Trieste? Where's That?

(guest post by writer Eyrnn Laurie, full bio at close of post)

It's not an uncommon question. Trieste is a small city in the northeast of Italy, perhaps two hours from Venice by car, and close to the Slovenian border. It wasn't even part of Italy until 1954, so it's not surprising that it doesn't feature in most people's lists of famous Italian cities. It's the capital of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, an area filled with open agricultural plains and cave-pocked limestone hills, crowned by the Italian Alps. For four hundred years, Trieste was the port city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its Castello Miramare was built by the ill-fated Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian for his wife Charlotte between 1856 and 1860 in the tiny town of Grignano, very close by. Trieste's architecture reflects this Austrian heritage and offers a completely different atmosphere than other Italian cities. It's easily accessible by train from Venice, with regular service, both regional and local, making it an enjoyable day trip if you'd like to explore a little further afield while you're there.

Canal Grande looking toward the dome of San Spiridone, the Serbian Orthodox Church in trieste, Italy

I washed up on this Adriatic shore nearly by accident, in search of a city on the sea, with mountains, decent public transportation, and reasonably easy access to my brother, who was working at the American military base in Aviano at the time. I found a crossroads of cultures, with the influence of many diverse times and places. Though small, the city is active and interesting, with famous coffee, an international cuisine, and a wide variety of things to see and do throughout the year.

Trieste is a city famous for its writers - the great Italian modernist author Italo Svevo and poet Umberto Saba were both born here. James Joyce spent ten years in the city, writing, and teaching English. The German-speaking Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began writing the Duino Elegies at the castle of Duino in 1912, a small town nearby. English author Jan Morris was in Trieste during and after World War II. More recently, Claudio Magris, the author of "Danube" and "Microcosms," lives and writes in the city and spends time at the historic Viennese-style Caffè San Marco, whose period interiors date back to its opening in 1914; it also has a small but well-stocked bookshop.

Mosaic of San Guisto and Jesus from the Basilica of San Giusto, Trieste, 12th-13th c)

Sir Richard Francis Burton and the German art historian and archaeologist J. J. Winkelmann both died in Trieste, and the city's Museum of History and Art, with its large lapidary garden, is dedicated to Winkelmann. The museum is located adjacent to Castello San Giusto atop San Giusto hill, beside Roman ruins and a small cathedral with several Byzantine-style mosaics inside. The castle's courtyard is host to frequent open-air concerts during the summer months, and the castle itself has a civic museum as well.

Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia from Molo Audace in winter, Trieste, Italy

The Old Town is centered around Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, the largest public square in Europe that is open to the sea. With caffès and civic buildings on the other three sides, the Adriatic offers a dramatic backdrop to Trieste's living room. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped Dolomites in the distance over the sea. Caffè degli Specchi, the Caffè of the Mirrors, facing into the piazza is another of Trieste's historic coffeehouses dating back to the Austrian period.

Trieste is also famous for its Bora wind that blows through town at up to 100 km per hour, particularly during the winter. There are two varieties recognized by the locals - the Bora Nera that brings storms and occasionally snow and ice, and the Bora Chiara, that takes away the clouds and brings brilliantly sunny days. Most Triestini don't use umbrellas much, preferring raincoats with hoods, but after the Bora you'll find the public trash bins filled with exploded examples of the species. It can be hard to walk against the wind, and you may need to lean hard into it to get around on a windy day. Many street corners downtown have chains at the edge of the sidewalk so that you don't get blown into the street during particularly severe weather!

Trieste's Barcola facing the city, with the Faro della Vittora in the distance

The Gulf of Trieste offers a view of the coasts of Italy, Slovenia and, on a clear day, Croatia as well. The Triestini are out in all kinds of weather and you're just as likely to find a crowd sitting at tables outside a bar on an overcast February day as a sunny one in July. One extremely popular spot during the spring and summer is the Barcola, a long paved walk of about six miles along the gulf just outside the center of the city. The Barcola is Trieste's largest public beach, and it's always filled with people. It's accessible by public transportation via buses number 6 and 36, which you can catch near the central train station in Piazza della Libertà. They'll be packed.

Fire spinner in Piazza dell'Unità in Trieste, Italy

Along the Barcola you'll find little structures called "topolini" (little mice) because they vaguely resemble mouse ears sticking out into the water. This is where you can hang up your towel and find a restroom. Open-air bars where you can get an espresso, an aperitivo, a bottle of water, or a little snack are found at regular intervals along the walk, and there's a small pine woods close to the city end of the beach called the Pineta. On the other end of the walk is Castello Miramare. The number 6 bus goes all the way out to the castle if you'd prefer not to hoof it that far.

If you want sandy beaches, you can take the Delfino Verde foot ferry that runs from downtown at Molo Bersaglieri several times a day to the town of Grado, which features golden beaches and more German and Austrian tourists than you can shake a stick at.

Standing above the Barcola is the art deco Faro della Vittoria, a lighthouse and memorial to those lost at sea during the Great War, constructed between 1923 and 1925. It's possible to visit the lighthouse during the summer on weekends, but you'll need to check the hours to be certain. They also only allow a few people at a time to ascend the stairs, so you'll need to take a number.

