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A Once-Forgotten Port Of Italy Is Alive With A Diverse Cultural And Literary Legacy

Few tourists venture as far as Trieste, a city tucked in Italy's northeast corner on the Adriatic Sea.
Few tourists venture as far as Trieste, a city tucked in Italy's northeast corner on the Adriatic Sea.

TRIESTE, Italy — Tourists to Italy are likely to visit Rome, Florence, Venice — maybe even Naples and Sicily. Few venture as far as this city tucked in the country's northeast corner on the Adriatic Sea.

Once the flourishing port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste became a largely forgotten borderland after World War I. But today, those who visit find a blend of cultures and languages of Europe, with a rich literary legacy — a city that's lured great authors from Ranier Maria Rilke to James Joyce.

Waves from the Adriatic lap its elegant promenades. It lies below the Karst, limestone cliffs that are a popular destination for nature lovers and where vineyards produce wines that taste of sea and stone.

Legend has it Jason and the Argonauts — with the golden fleece — sailed in from an underground river. A well-preserved Roman theater, that once seated up to 6,000 spectators, is testimony that in antiquity, this was a thriving city. Gilded mosaics in San Giusto Cathedral are evidence of Byzantine influence.

The Roman Theatre of Trieste was built between the first and second century AD at the behest of Emperor Trajan.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
The Roman Theatre of Trieste was built between the first and second century AD at the behest of Emperor Trajan.

A smorgasbord of cuisines

In today's Trieste, the place to be is the Cavana quarter — a jumble of narrow, car-free streets.

The fragrance of espresso is pervasive. Wine bars serve the original spritz -- the native aperitivo -- a mix of white wine and sparkling water.

And restaurants offer the city's unique cuisine — a blend of Austrian, Slavic, Hungarian and Italian. You can feast on Wiener schnitzel, pork with horseradish, goulash or gnocchi with plums. And, at the many Viennese-style pastry shops, you can savor Sacher torte and strudel.

By law, streets signs are in Italian and Slovene, the language of the minority that makes up a fifth of Trieste's population of 200,000.

Wandering along cobblestone streets that wind up a hill, you can reach the Arco di Riccardo. This stone Roman arch is believed to be named for King Richard I of England, who was imprisoned here — according to another legend — on his way home from the Crusades.

The Arco di Riccardo is believed to be named for King Richard I of England, who was imprisoned here — according to legend — on his way home from the Crusades.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
The Arco di Riccardo is believed to be named for King Richard I of England, who was imprisoned here — according to legend — on his way home from the Crusades.

Visitors can take in a panoramic view from the restaurant Trattoria Al Faro. From its vast, jasmine-covered terrace, diners enjoy breathtaking summer sunsets over iridescent waters, dining on freshly caught scampi, mussels and spider crab.

Al Faro's chef and owner, Dario Rakic, is from Croatia and has lived in Trieste since 2004. "It's awesome," he says. "Everywhere contains a hidden universe."

Appreciate the diversity around you

What the city does not hide is its embrace of diversity. "Being a Triestina today means being an open-minded and unbiased person," says Susanne Seghayer, a sound engineer from Trieste. "You appreciate the diversity around you."

A sampling of that European ethnic diversity is displayed in the names on Trieste's World War I memorial: Bednaski, Blötz, Bonivento, Liebman, Maranzana, Padovani, Prister, Salon, Streinz, Stuparich.

Trieste is also a city of multiple faiths — a Catholic cathedral, Greek Orthodox church and large Jewish synagogue are all within walking distance of each other. A musical highlight is listening to chants at vespers in the Serbian Orthodox church.

The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, by Milanese architect Carlo Maciachini, reflects a Byzantine taste.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, by Milanese architect Carlo Maciachini, reflects a Byzantine taste.

All this multiculturalism has its roots in empire. In the early 18th century, the Habsburg rulers of these lands needed a maritime gateway for trade and declared Trieste a free port. To lure entrepreneurs and workers, the Habsburgs welcomed whoever could be useful — Greeks, Armenians, Turks and, most of all, Jews.

