My train arrives in Trieste Centrale. If not for the Mediterranean heat and blueness of the Adriatic from the window, you could easily think that you arrived in Budapest or Vienna. Former Triest Südbahnhof bears the same Neo-Renaissance architectural splendour and elegance. Somewhat 100 years ago the station was the gateway to Österreichische Riviera, one of the most popular and opulent leisure spots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste was one of its most important ports. Also, the city has enjoyed the status of one of the most open and cosmopolitan cities in the whole empire. The upper class came here to enjoy the wonders of local climate and headed further south to the luxurious hotels of Abbazia (Opatija) and beaches of Lötzing (Lošinj).
How do you picture Italy in your mind? For me, this Southern country always has the bright colour palette of landscapes, redness of the ancient façades, Roman ruins here and there, amazingly delicious food and of course the sea. You have all of it in Trieste but you will never confuse this city with Florence, Naples or Venice. It is different. Architectural lines here are strict and the streets are very straight. It feels like Vienna on the sea. And this fact makes Trieste bizarrely beautiful and charming.
To truly sense the aesthetic confusion I am heading to the Miramare Castle. This impressive eclectic masterpiece feels like it doesn’t belong to the landscape that surrounds it. The castle would look perfectly placed somewhere on the Danube hills or at the footsteps of the Alps. But the last thing you expect is for it to overlook the glaring Adriatic sea and be surrounded by the pine trees. Nevertheless, it looks breathtaking.
Taking a bus to the downtown. Here and there along the littoral, you spot people enjoying the sea, the sun and the views. Feels very festive and welcoming. The beach usually comprises of few rocks and a ladder to the water.
On the Budapest-like via Battisti I enter the “heart of the city; a strong heart that beats calmly” as the Italian writer Claudio Magris recently described the iconic Caffé San Marco. Adorned by Secessionist frescoes of Vito Timmel, this legendary café is one of the living relics of the bygone Viennese era in Trieste. You can see it in the glorious interior, the names of the beverages, the classiness of the service.
If you came here in 1914 you could have spotted James Joyce enjoying his morning coffee. He taught English at the Berlitz Language School in Trieste spending 15 years here. An intellectual and cosmopolite Joyce fit perfectly into the cultural melting pot which Trieste was at the turn of the century.
Diversity was always a feature of the immense Austro-Hungarian Empire, once a second-largest country in Europe. Many nations worshipping different religions were forced to coexist together. It seemed to be working at times but finally, the system had crumbled leading the world into the chaos of the First World War. Trieste is a curious culture study in regards to diversity. You can instantly detect this by exploring the temples of the city.
Just a street from the Caffé San Marco you’re stumbling upon the grandiose building. This impressive architectural giant is the Synagogue of Trieste – the second-largest synagogue in Europe. Where do you think the largest is? It can be found in another great city of the former empire – Budapest. Catholicism in the city is headed by the magnificent Trieste Cathedral crowning the hill above the city. In the downtown, you can spot the Baroque Greek Orthodox Church and superb Byzantine Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St Spyridon.
If you feel overwhelmed by the Austro-Hungarian atmosphere step into the Cittá Vecchia – a medieval Old Town blending the Roman ruins with Venetian palazzos and cosy piazzas. Although very small in size, it reminds you that you are in Italy after all. The time stood still on these crooked narrow streets.
So this is the portrait of Trieste – a unique city at the intersection of cultures and civilizations.
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