When you were born and raised in a city whose ownership is certain to change hands within your lifetime, you find yourself thinking a lot about identity, and what nationality means. Jan Morris identified Trieste as the ‘capital of nowhere’ and, with its unique historical circumstances, it has become something of a symbol for the flux, uncertainty and strangeness experienced by anyone from a disputed borderland. Being sensitively positioned at the foot of the iron curtain, until 1954 Trieste was run as a separate city-state by America and Britain, no-one knowing to whom it really belonged. This becomes heightened if you go there, and discover what an uncanny, ethereal feeling the town has. Although a busy city of over 200,000, with its giant purposeless edifices from a vanished empire, it feels deserted and eerie even when there are people about. A famous wind called the bora blasts through Trieste on its way from the Alps to the Adriatic, and at its strongest (as it is when we visit) it delivers gusts of up to 90mph. Its strength and its effect on the body are absurd, like living inside a permanent hurricane. It is as if the contents of your head were a carefully segmented filing system, which has been chucked into an industrial-sized tumble dryer turned on to full power. Maybe its habit of mixing everything up has contributed to the fluid feel of this hybrid city, on the border of the Austrian, Italian and Slavic worlds.
Italy’s north-eastern edge in Fruili has a border with Slovenia that is relatively vertical, until it hits the Adriatic coast. South of the border a tiny strip of the coastline, only five miles or so, remains a part of Italy and snakes along so as to take in the city of Trieste. Looking at the map as an outsider it seems that Trieste should be the capital city of Slovenia; attached by a thread to Italy, it is cut off from what would be its natural hinterland. The train station is Italian, and 90% of its services are making a two-hour journey to Venice, from where one can access other trains for the rest of Italy. Consult the timetables in the coach station and you will find that you are ten hours from Rome, or thirteen from Naples, but only six or seven hours from Trieste’s erstwhile twin capitals of Budapest and Vienna. Its current position appears contrived, but was arrived at because Italians were the largest ethnic group in the city, and to call it contrived is no doubt as offensive as when people tell me Northern Irish unionists are not British.
The city that the Romans knew as Tergeste began its associations with Austria in the C14th when Venice, the biggest kid in the playground, began to dominate its neighbours and Trieste asked the Austrians for their protection. In the C18th, Vienna gave Trieste the status of a free port and developed the small town into a big city, carrying all of the shipping for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As busy port cities do, it became an ethnic melting pot and a marketplace for culture, ideas and literature; at its height it was the second busiest port in the Mediterranean and (after Vienna, Budapest & Prague) the fourth largest city in Austria-Hungary, its grandiose buildings mostly dating from this period. They draw on myths and legends to make Trieste seem legendary; Hercules seems to pop up all over the place.
As the nascent Italian state acquired Naples, Rome, and Venice, it cast its eye towards other territories with ethnic Italian populations, and irredentists laid claim to the cities of Trieste and Trento, as well as Dalmatia and Albania. A few miles down the coast and in much the same boat as Trieste was the city of Fiume, which between the end of WWI and the rise of Mussolini, the poet/agitator/nutcase Gabriele D’Annunzio conquered with a private army of proto-beatnik thugs, and ran as an anarchic pirate state for a year before an embarrassed Italian government sent in their warships. Fiume now lives a contented afterlife as the Croatian city of Rijeka. Italy taking the side of the Allies in WWI, Trieste, Trento and their surrounding regions were given to Italy upon the dissolution of Austria-Hungary (hence most Italian towns having a piazza or corso named ‘Trieste e Trento’). This cut Trieste off from its hinterland, and handed it over to a country that had no need for a large port city, already possessing Genoa, Venice, Naples, Bari, Livorno et al. The people longed for a Triexit, which turned out to kill their bustling city stone dead. This is why Trieste feels frozen in time; visit and you will sense the apparition of Old Europe, of a lost world come back to haunt you.
