Over morning coffee in a 200-year-old café on one of the largest piazzas in Italy, I’m pondering the idea of nationality. What is it really? Is it just an abstract fiction? Trieste makes you contemplate things like this. Trieste makes you think about all manner of things. This is not a city that makes an urgent appeal to the senses, but one which continually stimulates the intellect. In Trieste, surrounded by order and kindness, comfort and civility, your unruffled mind is free to think.
Nationality, then. If anywhere gives this notion the lie, it’s Trieste. The city sits out on a strange little coastal limb, the very end of northeast Italy. Slovenia lies just five miles away, Croatia ten. For 600 years Trieste was part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire, ultimately serving as its chief seaport. It’s been back in Italian hands since 1919, but as late as 1999 a national poll revealed that 70% of Italians didn’t know the city was in Italy. You can’t really blame them. Trieste is one of Italy’s ‘least Italian’ cities, showing none of the country’s passionate or flamboyant stereotypes.
But if it’s not really Italian, it’s not really anything else either. Or rather, it’s everything. Trieste has long been a unique meeting point of the three chief strands of European civilization – Latinate, Teutonic and Slavic. Each of those colourful threads is still here, distinct yet intertwined. You can think of the city as a sort of first EU. It still shows in its culture, appearance and people an unrivalled union of Europeans and Europeanness. Arguably, it distils Europe to an essence. Trieste has been in its time a world city too – trading across the globe, welcoming exiles, and acting as a powerful engine for cosmopolitanism. It might be a humbler place than that now, but it’s a no less contented one.
I drain my espresso cup and leave Piazza Unità. With only 48 hours to see Trieste, I can’t sit here all day thinking! Thankfully, Trieste boasts few compelling boxes for the sightseer to tick, and it’s possible to get a flavour of the place in two days. This is not so much a city of sights as a city of atmosphere. And that atmosphere is one of high civilization, of contented society and jovial calm. In truth, Trieste is an enchanting place simply to be. In whichever corner of the city you find yourself, Trieste’s greatest attractions – its restful orderliness, its open-minded decency – are always there.
A few streets inland I find the ‘old city’ – a little hill with an ancient Roman theatre at its foot, a cathedral halfway up, and a sprawling castle on top. The Illyrians, a hazy ancient people, built a walled village on this hill, which grew into Trieste. Romans were the first to take over, before Venetians then Habsburgs then Italians. The Roman theatre is now a grassy heap of stones, and smart townhouses perched high above it gaze straight over the top of it and out to sea – as if ignoring the ruins and their irrelevance to Trieste. The truth is that an empire other than Rome’s ultimately shaped this city. Namely the Austro-Hungarian, whose players hugely expanded Trieste in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Outside the cathedral, just before I slip inside, I see an otherwise sane and respectable-looking man taking his ginger cat for a stroll. Balanced on his shoulders. The cat, obviously an accustomed traveller, moves in skilful counterbalance to the man’s motion, calmly treading round his shoulders and upper back like a sailor swinging in the rigging as his ship moves through rolling waters. The man stops to chat to a friend, the cat stands still. The man moves on again, and the cat resumes his subtle ballet. This tiny incident seems to confirm two things I’ve heard about the Triestini – that they adore animals, and they welcome eccentrics.
The interior of the cathedral is decorated in a subdued, rather modest fashion. Fitting for a city that’s never been one for passionate religiosity. There are churches of every conceivable faith in Trieste (later I will pass a gigantic Serbian Orthodox temple, a stout synagogue, a Jesuit church, a Benedictine monastery, churches Anglican, Waldensian, Lutheran, Mechitarist...). But they are signs of the city’s inclusivity, rather than any special predisposition toward belief. Trieste is in fact fundamentally secular, and profoundly tolerant. Even the small notice I see at the cathedral’s Eucharist altar politely acknowledges atheists as well as believers: “Chi ha fede, adori; chi non ha questo dono passi con rispetto,” it requests. “Those who have faith, worship; those who do not have this gift, pass respectfully.”
Outside, I stroll past Roman columns and climb to the hilltop citadel, where high, outdoor walkways give expansive views. It’s a day of mixed weather, the sky brilliantly blue over the coast but blackly brooding inland. Thus I gaze across brightly-lit townhouses rising toward a brutal, dark chunk of unilluminated greenery that looms over the back of Trieste. It’s the Karst, or Carso, the geologically-awkward chunk of limestone that sits behind the city and, rather ironically, blocks it off from the rest of the world – in effect emphasizing Trieste’s maritime significance. Wild, elemental forces seem to surround this calm and orderly city. The forbidding Karst, the notorious bora wind that periodically howls in from the northeast, and of course the unending sea – linking Trieste to everywhere.
