hidden europe 31

A place apart: Trieste

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The Lloyd Triestino building on Trieste’s principal square, the Piazza dell’ Unità d’Italia, is a reminder that the wealth of the city was based on its status as a major port (photo © hidden europe).


Trieste is wonderful, every bit as intriguing as the most fanciful places ever created by the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. The Adriatic city is Austria's orphan, a one time entrepôt for the Habsburg Empire, that had to find a new role after the collapse of the K&K world. Today Trieste is the place where Italy rubs shoulders with Slavic world, but still a place that has a hint of Mitteleuropa.

The bus to Muggia Vecchia chugs up the hill, low gear all the way. It lurches round hairpin bends, occasionally heading straight for Slovenia, but always at the very last moment making a sharp turn back towards Italy.

Muggia Vecchia is a tiny remnant of Istria that is still part of Italy. For many Italians, Istria is today a state of mind, a slice of Adriatic territory over which armies have tangled and politicians have tussled. But for those who live in Trieste, Istria is far more. It is their backyard. The hilltop at Muggia Vecchia is a place for Sunday afternoon excursions. The Triestini ride the ferry over the bay, then take the bus up to Muggia Vecchia. They clamber over the ruins of old Muggia, a defensive mediaeval hilltop settlement. The excursionists gaze north over the bay to Trieste, the port city framed by the high limestone plateau that is the backdrop to all Trieste life.

“La mia città,” said Umberto Saba, the quintessential Trieste poet who looked down from the hills above his home city and saw a rough urchin of a place, a city full of prickly grace.

What would Trieste be without that dry and difficult karst hinterland? It is a city squeezed between the limestone hills and the sea, a city that is not quite east, and not quite west, a place that like Berlin helped shape the geographical imagination of the Cold War. What an enormous burden for poor Trieste to have to shoulder — all those political and doctrinal confrontations tumbling over the karst and flowing down into the streets of Trieste.

If there is a single spot, one specific patch of ground where Italy meets the Slavic world, it is Muggia Vecchia. Italy to the north, that distinctive Trieste mist, locally called caligo, hanging over the cranes and wharves of the city. And Slovenia to the south, villages huddled around spires, orchards beyond, the muffled hoot of car horns in the valley below, vineyards receding into chestnut and laurel.

Hardly anyone lives up at Muggia Vecchia nowadays. The hilltop is reserved for the ghosts of Istria, the spirits of Pirano and Parenzo, one-time Venetian strongholds in Istria that today are part of Slovenia and Croatia respectively. It is as if all of European history is distilled in Muggia Vecchia and on a dozen similar vantage points around the Bay of Trieste.

A city on the edge

“La mia città,” says the old man who gets off the midday bus at Muggia Vecchia, and walks the few steps to the viewpoint that looks north to Trieste. “My city,” says the young woman who gazes down on Trieste by dusk. “La mia città,” said Umberto Saba, the quintessential Trieste poet who looked down from the hills above his home city and saw a rough urchin of a place with una scontrosa grazia — a city full of prickly grace.

Yes, that’s Trieste: prickly, edgy and gritty. The prostitutes who once plied the back allies behind Piazza Cavana have long gone. The freight trains no longer trundle slowly along the gently curving boulevard that skirts the city’s main quays. Yet Trieste is still not quite tamed. It is a place apart, a city that feels not quite Italian.