At anchor in Trieste

A fan of borders and edges (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) I’ve had Trieste on my bucket list for years. Writing in 2001 in her book Trieste and the meaning of nowhere (Amazon) Jan Morris comments: “People who have never been there generally don’t know where it is. Visitors tend to leave it puzzled and, when they get home, remember it with a vague sense of mystery”, while Michael Palin quotes Churchill: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent”.

Trieste is no longer at the edge of a divided continent and is gradually getting a little more normal, a little more Italian – now known as the ‘insurance centre of Italy’, with a period of consolidation from 2000 under a mayor who was head of the Illy coffee company – but traces of the city’s colourful past are everywhere, and it retains its appeal.

Originally an Illyrian coastal village, Trieste was colonised by Rome and occupied by Venice and France before being protected and declared a free port by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, turning the city into a major link between Europe and Asia. In 1918 the city came under Italian rule, with Mussolini making it one of his showpieces. The city was annexed by the German Reich and then occupied by Britain, the USA and Yugoslavia, briefly becoming an Independent Free Territory under the UN. In 1954 the city of Trieste returned to Italy, while its surroundings were handed to Yugoslavia, but today the Slovene language has official parity with Italian, and even before 1989 there was widespread movement of local people across the border.

How to capture such a city? Jan Morris describes Trieste as a loitering kind of place, perfect for drifting. Itinerari Trieste covers architecture (styles: neoclassical, eclectic, Art Nouveau; themes: Roman, religious, Jewish, historic cafes), most of which are also vailable on the Trieste Citypod app. I didn’t find this little treasure trove until we got back – the tourist office operated in a definite “if you ask for it, you can have it” mode, with everything tidied neatly away behind the counter.

Around town

The train, the end of the line as far as Trenitalia is concerned, cuts through the limestone rock of the karst/carso and descends in a sweeping curve around the top of the Adriatic to the sea, past the 14th century Duino castle rising in front of the oil refinery and shipyards of Monfalcone and the old Hapsburg station at Miramar, now back in action after closing in the 1950s. From the station it’s a 10 minute walk down the riva to the city centre, past the 1930s Stazione Marittima, now providing the backdrop for cruise ships, and the molo Audace, named for the ship which claimed Trieste for Italy in 1918.

High on the hill the 14th century Romanesque Basilica of San Giusto and the Hapsburg Castello Giusto guard a sort of monument square with accompanying Roman forum, offering views of the harbour and the hills towards Venice.

More modern touches include the happy transformation of the the stile Liberty Caffè San Marco, threatened with closure in 2013, to a cafe cum bookshop. Preparations were underway during our stay for the massive Barcolana regatta, founded in 1969, with its 2014 poster designed by Missoni.

We also took in the 1934 courthouse, the centrepiece of monumental urban planning in this area of the city, Piazza Oberdan, the first piazza to be planned after Trieste became part of Italy, Narodni Dom, the station, the Gothic Lutheran church, Audace Pier…

Traces of war: 1914 and 1943-45

Trieste is marking the WW1 centenary with an exhibition on the city in 1914, held in the Magazzino delle Idee, a derelict warehouse turned cultural centre on the Corso Cavour. This was very well done with some wonderful photos. One room gave a detailed account of Franz Ferdinand’s return and funeral procession (for the outward leg see Telegraph article):

  • 29 June: the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are taken to the station in Sarajevo; they reach Mostar and Metkovic by train and are then taken by steamer along the Neretva to a waiting ship at its mouth
  • 30 June: the bodies are escorted by squadron to Trieste
  • 1 July: the Viribus Unitis arrives in Trieste at about 6:30pm and anchors off the San Carlo pier, in front of the Piazza Grande; the Lieutenant of the Coast Konrad Hoheslohe comes out to the ship and pays tribute to the deceased
  • 2 July: the coffins are taken to the Piazza Grande and placed on two biers between 6:30am and 7:50am; the bishop blesses the corpses in the presence of political and religious authorities, then at 8.30am the funeral procession heads towards the South Station; at 9.30am the train heads towards Vienna, where it arrives in the night

We also visited Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice husking facility used by the Nazi occupation forces as prison camp from 1943. In April 1944 a crematorium was installed and made operative. The only facility of its kind in Italy, it is now a national monument.


The castle of Miramar, 8km from town down the Lungomare, a concrete seafront promenade, was built on a whim by Archduke Maximilian, Franz Josef’s younger brother, in 1860. Maxmilian’s story, and that of his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, is unbearably sad – why hasn’t it been made into a film? Max was the shortlived Emperor of Mexico, executed in 1867. Charlotte went mad and went home to Belgium where she lived to the age of 87.

Next up, Prince Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta, a first cousin of the King of Italy, lived at Miramar with his wife and daughters during the 1930s and renovated the castle in best modernist style. Viceroy of Italian East Africa during WW2, Amadeo surrendered to the British and died in a prison camp in Nairobi in 1942.

The castle has acquired a sinister reputation – it is said that all who sleep within the castle’s walls will die violently far from home. As well as Maximilian and Amadeo two American generals suffered untimely ends, and during the occupation at British general choose to sleep in a tent in the garden. So probably best that it’s now a museum and setting for wedding photos.

The scenic tram 

The Opicina tramway, opened in 1902, refurbished and reopened in July 2014 complete with bike racks on the front, links the city centre with the plateau and on to the border with Slovenia. To ascend the plateau after two minutes it transforms into a drogue (funicular). Complete with beige Hapsburg lighting the tram is a complete delight, if looking slightly out of place on the highway into Slovenia.