Our visit came courtesy of Ryanair, who sold us tickets to visit my family in Belfast at Christmas, waited until the flight cost hundreds of pounds from the other airlines, then announced they were pulling the Belfast-London route with immediate effect, meaning I spent my first ever Christmas in England. A few days later, however, I found an ‘Apology from Ryanair’ in my spam email, with a voucher to be used this winter. The flights cost less than the voucher so we sat in the second row, which would normally cost you an extra £64, behind rich people who kept buying wine from the trolley. We fly over what look like Ghent and Brussels, before the snow-covered fields of the lower Rhineland and the ever dramatic Alps. After the Dolomites, or the Julian Alps, there’s a relatively small stretch of land before the gulf of Trieste and the sea. The Triestine woman behind us, who barely looks any older than us, is explaining the city’s background to the Englishman beside her, and says that James Joyce was her father’s English teacher. I am sceptical.
Unfortunately, Trieste’s airport is not in Trieste. I wonder if it has been placed equidistant to Friuli’s two proper cities, Udine and Trieste, so as not to upset either one of them. The bus takes an hour and goes through nondescript towns that blur together (Ronchi, Monfalcone, Duino; although the latter does have an old castle and the literary connection of Rilke’s Duino Elegies) before you get to the pretty road that hugs the rocky coastline and takes you into Trieste. It doesn’t get dark until we’re in the city but dusk diffuses a blueish light that lingers until we enter the city and feels dreamlike.
From the station we walk along the waterfront, and feel ourselves sliced and diced by the ferocious bora. Our flat is on a side-street just off Trieste’s great centrepiece, the huge and sea-facing Piazza Unità, which divides the old town of Trieste (a tangle of narrow little streets that ascend to the modestly-sized hilltop cathedral) from the Austrian quarter (an elegant grid of streets lined with tall, decorative and imposing big buildings, to suit what had suddenly become a city of businessmen and merchants). Piazza Unità serves as quite the introduction. There are breathtakingly grand palazzi on three sides, and at night the buildings are bathed in white light. The ribbed joints between the Town Hall’s windows look like an army of skeletons. Standing guard at the sea front are two pillars with the halberd emblem of Trieste. Cities belonging to Venice always have pillars with the winged lion in their central square and these feel like a declaration of separateness.
The flat is down the quiet side-street that begins with a comedy Bavarian restaurant/beer hall. Estate agents would call it a pied-a-terre and everyone else would call it a bedsit, of the type that will be familiar to any low-wage Londoners who couldn’t bear house-shares any more and were driven to spending half their wage on renting a kitchen with a bed in the corner. You walk through the shower area to get to the toilet, which has me imagining the 2,000 words Joel Golby would squeeze out of the arrangement. However it’s in very good nick, it’s cheap and it’s seconds from the epicentre of Trieste, so we are happy. It doesn’t occur to me to photograph our building, but after we’ve left I read that it used to be James Joyce’s favourite brothel; hence the partitioning into rooms that seemed too small for anyone to live in full-time. Who knows what stories our place was keeping secret?
It’s the tail end of the aperitivo hours, so instead of a restaurant we trawl bars and cafés, grazing on whatever olives, nuts or crisps we get served with our drinks. The lovely Caffè Tomasseo is sadly shut for refurbishment, so we begin at the Caffè Degli Specchi, a classy joint that is regrettably the last man standing of the historic cafés that formerly lined Piazza Unità. Not many of the titular mirrors survive either, but the name apparently comes from the fact that the cafès did not have electric lighting until the ‘30s and people tended to leave when it got dark. This place filled every surface area with mirrors, so that each candle would have myriad reflections and go much further. Jazz musicians are just finishing up as we take our seats for wine, crisps and two plates of artful vol-au-vent things. The default wine appears to be the local Friulano, an unintrusive and highly drinkable white.
The greatest concentration of bars that we came across was on Via Torino, on the opposite side from the station & Austrian quarter. We hang around for a bit in Draw, a place that attracts the young and trendy (everything’s relative), with vinyl playing, mismatched furniture, bare lightbulbs and trailing ivy plants dangling from the roof; the wine comes with crisps, green olives and tiny sandwiches. We finished off at Urbanis, the main after-hours option around Piazza Unità. It has received a nightclubby makeover, but some charming features remain, like the floor mosaic personifying the bora.
In the morning we get the pleasant surprise of blue skies and sunshine, which slightly mitigates the insane ferocity of the bora. We admire the buildings of Piazza Unità for as long as we can bear the wind, which isn’t very long. Trees whose trunks are cosseted in metal cages thrash back and forth in the gale.