I descend the hill and wander Trieste’s elegant streets. Suited men stand chatting outside a grand theatre. Fountains plash. Twentysomethings stroll with an affable air past plate-glass-fronted boutiques. Near the hyperbolically-named Canale Grande (a tiny harbour for little boats in the heart of town), I come across a wonderful statue of James Joyce, rightfully positioned striding along the pavement of the city he loved rather than poised on a plinth above the level of the street. Famously, Joyce wrote or prepared most of his greatest works while living in Trieste. You assume the statue is a fellow pedestrian until you get close enough to realize he’s made of bronze. And then you suddenly grasp that Joyce really is a fellow pedestrian. He’s still here amongst the city-strollers, and he’ll be here forever. At the statue’s foot, a little plaque gives his dates and quotes in Italian a line from a letter to his wife: “La mia anima è a Trieste.” My soul is in Trieste.
Further on, in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the most beautiful fountain I’ve ever seen. Massive sea-gods and a doughty mermaid uphold a giant scalloped shell from which water tumbles, dripping down their bowed heads. It’s not giddy Baroque frippery, but moving fin-de-siècle drama. Touchingly, while occupied with their tremendous burden, one of the sea-gods and the mermaid brush hands in a gesture of private reassurance. The longer I look at the fountain, the more it seems to me to suggest the noble weight of civilization – upheld only by joint effort and mutual respect. A fitting theme for this powerfully decent and cooperative city.
Trieste, I realize as I continue to wander, is chock-full of stunning statuary, caryatids and the like. At the grand Post Office, I admire an adorable pair of post-boys standing on the frontage – larger-than-life children in postal uniform, one smiling at an envelope, the other gamely blowing a post-horn. Everywhere across the city, there are finely-wrought figures striding through fountains or posing in wall-niches, huge-breasted women flanking doorways, characterful faces gazing out from pediments and lintels. In Trieste, you are never alone.
And you are never harried. This is a most stress-free of cities – remarkably unblighted by any of the usual urban chaos, din or ugliness. In all my perambulations, I feel particularly relaxed crossing the road. There’s no stereotypically Italian driving here, no high-spirited impatience or unnerving bravado. Cars wait politely at traffic lights, stop immediately at pedestrian crossings, drive with all due care and at modest speed. Trieste’s roads are a world away from Naples! Stereotypical Italian friendliness is here in abundance, meanwhile. When I get hopelessly lost, a series of kind strangers pleasantly re-direct me, each seeming to relish the tiny opportunity to help. A pair of fourteen-year-olds provide the acid test. I guiltily interrupt their furtive snogging to beg directions, and they delight in assisting me. Olive-skinned, with high cheekbones and blue eyes, they have all the ethnically-mixed beauty you’d expect of this place. In perfect English, they guide me onward. I ask them “Is Trieste a good place to live?” and they enthusiastically answer yes. I ask why, and their answer is simple and immediate: “The sea!”
Taking my cue from them, I conclude the day with a blissful wander along the lovely seafront promenade. Much later I will join the strollers round bubbling, convivial late-night Trieste. Tomorrow, of course, I will spend enjoying Miramare, the enchanting white castle five miles outside the city. Miramare is Trieste’s number one tourist attraction, and an unmissably fascinating place indeed. But for me, nothing will quite surpass the gentle, civilized delights of the city itself. Ah yes, Mr. Joyce, I feel it too. My soul is in Trieste.
Properly ‘Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia’, this huge, central square is the very heart of Trieste and is mentioned so often and with such affection that its name has inevitably shrunk. Lined on three sides with grand Austro-Hungarian buildings and opening straight onto the sea, it’s a magnificent place to stroll or to relax and people-watch over coffee.
THE OLD CITY
On a little hill behind Piazza Unità, you can find Roman ruins, winding medieval lanes, the city’s cathedral, a park, and a hilltop castle offering great views. This hill is where Trieste started life, as an Illyrian settlement which later became a Roman town. Everything beyond the hill began with 18th century Austro-Hungarian expansion.
Coffee has always been a big deal in Trieste. The city was a prime entry-point for coffee import into Europe, and café-culture here goes back a long way. Several ‘historic cafés’ persist from the Austro-Hungarian heyday, and are very atmospheric places to savour the little black cup. Try the Caffè degli Specchi, Tommaseo, Tergeste, San Marco, Stella Polare, etc.
SEAFRONT AND MARINA
The sea made Trieste what it was – a world-class seaport at the centre of a once-mighty empire. And the sea is still deep in the city’s soul. Be sure to join the happy evening passeggiata along the city’s elegant waterside, and take time to admire the tidy boats and their dense forest of masts in the city’s neat marina.
As you head out of the city towards Miramare Castle, a succession of pebble beaches and waterside decking provide attractive places to sunbathe. In warm weather the Triestini flock here to peacefully soak up the rays together. In certain places they are watched by colonies of rare and adorable black cormorants, who roost on nearby rocks.
On a little promontory about five miles from the city centre, the haunting white folly of Miramare Castle is Trieste’s number one tourist attraction. Built in the mid-19th century as a love-nest for the ill-fated Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his bride, the castle is full of wonderful period furnishings and colourful stories. Extensive gardens add to its romance.
TRAM RIDE TO OPICINA
Scenic and romantic, this journey up into the high Carso behind Trieste is unmissable. Part tramway, part funicular, the line was opened in 1902 and has been much-loved ever since. You ride through city streets and countryside to the village of Opicina, with tremendous views of Trieste and its bay. Departs Piazza Oberdan, every 20 minutes, 7am-8pm.