Allegedly, if you get off the tram at the Obelisk and follow Strada Napoleonica along the cliff after 3km you reach the village of Prosecco-Contovello, inhabited mainly by Slovenes, from where it is allegedly possible to walk down to Miramar, although the locals looked at us askance when we asked how far it was.

What’s next? 

Trieste is the capital of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, one of Italy’s richest. The region has a long border with Slovenia to the east, with Trieste sticking out like a cartographer’s error, plus one with Austria to the north. Among other local delights are Aquileia, an ancient Roman town, Cividale, dating from the medieval Lombards, and the fortress town of Palmamova, which looks like the model for a GBBO entry.

I’d love to explore further, not least because of the history – tossed between Venice and Austria-Hungary, a bridge between Italy and Mitteleuropa, you know the drill. The town of Gorizia (pop: 35K) featured in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and looks particularly worth a visit – after the 1919 Paris peace conference the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran through the main town square, renamed Europe square in 2004 when Slovenia joined the EU; see the British Library on bringing the town’s history back to life. This time though we took a train to Udine, pretty much on a whim, making a fascinating discovery in the shape of Torviscosa, a planned town built during the 1930s. From there we picked up the night train from Venice to Munich, followed by an eight hour slog up to Hamburg, where we gave the boat train to Copenhagen another outing. One of those 24 hour journeys…


Bern: walking city

Update, 2016: In praise of the tram – it’s time to follow the Swiss model, which has led to Zurich having “the lowest modal share of car transport of almost any global city of comparable size”.

We recently spent eight days in Switzerland. Being fans of the whistle stop tour the original plan was to visit a city in each of the three major language regions, but our itinerary kept shrinking and in the end we only visited the German speaking part of the country, spending time in Bern, Basel, Zürich and Luzern.

Our journey started on New Year’s Eve with the overnight train from Copenhagen to Basel. The fireworks were already starting in Hvidovre as we left, having delivered the beagles to the safer haven of Roskilde. After sustenance of a sort at CPH station we boarded our two person sleeper – more private than a couchette, but a little claustrophobic. My partner chooses to retire early, which left me perched on the lower bunk looking out at the fireworks at midnight in Hamburg and beyond.

As a German graduate there’s something magical for me in travelling the length of Germany through the night. I was awake at Frankfurt, where I studied, and we had breakfast in Freiburg, travelling through the Schwarzwald and over the border to Basel. We then hopped on a train to Bern, arriving there around an hour later.

In common with Scotland both 1st and 2nd January (Berchtoldstag) are public holidays in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This meant limited shopping opportunities, however the slick modern station, like many in Germany, had a wealth of shops and supermarkets of the everyday variety so this was not really an issue. With a branch of ace vegan buffet restaurant Tibits just outside the station we were well set. Our hotel was a little way out of town but it was easy to take a tram outside the station. On the second evening we walked back, getting more of the feel of the suburbs. All in all, despite it being a holiday period, the impression we got was of a lively well functioning city.

Bern’s centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes 6km of arcades, the largest in Europe. The weather was clement, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t really be an issue to get around when cold or snowing. There were plenty of reasons to be out and about – for example the small park behind the cathedral was historic, not an artificial construction, and included a mini-library. All over the city there were people simply sitting and reading, no longer warding off TB, but probably old habits die hard. As it stays lighter longer there’s more of an impetus to sit out, plus glimpses of the Berner Oberland, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, don’t really hurt.

All around town were yellow Walk your city style signs with the walking time to particular locations. Turns out that these are standard Swiss hiking signs – perhaps Walk your city got some inspiration from Switzerland. There were also cycling signs and a city bike depot, but these did not seem over-used.

Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, of taking a line for a walk fame, and the city fathers haven’t shirked on building on this connection (see article auf deutsch | video). 54 Wege zu Klee signs connect streets and landmarks to Klee and his works, leading you onward:

(pics from the Wege zu Klee Facebook page)

Three routes around the city and beyond (see trail maps for Zentrum Paul Klee circular walk | station to ZPK), plus street names further underline aspects of walking:

With many Klees currently on show at Tate Modern the main exhibition at the ZPK was on Klee’s life and work, making the man himself come alive. Of particular note was the letter signed by the Bauhaus professorial team after Paul went AWOL – it was easy to picture Walter Gropius going round getting everyone to sign it. A second exhibition with paintings from the collection of Frankfurter Hanne Becker included lots of highlights for Expressionism fans.

Klee update, July: clearly a fan, three sections in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, are set in the Bauhaus, and he wrote a lengthy piece around the Tate exhibition as well as a nice entry in the Guardian’s my hero series: “Somewhere in the afterlife, I am going to accompany [Klee’s] violin in the Brahms G major sonata.” 2017 update: Sara Baume’s A line made by walking named for the quote?

More Bernese walks and related:

Update: several holidays later I’m forced to concede that planned photo essays on Basel and Zurich aren’t going to happen. Both cities were great sources of inspiration – Basel for its border town position in a triangle between France and Germany and multiple railway stations, the Rhine, its stress on walking the city and trams creating life even on a Sunday…we went on two guided walks, at the Vitra Design Museum across the border in Germany and at Rudolf Steiner’s unique Goetheanum in the nearby village of Dornach.

Zurich, jockeying with Copenhagen in the liveable city lists, was more elusive. Stand-outs were our first James Joyce Museum, Umsicht, an urban development exhibition we found by chance in the university, and Zurich West, with the house which refuses to give way to shiny new things. Need to go back!