the hills. . The border treaty was signed in February 1947, and the weeks that followed were a series of exodus as people shunned the sides before an iron curtain fell.

The hasty nature of the border has produced some anomalies. An Italian farmer wakes up to discover his stable is now in Yugoslavia and he needs to cross the border several times a day just to check on his herd. But the best example is in the village of Miren, 4 kilometers south of Gorizia. Here, the border wall goes straight through the cemetery, cutting the graves in half. Even the dead were not spared the geopolitics of the Cold War.

How can it happen?

“You have to imagine that the millimeter line of the fountain pen on the map is equivalent to about 200 meters on the ground,” says David. “So some anomalies are inevitable. When the soldiers tasked with marking the border realized that it passed through an overlooked cemetery, they just shrugged and built through it. The goal is to demarcate the border as quickly as possible.”

These border deviations persisted until 1975, when they were resolved through small land swaps. All Miren cemeteries are now located in Slovenia. The Italian farmer brought his stables back to Italy.

The most interesting – and most interesting – of the border museums is located in a former customs office. The Museum of Smuggling is a collection of different exhibits that commemorate (and somewhat celebrate) the illegal cross-border trade in Gorizia during the Cold War. This may be the other wall of Europe, but that’s where the Berlin comparison ends. There are no death bands, no firing orders upon sight, and no sense of imprisonment. When the Berlin Wall was erected in the early 1960s, relations between Italy and Yugoslavia were thawing, and the Gorizia Wall, built 14 years earlier, began to wobble. This is reflected in the museum’s exhibit, which presents the history of smuggling here in a playful, sometimes almost comical way.

“People who live near the border are given special permits so they can cross the border more easily and more often,” says David. “And almost everyone is involved in smuggling.”

The Yugoslavs were particularly enthusiastic about Italian jeans, often sending their thinnest person to buy five, wear them all at once, and then waddling like a penguin back to the border. Such humorous situations are meant to avoid import bans or taxes, which change depending on the political environment. Smuggling also created a new form of currency: coffee.

“Yugoslavia only imported a small amount of coffee,” says David. “And it was horrible, almost impossible to drink. So coffee has become one of the most desired products among Italians.”

With 500 grams of coffee, Italians can buy 30 Slovenian eggs, 2 kg of Slovenian meat or 3 liters of Slovenian brandy. 60 kg of coffee is enough to buy you a Volkswagen Golf. “Many Slovenians pay for their weddings with coffee,” says David.

For their part, the Italians went to Yugoslavia to smuggle cigarettes (half the price), cigars and Cuban rum (hard to buy west of the wall) and meat, which were considered better quality. in Italy (and much cheaper too). This last one continues to this day, much to the amazement of Italian butchers.

Smuggled goods are hidden everywhere: in or under clothing, in cars or bicycles, anywhere customs officers cannot see them. But locals soon discovered a loophole: male border guards were not allowed to touch women. The guards waited for the female border guards to finish their shift and then signaled, at which point dozens of women flooded the border, their clothes concealing all kinds of contraband. The male border guards, unable to thoroughly search the women and overwhelmed by their numbers, would be reluctant to let them through.

But museums save the best for last: a special design escape roomSet in the old interrogation office, where you play as a smuggler who has 30 minutes to escape before the border guards return.

“This is something we came up with in late 2020. “We wanted to add some kind of game for the groups to play so they could see the museum as a day of fun,” says David. The escape room is available in Italian, Slovenian and English, and the museum requires 3 days notice if you want to play.

After lunch at a charming local place called madonca, I walked to Italy to see old Gorizia. It’s a fascinating and lovely place, surrounded by misty hills covered with vineyards and topped by fortified villages that give it the air of a moody Tuscany more than a year old. little. Its location at the convergence of the Latin, German and Slavic worlds has contributed to its ambiguous, multicultural atmosphere, something that is reflected in its architecture, culture and cuisine. Its eclectic, unlike any other I have visited.

It’s also filled with weird Euro subplots. For example, who knew that Charles X, the penultimate king of France, was buried at Kostanjevica Monastery in Nova Gorica? The last Bourbon king ended up here after the July Revolution of 1830, being granted asylum by the Emperor of Austria. He died of cholera a few years later and was buried with his family in the crypt of the convent, becoming the only French monarch to be buried outside of France. When control of the monastery was transferred from Austria to Italy, Yugoslavia and then Slovenia, the French repeatedly demanded the return of the body to no avail. It’s still here in Nova Gorica as one of Europe’s most curious Easter eggs.

The next day, I found myself drawn back to Piazza Transalpina. It has a strange appeal to me and there’s something about it that lingers in my mind. Is there a square in Europe that represents the history of the continent more than this one? Over the span of a century, it has seen the fall of empires, the rise of nation-states, fascism, war, division, and ultimately unification. Can it tell us something about Europe’s next direction?

In the square, I saw two young girls playing on the border, taking selfies as they entered each country. They introduced themselves as students from Spain, who were studying abroad for a semester at the nearby University of Trieste.

What brought you to Gorizia, of all places? I asked them.

“It’s funny,” they said. “There used to be a border here.”


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