“It’s the pimple of the North,” says the Italian man standing next to me on a crowded bus as it pulls away from Ferroviaria train station to make its way past the city centre and begin the steep climb up San Giusto hill. The roads are tight and windy as the sardine-packed bus edges its way deeper into the city, scrapping past rugged buildings and pedestrians who foolishly thought they’d be safe on the sidewalk.
I’m in Trieste, a port city in northern Italy that’s perched on a strip of land overlooking the Adriatic Sea and Italy’s border with Slovenia, which lies almost immediately south and east of the city. It is the capital of the autonomous Friuli-Venezia Giulia region but as a città del mare, a city of the sea, it’s also an urban melting pot where East meets West and perhaps the most ‘European’ of all Italian cities.
But you won’t find Trieste splashed across the cover of a glossy travel magazine, or even in an Italian guidebook. If you look hard enough you might find it, maybe at the very back of the book. Trieste is the often forgotten city of a nation that prides itself on its artistic history, its envelope-pushing fashion and its natural beauty. And Trieste, according to people like the gentleman next to me, has no such appeal.
I alight at Viale XX Settembre, a pedestrian avenue lined with shops, bars, mixed business and residential palazzos just north of the city centre. The street mall is pumping all day and (almost every) night with more than 14 drinking bars, five gelato shops, four pizzerias and an array of international restaurants like the Chinese Cina Cina restaurant, and Indian eatery Krishna – a testament to the new wave of migrants adding to the city’s multicultural communities.
I’m attracted to the lavishly decorated, Arabian-inspired Mille e Una Notte restaurant. Sitting on a spongy lounge, surrounded by velvet cushions with gold tassels and under dim, sultry lighting I’m delighted when my meal arrives – a mountain of lightly seasoned rice, topped with spicy chunks of meat and a drizzle of yoghurt. It’s not something you’d expect to find in Italy but maybe that’s what makes it so delicious.
In the heart of the city, in the imposing Piazza Unita d’Italia (Square of Italian Unity and so aptly named when Trieste was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1918) there is Caffè degli Specchi, one of the city’s many historic Viennese-style coffee houses. Once the haunt of literary greats James Joyce and Italo Svevo – whose life-size bronze statues can be found nearby – it’s still the place to go if you want to be seen, smack bang in the middle of the piazza, with one of the best views of the Adriatic and prime real estate for people watching. But be prepared to pay for this panorama. An espresso will set you back about two euro, that’s double the average price.
Allowing a moment to take in the piazza itself is worth the extra euro. Embracing the Adriatic Sea, it’s flanked on two sides by impressive palazzos characteristic of the Habsburg era and reminiscent of Trieste’s history as the dynasty’s most important seaport. Today the buildings are mostly home to local government offices and Trieste’s grand town hall complete with clock tower sits front and centre. It’s a marvel of architectural beauty, albeit tainted by Italy’s tragic fascist past – in 1938 Mussolini announced the Fascist Racial Laws, which echoed the Nuremburg Laws of Nazi Germany, from the town hall balcony.
Just behind the Piazza, at the foot of the hill is the Teatro Romano, an ancient Roman amphitheatre that was excavated during the 1930s as a propaganda tool of Fascist Italy. Mussolini did much to assert the power of the Fascist State in Trieste – including building its obnoxious Questura (State Police) building directly in front of the amphitheatre.
Walking past the Teatro Romano, I’m a little disappointed and I don’t know whether it’s because I’m comparing it to bigger and better ruins like the almighty Colosseum or because it’s is so grossly overshadowed by its fascist-era neighbour.
By and large, Trieste is mistaken as the donkey amid a legion of Italian stallions like Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan who all jostle for the limelight and on the scale of archetypal Italian capital cities, Trieste is ranked at the bottom, if at all.
Author Jan Morris wrote about this ill-conceived scrutiny of the city in her 2001 book Trieste: The Definition of Nowhere.
Morris says, “It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous… and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.”
But a few things have changed in the 12 years since Morris published her book and in an ever-shrinking world Trieste’s future is optimistic.
James Joyce endearingly called the city ‘Europiccola’ (little Europe) and as Europe appears to be expanding more and more into the East, Trieste is envisaged as the centre of a new ‘Euroregion without borders’, perfectly integrated into a wider hinterland that should incorporate portions of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.
So whether it’s ‘the pimple of the North’ in a country that seems to reject it, or an up and coming Mitteleuropean cultural headquarters, Trieste will always be a meeting place of diverse and ever-changing communities – a city without a territory.
When eventually I leave Trieste, it’s grey and ominous. It is the middle of winter and the storm clouds are as unnerving as ever. Nevertheless I’m sad to leave. I’ve grown attached to the city and, despite the man on the bus, think its eccentric mix of food, language and architecture should be held up as the benchmark for any truly cosmopolitan city – arrivaderci Trieste, we shall meet again soon.