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May 21, 2019

Italy: Trieste

Filed under: Architecture, Europe, Italy, Photography, Travel, Travel, Writing — Tags: , , , , — anotherheader @ 11:39 am

Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia

The seaside city of Trieste is located on the northeastern hook edge of Italy.  I’d been interested in visiting Trieste for some time but it never fit into our travel itinerary. It wasn’t until we took a road trip that looped down through Slovenia and Croatia that a visit to Trieste became convenient.

Trieste’s dominating geographic feature is its port. The port is strategically located within range of Central Europe; it served as a major Adriatic seaport for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste’s port gained trading advantages when in 1719 Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, decided that it would be a free port, a privilege that continues to this day. In 1740 the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa extended the borders of Trieste’s Free Port to the periphery of the town and in the process merged the emporium, the port, the new city, and the old one.

The cruise ship Costa neoRiviera moored in Trieste.

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Its location at the top of the Adriatic Sea puts Trieste at the intersection of the Italian, Slovene, and Austrian cultures. The combination of geographical position and free port status attracted people from different countries and all walks of life. Italians, Serbians, Slovenians, Croats, Jews and Greeks co-mingled in Trieste turning the city into a multicultural melting pot. To accommodate the diversity of backgrounds Maria Theresa established the “Editto di tolleranza”, a law that provided for the freedom of worship, the possibility to negotiate freely, and to own goods. Along with protections for diversity the city also gained a high degree of autonomy under the Habsburgs.

With only brief interruptions Trieste was under Austrian rule from the early part of the 16th Century until the empire collapsed at the end of World War I. After the cessation of the Great War’s hostilities European borders were realigned. Italy had joined the war on the side of the Allies in exchange for the promise of substantial territorial gains. In the war settlement agreements Italy acquired Trieste and surrounding lands. Trieste, under Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian rule for centuries, was now part of Italy.

World War II again brought more conflict to Trieste. And once again the city found itself on the German side of the conflict, as this time after Benito Mussolini’s Italy joined Nazi Germany in the war against the Allies. As in World War I, Trieste served as a key naval port.

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At the end of the Second World War Trieste was occupied by Yugoslavian forces. In 1947, Trieste was declared an independent city-state, the Free Territory of Trieste, administered under the protection of the United Nations. In 1954 things changed once again. In accordance with the Memorandum of London, Trieste was returned to Italy. With the changes the city’s taste for independence and autonomy has never left. Even today there are those in Trieste clamoring for a divorce from Italy.

Often the reality of visiting a place does not match the fantasy. If it did, why would you need to visit? But for Trieste, despite the long-standing interest in visiting, I really didn’t have a picture of the place in mind. Before I visited Venice for the first time I had visions of canals, bridges, and piazzas, which combined to form a mental image of what I might see. The picture of Venice in my head wasn’t particularly accurate, but there was a sense of what I might experience by visiting. Unusually I didn’t have much of a preconceived notion Trieste. The city was for me a book with no blurb on the back and no picture on the front: It was there to be discovered in its pages only after the book was opened.

We arrived to see that Trieste’s port and waterfront not unexpectedly still dominate that cityscape. I was expecting the port to be busy and full of ships, like an Adriatic equivalent to Genoa, but it wasn’t really. It seems that most of the big vessels off load their cargo elsewhere these days. The biggest boats we saw in Trieste were cruise ships.

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Like all cruise ship ports, the tourist volume in Trieste ebbs and flows as the ships arrive and leave. Nonetheless Trieste is far from the most touristy place in Italy, even when the cruise ship passengers are in town. Sure there are plenty of tourists in the city. But it is nowhere near the unpleasant dense pack of sightseers that one sees in the major destination cities of Florence, Rome, or Venice.

Past the waterfront there are plenty of things to see in Trieste. It’s Italy and there are the required Roman ruins, a large castle (Castello di San Giusto), and a 14th Century cathedral. More uniquely James Joyce once called Trieste home and the commune has established a walking trail that leads to the literary giant’s haunts. The Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, Trieste’s main square, is attractive; it might well qualify as Trieste’s most unmissable sight.

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Though they exist, the tourist things are not really what a visit to Trieste is about, at least not for us. Trieste doesn’t have an equivalent to Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, Venice’s Grand Canal, or the statue of David in Florence. There’s few must see attractions that compel a visit. Instead, as we learned during our stay, a stop Trieste is more about kicking back and soaking up the day-to-day life. It is a comfortable city to visit, to contemplate the history of the region, and to experience life in Italy. It wasn’t what I expected before I arrived but I could not have asked for more.


We visited Trieste in late October 2018 and stayed for three nights.

1 Comment »

  1. If you go up into the Carso from there, you realise how ‘borderline’ this place is

    Comment by simonjkyte — July 19, 2019 @ 1:09 pm

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