Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Trieste is a city that willingly chose the quiet life. A vibrant port, the main sea-portal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, today it is a sleepy, if pleasant city that is not quite dead, but certainly has none of the bustle that it would have had when James Joyce lived there a century ago. In the hands of the Austrians since the fifteenth century, the city remained culturally Italian (though it is also on the border with Slovenia and there is a significant Slovene-speaking minority living in the city's hinterland) and the city's wealthy merchants, made rich by trade with the Hapsburg Empire, were for the most part irredendist, and upon the collapse of that Empire after the First World War, Trieste and the peninsula of Istria to the south rejoined Italy. (It is strange how the word 'irredentist' is not as common in usage in Ireland as it is in Italy, considering how appropriate it is to the Irish situation.) Istria later reverted to Yugoslavia after the next war and now forms part of both Slovenia and Croatia, but Trieste is still Italian.
As the train swung south from Monfalcone, the most familiar Triestine characteristic, the rain, made an appearance and did not stop for another 24 hours. The city is not too eager to attract tourists; there is no tourist office and the only map I could find was so old that Slovenia was referred to as Yugoslavia. It also included the disused Campo San Marzio railway station, detailing its connections to Klagenfurt and Ljubljana. When I finally found the hotel I was staying in, right beside the first of Joyce's many addresses in the city, I found that it was practically empty.
Trieste has a dramatic setting, the hills of the Karst rising to the north and the east and the city itself is quite hilly, with the old Venetian-build castle and the charming Romanesque Cathedral of San Giusto sitting on a height that towers over the seafront streets below. The harbour is practically unused these days, Italy had less urgent use for a new port than the inland Austrians did, a few fishing trawlers and some pleasure boats being the only vessels to be seen. Only in the marina to the south of the Old Port was there a sign of any activity. But the city, apart from the derelict dockyard buildings, does not look like it is suffering too badly. The city has a range of impressive Belle Époque architecture bequeathed it by the Austrians - stout, ornate Central European buildings, and the main square, Piazza de la Unità d'Italia, with the City Hall and a number of old merchant's mansions is beautiful. There is a lot of interesting Fascist-era modern architecture too; it is as if Mussolini was spoiling the lost child that had just returned to the family.
Joyce left Trieste when war broke out in 1914, even though Italy did not enter it until the following year, and when he returned in 1919 he found that the old glory of the city had vanished and he went off again to Paris. He is the writer most closely associated with the city, though the locals, apart from one statue and a small museum in the Municipal Library do not seem too bothered by the connection. Much more revered are the Triestine writers, such as Italo Svevo, who was taught English by the young Joyce and eventually championed in France by the Dubliner, and even more so the poet Umberto Bava. I had a bit of bad luck with the city as many of the museums were closed for the month of August, as was the famous Caffè San Marco, which was frequented by both Joyce and Svevo, and which gets a chapter to itself in the Triestine writer Claudio Magris' superb Microcosms. So instead I took a look at the city's synagogue, built in 1914 and which survived the Nazi occupation. It is reputedly one of the biggest in Europe and I would well believe it, it is a huge edifice, modelled on ancient Syrian temples, that dominates the small street on which it is located. The closest thing I have seen like it is the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, though this is a neater, more clinical work, though every bit as impressive.
The best museum I saw on my trip was a small one housed in the city's enormous Post Office. It was the Postal Museum of Mitteleuropa, and was a fascinating documentation of the history of Post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even better than the permanent collection, which includes postmen's uniforms from the 19th century and old telegraph machines, was the collection of stamps and first-day issues from around the world that told the story, comic-strip style of the Friulian earthquake of 1976. Also included are postcards to and from the stricken region shortly after the quake, all of them stamped with the haunting 'Zona Torrematta'.
The beer is better in Trieste than elsewhere in Italy because of the historical connections with Central Europe, but the problem is trying to get a place that stays open after 10pm. As I said, they like the quiet life here. Two days was enough. I can't imagine I will be going back, but a pleasant city, one that has stepped into the slow lane of History.