The huge buildings are temples to trade, and all the goods that were shipped in and out of Trieste to the rest of the world. On the summit of one, a benevolent personification of commerce spreads their wares out on the roof like a market stall.
The fountain at the centre of the piazza is the Fountain of the Four Continents, as it predates the discovery of Australia. Having been to Rome a few months previously, its ‘pile of rubble’ approach doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by Bernini.
Exit the piazza via its back left corner and you come to Piazza della Borsa, where a pensive and unusually scrawny statue of Neptune stands in his fountain and looks admiringly on the building that housed the city’s stock exchange. Notably the wind is even angrier here than it is at the sea front; some streets just seem to be lightning conductors for it.
We stop for coffee and a few minutes’ respite in Antico Caffè Torinese, a beautiful old-world place.
This is more like an Italian neighbourhood bar than the Viennese coffee-house style that dominates in this city, but it charms us at first sight with the skilful foliage patterns on the copper perimeter of its counter.
Halfway through the grid of the Austrian quarter you will find the Grand Canal, which they have some nerve naming after Venice’s wonder of the world. It’s a short, straight canal presumably used to give ships sanctuary when the Adriatic was particularly stormy.
To one side are the octagonal towers and broad domes of a Serbian Orthodox church. Its interior is bright blue ceiling frescoes and stunning gold altarpieces, but no pictures as I have never gone in here when there wasn’t a bearded priest conducting some lengthy ceremony on the shop floor. At the end of the canal is the bulky, plain, Pantheon-imitating Sant’ Antonio Thaumaturgo.
Crossing the Grand Canal is a bridge where you will find a cute bronze of one of the three big names in literary Trieste; the inimitable James Joyce, who, having flown by those nets, lived here for fifteen years while he was writing so obsessively and rapturously about Ireland, Stephen, Leo and the streets of Dublin, and whose Ulysses the novel is still trying to catch up with. The plaque quotes a letter to Nora that “my soul is in Trieste”, although I think I remember reading somewhere that he came back after it had been annexed by Mussolini and thought all the magic had gone. The scoundrel seems to be putting on a ‘harmless grandfather’ act, perhaps inspired by the later career of Gerry Adams.
Across the bridge is another fountain with the spirited leaping putto of Piazza Ponterosso. On Via Roma, the larger-than-life Hapsburg statues get a bit orientalist.
The road is closed to traffic because of an anti-fascist demonstration, comprised of far-left parties, communists and anarchists. It’s the last weekend before a general election. The demonstration is quite harmless as far as I can tell. Someone’s playing music and they turn left to end up at the seafront, where a large number of riot police wait for them behind barricades. In the preceding days Italy has seen violent demonstrations, and the local newspaper headlines all wring their hands over an antifa show coming to town. The bourgeois attitude appears to be, “Why can’t this lot go away and let the fascists and liberals co-exist in peace?”, which is indicative of a short memory. The outcome of the election is that the Renzi’s centre-left and Berlusconi’s kleptocrat right, having failed Italy, find themselves outflanked and overtaken, but by parties that seem almost certain to do even worse. The Northern League, who for years argued that the north should pull away from the subsidy black hole of the south & form their own country called Padania, have reacted to the million Africans that now cross the Mediterranean in dinghies every summer by becoming simply the League, dropping the anti-southerner stuff to become anti-Islam and anti-immigrant. Their leader Salvini holds court with Le Pen and Geert Wilders. His posters appear all over Trieste, most with the simple message ‘STOP INVASIONE’. On the other side are the incomprehensible Five Star. They proclaim themselves ‘neither left, right, nor centre’, to which Italians would be within their rights to ask ‘What *are* you, then?’ Depending on who you speak to, they are innovators of internet-based direct democracy, a nihilistic protest movement, or an out-and-out cult. They are anti-vaxxers, and as such are even more likely to get us all killed than a resurgent fascism.
Not wishing to get caught in any crossfire, we turn and ascend the gentle hill of the old town towards Trieste’s cathedral, which as far as I can tell looks exactly as it would have done before the Austrian quarter was built. All brick and no marble, its modest size and the squat little campanile to which it is joined at the hip indicate that this was not a particularly big city before Enlightenment Empress Maria Theresia executed her plans for the place, although the rose window is quite something. The Latin script and Romanesque texts on the fragments around the doorway are tantalising glimpses of an age that has left very few traces here.
