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City life: Trieste

Austrian, Slavic and Roman cultures collide in this unique Italian city on the Adriatic

City life: Trieste
The canal, Trieste. Image: Getty

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What do you call a city founded by Illyrians, fortified by Romans, ruled by bishops, rebuilt by Austrian insurance agents, and settled over the centuries by Slovenes, Croats, Jews, Greeks, Hungarians and even some Italians. In Italy, there’s a word for that: Trieste.

Travel writer Jan Morris coined another phrase: ‘the capital of nowhere’. Pretty much every local I meet knows her memoir, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Every one assures me that she’s captured their city. I’m pleased, because — by a wayward route — that book is the reason I’m here. I read it more than a decade ago, and have wanted to visit ever since. I’ve been all over Italy in the meantime, but I’ve never been anywhere like Trieste.

It feels like an outpost. People I meet are thrilled — and genuinely surprised — to learn I’m not passing through, en route to Istria or Dalmatia. Just 5,000 people lived here in the Middle Ages. In the early 1700s it was still a remote village in the Austrian empire, living off the sea and salt pans. Classic nowheresville.

But it didn’t stay nowhere for long. As Vienna’s empire grew, it needed a port. They chose Trieste — ‘Triest’ to an Austrian, ‘Trst’ to a Slovene — and boom time arrived. Empress Maria Theresa oversaw the building of a new city centre, the Borgo Teresiano. Commercialism was baked into the bricks of its grand buildings and busy docks, paid for with shipping and insurance money. Triestino dialect was the lingua franca all down the Dalmatian coast.

In Trieste’s pomp, six trains left its station for Vienna every single day. Jews enjoyed freedom unknown elsewhere in Europe. They lie in the city cemetery side by side with Greek sailors, Serb traders and Italian dockers. Even Trieste’s literary heroes are a multinational bunch: Italo Svevo, born Aron Ettore Schmitz; James Joyce, who lived and wrote here for a decade in the early 1900s (and spoke perfect Triestino). Belle Epoque, tax-free Trieste was the centre of the Med.

Today, strudel, coffeehouses and naturist beaches are reminders of a Germanic heritage. There’s more blond hair than I’ve seen anywhere in Italy — if you don’t count the Germans and Dutch in Lake Garda resorts. Slavic surnames are common.

But these days, only a few daily trains go further than Venice without a change. The city was stranded, became nowhere again — almost surrounded by what’s now Slovenia — by the 20th century.

Nationalism propelled Italy into the First World War, to ‘recapture’ a city that had never been theirs. After Italy defeated Austro-Hungary, Trieste was an Austrian port in the wrong country. A post-1945 settlement left Trieste with the Italians, but gave its hinterland to Yugoslavia. It was nowhere again.

But what a nowhere. Parts of the centre could be Vienna. Historical currents run strong in food, habits and Viennese cafe culture. Yet even these — powerful as they are — pale against Trieste’s natural charm; the beauty of a port city inhabiting a bay at the northernmost tip of the Adriatic Sea.

What to see & do

The Old Town: Old Trieste could hardly be more different to the Austrian city of the boom years. A maze of tight-packed, cobbled lanes cling to a hill crowned by the Cathedral and Castle of San Giusto. The former was once two churches, built on top of a Roman temple and joined together in the 1300s. The castle dates from the 15th century; its bastions are a show-stopping spot for a smartphone pano.

Tram 2 to the Karst: Every 20 minutes, a vintage Vienna-style streetcar leaves Piazza Oberdan for the Karst ridge above the city. As it clanks and rattles its way up the gradient, the views across the Bay of Trieste to Slovenia and Istria are sublime. Alight at the Obelisk, the high point of a road built in the 1830s to link Vienna with Trieste. This is the start point for the Strada Napoleonica, a gentle trail through a wood of holm oaks and hornbeams to the village of Prosecco, just over a mile away.

Revoltella Museum: The city’s best art is inside the Neo-Renaissance former home of Pasquale Revoltella, a 19th-century bigwig who co-sponsored the Suez Canal’s construction. He began the collection and oversaw the regal decor. Climb beyond Neoclassical staircases and parquet palace floors and you’ll find modern paintings and sculptures — mostly by local artists, although there are also works by Giorgio Morandi and Giorgio de Chirico.