"Of course, this was based on an old prejudice, an old bias," says Rabbi Ariel Haddad, head of the Museum of the Jewish Community of Trieste Carlo e Vera Wagner. "OK, they're good with money, they're good in trade, and they have connections, you know, all this brouhaha about the Jews." Nevertheless, the Rabbi adds, "even if it came on a biased basis, well, it worked."

Miramare Castle, on the tip of a promontory along the Gulf of Trieste, dates back to the mid-19th century and was built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg to house his wife Charlotte of Belgium.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
Miramare Castle, on the tip of a promontory along the Gulf of Trieste, dates back to the mid-19th century and was built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg to house his wife Charlotte of Belgium.

Empress Maria Theresa expelled Jews from parts of the kingdom in 1744 — but in Trieste, she granted them unprecedented concessions. In return, they rapidly expanded commerce, politics and culture.

Jews founded insurance and shipping companies that still exist today, such as Assicurazioni Generali and Lloyd Adriatico, and they built baroque palaces on sprawling piazzas overlooking the Mediterranean.

Trieste has a remarkably large and beautiful Jewish synagogue that opened in 1912. The Jews of Trieste also gave Italian literature two of its 20th century luminaries, novelist Italo Svevo and poet Umberto Saba.

Saba owned an antique bookshop that still exists, at Via S. Nicolò 30. Inside, his old typewriter sits among a pile of books. Mario Cerne, who runs the shop now, hands over a book of Saba's poems translated into English. Some verses of his poems, Trieste, resonate in particular:

Around everything there's circles of strange air,

a tormenting air, the native air.

My city that is in every part alive

has this corner made for me, for my

pensive chary life. (Translation by Vittoria Forliti)

Another writer who enriched the city's literary legacy was a young Irishman who came in 1904. Today, visitors can follow the trail of his favorite haunts and visit the James Joyce Museum. Joyce spent more than a decade in Trieste, where he wrote some of his famous early works, Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young man. And his close friend, the novelist Svevo, was the inspiration for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Joyce's Ulysses.

Museum director Riccardo Cepach says Joyce's Dublin is filtered through the author's experience of this city. "Ulysses would not have been the same if Joyce wouldn't have spent so many years in Trieste," Cepach says.

While Joyce was hanging out in cafés and bordellos, another writer, the Prague-born Ranier Maria Rilke, was ensconced in fairy-tale lodgings nearby.

The 14th century Duino Castle, where Rilke had stayed, is perched on steep cliffs that plunge down to crashing waves. Bruno Vajente guides visitors through the castle's grandiose halls and manicured gardens with cascades of brightly colored flowers — and one of Trieste's most romantic sites.

"A path that has been named after the poet because he used to walk along that area,"

Vajente says, pointing out the Rilke Path that meanders through thick vegetation along high cliffs — a breathtaking view that inspired Rilke's beloved Duino Elegies.

Not far from Trieste, the 14th century Duino Castle is perched on a cliff with views of the Gulf of Trieste.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
Not far from Trieste, the 14th century Duino Castle is perched on a cliff with views of the Gulf of Trieste.

So, what's the secret behind Trieste's literary legacy?

"The fact that the city is multicultural, multi-religion, ideas flow better in such a kind of population," says Riccardo Illy, former mayor of Trieste, former governor of the region and

head of the popular Illy coffee company. He's proud of his family's contribution to coffee culture in a city whose historic cafés served as literary salons.

But, says Illy, those glory days ended with World War I. With Austria's defeat, the city went to Italy — which already had major ports — and Trieste lost its purpose.

Then, with Italy's fascist dictatorship, the Slovene minority was persecuted, sparking deep ethnic animosities.

And in 1938, Benito Mussolini picked Trieste to announce his ignominious racial laws excluding Jews from schools, academia, politics, finances and all sectors of public life.

Under German occupation, Italy's only Nazi extermination camp was created in an old rice mill on the city outskirts. Today it's a Holocaust memorial.

The Nazis were defeated but communists won in next door Yugoslavia, as Illy points out: "We had the Iron Curtain just running at 10 kilometers from where we are sitting now."

