There’s something about a port city that makes it dynamic, transient, constantly changing. Maybe it’s the weather or perhaps the people coming and going. A flow of characters moving across the waterfront. A rich tapestry of individuals or the flotsam and jetsam of humanity that wash up with the next tide, depending on your point of view.…
TRIESTE is located 100 miles north east of Venice at the base of the Carso, an area of limestone rocks and plateaux riddled with underground caves and caverns. The city grew up on the water’s edge intrinsically linked to the sea. Originally it was a small fishing village occupied by Carni and Istriani people. Later it became a fortress town for the Romans – an important outpost of the Roman Empire. The remains of the Roman theatre can still be seen and fragments of the forum too.
A PORT CITY – The sheltered position of Trieste at the top of a huge natural inlet made it a perfect harbour for ships. As early as the 14th century Trieste became the port and naval town for land-locked Austria. Vienna is just 300 miles north of Trieste whilst Budapest is a similar distance to the east. Trieste was granted free port status by Charles VI in 1719 and then in the 1740s the whole city of Trieste was given free port status. This boosted the city’s trading fortunes and cemented relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until the First World War. Effectively Trieste was part of Austria until 1915. The wealth of the city was based on shipping routes and trade across the whole of the Mediterranean. As Venice’s maritime power dwindled so Trieste’s increased. As shipping and trade grew associated businesses developed. Lloyd Triestino, Generali and Riunione Adriatica di Sicurta (RAS) were the three main companies offering financial services, insurance and proof of shipping certificates to ship owners and their customers. During the 19th century the port services at Trieste were modernised and extended, new quays were built to accommodate more ships. Railway lines were built to the water’s edge and huge, purpose built warehouses were constructed. The Austrians followed the Northern European model of ‘lagerhauser’. This is where railway tracks ran directly into vast warehouse complexes, making the receiving and distribution of goods much faster and easier. You can still see some of the extensive warehouses and railway lines running behind the 1930s ‘Capitanerie di Porto’ building. The Italians call these warehouses ‘magazzini’. One of the most famous of these warehouses is called ‘Magazzino 18’. This warehouse was used to store the belongings of Istrian refugees (all Italian citizens) who were displaced at the end of the Second World War as the communist state of Yugoslavia established itself as a slavic nation and other languages, like Italian were no longer tolerated.
BORDER CITY – Trieste is a border city. The ‘confine’ as the Italians call it is the frontier or border which separates Italy from Slovenia to the south and east and Austria to the north. These borders have fluctuated and changed over the years. When borders change conflict is usually involved and this corner of Italy is no exception. The start of the First World War was triggered by the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in July 1914. By 1915 Italy entered the war and there was fierce fighting between the Italians and the Austrians in the mountains north of Trieste. There was huge loss of life. Conditions were dreadful in the freezing, snow-covered mountains of the Julian Alps. By the end of the war the old order had gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed and Italy ended up with the city of Trieste, the hinterland and the Istrian peninsula (now Croatia). However the region was still unsettled and in the 1940s there was war again. The Second World War was a very dark period for Trieste. Mussolini actually announced the Race Laws in the main square of Trieste, Piazza Unita. There is a plaque to remember this moment. Trieste also housed the only concentration campaign in Italy, a former rice-processing plant ‘La Risiera di Sabba’. Today it is a museum. Many Italian Jews were brought to Sabba before being transported, never to return, to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When the Second World War finally ended in 1945, Trieste’s neighbouring state Yugoslavia became a communist regime. After the war Italy could not hold on to Istria and the borders around Trieste were redrawn to exclude the Istrian Peninsula. The exodus of Italian families from Istria (which suddenly became Yugoslavia) is still a highly emotional issue in Trieste. Many people believe that the Allied Forces, especially Britain and America abandoned this corner of Italy. Certainly the British and New Zealand soldiers based at Duino Castle just up the coast had no respect for the aristocratic Count who owned the sprawling property that the troops had requisitioned. There’s an old photograph of the Count camped in the castle grounds in a small military tent and flying the Italian flag as a visual protest to his forced removal from the family home. To this day the family still live next door to the castle in an adjacent property.