The story is that two side-by-side Romanesque churches were partially knocked through and merged into one in the C14th. This explains why the two chapels either side of the apse have excellent Byzantine-era golden mosaics, while the actual apse has a fascist-era modernist take on the Byzantine mosaic, with purple instead of gold, that is rather gauche by comparison. Like an obedient blackshirt, it dates itself to ‘Year 14’ rather than 1936.
The (older) mosaics are wonderful, for the saints, angels and delightfully intricate and colourful panels.
They use the same trick as Ravenna, having a slab of onyx in place of a window that makes it seem as if the fires of hell are raging outside the church.
Beneath the mosaics are frescoes that look of a similar vintage, and are very good, albeit damaged.
I read someone say that part of the floor mosaics are from the pagan Roman temple that sat here before the church. This would surprise me, but these are the oldest ones I noticed.
The rounded arches under the bare walls of the nave, with their red-and-white trim, put me in mind of a Cordoba for slow learners.
San Giusto sitting on a hilltop, there is a castle next door which looks over the remains of the Roman forum. Trieste constituting Italy’s spoils of the Great War, it does course contain a sizeable war memorial.
To walk around to the burrow of streets behind the cathedral, you cut through the Park of Remembrance, where stones that have been cut to resemble fragments from classical ruins have the names and details of Triestines who died in battle engraved in red; many on the Russian front, some in Africa, some in German camps.
We’re going to the less-visited area behind San Giusto to have lunch at Alla Voliga, a cute and friendly seafood place that I have happy memories of from my last visit. One man waits on the tables, one cooks, and the walls are choc-full of naively charming maritime bric-a-brac; dolphin curtains, nautical flags, fishing nets, plastic sea creatures and paintings. It cheers you up.
Most dishes are a very reasonable €8. We have the prize-winning fish soup, whose flavours are rich and intense, and slender, fresh, hand-made macaroni, followed by a meaty, zingy sea bream with slabs of fried polenta and a herb dressing. I am given a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs for my pasta, but instructed not to mix them through; ‘Only on top, for the crunch’. Although several people come in to enquire about tonight, and get told the place is fully booked, only one other table is in use at lunchtime; a group of Croatians, Bulgarians, Dutch and South Africans, who converse in English. I wonder if there’s a conference on at the university. They mention the insanity of Brexit.
We take in some of the views of Trieste before heading back down to the centre.
On the way down we pass the Roman Arco di Riccardo, thought to have been built during the reign of Augustus. Who Riccardo might be is unknown, some say that the Austrians kept Richard the Lionheart imprisoned in Trieste but regular readers will know that ain’t true. The arch looks like it has collapsed in an earthquake at some point and been lovingly reassembled.
Downhill, we stick to the old town and try to evade the bora for a bit. In the modest garden square that is Piazza Hortiis we meet literary bronze #2, Italo Svevo, famous for his Cosienza di Zeno and its reliably unreliable narrator (“there is nothing like your last cigarette… I have smoked thousands of last cigarettes in my lifetime”). Svevo published a couple of novels in the C19th, when Italians were still learning the Italian language, and his efforts received short shrift. Years later, James Joyce was his English teacher (from a family of Jewish industrialists, Svevo had to spend time overseeing a factory in Charlton of all places, and there’s a blue plaque around the corner from the football ground). Joyce was sent the third novel and promoted it to the right people in Paris, turning his old friend into an overnight star. A few years after attaining fame, Svevo died in a car crash, which at least spared him Mussolini’s race laws and WWII. People see a lot of him in Leopold Bloom. The quotation used here is “Life is neither beautiful nor ugly, but it is original!” When Zeno makes this pronouncement in the book, his friend retorts “Where did you read that?”
Although our stay is short, it would be a pity to leave Trieste without a little bit of culture. The two main draws are the Museo Revoltella and Miramare castle. The museum is the former home of the Baron Revoltella -who built the Suez canal, meaning Europeans could sail to India without having to go round the southern tip of Africa- and mostly contains painting and sculpture dating from the C18th to the present day. Miramare, always there on the horizon when you look out to sea and just identifiaible through the haze, is a disturbing sight and feels like an itch that you need to scratch.