The cliffs of the Strada Napoleonica, above the Barcola of Trieste, Italy

The Triestini love the outdoors and the karstic hills above the city, known locally as il Carso. Most of the small towns of the Carso are culturally as much Slovenian as Italian, and the street signs feature both languages. Many people there speak Slovenian in their daily lives. The area is replete with limestone caves, including the immense Grotta Gigante - one of the largest caves open to tourism in the world. Above the city, the Strada Napoleonica is a mostly-paved hiking trail with panoramic views of the city and the Gulf of Trieste. Every day of the week you'll find locals out walking their dogs under the pines and oaks, or getting in their daily run. In the spring, elderly folks will be seen rummaging around in the undergrowth for the slender, flavorful wild asparagus that grows abundantly - you can find it occasionally in some of the tiny fruit and vegetable shops in town. There are steep cliffs along the route that are popular with rock climbers, and if you're walking the route you may encounter climbers and climbing classes in progress. You can get there by taking bus number 4 to the Obelisco in the direction of Villa Opicina, and get off at the parking lot by the trailhead. It's about a 15 minute trip by bus.

The church of Monte Grisa in the hills above Trieste, italy

Also on the hill above the Barcola is the Brutalist-style modern church that the locals call "il formaggino" because its truncated triangular shape resembles a little cheese wedge. Its formal name is the Temple of Monte Grisa, dedicated to Mary and opened to the public in 1966. It was built in gratitude for the survival of the city after the Second World War. Personally, I think it's one of the ugliest churches I've ever seen, but it's a very distinctive feature of Trieste's horizon.

Trieste's cultural history brought many people of different religions to the city throughout the ages, and the second largest Synagogue in Europe is in the same block with Caffè San Marco (the largest is found in Budapest). The Synagogue gives guided tours on a specific schedule, posted outside the doors, for a minimal fee. There are Serbian- and Greek-Orthodox churches in the city, with brilliantly painted and gilded interior artwork and icons, and a much more austere, Gothic-styled Lutheran Evangelical church as well. The Neo-Classical Chiesa di Sant'Antonio Nuovo, the Church of Saint Anthony the Thaumaturge, sits at the head of the Canal Grande, and is currently the main house of worship for many Catholics in the city.

a building in Piazza Oberdan, Trieste, Italy

It's impossible to talk about the city of Trieste and its blend of cultures without talking about the food. Italian, Austrian, and Slovenian influences are all very strong here. The city's coffee is famous all over the world, particularly the Illy brand, and one of the Illy family was the mayor of Trieste for many years. It's by no means the only torrefazione or coffee roaster in town, but it is the best known. For a proper Triestino coffee, consider ordering a "capo in bi" - a mini-cappuccino served in a glass - at one of the local bars. If tea is more your thing, you can get tea and a cupcake or some cheesecake at the tiny cafe Ginger or at the larger Mug, both on the same street near Piazza Hortis on the far side of Piazza dell'Unità.

In Trieste, you'll encounter little restaurants called buffet. This isn't what you're probably imagining. Rather than a place with a counter covered with dishes to choose from, a buffet in Trieste is a place where the sailors and laborers of Trieste's Austrian port would come for a fast lunch that usually consisted of a sandwich made with a tender chunk of pork, often seasoned with freshly-grated horseradish (called kren) and some mustard. You might also get some sauerkraut on the side, and they occasionally also have grilled or battered and fried vegetables as a side dish. With a glass of wine or beer, it's a fast, filling, inexpensive meal that will keep you on your feet for all your travels around the city. In the evening they may serve a huge platter with a variety of different cuts of pork, likewise accompanied by sauerkraut, kren, mustard, and a basket of bread.

A typical dinner at an osmiza, with salami, prosciutto crudo and cotto, cheese, rucola, horseradish, bread, and wine all produced at the farm

In the Carso are innumerable small farm restaurants called osmize. Osmiza (singular) derives from the Slovenian for "eight days" and this name reflects the Austrian law that the small farms of the region were allowed to sell and serve their products for eight days out of the year without having to pay taxes. Today these restaurants are open more often, but almost none of them are open all year round. You'll see them indicated by a handful of branches tied to a signpost or a wall, with a red arrow indicating the name of the osmiza and the direction you need to go to find it. There's an excellent website that you can use to learn which osmize will be open over the next few days. A few of them are reachable by public transit, but it's better to rent a car if you'd like to venture up into the Carso for the osmize and local cellars that make wine and olive oil. The osmize are generally frequented by locals and a few tourists in the know - they're social, not terribly expensive, and utterly delicious. You'll probably have to have at least a few words of Italian or Slovenian in most of them, but it's also perfectly okay to just ask, politely, "Potete portare qualcosa da mangiare?" (Could you (formal) bring something to eat?) Many people in and around Trieste speak at least some English, and a lot of them speak it very well, but it's best not to expect it outside the city proper.