Coffee tour: Alongside turbulent history, the other thing Italians associate with Trieste is coffee. Around a third of all the coffee that enters Italy passes through — everything from importing and processing to roasting and decaffeinating happens here. Hermann Hausbrandt (an Austrian) brought industrial roasting to Trieste — previously a signora would buy green coffee beans and roast them herself. Francesco Illy (a local Hungarian) invented the modern method of making espresso. The two-hour guided walk covers city history and caffè culture, including visits to an artisan producer and Joyce’s favourite cafe, and how to tell your Arabica from your Robusta.

Miramare Castle: Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian’s former home rises like a ghostly white mirage from a headland north west of the city centre. Maximilian built this fairytale castle for himself and his wife, Charlotte. Its preserved interiors are a mix of Imperial Austrian restraint and Baroque frippery. Alas, his house didn’t have a fairytale ending: Maximilian was executed by Mexican revolutionaries in 1867, and his distraught wife lived another 60 years in paranoid seclusion. Much of Miramare’s interior decor, including sumptuous panelling and woodcarving, wasn’t even finished until 1870.

Risiera di San Sabba: Built in 1898 as a rice-husking factory, this place became the only Nazi extermination camp on Italian soil. Many Triestine Jews passed through before transportation to Germany, never to return, but most of the longer-term inmates were Italian, Croatian and Slovene partisans, who resisted German occupation after Italy surrendered in 1943. Their usual fate was imprisonment, torture, execution by gas or bullet, and cremation in a desiccator-turned-oven, which the Nazis attempted to destroy when they retreated in 1945. It’s a sad place, not easy viewing, but an essential stop.

The beach: Combining sightseeing with a soak in the Adriatic is one of the joys of a visit to Trieste. The Lantern (or Pedocin), where male and female swimmers are still separated, is a throwback to less permissive Austro-Hungarian values. At Barcola, locals string out along a rocky shore as far as Miramare. Ride bus 6 from the station to Bivio Miramare (15 minutes) for the best spot.

Shopping

Torrefazione La Triestina: You can’t leave town without a handful (or more) of the beans that built Trieste. In the back room of this busy cafe-bar is a small-scale roastery turning out some of the city’s favourite Arabica, sold by weight. Via di Cavana 2. T: 00 39 40 306586.

Enoteca Bischoff: The Friuli Venezia Giulia region has wines found nowhere else in Italy, many with Slavic origins — including vitovska, whose hard life on the Karst gives its wine a salty tang. In business since 1777, Bischoff has the best range in town.

Katastrofa: Wacky 20th-century vintage, with price tags from a few euros up to hundreds. Expect vinyl 45s, Art Deco desks, 1930s phones, silverware, ceramics and more. Nearby Via Felice Venezian has more quirky objet shops.

Borgo Teresiano: The pedestrian streets in this part of town — built in the mid-1700s — have an abundance of high-street shopping. End-of-season sales are often generous: stroll Via San Niccolò, Via Mazzini and Piazza della Borsa.

Savoia Excelsior Palace, Trieste

Savoia Excelsior Palace, Trieste

Where to stay

Starhotels Savoia Excelsior Palace: Since 1911, this Neoclassical harbour-front hotel has been the best address in town. Don’t expect faded grandeur; just grandeur, with modernist design, lofty ceilings and extravagant pastel fabrics. Rooms and suites at the front look across the bay, right at Miramare and the sunset.

Palace Suite: This all-suite annex to the Hotel Continentale (where breakfast is served) inhabits a Liberty apartment block smack in the middle of the Borgo Teresiano. Suites are large and modern, well soundproofed, and have separate kitchens, large bathrooms, lots of cupboard space and even washing machines — handy if you’re travelling with kids.

Atelier Lidia Polla: Petite B&B on the edge of the Borgo Teresiano, installed in the former studio of local artist Lidia Polla and run by her granddaughter, Laura. Granny’s ethereal artworks are still scattered around the place. Rooms are dressed with a keen eye for vintage design, incorporating odds and ends like antique wardrobes, golf leaf-framed mirrors, and showpiece contemporary headboards. Bathrooms are private but not en suite.

