Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Trieste - is that Italy?

Chiesa San Spiridione

How to begin a piece on Trieste?  I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked "Trieste, where is that?" Jan Morris associated the city with a sense of "nowhereness".  In her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere Morris writes "People who have never been there generally don't know where it is.  Visitors tend to leave it puzzled and, when they get home, remember it with a vague sense of mystery."   Admittedly four days is not long to try to get under the skin of a city, but it was long enough to feel a certain dislocation, in place and time, walking the streets of Trieste.  

Arriving in the late evening, stepping from the airport bus into grey, quiet streets is not the best introduction to a city.  Such a lack of exuberance seems thoroughly un-Italian - no honking horns, no fearful step onto a pedestrian crossing, no loud conversations at caffè tables.  A few minutes of walking and our eyes are no longer fixed to grey stone but sunset over the Adriatic - a satisfying dish in lieu of the dinner we searched for in vain that night.

Piazza Unità

Next morning the sun performed its magic, bathing the grey stone in a more welcoming tone and revealing a teal blue adriatic sea.  That evening we caught the sunset from the Piazza Unità a little earlier, just as it illuminated the gilding on the Palazzo di Governo.

Palazzo di Governo, Piazza Unità

Trieste is a curious city, reflecting its location and past.  It occupies the last sliver of Italian soil a mere 5 miles from the Slovenian border and petering out into Croatia to the south.  Originally an Illyrian coastal village trading in fish, salt, olive oil and wine, it was colonised by Rome, occupied by Venice and France, before being protected and declared a Free Port by the Habsburgs. Its position, and its enterprising merchants, turned Trieste into a major link between Europe and Asia until the break-up of the Habsburg empire.  Giacomo Casanova sojourned in Trieste; James Joyce lived in the city; Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, passed through its streets in their coffins 5 days after being assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip.

Following the First World War the city came under Italian rule.  In the mid-1930s Mussolini's fascists made Trieste one of its showpieces.  When Italy turned against the German Reich, the city was annexed by Germany and became the only piece of Italian soil to have a concentration camp. Trieste was occupied by Britain, America and Yugoslavia and briefly become an Independent Free Territory under the United Nations.  In 1954 the port city of Trieste returned to Italy and its surroundings were handed to Yugoslavia and became, as Jan Morris puts it, "Italian by sovereignty but in temperament more or less alone".  The years of uncertainty sparked race riots in Trieste but these days the Slovene language has official parity with Italian.  Jan Morris' observation that "the further you walk out towards the perimeter of the city, the more slav it feels" still holds true.

On the road to Duino

In the heat of summer Trieste has a languorous air but, in winter, a vicious wind known as the Bora whips through the city.  While in Trieste, Joyce wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most of Dubliners and devised much of Ulysses along with his play Exiles.  The city is clearly proud of the association, and in this otherwise most un-touristy city, there's a James Joyce trail.  Our visit coincided with the annual 'Bloomsday', celebrating all things Joycian.  A display of paintings, both amusing and lewd, by Ugo Pierri  hosted by the Joyce Museum was, for us, the highlight.

The leafy hillside of Colle Capitolino leading to the Museo and Cattedrale St Giusto and Basilica Romano and the narrow streets of the old town below provide relief from the heat.  The Teatro Romano, nestled between the two, is impressively preserved but not overly restored. 

Dome - Chiesa di San Spiridione

The Serbian Orthodox Church of San Spiridione on Via San Spiridione was far and away the most impressive church we saw in Trieste.  Recently renovated, it's spectacular inside and out yet feels quite intimate.  The main food market housed in an interesting, if neglected, modernist building is mainly made up of fruit & vegetable stalls with just one or two fish and meat counters.  Much better was the small outdoor market beside Canale Grande (close to Chiesa San Spiridione) where a cluster of stalls were stacked with 'bio' fruit and vegetables seeming, from the vehicles, to have been brought in from nearby Slovenia.
Caffè San Marco
So, what of the food in Trieste and what of the coffee? - this is the home of Illy after all.  I'm not a particular fan of Italian coffee but, of the 'names', Illy is the best-respected.  The Caffè San Marco on Via Cesare Battista, with its spectacular eagle-topped Copper Elektra machine, produced the best espresso.  Dating from the Habsburg era, though substantially rebuilt after WWII, it has retained the look and feel of a Viennese cafe.  On a smaller scale Pasticceria Pirona is pretty unmissable too.  Dating from the same era, it's a lovely place to stand with your macchiato and choose a tiny cake from one of the polished wood and glass cabinets.  Both places have been popular with poets and writers for over a century.

Spaghetti alla Vongole
Hostaria Malcanton


There is still a Habsburg influence on the food in Trieste.  What we had of that was on the stodgy side so we preferred to feast on seafood and pasta, following up with gelato - in this, at least, Trieste felt like Italy.  Hosteria Malcanton on Via Malcanton in the old town was a good starting point. It's an honest, checked-tablecloth kind of place with good-value local wines.  A generous plate of Spaghetti alla Vongole with asparagus and a plate of Monkfish risotto with crisped lardo were all we needed for lunch.  The bill for two with a carafe of the hostaria's Friuli wine came to 38 Euros.

Mezzeluna Ripiene
Alla Dama Bianca


The village of Duino is a short bus ride away from Trieste.  With the road hugging the coast north out of the city we saw what "going to the beach" means for locals.  The 'Barcola' is a long concrete promenade on the road to Miramare Castle.  The lack of sand seems not the least off-putting to the dedicated sun worshippers with the Adriatic to dip into.  Snaking our way through tiny mountain villages the bus arrived at the quiet, picturesque village of Duino complete with its 14th century castle.  The classy but relaxed Alla Dama Bianca proved the perfect antidote to the heat of the city.  We idled away an hour sipping prosecco on a shady terrace and envied the swimmers their cooling dips in the sea (go prepared).  

Tagliolini Marinara
Alla Dama Bianca


Lunch was simple and perfect - a  buttery dish of seafood Mezzeluna Ripiene, given crunch by a scattering of poppy seeds, a plate of Tagliolini Marinara followed by a shared Grilled Orata with vegetables and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.  A bottle of Vinnae from the local Jermann vineyard at Collio and coffee afterwards brought the bill to just over 100 Euros.  If you want to stay somewhere quiet, they have rooms at Alla Dama Bianca.

Grilled and filleted Orata & vegetables 
Alla Dama Bianca

You'll have no difficulty finding a gelateria in Trieste but I recommend Gelato Marco on Via Malcanton.  The gelato is made on site, there is every flavour you could dream of, both dairy and non-dairy, and the Nocciola is outstanding.

When the diners, drinkers and gelato-eaters have had their fill there is undoubtedly an air of melancholia about Trieste.  Maybe it's the relics of its turbulent past, its rusting warehouses, overgrown railway lines and abandoned jetties, disregarded in favour of new industries.  Then there's that mysterious overgrown, padlocked garden we stumbled upon, seemingly lying unused for decades.  Trieste has many things to like but Jan Morris is right, the city is a puzzle.  But, given all it has experienced, it's not surprising it leaves you with the feeling that you didn't quite get under its skin.