We buy bus tickets and find the stop, which is across the road from where the tram leaves for the village of Opicina, on top of the karst limestone mountains surrounding Trieste, and facing a huge Venetian palace. It’s interesting how almost all of these big buildings were built as insurance offices, but they so often chose to make them look so rusticated, like the townhouse fortresses of the big C15th banking families.
The bus terminates at a little seafront suburb called Grignano, through which you can normally get to the Miramare park, except that because of the bora the park is shut for the weekend. We have to wait for the bus to begin the return journey, travel back a couple of stops then walk along the sea path to Miramare, giving us time to contemplate the great, tragic story behind it.
Miramare was built for Maximilian, the little brother of Emperor Franz Josef. Put in charge of the navy, he was based in Trieste and had the romantic seafront castle put here as a love-nest for himself and Carlotta, the Belgian princess he had married. So far so good, until over in Mexico, Benito Juarez started refusing to pay interest on Mexico’s loans from European states. The French invaded, and crowned Maxmilian as Emperor of Mexico, a title he held for just short of four years before Juarez repulsed the French and, left alone, Maximilian was shot by firing squad at the age of 34 (you may have seen Manet’s painting of the execution in the National Gallery). Like Napoleon’s brother in Holland, Maxmilian was a progressive and a liberal who retained many of Juarez’ emancipatory policies, and he bravely/stupidly refused to flee even when it became obvious that his reign was doomed, but for all his virtues he was still an Austrian parachuted into rule Mexico, and that did for him. Carlotta went mad afterwards.
We end up not touring the castle when we realise it’s free to walk around the outside and €10 to get in. From last time I remember lots of Hapsburg heraldry, paintings of Maximilian setting sail from Trieste to meet his grisly fate, and his bedroom being done up like a ship’s cabin, with wooden planks and low ceilings. The living quarters of the Duca D’Aosta, an aristocrat and star fighter pilot who died in a Kenyan POW camp, are designed in a cold rationalist style, like the EUR turned into a bathroom. With all these hard luck stories, the general quartered here when Trieste fell to the allies chose to sleep in a tent in the garden.
Walking around the outside you notice a few surprise touches, like carvings of the Mexican eagle/snake emblem, whose pathos is particularly cutting. The Moorish panel on one wall was just about the last thing I expected to find here.
The best thing, as the sun sets, is to stand behind the balustrade and look out on the quiet Adriatic. It is beautiful, it is peaceful, and it provides me with one of those perfect moments of undiluted happiness that we’re in pursuit of when we go travelling the globe.
We get off the bus at the train station and, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I am nearly killed when the bora pulls my hat from my head, carries it up in the air, and then drops it in the middle of three lanes of traffic in front of the station. Having watched lorries go over it (mercifully it’s a flat cap), when the lanes are clear I go out to retrieve it, and as I bend down am thrown to the floor by a particularly fierce gust.
Needing a drink after my brush with death, we go to Al Ciketo, a small and new place that is packed to the rafters with locals. It’s cheaper than the others we’ve been to and the Venetian-style cichetti under the counter are going for €1; classics like baccala mantecato and truffle mortadella look very tempting, but we decide not to spoil dinner. For dinner we go to a Co-op and in one of those “we’re on holiday, by not going to a restaurant we’re saving so much that we can buy anything we want” moods we get the ingredients for puntarelle alla romana, a fresh burrata, lots of basil and vine tomatoes, and a platter of mixed antipasti meats. I even pick up some ‘Caramelle del Doge’ with a picture of Rialto bridge on the front.
After an early night, we emerge to another sunny morning with another monstrous bora that fillets our guts, and we explore Trieste some more. Close to the Borsa are the remains of Trieste’s Roman theatre, that had been buried under other buildings for centuries but was uncovered in 1938. The statues are safely indoors but the rounded amphitheatre is the instantly recognisable Greco-Roman form. It dates to the good old days when Trajan was Emperor.
We walk away from the seafront and though empty, grand streets with the swaggering architecture of Empire. It’s interesting to come across the Mexican motif in a few doorways.
At the wide boulevard of Via Carducci, that marks the end of the inner Austrian grid, there’s another of those vast and astonishing buildings, studded with Palladian statues, that the shipping insurance business put up to celebrate itself and proclaim themselves the new Caesars.
