After leaving Florence and going back to Scotland, I did not return to Italy for many years. When I did eventually go back, it was to a place far away from the tourist trail followed by most British visitors–the border city of Trieste in the beautifully named region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. It is located on the tip of the Istrian peninsula, not far from the Slovenian border, and it is a short trip down the Adriatic to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
The reason I chose Trieste was because a friend of mine (whom I’d met in London) lived there. I thought it would be a good idea to go somewhere a bit different and also where I at least knew somebody. It also helped that my friend didn’t really speak much English so I’d be forced to speak Italian the whole time. I really wanted to make a point of only using Italian and not resorting to any English, no matter how tempting.
Trieste is part of what was once called Mitteleuropa, or ‘Middle Europe’, the German name for Central Europe, often evocative of the landscape and culture of southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Until after the First World War, Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. If you have an awareness of the different architectural styles, you will notice that in many ways, Trieste is not entirely ‘Italian’ in the way of Florence, Bologna or Rome. Its Austrian, Germanic influence, still pervades the city. It is difficult to tell in just a few days if that spirit also affects the inhabitants, but according to my friend (who is not originally from Trieste) there is some difference in the general temperament of the Triestini compared to other Italians.
I flew to Rome with Alitalia and then took a connecting flight to Trieste airport. A short bus trip from the airport took me to Trieste city centre, from where I trekked to the hotel in the warm sunshine. It was of course amazing to be back in Italy after all those years, but at the time all I could think about was getting to the hotel, changing into some lighter clothes and heading back out.
I noted something that is also true of other Italian cities. The streets are mostly named after noteworthy local or national figures–mayors, soldiers, artists, etc. The name plaques often have a brief note saying when the person lived and who they were. In Trieste, there were often references to Istrian patriots who fought Austria. The Istrian peninsula, as well as the Dalmatian coast, was part of what was known as “Italia irridenta”, or the territories with Italian speakers who were still under foreign rule, and there were many movements to try and have them annexed by Italy.
Further north from Trieste (outside the strip of Istrian land) is the town of Gorizia, which is actually split between Italy and Slovenia. You can walk in the town and be in Italy one moment and in Slovenia the next. Sadly I didn’t go there but hopefully next time I’m in the region, I’ll make a point of visiting the town. Both Slovenia and Italy are in the passport-free Schengen travel area so there are no border controls.
Anyway, I’ll end the digression. Arriving at the hotel, I finally did my first ever hotel check-in in Italian. With that little success notched up, I headed out to explore the city. Generally, I like to spend as little time as possible at a hotel or other accommodation. I leave early in the morning and return late at night, unless I am dropping off some shopping or need a change of clothes. Time on holiday is usually short and valuable in so many senses, and spending it at a hotel feels like not doing it justice.
While on the theme of the hotel, I remember one of the Italian words I did have to look up. Iron–as in ironing clothes (ferro da stiro, in case you need it). Practicalities aside, it was good to just slowly walk the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of the city while basking in the glorious June sun. How nice it was to have a proper Italian gelato (chocolate and mint) and to sit down at an outdoor table at one of Trieste’s many cafés.
Whenever I go to places near the sea (pretty much always!), I enjoy taking a boat trip of some sort. This was no different–I went on a boat that took me south across the Bay of Muggia to the town of the same name. The place is tiny, with practically only a piazza and a church (la piazza e la chiesa–typical Italian town). I wandered into the square and sat on one of the low walls near the church, resting for a while and watching the kids playing in the piazza. An elderly gentleman was sitting nearby and making remarks at people, especially telling the kids not to be naughty and such like. Funnily enough, nearly two years later, I happened to be speaking to somebody who had also visited Trieste and gone to Muggia, and she said that she’d been to the piazza and noticed an old man who seemed a bit of a character. How I laughed–I could swear it must have been the same one.
Back in Trieste, the Arco d’Augusto (Arch of Augustus) is one of many such Roman arches built throughout Italy and the rest of the Roman Empire in honour of the Emperor Augustus. The one in Trieste is tucked away amongst some narrow streets and lies directly beneath some houses. I wonder why more care isn’t taken to preserve some of these ancient monuments.
The Grotta Gigante is a large cave with stalactites and stalagmites (the drooping pieces of rock that hang from the roof of a cave or jut out from the ground) just outside Trieste, not far from the Slovenian border. I was surprised that we didn’t have to wear any helmets or other protective gear before we went inside. The guide explained that it was because all of the rocks that would have fallen have already fallen (potentially millions of years ago), and that the structures now in the cave simply would not collapse. Even earthquakes in the area had failed to shift a single piece of rock.
Speaking of the guide, I was the only one in the small group of tourists who spoke any Italian (the others were some Russians and Hungarians, I think), so he gave most of his explanations in English. It was quite fun asking him lots of questions in Italian and trying to understand all of his explanations. The word that he kept using was ‘calcare’ (with the emphasis on the first ‘a’), meaning limestone. I wondered if he would ask me where I was from or if he’d guess from my accent that I wasn’t from anywhere nearby. In any case, he didn’t say anything, making my overinflated ego wonder if I’d fooled him into thinking I was a native speaker :-). Or maybe he was just too polite.
My final destination before flying home was to the the lighthouse that is the symbol of Trieste–the Faro della Vittoria (Lighthouse of Victory), built to commemorate the fallen Italian sailors of World War I. I took a bus out to the edge of the city (I avoid buses if I can, especially in Italy–they are so confusing) and then walked a bit along some deserted roads lined by trees to try and find the entrance to the lighthouse perimeter. It was a very hot morning and I was hoping I would manage to get back in time to the hotel, as I had to check out before noon and then dash to the airport. I walked past a large open gate with a military notice next to it and thought that it couldn’t possibly be the road leading to the lighthouse. I ended walking a bit too far and found myself traipsing along the edge of a road with almost no pavement.
Making my way back, I saw a couple walking out of the military looking entrance. No, they didn’t look like soldiers. I asked them if this lead towards the lighthouse and, of course, they said yes it did. Slightly annoyed at the ridiculously bad signs, I finally reached the lighthouse and made my way up the elevator. It was a trip well worth it as I looked across the beautiful view of Trieste and the Adriatic.
Then, I began my dash back to the bus stop, the hotel, the airport and eventually home.
With its unique location and charm, Trieste is still my favourite Italian city and I will certainly return.