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.
From 1905 to 1915, and again in 1919–20, James Joyce and his wife Nora lived in Trieste. After staying at Piazza Ponterosso 3 for a month, they moved to the third-floor flat at Via San Nicolò 30. He supported himself by teaching English at the Berlitz school where his most famous pupil was the Italian writer Italo Svevo. While living here he wrote The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and started work on Ulysses. He lived a somewhat peripatetic life and you can visit his many homes and old haunts by picking up the walking-tour guide from the tourist office. After staying at Piazza Ponterosso 3 for a month, the Joyces moved to a third-floor flat at Via San Nicolò 30. There’s a plaque in Via San Nicolò, and one at Via Bramante 4, quoting the postcard Joyce despatched in 1915 to his brother Stanislaus, whose Irredentist sympathies had landed him in an Austrian internment camp. The postcard announced that the first chapter of Ulysses was finished. Don’t miss the wry bronze statue of the writer, strolling bemusedly across the little canal bridge of Via Roma.
Trieste’s love affair with coffee dates from the mid-eighteenth century, when the port was given tax-free status by Habsburg Emperor Charles VI. The resultant boom in port trade coincided with the coffee craze hitting Europe, in particular Vienna, and coffee beans destined for Austrian cafés became one of Trieste’s biggest imports. Even today it’s the leading coffee port in the Mediterranean – forty percent of Italy’s coffee arrives here – and Trieste’s denizens imbibe twice as much on average as their fellow countrymen. The city even has its own coffee terminology – if you order a cappuccino you'll get a caffè macchiato, so instead you should ask for a caffè latte.
One of the pleasures of walking around the city centre is the exotic scent of roasting beans emanating from choice establishments, known as torrefazioni. The city’s most famous brand is Illy, founded in 1933 and producer of a world-renowned 100-percent Arabica blend. So supreme is the coffee culture in the city that Riccardo Illy, scion of the clan, has held the offices of mayor and regional president, among numerous other posts. Illy runs specialized courses in coffee appreciation at the Università del Caffè, and the tourist office also organizes weekly coffee tours.
A word to the wise: coffee terminology in Trieste is a little different from other parts of Italy, and if you order a cappuccino you will end up with a caffè macchiato – instead you need to ask for a latte macchiato or a caffè latte.
The Carso is the Italian name for limestone uplands that rise from the Venetian plain south of Monfalcone and eventually merge into the Istrian plateau. Although within a thirty-minute bus ride of Trieste, it feels like an entirely different country, and is geologically, botanically and demographically distinct from anywhere else in Italy. Most of the Carso now lies within Slovenia (its Slovene name is Kras), and even the narrow strip inside Italy, though supporting a population of just twenty thousand, remains distinctively Slovene in culture, boasting places with names like Zagradec and Koludrovica.
The particular shape and look of the karst landscape is due to the weathering of the limestone bedrock by water and wind, and the surface of the plateau is studded with sinkholes left by streams which have formed vast caverns, underground lakes and rivers. This distinctive landscape and the unspoiled natural environment make for fine walking, and you can stop for refreshments at an osmiza, a rustic eating place where farmers sell their own produce, such as cured meats, cheese, olives, hard-boiled eggs, bread and wine.
Like all limestone landscapes the environment is harsh: arid in summer and sometimes snowbound in winter. The thick-walled houses are built to withstand the blasts of the bora, the fierce northeasterly wind which can reach gusts of 145km/hr – when it’s at its worst ropes are strung along the steeper streets in Trieste.
The Grotta Gigante is the Carso’s main tourist attraction, and with good reason: it’s the world’s largest accessible cave, and the second-largest natural chamber in the world. As it’s 98m high by 76m wide, the cave is large enough that the dome of St Peter’s would fit comfortably inside. It’s a steady 11°C inside, so bring warm clothes.
The cave is impressive in scale and, like most of the caves in the Carso, was created by the erosive action of a river, in this case the Timavo, which sank deeper and deeper underground before changing course (the cave is now dry). The fantastically shaped stalactites and stalagmites were formed by deposits of calcium carbonate and colourful metal oxides. Much more recently, ferns and moss have started to grow in what was previously a lifeless environment, thanks to photosynthesis triggered by electric lighting. The two long “pillars” in the centre of the cave are in fact wires sheathed in plastic. At the bottom end two super-accurate pendulums are suspended, used to measure seismic shifts in isolation from surface noise and air currents.
Trieste tourist office publishes a useful map of the network of numbered footpaths in the Carso; it shouldn’t be used for serious navigation but is a good guide. For serious hiking in the hills you need Tabacco’s Carso Triestino e Isontino Map #047. Two walks near Trieste can be particularly recommended:
Also known as the Napoleonica, the Strada Vicentina is some 3.7km long, contouring the hillside above the city, between the Obelisco campsite, 7km from Trieste, and the hamlet of Borgo Nazario (near Prosecco). It’s a scenic, easy walk, partly shaded by trees and partly cut through by almost sheer limestone cliffs; on a clear day the views are superb. Access to the Strada Vicentina is easy: Obelisco is a stop on the tranvia, and the Borgo Nazario end is near Via San Nazario, where the #42 bus stops on its way back to Trieste station.
A miniature wilderness of limestone cliffs and sumac trees, the Val Rosandra is the local rock-climbing headquarters and is crisscrossed with walking paths. From the bus stop at Bagnoli Della Rosandra (bus #40 from Trieste), follow the road behind the square to Bagnoli Superiore where the marked hiking trails begin. Highlights include the remains of a Roman aqueduct, the little sanctuary church of Santa Maria in Siaris, and various pools and waterfalls. If you get as far as the tiny hamlet of Bottazzo – the last habitation before Slovenia – you’ll see a sign indicating a friendship path linking communities on either side of the frontier.
The thirty-odd kilometres of coastline either side of Trieste, from Muggia to the south and as far as Duino in the north, are optimistically known as the Triestine Riviera. While beaches aren’t as good as at nearby Grado, some fine walks, historic sites and castles make it worth a day-trip from Trieste.
Top image: Trieste with canals © leoks/Shutterstock