Framed by green hills and white limestone cliffs, TRIESTE looks out over the blue Adriatic, offering an idyllic panorama from its hilltop citadel, at least when the gale-force bora winds aren’t blasting you off the seafront. But in any weather, there’s a distinct atmosphere of grandeur with a cosmopolitan twist. The city’s main squares are adorned with spectacular Neoclassical buildings, and the much-photographed canal, clustered with open-air cafés, is a reminder that, just like Venice and its lagoon, this city has enjoyed a glorious seafaring past, too. Like so many ports in Europe, there is a certain seediness here, particularly evident in some areas around the train station, although in recent years the city has been spruced up. The heart of modern Trieste is in the grid-like streets of the Borgo Teresiano, but no visit would be complete without a climb to the top of its hill, San Giusto, named for its patron saint and with the best views for miles around.
Trieste dates from the third millennium BC, with Jason and the Argonauts alleged to have been among its earliest visitors. Roman ruins scattered around the city attest to its incorporation into the Roman Republic in 178 BC, when it was called Tergeste, from terg or market. However, with the exception of the castle and cathedral of San Giusto, and the tiny medieval quarter below it, the city’s whole pre-nineteenth-century history is overwhelmed by the massive Neoclassical architecture of the Borgo Teresiano – named after the Empress Maria Theresa (1740–80), who poured money into the city. This was Trieste’s golden age, as the Austrians spared no expense on embellishing what was to become the Habsburg Empire’s only seaport. For a time, it even eclipsed Venice, but its heyday was short-lived and drew to an ignominious close after 1918, when the city was annexed to Italy. A grim period ensued under Mussolini as he rode roughshod over ethnic diversity.
Lying on the political and ethnic faultline between the Latin and Slavic worlds, Trieste has long been a city of political turbulence. In the nineteenth century it was a hotbed of irredentismo – an Italian nationalist movement to “redeem” the Austrian lands of Trieste, Istria and Trentino. After 1918, tensions increased between the city’s ethnic groups, with Slovenes suffering persecution at the hands of the rising Fascist regime. Trieste was annexed by the Germans in 1943 and then at the end of the war, the city and surrounding area became a “Free Territory” administered by the Allies before being divided between Italy and Yugoslavia in 1954. Trieste was awarded to Italy but lost its coastal hinterland, Istria, to Yugoslavia. It was a bitter settlement and the definitive border settlement was not reached until 1975. As Tito kept Istria, huge numbers of its fearful Italian population abandoned the peninsula: Fiume (Rijeka), for example, lost 58,000 of its 60,000 Italians. The Slovene population of the area around Trieste, previously in the majority, suddenly found itself treated as second-class citizens, with Italians dominant politically and culturally. In the last sixty years, the Slovene and Italian populations have mixed and intermarried and, along with other newer arrivals, have made Trieste one of the more multicultural cities in Italy.