Trieste: the Winds of Change
Once called ‘the capital of nowhere’, the Northeast Italian city of Trieste has switched between nations as often as any in Europe. Wander its windswept harbours and hillside streets to hear echoes from the furthest corners of the continent. Photography by Philip Lee Harvey
TO WHOM DOES THE CITY OF TRIESTE BELONG? Maps show it belongs to Italy, right on the eastern edge, dangling from the rest of the country by a thin thread of territory. Ask the citizens of Rome or Milan, and you get a different answer. A 1999 poll showed 70 per cent of Italians believed Trieste does not count as Italy. Open a history book, and you can understand this confusion. In little over a century, Trieste has belonged to Austria-Hungary, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia, become a free port under UK and US administration and, now, belongs to Italy again. It is a place where residents blinked and found their passports had changed colour. In many ways Trieste belongs to writers, for whom its statelessness was inspiration. Jan Morris calls Trieste ‘the capital of nowhere’ – a city lost ‘on a fold of a map’ whose shifting identity signified all of Europe, maybe all of the world. It has teleported writers to faraway places: James Joyce wrote Dubliners as a resident; Richard Burton dreamed of the gardens of Damascus and translated Arabian Nights here. Sigmund Freud wrote about the sex lives of eels in Trieste, but I digress.
Today it is a prosperous city with few major sights, but a place perfectly suited to aimless exploration along windy quays, pondering monuments to fallen empires. It is, I'd suggest, one of the most secretly beautiful cities in Italy – though, of course, some would dispute whether it is in Italy at all.
Trieste starts its day with a sacred ritual: a yank of a lever, a cloud of steam, a clink of porcelain, then a lightning bolt of espresso to sharpen sleep-fogged brains. Trieste is one of Europe’s coffee capitals, and its greatest landmarks aren’t churches or castles, but cafés. ‘There is a certain recipe for a good café,’ says Matteo Pizzolini, owner of Antico Caffè Torinese, one of the city’s most storied. ‘You need strong coffee in the mornings. Cocktails in the evenings. And it needs to be a place that makes customers feel important, all day long.’
Matteo purchased the café a few years ago when it was at a low ebb, describing it as like buying a ‘Ferrari parked in a garage’. He is now a proud custodian of its 100 year-old traditions: chandeliers twinkling over customers hunched over morning papers, Art Nouveau cabinets stuffed with obscure spirits. ‘In some ways, the café is like a stage: the regulars are the cast,’ he says.
Trieste’s coffee culture is nothing new. It dates from the time when the city was Austria- Hungary’s foothold in the Mediterranean: Vienna’s corridor to the world. This international port handled goods bound for stations from Sarajevo to Prague, with merchants and sailors of all nationalities: Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Venetians, Armenians, Greeks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs. Now-rusting cranes once creaked under the weight of Ethiopian beans.
Derelict warehouses once buzzed with the aroma of arabica. The sound of a foghorn reaches Antico Caffè Torinese. Today, cruise liners anchor where merchant ships once docked; their bows point straight at seafront hotels, so guests in dressing gowns come eye to eye with captains at the bridge.
The port may be quieter, but you can still taste Trieste’s multi-ethnic past with a cup of coffee. Here, at Antico Caffè Torinese, you could be in Rome, with the purr of the espresso machine and the clatter of stools. In nearby Caffè Tommaseo, you could be in Vienna, with slabs of cake, linen-clad tables, tinkling pianos and milky coffee. And in parts of the city home to ethnic Slovenes you can find the frothy Turkish coffee of the Balkans, the mysterious brew that whispers of Istanbul, the Golden Horn and journeys across the leagues of the Adriatic.
Wherever you are in Trieste, the sea is a constant presence: sometimes as a salty vapour, sometimes as a grey smudge on the horizon. When the city switched between nations, caught in the turbulent gusts of 20th-century history, some say its soul truly belonged out at sea. It is no coincidence that the wood-panelled interior of Antico Caffè Torinese was designed to look not like a café or a restaurant, but like the cabin of a steamship.
Across Italy Trieste is notorious for the bora: a powerful wind that robs the laundry lines, barges yachts in the harbour, eats umbrellas for primi, secondi and dolce. It sometimes makes walking Trieste’s streets feel like horizontal mountaineering. The city is the bora’s first stop after dipping off the Alps, before it whips south towards the battlements of Dubrovnik. In summer the bora is mostly playful; in winter it can be icy and furious.
The best place to watch the bora depart the city and blow into the Adriatic is Miramare Park, just to the northwest of town. It is also a living testament to the bora – most of the trees in the park grow sideways. The park is popular with weekend Triestini, and WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) oversees a small marine park offshore.
‘We’re in a special place, where the mountains drop down to warm waters,’ says Davide Scridel, a WWF naturalist who took his girlfriend to the gardens on their first date. ‘You see a mix of northern and southern species: eider ducks like in northern Europe; loggerhead turtles like in the southern Mediterranean.’
Davide takes me around the park, which also stands at a junction of European biospheres. The sturdy holm oaks of an English garden line the higher slopes, while Aleppo pines and little palms grow in the sheltered parts the bora cannot reach. Soon we reach Miramare Castle, built by Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Raised in landlocked Vienna, Maximilian became enraptured by the sight of the sea at Trieste. Serving in the Austro-Hungarian Navy, he circumnavigated the world in his frigate Novara, from the Cape of Good Hope to Tahiti, eventually sailing to Mexico in a doomed plan to become emperor of the land of the Aztecs. Maximilian’s adventure ended in front of a firing squad near Mexico City – but his castle stands as a memorial to his seafaring dreams. We step inside and, at the centre, find another cabin: Maximilian’s dry-land replica of his quarters on the Novara. It is dotted with brass oil lamps and oriental boxes, creaking timber columns and paintings of ships. Here he could look out to sea, hear the raging of the bora, and imagine he was sailing on faraway swells.
On a quiet backstreet of Trieste stands a building unique in Europe. From the outside you see the soaring domes of a mosque. Inside, the shimmering gold leaf of Byzantine churches. It is, nonetheless, a synagogue: considered to be the continent’s finest. Even in the mighty capitals of Europe, synagogues were modest places tucked away for fear of persecution. However, in Trieste, the Jewish community inaugurated this majestic building in 1908 with all the city authorities in attendance, a proud sign of their presence.
‘This is a city with a peculiar story,’ explains Daniel Recanati, part of the congregation of the synagogue, standing in the nave. ‘Long before modern Europe was multicultural, Trieste was the original multicultural city’. Nor is the synagogue alone. A few minutes’ walk away, the Catholic cathedral is the giant Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Spyridon, its air perfumed with incense. Close by is its cousin, the shadowy Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas. They are legacies from a golden dawn of tolerance in Austro-Hungarian Trieste, before the dark night of fascism descended over Europe. Today, a much smaller Jewish population uses a little prayer hall to the side of the main synagogue. They belong to the continuing story of this small city between the mountains and the sea, its brew of nations, languages and faiths as rich as Triestini coffee. `
‘Look at a map of Italy, and you will see that Trieste is on the edge of the country,’ says Daniel, waving goodbye. ‘But look at a map of Europe, and you will see we are right at the very centre.’
This story originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of Lonely Planet magazine.