Where to eat

Hostaria Malcanton: With its checked tablecloths and pavement tables, this looks every bit the Italian trattoria. The menu is a fish-lover’s dream, with baccalà (salt cod) paté, pickled sea bass and octopus with olives for starters. Mains likewise, maybe the daily mixed grill or fish fry, or fettuccine blackened with cuttlefish ink and served with Datterini tomatoes. Via Malcanton 10. T: 00 39 40 241 0719.

Ego: This place, on the edge of the old town, comes into its own on warm evenings, when they set tables around a romantic little square. Meat and fish tasting menus have plenty of variety and the wine list is big on local grapes like vitovska. egoristorante.com

SaluMare: This informal seafood bar works for a fishy lunch, aperitivo or light dinner. There are fresh and home-smoked mousses and patés, including baccalà, tuna, salmon, mackerel and more, alongside Iberian small plate dishes like pulpo a la gallega (octopus and potatoes) and esquiexada di baccalà (Catalan salt cod salad). No reservations.

Siora Rosa: Triestines love a lunchtime buffet — a style of eating that’s popular in Austria and Hungary. Siora Rosa is as traditional and unfussy as you’ll find. It is the best place to try Triestine speciality prosciutto cotto in crosta, a ham roasted inside bread then served warm in a sandwich with horseradish and mustard. There’s plenty more, including deep-fried aubergine balls (polpette). Piazza Attilio Hortis 3. T: 00 39 40 301460.

Nightlife

Via Torino: A bustling bar quarter has sprung up along this pedestrian street in the past three years. Everywhere is jam-packed and lively at weekends, inside and out. The bar tenders at the Cantina del Vescovo know their gin cocktails.

Taverna ai Mastri d’Arme: There’s a bierstube feel about this craft beer bar on the edge of the old ghetto. Beers on tap could be anything from Belgian trappist to Buxton Brewery, with plenty of Italians, too. Via di Tor Bandena 3/A

Caffè San Marco: Ironically, the most Viennese-looking cafe in the city was a hotbed of Italian nationalism in the final years of Habsburg rule. Opened (by a Slav) in 1914, it was burned down by crowds inflamed with anti-Italian sentiment in 1915. The Art Nouveau ceiling and clanking imperial furniture were soon restored. Despite the history, this is no museum piece: locals come and go for everything from morning coffee to a late night digestif.

Like a local

Name that coffee: In Trieste, an espresso is a caffè nero. If you want a macchiato (espresso with a milk top), ask for un caffè gocciato. What the rest of Italy calls a cappuccino is a caffè con latte here.

Windy city: In winter, watch out for the Bora, an icy blast that roars down from the Karst. It can knock you down, and gusts have even been known to flip a car. Locals will tell you that a Bora always blows for an odd number of days.

Essentials

Getting there
Ryanair flies from Stansted to Trieste between five and seven days a week. Average flight time is two hours. European rail search and booking engine Loco2 sells train tickets to and around Italy, on both the state railway and rival high-speed operator Italo. For example, Venice to Trieste costs from €13 (£9.50) one way (journey time: 2 hours).

Getting around
Most of the sights are easily reached on foot, and the streets of the Borgo Teresiano and around Piazza Unità d’Italia are flat and often pedestrianised. You’ll need public transport to reach the Karst ridge (tram 2), La Barcola (bus 6) or the Risiera (bus 10) (triestetrasporti.it has routes and timetables). An FVG Card will get you into almost every city sight for free. It costs €18 (£13) and is valid for 48 hours. Buy one from the tourist office at the corner of Via dell’Orologio and Piazza Unità d’Italia.

When to go
Trieste comes to life in warm months: between May and September, air and sea temperatures are ideal. Unlike most Italian cities, it remains alive throughout August. In winter, a cold Bora wind often blows — occasionally so strong that Trieste virtually shuts down for the day. It gives the city a quite different charm — as long as you’re wrapped up.

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.36.
International dial code: 00 39 40.
Time difference: UK +1.

More info
turismofvg.it
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
, by Jan Morris. RRP: £8.99 (Faber & Faber).

How to do it
Book the Savoia Excelsior Palace via Preferred Hotels & Resorts LVX Collection.