Trieste is a port city in the north east of Italy, tucked deeply in to a peninsula that borders the Balkans. Majestically beautiful and grand beyond expectation it lies on the fault line of the empires and wars that have encompassed the European continent for centuries. This history and these faultlines are marked across the city, commemorated in palatial marble squares, in outlook posts that dot the hillside on which the city sprawls and in the criss-cross of people who have made Trieste their home.
The great melange of cultures, the Slovenian inflected dialect, the utter splendour of the city’s port, the heat induced leisurely pace to which a visitor must inevitably succumb unite to form a very compelling reason to abandon life elsewhere and settle down in this beguiling, almost hidden gulf.
At midnight Triestini stroll around their city as if it were mid afternoon, sated by the cool breeze of the Adriatic that laps all around us; groups gather along the shoreline, on piers silhouetted by the lights of commerce to drink spritz and bask in the balmy heat haze of the Italian summer night. Daylight reveals the city that James Joyce made his home for more than a decade, writing ‘Dubliners’ and ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ while moving between the bohemia of belle époque cafés and bars. And the heady mix represented by Europe’s largest synagogue, Orthodox churches and devout Italian Catholicism that Joyce found so intoxicating remain intact because Trieste is still a bustling crossroad, segued and ceded in to its surrounding countries and surrounding seas.
In the maritime neighbourhood of Barcola, the Adriatic is welcomed into the city by a mile long stretch of path, punctuated by ladders leading down to the water. Approach the promenade at mid morning or mid afternoon on a hot day and the view is always the same; hundreds of bodies strewn across this urban concrete beach to play chess, read books, smoke, drink and swim beneath rows of scorched pine trees. From the promenade, Triestini jump straight from the city into the sea and this is its joy. The old and young float out in an almost biblical fashion – arms stretched out wide. Swimming out beyond buoyant waves into the embrace of the harbour’s arms exposes the beauty of the karstic landscape and limestone hills, populated by lighthouses and steeples and the Habsburg’s Miramare Castle with its surrounding tropical trees.
Trieste is a whirlwind of European history played out in dramatic fashion in the grandness of its streets. Deeply atmospheric, ghostly, almost, this history echoes and bounces around from hilltop to bay. But it’s the water, the ever-present Adriatic that leaves its mark because it’s the sea that defines the city. Diving in from the footpath, the bustle and joie de vivre of Triestini life is continued amongst the waves.
Words by Jeanette Farrell.