Borgo Teresiano is one of the oldest and most historical districts in the center of Trieste. The centerpiece is the Grand Canal, created in the 1750s, a navigable canal perpendicular to the waterfront that brought goods directly into the city.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
Borgo Teresiano is one of the oldest and most historical districts in the center of Trieste. The centerpiece is the Grand Canal, created in the 1750s, a navigable canal perpendicular to the waterfront that brought goods directly into the city.

Once easily reached by rail from the Baltics, or by sea from Asia — after Trieste helped bankroll the Suez Canal — the Cold War cut off trade and this became a forgotten outpost.

But, after the fall of communism and an expanded European Union, borders were eased and trade and tourism were back.

And now, although Italy has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has begun to return.

In fact, the harbor is already filling up with large cruise ships filled with passengers. "We are starting to think of the port not only as a transportation hub," says Zeno D'Agostino, president of the Trieste port authority. "Now we are getting the role back to Trieste had in the past--we can say back to the future."

Free spirit

The city has splendid vestiges of ancient Rome and the Habsburgs, but many see its more contemporary context. "Trieste is 20th century history in a nutshell," says actress Sara Alzetta, who has written plays about the city's history through the eyes of women.

She's at a local landmark: Caffè San Marco. In this historic literary haunt, patrons sit for hours sipping coffee at marble tables under art deco murals — no longer rifling through newspapers, but hunched over laptops.

Antico Caffè San Marco is a historic literary haunt.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
Antico Caffè San Marco is a historic literary haunt.

Alzetta says Trieste is quintessentially secular. Free of the dominating influence Catholicism had in other parts of Italy, the women of Trieste asserted their independence far earlier.

Her great grandmother, for example, came to the San Marco to play chess and meet her lover. And perhaps, says Alzetta, she sang this ditty in the local dialect:

"Le mule del San Giacomo le porta Cristo in petto.

Le gha il mari' che naviga, l'amante sotto il letto.

Le prega il buon Gesù che il mari' no ghe torni più."

("The women of Trieste wear a cross around their neck.

Their husband is away at sea, their lover is below the bed.

And they pray to Jesus, that husband will never come back.")

In fact, says Alzetta, many husbands never returned, creating new lives from themselves in places like Shanghai or Buenos Aires.

Today, nowhere are Trieste women more protective of their independence than at El Pedocìn, a beach club named after a local shellfish.

Opened under Habsburg rule at the end of the 19th century, it's unique in Europe: In the middle of the sandy beach, an 8-foot-tall brick wall juts out to sea. Its purpose? To separate male and female bathers.

The La Lanterna bath (left), also known as El Pedocìn, consists of two separate areas: one for women and children up to 12 years of age, the other for men.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
The La Lanterna bath (left), also known as El Pedocìn, consists of two separate areas: one for women and children up to 12 years of age, the other for men.

Rosi Auriemma, a middle-age mother, rejects suggestions this is outdated. She comes precisely because there are no men here to bother her.

"That's what's great about this place. We're left alone, the kids are free to play, we have all the comforts and with a 1 euro ticket, it's a steal. I love it!" she says.

At an outdoor café, another woman deeply attached to Trieste expresses her fondness for a city whose unique history and identity sets it apart from the country. "It's kind of the stepchild of Italy, it's that we're not really part of Italy, kind of, sort of," says Sheila Smith. She was born here after World War II to a Triestina mother and an American soldier father and she grew up mostly in San Francisco. When she retired a decade ago, she was drawn back to the city of her birth.

"I don't know what the secret is," says Smith. "All I know is that when I'm here, I'm peaceful and I'm content. This is where my heart belongs."

Built in the 1930s, a series of semicircular terraces lines the coast of Trieste where people enjoy the sea.
/ Arianna Pagani for NPR
Built in the 1930s, a series of semicircular terraces lines the coast of Trieste where people enjoy the sea.

In her masterful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris describes the city as "an existentialist sort of place, and its purpose is to be itself."

Yet, it is often overlooked. But now that nearby Venice is crushed by over-tourism, this laid-back, diverse city with panoramic hiking trails, sandy beaches and a gulf custom-made for sailing has become a natural vacation destination.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.