The slow train eastbound from Venice hugs the craggy, forested coast as it nears the city of Trieste, affording tantalising glimpses of Miramare Castle, a gleaming white Gothic folly perched just above the deep blue waters of the Adriatic.
Trieste falls off the radar for most foreign visitors, tucked into a pocket of Italian territory almost encircled by present-day Slovenia – just a strap stitched onto the Italian boot. Veteran travel writer Jan Morris enthuses over this somewhat cryptic city, as much Central European as Italian, often a refuge for exiles, whether real or self-imagined.
A Serbian Orthodox church, an old synagogue and much else remind us that this was once a bustling and cosmopolitan port, the only outlet to the sea for the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire dismantled after the First World War.
In the last days of the Second World War, New Zealand troops, marching into Trieste to receive the German surrender, found themselves confronted by Marshal Tito’s Communist partisans. The Kiwis set up headquarters in Miramare Castle and managed to hold the line against the encroaching Yugoslavs until Allied reinforcements could arrive. Following this first confrontation of the Cold War, the United Nations set up the Free State of Trieste, a buffer city-state, but by 1954 Trieste was once again Italian – at least in name.
The streets of Trieste run straight and wide, the stores and their patrons as stylish as those found in other Italian cities. Trieste lacks obvious must-sees, in spite of a history extending back to Roman times, but may be part of its charm.
A Roman amphitheatre takes a bite out of a hillside just behind the main business district; the much-restored castle and basilica share a hilltop with the war memorial.
Launches bob at anchor in the Grand Canal (little more than a well-placed marina) whilst café patrons nibble cicheti appetisers and sip Campari spritzes on the nearby Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, a grand open space flanked by grand public buildings – all now occupied by quite different institutions from those for whom they were built. The piazza was laid out by Austrian town planners at the behest of the Empress Maria Theresa.
One wanderer who gravitated to Trieste was James Joyce, whose bronzed likeness appears to be still strolling the streets between classes. Aged 23, the Irish writer and his lover Nora settled here in 1905, Joyce taking up employment as an English teacher – like so many travellers around the world today. The pair remained in Trieste until the First World War. Joyce never wrote about Trieste as such, but found the city rather more congenial than his native Dublin.
Bars and restaurants in Trieste often echo the cosy old-world ambience of their Viennese counterparts. Many set out a decidedly Germanic ‘buffet’ a gargantuan spread of pork meats, ham, horseradish, mustard, sauerkraut and potatoes. Real beers by the pint, too, make a welcome appearance.
Blue-and-white tramcars, fitted out with slatted wooden seats, still clatter out along a century-old line which extends ten kilometres up to the former Yugoslav frontier, now crossed at will. To climb the steep escarpment behind the city onto the Carso or Karst plateau, the tramway becomes a funicular (or cable car) for several hundred metres; the passengers glimpse fine views out over the Adriatic.
Trieste’s Karst plateau, by the way, has lent its name to similar limestone landforms all over the world.
Trains from Trieste once continued into Slovenia and on through Austro-Hungarian territory, but no longer. However, it is easy enough to catch the morning bus to Sezana, just inside Slovenia, then continue on by train, either to Ljubljana, the capital, or towards Vienna on the old Austro-Hungarian line through Jesenice, after a delightful journey through forests, mountains and verdant valleys.
More images of Trieste