“See Naples and die.” “Must-see sights in Rome.” What about Trieste?
Reflecting on the last few days spent in Trieste with Valeriano, sipping white Spritzes and strolling along the Molo Audace, I realised that Trieste isn’t so much a city to see as a city to be. Other people obviously feel the same way, as tourism feels almost non-existent. Most people, when you tell them you’re going to Trieste, respond with lukewarm enthusiasm (compared with the envious “ahhhh” when you say you’re going to Venice). In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris describes Trieste as a “middle-size, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 per cent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.”
I went to Trieste for the first time a few years ago, on a solo trip. I don’t have great memories. After a few days feeling blissfully happy in Venice (as I always do), I spent a cold, lonely Easter weekend in Trieste before continuing to Piran in Slovenia, where I felt better at once. There were a few problems in Trieste. Firstly, the dismal affitacamere near the station where my window was entirely blocked by scaffolding, which rattled every time the wind blew, keeping me awake at night. Then there was the weather – the bitterly cold wind that somehow took me surprise, even though the bora is Trieste’s most famous characteristic. I spent the weekend shivering, debating whether I could afford to buy a warmer jacket (I couldn’t and I didn’t). I was also struck by the anxiety well-known to the solo traveller about where to eat alone without feeling self-conscious and ended up eating at the pizza chain Rossopomodoro – perfectly nice but not characteristic – and feeling like I was missing out on typical cuisine. The lack of obvious things to see or do in Trieste added to my sense of loneliness and aimlessness.
I was in a strange mood, my first time in Trieste. I wanted to blame it on the city’s famous melancholic atmosphere, but I knew that it was mostly the cold and the fact that I was on my own. I vowed to give the city another chance, but in company, in the summer.
So I returned to Trieste 4 years later, with Valeriano in August. These are the things and experiences that struck me the most.
Weather – Trieste is glorious in the summer. While we were there it was about 25-31 degrees with a strong sea breeze. After the stifling airlessness of Rome in the summer, Trieste feels like paradise. I’m not sure I could cope with the winter though, when the bora rages and ropes are strung up in the streets to give people something to grip on to. This video shows you just how windy it gets.
Barcola – Trieste’s “beach”. A beach formed of a long promenade and the occasional patch of pebbles. It’s an easy 10 minute bus ride from the centre, and it’s the perfect place to spend a summer afternoon – sunning on the concrete and swimming in the Adriatic, where the Castle Miramare seems like a mirage in the distance, or, to use Jan Morris’s beautiful expression, “a castle in a trance”. Then, when you’ve had enough of the sun, you can retreat to the shade of the pine trees or get a cocktail from the kiosk. It would be easy to sneer at Barcola for its lack of sand, but it really is pretty idyllic.
Osmize – High up in the hills surrounding Trieste are osmize – family-run restaurants serving local food and wine, open in the summer months. Some of them are hard to reach, but Osmiza Stoka is accessible by bus from central Trieste, and was one of the highlights of our trip. A giant platter of cheese, cold cuts and olives and a mezzo litro of red wine; a garden with a sea view; the ominous rumble of thunder and the threat of rain adding to the atmosphere.
Restaurants – Trieste isn’t famous for its food, but we ate very well. Apart from the osmiza, the places that stand out are two fish restaurants – Trattoria Nerodiseppia and the Antica Ghiaccetteria. The latter was expensive, but the quality was exceptional. Calamari in fennel cream, insalata di polpo with apple, linguine with swordfish, tomatoes and olives…I imagine it’s difficult to eat badly in Trieste, especially as the low levels of tourism means that there are no tourist trap restaurants.
Drinks – A typical Trieste drink is a Spritz – not the ubiquitous chemical orange Aperol Spritz, but a Spritz Bianco, which is white wine with mineral water. Equally refreshing is the Hugo cocktail, which is Prosecco with elderflower syrup and a sprig of mint.
Cafes/Coffee – Trieste has some lovely old cafes, the most famous of which are the Caffè degli Specchi in Piazza Unità d’Italia (the Trieste equivalent of Florian in Piazza San Marco), Caffè San Marco, and Caffè San Tommaseo. They’re lovely places to sit with a coffee and read, write, or simply watch the world go by. Trieste is the home of Illy coffee and has a whole other language – an espresso is a ‘nero’, a cappuccino a ‘capo’.
Language – Italian is the main language, but Slovene is also widely spoken, and many signs are in both languages. I’m also intrigued by the Trieste dialect, which has a mix of influences. Jan Morris: “Triestino was descended from the Venetian dialect, and was similarly rich in slur and sibilant, but it had absorbed words and idioms from the many other languages of this municipal melting-pot (sonababic meant ‘son-of-a-bitch’).” The word volentieri, which means “Yes, of course” for the average Italian, is a polite “No” in Trieste. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for several years while writing his novels and working as an English teacher, was apparently fluent in Triestino and even used it in Finnegan’s Wake.
People – Almost unfailingly polite, well-dressed, respectful of personal space. I say “almost” because there was an exceptionally surly bus driver. But on the whole I really liked the people in Trieste. The city is clean, functional, oh-so-civilised compared to Rome, and that’s thanks to the Triestini.
So, while I don’t have recommendations for anywhere in Trieste you absolutely must see, or anything you have to do before you die, I do recommend it as a city to experience. I”m sure I’ll be back, but in the meantime I’ve got my memories of gazing at Miramare while floating in the sea, and windswept walks along the seafront, which were all the more enjoyable because they were spontaneous moments, rather than “musts”.