Filling the bay of Trieste with two thousand jaunty white sails, this annual yacht race is one of the world’s largest, and makes a wonderful spectacle. The whole city goes boat-mad for a few days, and there’s a tremendous atmosphere down by the waterside. The race takes place every second Sunday in October.
LA GROTTA GIGANTE
Full of huge stalagmites and stalactites, the world’s largest visitable cave lies deep in the Carso behind Trieste. There are 500 steps down and 500 back up, but pauses for delighted astonishment keep you going. Take the tram to Opicina then walk or catch the no. 42 bus. Note that the subterranean atmosphere isn’t great for asthma-sufferers.
‘JOTA’ OR ISTRIAN STEW
Typical of Trieste, of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula and of the Slovenian littoral, this rich and filling soup is delicious ‘comfort food’. Give it a try if you get a chance. Depending on the cook, it can include all or most of the following: beans, barley, sauerkraut, potatoes, bacon, spare ribs, smoked pork, garlic, onion, parsley and seasoning. Mmmm.
CHIMERA DI BACCO
Via del Pane, 2
+39 040 364023
Tucked into a charming alley in the centre of town, this excellent little restaurant serves innovative Italian dishes – intensely flavoursome and beautifully presented. Try the seven-course taster menu which includes appropriate wines. The décor is elegant yet unfussy, and there are outdoor tables in summer.
Meal for two about €65
CAFFÈ SAN MARCO
Via Cesare Battisti, 18
+39 040 363538
Opened in 1914, this café’s late-Art-Nouveau interior is very well preserved – with frescoes, mirrors, painted wall-medallions, marble tables, and lintels patterned with coffee leaves. Writers and intellectuals including James Joyce loved to hang out here, and the atmosphere is still relaxed and meditative.
Coffee and snacks for two about €10
Via del Trionfo, 3
+39 040 241 0446
How can you fail to love a restaurant that has a 2,000-year-old Roman arch climbing through its outer wall? Tucked just behind the grand Piazza Unità, this stylish place serves great local dishes – especially fish and seafood. The décor is restful and modern, except for that arch of course.
Meal for two about €70
TRATTORIA AI FIORI
Piazza Hortis, 7
+39 040 300633
On a leafy square between the seafront and the castle, this classy little restaurant serves excellent seafood and fish dishes. Inspiration comes from traditional Trieste fare and dishes typical of the Istrian peninsula just across the border in Croatia. Fish and vegetables are super-fresh, and artfully presented.
Meal for two about €70
CAFFÈ DEGLI SPECCHI
Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, 7
+39 040 365 777
The plush interior is blandly elegant, but indoors is not what this historic café is all about. Enjoying a prime site on the wonderful Piazza Unità, with ample outdoor tables, there’s nowhere better to linger for hours over coffee and watch the contented life of Trieste. Amazingly, prices are no higher than in a humble café.
Coffee and snacks for two about €10
STARHOTEL SAVOIA EXCELSIOR PALACE
Riva del Mandracchio, 4
+39 040 77941
This wonderfully elegant seafront hotel was built during Trieste’s Austro-Hungarian heyday, and its plush, restful interior retains a distinctly Mitteleuropean atmosphere. The spacious rooms – in serene, muted colours – are well-soundproofed. Be sure to enjoy the old-fashioned library with theatrical lighting that forms part of the lobby.
Doubles c.€150 per night
NUOVO ALBERGO CENTRO
Via Roma, 13
+39 040 347 8790
Newly refurbished, this family-run hotel is extremely good value. The location is very central, just one street away from the Canale Grande and a short walk from the train station. Rooms are comfortable and airy. Pets are welcome, and bicycles can be hired at reception for just €10.
Doubles €45- €80 per night
RESIDENCE SAN GIUSTO
Via Montecchi, 8
+39 040 762661
Not far from the castle and cathedral, this excellent-value residence comprises 21 self-catering apartments variously sized for three, four or five people. Rooms are very comfortable, with a smart, clean décor of bold-coloured furnishing against white walls. The place is child-friendly, car-friendly (private parking), and laptop-friendly (wi-fi throughout).
Apartments c.€425-€850 per week
Via San Nicolò, 25
+39 040 762661
Nicely situated in the heart of Trieste, this century-old hotel overlooks a pedestrianized street full of shops, cafés and restaurants. All the city’s sights are within easy walking distance. Rooms are very clean and comfortable, with classy traditional furnishings. Staff are friendly and helpful.
Doubles c.€140 per night
Viale Miramare, 325/1-327/1
+39 040 224 7086
This sleek modern hotel full of stylish contemporary design lies within walking distance of Miramare Castle. Its serene, luxurious rooms gaze out onto the Gulf of Trieste and are bathed in sea light. Full range of facilities and services. Drive here in five minutes from the city, or take bus no. 36 from the train station.
Doubles from €140 per night
For further information on Trieste,
see the official tourist office website: www.turismofvg.it