[…Trieste, Italy September 2011…]
If it was hot in Piran, it was even hotter in Trieste, and this time I could really feel it while walking in the wide-open lanes and boulevards. My Slovenian driver, Boris, had told me to expect Trieste to be a much bigger place than I was used to in Piran, and that I felt as I walked from one location to another along the stretch of the seafront, from my hotel near the Canale Grande to the lighthouse of Sacchetta.
I had been to several Italian cities and Trieste did not, at first impression, evoke the same atmosphere that I was used to in Rome, Florence or Venice. People are more inclined to head on over to the more popular cities for many reasons including familiarity. Besides, you don’t really see Trieste in guidebooks or probably have not even heard of this city at all. I have read somewhere that 70% of Italians don’t even know that Trieste was in Italy – whether or not that figure is accurate, it’s still sad to think about it.
We are used to imagining Italy as having that kind of whimsical, almost fantasy-like, atmosphere that would take us back to ancient times when Romans ruled the world. The big dominant domes and lofty churches, the lavish art-filled interiors, exquisite marble sculptures, and the pastel-colored antiquated houses that line the narrow alleys – all of these paint a picture of Italy to most of us.
Maybe I did not wander far enough, but it seemed like Trieste did not have much of that. Not that it did not have a colorful history to speak of, in fact Trieste had strong Roman origins. But for several centuries starting in 1382 up until WW I, it also had been under Austro-Hungarian rule as part of the Habsburg monarchy. It was during this period that it flourished as the most important port in Central Europe. Trieste was popular back then, but that all stopped after the collapse of the Habsburgs. Being exposed both to Austrian culture and that of its neighbors including some of Eastern Europe, it took on foreign influences and somehow failed to preserve that authentic Italian charm that appeals to most of us. The Italian in Trieste is something an outsider like me has to look really hard for to appreciate being in Italy. Sadly, I had felt more of that Italian charm in bordering Slovenia than I did here.
They say that Trieste was left without a purpose after the decline of the Habsburg empire, and not only until recently that it picked up its pieces and reassessed its presence as a valuable seaport. Having the sea on your side geographically can have a magnetic appeal. In Trieste’s case, the Adriatic Sea is certainly an asset. Its important landmarks point towards the sea, and even Piazza Unità d’Italia where everyone gather around has one side opened up so you can just sit on of its benches and look out, across the traffic of Riva 3 Novembre, to the gulf of Trieste. I did just that before I went to the bus station to leave for the airport. However, I could not find myself to linger more than a few minutes.
But Trieste is certainly not without a purpose. Apparently, it brought inspiration to a few notable people including Irish author James Joyce who lived here in exile in the early 1900’s. It was in Trieste where Joyce finished writing two of his famous novels. That bit of trivia in itself puts Trieste somewhere in the map and invites curiosity especially from literary pilgrims who travel the world to follow the footsteps of their favorite authors. It made me curious enough to maneuver around the city under the hot sun to look for Pasticceria Pirona. James Joyce was said to have breakfast in this café every morning before he taught at the English school nearby. Unfortunately, when I finally found the place, sweaty and tired from walking, it was closed. I would have loved to get a taste of the honey Ptizzi or the Presnitz, even the putizza, and the cream cakes. Remember, it was in Dublin that I had followed the trail of Irish authors like Joyce, Beckett and O’Casey, and sat at the same Bewley’s café they used to frequent. There is something about the café culture that draws me in and makes me feel at home, so I make it a point in my travels, to find a good one.
I will chalk up that disappointment of not being able to experience café Pirona to bad timing on my part. It was also bad timing that I arrived in Trieste on a Sunday when the tabbachis or the tobacconists where I was supposed to get my transportation tickets from were also closed. I had scoured almost every tabbachis in the area of Piazza Oberdan hoping to find a place where I can get a ticket as I was getting ready to head out to Miramare Castle. Standing in front of Bus 36 without a ticket, I turned my head and saw a young lady drinking a beer and smoking in front of Harry’s Bar by herself. I approached her and asked where I could buy a bus ticket. It seemed to me like she did not know that the tabbachis were closed too and even asked the bus driver about it. Worried that she’s not able to help me, she put down her cigarette, rummaged through her purse, and presented me with a crumpled yet still valid and unused 3-hour ticket. I offered to pay but she refused. I used the ticket to take me to Miramare castle, and kept it in my wallet as a reminder that there are still good-hearted strangers around.
Indeed, good-hearted strangers are very few and far between, and that I experience firsthand in this city as I was welcomed with gross indifference and rudeness at the hotel I was staying at. And then, bad service and inattentiveness at a restaurant followed that night. I have not been enjoying my stay since the get-go, so at this point there were no great expectations anymore. Having just came from Piran where I experienced nothing but warm and friendly smiles from the locals, this was a complete turnaround. First of all, a Tourist Information office that’s closed any day of the week, as was the case here today, is already a huge disappointment. After that, my line of sight was all directed to taking my photos, and nothing else.
Having said that, not all is lost in Trieste. I can think of another good thing about it – the coffee. Good ole’ Italian coffee, and not your average froth-topped and flavored Starbucks cup o’ Joe that Italians liken to dishwater. If you want to experience something Italian in Trieste, look for Illy. If you have heard of Illy coffee, then you must know that it originated from here by Francesco Illy (ironically, a Hungarian, not Italian) in the 1930’s. Illy also invented the first espresso machine for which I, and the average coffeeholic, will forever be grateful for. Where did I finally get to enjoy my Italian coffee? At the Caffe degli Specchi in the vicinity of Piazza Unità d’Italia where I had a delicious seafood lunch served with a much-awaited Italian smile – my coup de grâce before I finally left town. I like to end my visit on a good note, and I think Trieste was able to accomplish that for me at the nick of time.