A city without a country. Austrian, Italian, Slovenian? Perhaps none of them and perhaps all of them, Trieste is not quite like anywhere else.
I stayed in a light-filled loft, perched 114 steps above the Grand Canal, disappointingly short of a view but handily placed to wander the city’s streets and soak up the atmosphere. Reading in preparation led me to Jan Morris whose description of the melancholy of the town created a false impression of a slightly dishevelled old lady. I found nothing faded or tawdry here. The buildings are grand and square and solid, carrying an air of permanence rather than decay. The foolish canal, built in a one-eyed hope of improving freight from the docks into the city without considering that swing bridges slow non-waterbourne traffic, is simply the perfect modern venue for a pedestrianised bar-crawl. And bars there most certainly are. The tiny bar Kenya, named in honour of the coffee history of town now Mayored by a Mr. Illy, the funky bar Draw in artfully modern industrial design, the inevitable Harry’s bar in the main square. Indoors, outdoors, on stools, on loungers, at tables or counters. Whatever sort of bar you want, the city that invented the Hugo cocktail is sure to have the perfect place to sip your aperitivo and watch the Triestinos go by. Perhaps the sheer volume of drinking spots is responsible but these bars are also engaged in a sort of snack arms race. At first the generosity of the chips and olives was a welcome surprise. By the second day the tiny sandwiches and slices of pizza were a greedy man’s pleasure but by the third day that Triestino watching revealed that abstinence was the local response of choice. I should send students here to spend their dinner money on beer. They’ll never need to buy food in a city that gives it away so readily.
I ate well, of course. Vongole, sea bass, John Dory, gambas, salad of the softest octopus, the darkest and smallest cuttle fish. The city that sits on top of the Adriatic draws fine fish from the oddly ozone free sea direct to the plate with an elegant simplicity that belies the delicate skills of wise chefs. And if the food was resoundingly Italian it was the wine list that reminded me of the multi-national history. A taste for white wines and styles more closely tied to an Austrian heritage with growers and grapes reminiscent of a Croatian starting eleven for its ‘….oska’s’ and ‘….itches’ provided mystery, exploration and regular enjoyment. Stand out meals were at the Ostello Targeste where the Spaghetti Vongole was fine but could frankly have been rubbish, so good was the view of the lake-calm Adriatic, so red the geraniums, so golden the stone and so casually untidy the terrace. I don’t know how much I paid but it was worth twice as much for the temporary air of La Dolce Vita on that beautifully slow, hot walk to the castle at Miramare. Citta di Cherso, recommended by a curiously churlish Daily Telegraph that puzzling found few restaurants in the town, was nearly the best meal until the more bountiful Michelin pointed me to the remarkable Pepebianco.
An elegant dining room, sophisticated food and dashing service all puzzling located away from the efficient Hapsberg grid of the town centre and hugger-muggered between tram and railway at the foot of the precipitous and winding hill to Opicina. Placed on the mezzanine to nod imperiously at a parsimonious group of pensioners eating below, I felt a little like a be-balconied Mussolini at the Piazza Venezia as I was treated to modern Italian food as good as I’ve eaten in many a more famous and expensive city. And in the Refosco dal Penduncol, a red wine that could only have been from Italy – dark, mahogany flavours producing a flavour that alone would have been too much of an iconoclast but with food became a more noble challenger of conceptions. And what food. Spaghettini with those small but mighty cuttle fish, milk-fed pork, tempur-ed courgette flowers and that stalwart John Dory. An evening that only a grappa or two could bring to a sighing, satisfied close.
Like many another small town, Trieste rewards best those who walk its streets, at least when the fiercesome North wind, the Bora, stays in the Alps. With lovely Spring sunshine on my back, the pavements moved easily under my feet and that big, square Austrian architecture, particularly in the big square of the Piazza Unita, revealed it’s canyons and valleys gently as I nudged and nurdled my pin ball path in search of food and history. Neither took much searching. The mercantile past that built such solid architecture is perhaps most obvious in the Revotella museum where some indifferent figurative art is overshadowed by a building of impressive confidence. An indulgent pied a terre for a Triestino merchant of sufficient standing to hold the Chairmanship of the British-French Suez canal project, housed a ball room and copious sitting rooms all equipped with an overblown arrogance of decor that must have been the height of fashion for the 1860’s. Further afield, at the end of that hot walk delayed by the golden, red Ostella Targeste, sits the Miramare as the apogee of 19th Century Hapsberg grandeur. Maximillian’s entry on the list of mad monarchs is surely a reflection of his folly in leaving this place, not in building it. 20 km out of his Empire’s only access to the sea, Maximillian built for himself a castle that would have made Walt Disney proud. Obviously square, obviously white and obviously panelled to within an inch of its life, Miramare is, like Trieste, resolutely magnificent in its self-indulgence. Perhaps this is where Jan Morris and others found the sadness that passed me by. Maximillian, flattered by the French into believing the Mexican people wanted him for their King, left this grandeur for an adventure that ended in 1867 with his wife’s madness when she couldn’t persuade his former allies to save him and a Juarez firing squad gave a truer indication of the desires of the Mexican people. Trieste isn’t sad but maybe the port that saw the end of Maximillian and the return of Archduke Ferdinand’s body a few decades later looks like a foolishness from our end of history. Maybe the benefit of hindsight makes what once looked like sensible pomp now look like senseless pompousness. And how right in that context that the grounds of Miramare holds a more modern note of over confidence in a self-congratulatory granite tablet to and from the Americans who were stationed here until the 1950s to keep Tito’s ambitions South of the Slovenian border.
Looking down on the city at the end of the mountain goat tram to Opicina or from the Roman St Justus Cathedral, are views that would have made the Alpine Austrians feel at home. The spread of the city from these vantage points make the dismal seascapes in Revoltella’s mansion make some sort of sense and the imagination is at no stretch to envisage sails and steam dotting the port where now a few lazy cranes and the odd cruise ship are the main reminders of that merchant past. And of course, that merchant history, as well as wealth, brought Trieste her most famous son. And how like Trieste both that he came and then left a decade or so later and that he was neither Austrian, Italian nor Slovenian, but Irish. When James Joyce arrived by train in 1904, he parked the Joycian named Nora Barnacle, who would later mother his children, on a park bench and went in search of accommodation. An ensuing bar brawl with some English sailors found him a bed for the night in the cells before the English Consul negotiated his release to find something more suitable but, undeterred, he made his home here for thirteen years. He certainly wrote and published ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ while he lived here, probably wrote most of ‘Dubliners’ and maybe some of ‘Ulysses’ but it seems particularly apt that one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists found a home in one of the 20th Century’s greatest cities, and then left it when it ceased to be so. Drawn by the bars, kept here by the availability of work as a jobbing language teacher and, I imagine, pleased to be anonymous in the bustle of the port-city, he lost patience with Trieste when the 1915 Treaty of London gave her to Italy and Nationalism stalked the streets where the melting pot once jostled.
No-where is like it was before. With very few exceptions, everywhere is the result of the influence of other cultures. Some places that used to be important aren’t such a big deal any more. Perhaps Trieste is a little more of each of these than anywhere else. And perhaps that is what makes it sad for Jan Morris and perhaps that is what makes it such a rewarding place to visit.