COMPLICATED – I think it is true to say that the history of this region is very complicated. Since the 1990s we’ve seen the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and a bloody civil war in the state of Yugoslavia which separated the country into its constituent states; Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Montenegro. Nowadays this part of Italy shares borders with Austria (to the north) and Slovenia to the south and east. Trieste as a city is very ethnically mixed. It always has been. The city and surroundings have a population of about one million people. This includes Italians, and also sizeable Greek, Serbian and Slovenian communities. There was a large, integrated Jewish community in Trieste before the war of about 5000 people. It is now about 500. Wandering around the city reveals an enormous Jewish Synagogue, a gigantic Serbian Orthodox Church and a Greek Orthodox Church too. This ethnically diverse population and an ‘anything goes’ attitude attracted all types of visitors during the 19th and 20th centuries. Richard Burton, British explorer and Anthropologist spent his last years in Trieste studying and translating numerous books that were considered immoral in Northern Europe. Sigmund Freud visited the city at least four times and was influenced by the cosmopolitan mood of the city. The writer James Joyce arrived here from Dublin with his girlfriend Nora in 1904, he’d left Dublin after a series of bar room brawls. In Trieste he found employment at the Berlitz Language School where he taught English. Joyce was an enthusiastic supporter of the city’s many brothels. I wonder if Freud and Joyce ever met, or perhaps caught one another’s eye over a crowded bar, fascinating to speculate…
SPECULATION – On the subject of speculation Trieste was a city built on trade. In Roman times it was trade between the Alps and Adriatic Sea, later trade developed between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rest of Europe, especially trade with neighbouring Balkan states, Greece and the East. In the 1850s many of the city’s wealthy merchants became involved in a plan to build the Suez Canal. A huge infrastructure project that would create a short cut for ships, enabling them to sail from the Mediterranean directly to the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean without having to sail around the entire continent of Africa and the notoriously rough seas of Cape Horn. A famous city character called Pasquale Revoltella, who had built an important business as a timber merchant and grain dealer was given the title of Vice President of the company established to build the Suez Canal – Compagnia universale del Canale di Suez unfortunately Revoltella died before the canal was completed. However its impact on trade between Europe and the Far East is still significant to this day. Only weeks ago the canal was blocked by a giant container ship threatening the movement of goods between Europe and Asia. When Revoltella died he left his home and art collection to the city of Trieste. The Revoltella Museum is now one of the most interesting museums to visit in Trieste, a luxurious private home, filled with the paintings, books and furniture of a wealthy man.
COFFEE CULTURE – there’s a strong culture of coffee and cafes in Trieste. In Piazza Unita the Caffe degli Specchi dominates the north side of the square. A little further afield you can find Caffe San Marco and Caffe Torinese. The people of Trieste enjoy coffee all day every day. The tradition dates from the days when coffee beans were coming into the port of Trieste from Africa to be shipped up to Austria and to the coffee shops of Vienna. Several of the coffee shop owners have got together to create a ‘Caffe Letterari’ group promoting these historic cafes as places of refreshment and also as book shops. The ideas is that you read and select books whilst enjoying a perfectly prepared cup of coffee. In Trieste an ‘espresso’ coffee is called ‘un nero’. I’ll have to check with my friend Raffaella to remind myself how you order a ‘macchiato’ or a ‘cappuccino’. In Trieste it’s a different language.
INDEPENDENT – Trieste is a dynamic and independent city with a thoroughly international outlook. As a city of merchants and traders it’s also a city of initiative. During the communist years especially in the 1970s and 80s there was a huge blue jeans market (denim jeans) in Ponte Rosso, a large market square in the city centre. People from neighbouring Yugoslavia would cross the border at the weekend to buy goods they couldn’t get on the other side of the border. Local people say that at least 100,000 pairs of jeans were sold every weekend in the Ponte Rosso Jeans Market. Even now at weekends the streets of Trieste are filled with shoppers from Croatia and Slovenia. The pedestrianised streets, numerous shops and elegant piazzas are a magnet for tourists, locals and neighbouring nationals alike. As you can see in the photograph below the Triestini remains fiercely independent and are ready to welcome the UK and USA back to Trieste, as soon as possible!
CHANGE – the winds of change are always in the air in Trieste. I wonder if the mentality is connected to the famous Bora wind which blows strongly from the Adriatic Sea, especially in October and November. When the wind changes direction then everything changes. Walking across Piazza Unita can become almost impossible. Winds can gust suddenly knocking people off their feet, as this delightful cartoon from 1907 shows (below)….
One thing is constant however and that’s the warm and friendly welcome that I received during my visit from all the Triestini that I met. Everyone from the rather deaf taxi driver to the lady selling tickets to the museum asked me where I was from and how I was enjoying my stay in Trieste. Now let’s face it you don’t get that level of engagement in Venice or Rome for that matter.
- I stayed at the Albero Nascosto Hotel, Trieste www.alberonascosto.it A delightful, small boutique hotel, privately owned by a charming gentleman and his wife. Strongly recommended. 5 minutes to Piazza Unita, 2 minutes to the sea. Rooms from about € 95 per night (depending on season)
- My sightseeing programme was organised by the ever capable Raffaella Zaccai of FVG Turismo – www.turismofvg.it
- FVG stands for Friuli Venezia Giulia and is the north-east region of Italy. The Tourist Office is extremely well organised. They have ‘info’ points for visitors in all the main towns of the region.
- With thanks to the talented writer Carl Hiassen who coined the term ‘…flotsam and jetsam of humanity that wash up on Florida’s shores..’ For a combination of wit, story and skill, he’s an incredible writer: www.carlhiaasen.com
- My able guide was the supremely well-informed and charming Danica Krstic – email@example.com
- The Revoltella Museum is a must visit – check out their web site www.museorevoltella.it
- Recent articles that I have written include:
- Searching for Italy……
- The wine windows of Florence
- Letter from Europe #3 April 2021
- Sicily – Time to get started…..
- Miele di barena – honey secrets and recipes from the Lagoon (of Venice) from Iris Loredana lavenessiana.com