We’re looking for Trieste’s most famous café, the Caffè San Marco. It opened its doors in the last days of Austria-Hungary, and although the authorities were wary about the Venetian connotations of its name it became a meeting place for irredentists and Italian thinkers. The café being a few minutes away from the very centre of the city, plots would be hatched here and during the war people would distribute fake Italian passports.
Inside, it is quite special and, for all the Italian associations, a classic Viennese coffee house. The upper portions are lavishly dressed in leaves of burnished metal, whose brassy sheen contrasts with the golden paint and compliments the dark wood. The lamps are pure art deco and there are miniature carnevale paintings in the style of Guardi everywhere. We have thick, dark hot chocolates to warm us up and it’s one of the greatest pleasures in Trieste to sit here for a while. If you lived in the city it would be bliss to come here with the Sunday papers or a good book.
Speaking of which, in a commendable attempt to act as custodians of the café’s literary heritage, they have turned the rear wing of the L-shaped café into a bookshop, whose wares are impressively literary. Claudio Magris, a regular here, is of course present. I always thought myself reasonably well-read until I tried his breakthrough book Danube, which mostly consists of assessments of and ruminations upon scores of important Mitteleuropa authors of whom I had never even heard.
Just behind San Marco is the city’s synagogue, one of the largest in Europe. Joseph II’s edicts of religious tolerance saw Jews treated comparatively well and as Trieste boomed, so did their businesses. The synagogue opened in 1912 to serve a Jewish population of some 6,000. It does not appear to be open much, but has been well restored. The architecture is bold and impressive. Inspired by Jewish buildings of the Roman Empire, it emphasises the ancientness of their faith. Whereas the synagogues of London and Amsterdam seldom greatly differ from churches of their time, this building employs a style that is exotic and intoxicating, an unfamiliar vocabulary from a distant time. It is a pity that it is hidden within side-streets instead of facing a wide piazza, it deserves more space for your eyes to take it all in.
We cross Via Carducci on our way back to the centre, passing a statue of that Italian hero Verdi, made from melted Austrian cannon. The amount of litter is testament to the strength of the bora, I think, rather than the Italians using their beloved composer as a dustbin.
Despite the bracing bora, I like picking my way through the shaded Austrian streets. As you turn a corner east or south, your eyes catch a glimpse of the steep hills to the karst, or the bright blue of the sea, and the effect is dazzling. As is the effect of some of the remarkably ornate palaces these streets contain.
Around here, we find literary bronze #3, the melancholy poet Umberto Saba. Like Svevo, he was Jewish, and spent the crucial years of the war hiding in Florence, and being continually moved from one house to another. In the Anglophone world, he is the least well-known of the three, but I think I like his statue best of all. Collar turned up and hat tightly on his head, he looks as if he finds the bora as challenging as we do, clutching a walking stick and tilting his body forwards like an ice skater. His quotation reads, “I used to have a beautiful city between the rocky mountains and the luminous sea”.
There’s enough time for lunch before we need to make our way to the airport. The classic thing would be to visit one of Trieste’s many buffets, inexpensive places which are like small trattorie, but whose menu reflects the Germanic influence, being more about gnocchi, sausages and beer than pasta, pizza or wine. Most of these are closed on a Sunday, however, and my favourite, Siora Rosa, seems to have closed altogether (I hope this is only for a refurb). Instead we return to Caffè degli Specchi for a couple of their light meals; Triestine sardines with rocket leaves and goulash with chips. The meat is very tender and it is pleasant to look out on the square and contemplate the ferocity of the winds from the comfort of our table.
When we’re done eating, and we’ve lingered over coffees served with a shot glass of chocolate mousse, we reluctantly make our way outside, and try walking along the seafront, a route from which the bora repels us very quickly. The damage it has done can be seen everywhere.
It being a Sunday, the bus station’s bar is shut. The bus station is filled with homeless people and it’s a bit awkward waiting in there, so we cross to the fancy train station and take in its marble floors and stucco arches. The station bookshop is shut, but has some salutary advice.
Eventually it’s time for the airport bus, the usual security rigmarole (about which small Italian airports are far more easy-going), and a very long wait at our gate with a view of the icy Dolomites. It’s sad to leave so soon, but we’re probably fortunate to be doing so, as London gets heavy snow the following day, which lasts all week.