Triestine sisters on the waterfront in front of Piazza dell'Unità, Trieste

For food in the city, there are an immense number of choices. Vegetarian and vegan can be difficult to find, but there are two places I'm aware of that are currently available. Genuino is in the heart of the old town, in the old Jewish Ghetto. It's a popular lunch spot for vegetarian tourists and locals. ErbOsteria, a little further afield but still in the center of town near Ospedale Maggiore, in Via Alfieri 15/B, is open for lunch and dinner and frequently very busy in the evenings, so you may want to call for a reservation if you wish to eat there. Some of the staff speak English, and they can provide a description of what's on the menu. Their emphasis is on fresh local food, and the quality is very good. Ospedale Maggiore is about a 10 to 15 minute walk from Piazza dell'Unità.

The Gulf of Trieste, the waterfront part of the city center, and the Faro della Vittoria from the Strada Napoleonica in Trieste

For typically Triestino cuisine, also near Ospedale Maggiore, in Via Massimo D'Angelo 9, is Osteria Alla Bella Trieste. The restaurant has been in the same family since 1955. They serve typical dishes of the region, like sardoni in saor (sardines in sautéed onions with a vinegary sauce), baccalà mantecato (a fish spread made of dried, salted cod), jota (a Triestino stew made of sauerkraut with beans, potatoes, and sausage), and more elaborate dishes like pasta with guanciale (pork cheek) and a saffron cream sauce. There's beer on tap, the wines are all local - Friulano, Malvasia, Vitovska, Ribolla Gialla, Refosco, and several others - and the place is small. Again, you'll probably need a reservation if you want to be seated after 8:30pm.

All along the waterfront are a variety of restaurants for fish, pizza, and pasta, most of which are good quality, but a little more expensive due to their prime location. Being a port city, good fish isn't hard to find here, but don't stick just to the touristy parts of town. Good restaurants can be found in every nook and cranny of the city, in broad streets and tiny alleys.

Traditional Triestino sweets include Sachertorte (reflecting its Austrian heritage), Pinza, Presnitz, and Putizza, and there are dozens of pasticcerie in town where you can sample them. One of the oldest is La Bomboniera, near Piazza Sant'Antonio Nuovo, and there are also several Eppinger locations that make many types of dolce. By all means, don't restrict yourself to just these suggestions.

The Riva waterfront during the Barcolana sailing festival week in Trieste

As for things to do, there's no lack. The city has at least three film festivals a year - the Trieste Film Festival at the end of January featuring primarily Central and Eastern European films, the ShorTS International Film Festival at the end of June that features short films from all over the world, and the huge Science+Fiction Film Festival in November. The Barcolana, the largest sailing regatta in the Mediterranean, happens in the Gulf of Trieste the second Sunday in October, but festivities and minor races happen throughout the week before. The Barcolana brings over 2000 sailboats to town from all over the world. There are live music concerts in Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia during the summer, and free concerts in Piazza Verdi in front of the opera house most summer nights as well, with acts both local and international. The Celtic music festival Triskell happens every year at the end of June with free music concerts in the Boschetto del Ferdinandeo, a large forest park in the hills above Trieste on the number 11 bus route to the Cattinara hospital. There are numerous museums, and all of Italy's state museums are free to the public on the first Sunday of the month if they're open.

Irish dancing at the Triskell Celtic Music Festival

If you'd like to read about the city, an excellent book is Jan Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Hers is a more melancholy experience of the city than mine, but it covers the city's history from the Hapsburg Empire into the 1960s, with a few jaunts further afield in time and place.

How to get to Trieste:

You can take trains regularly from the Venice Santa Lucia station just outside the city's gates, or from Venezia Mestre, near the Marco Polo Airport. The nearest airports are Ronchi dei Legionari, perhaps an hour outside the city, or the airports at Venice Marco Polo or Venice-Treviso. Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport just outside Ljubljana, Slovenia, is closer than Venice and Ljubljana itself is worth visiting as well. Flixbus and other international bus lines also serve Trieste, as do smaller private bus companies.

Sunset at Molo Audace in Trieste, Italy

For getting around inside the city by bus, you'll need to buy a ticket at a Tabacchi, a newsstand, or in one of the bars that advertises them on a sign outside. If you can get scratch lottery tickets at the bar, you'll probably be able to get a bus ticket. You can get single tickets that last for one hour for €1.25, a strip of 10 for €12.50, or a day travel card for €4.25. Tickets are good for a little longer on Sundays and holidays. They must be stamped in the yellow machine at the front or back of the bus when you board. Exit from the middle of the bus. The Trieste Trasporti website has information on rates and routes and you can purchase some types online or through an app but, unfortunately, the system has no actual map of the bus routes that I've been able to discover. Tickets for the Delfino Verde are available on the ferry from the crew.

Trieste is a small gem on the Adriatic, far too often passed over by people in search of larger, better-known tourist destinations, or more famous small towns in better-known parts of Italy. It genuinely deserves more attention.

Erynn Rowan Laurie is a writer and poet from the United States who is now living in Trieste, Italy. Erynn’s work includes books on Celtic Paganism, and a volume of poetry entitled Fireflies at Absolute Zero. For a while, Erynn kept a blog about life in Italy, with photos and descriptions of travels and the experience of relocating to a new country at Poet’s Peregrinatio - https://poetsperegrinatio.wordpress.com