I’m not going to try to bluff my way through Trieste’s historic links to the Habsburg Empire. Still, it is evident even to a historically challenged visitor like myself that the city’s northerly location on the Slovenian border sets it apart from other Italian centres. Travel writer Jan Morris described it as having a “prickly grace”.
The Piazza Unità d’Italia opens onto the seafront and is a splendid centrepiece yet while much of the architecture is similarly impressive and stately, there’s also an unmistakable air of faded glory. Many buildings in the back streets are badly maintained or semi-derelict. Some of the damage is doubtless due to the Bora, a notoriously high wind that regularly blasts through the city at hurricane force. On my last day of a short weekend break it was very blustery although I’m sure locals would classify these as light breezes.
The impressive Castello di Miramare further up the Adriatic coast is in better shape. This was built in the mid 19th century under the supervision of Archduke Maximilian d’Asburgo with many rooms seeking to replicate a nautical look with low-ceilings and lots of wood panelling. The road up to the castle is a popular route for joggers, cyclists, promenaders and hardy sunbathers
The literary associations of Trieste are remarkable. Rainer Maria Rilke passed through briefly while Italo Svevo and , more recently, Susanna Tamaro were born there. Svevo is better known for his association with James Joyce than for his writings. There is even a suggestion that he was a model for Leopold Bloom. 21 years older than Joyce, my impression is that the friendship was more significant to the Italian than it was to the celebrated Dubliner.
Joyce lived in various lodgings in the city with Nora Barnacle between 1904-1915 and from 1919-20. When not frequenting the bars and brothels he taught English at the Berlitz School, fathered two kids, studied music and wrote the opening sections of Ulysses. There’s a Joyce museum on the second floor of a small city library but it is a fairly modest collection of artifacts that hardly does justice to the great man.
The citizens of Trieste have a Slovak temperament with a tendency towards directness which is by no means unfriendly. Struggling with a tourist map marked me as a visitor and passers-by were quick to offer assistance when it was clear I was getting hopelessly disoriented. Most of my map-reading was in search of vegetarian-friendly eating places. The three I sampled were each excellent. These were:
- Genuino – not an exclusively veggie haunt but it has plenty of non meat plus vegan options. It’s a funky alternative fast-food joint with a menu dominated by salad and wok-cooked dishes. These are served in disposable cardboard boxes and you use plastic cutlery. I had a vegan salad, some carrot and pumpkin soup (in a real dish!) washed down with a bottle of organic beer. There’s no table service but the counter service is briskly efficient.
- ZoeFood – just round the corner from the Joyce Museum, this offers a homelier and more leisurely eating experience. It seems to be run by an all female collective and is exclusively vegetarian. The menu has an ethnic character with mega door-stop sandwiches, globalised fry-ups and plenty of salad based options. Dishes are cooked to order so you have to be prepared to wait a bit but this is a case of slow but sure. I had a tasty stir-fry with tofu.
- Il Life Respect is, if I’m not mistaken, the only vegan restuarant in Trieste. It is quite a small unprepossessing place in an anonymous side street but , as the stylish website demonstrates, the owners have aspirations more towards sophistication than merely wholesome cooking. The menu is not extensive but there’s an interesting range of dishes the rice dish and spinach + tofu pastry I had were both delicious.
After these meals I returned from my short weekend birthday break in Trieste feeling only slightly windswept and extremely well fed.