TRISTE TRIESTE: VIENNA-ON-THE-SEA

 

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Trieste, with its Viennese coffee houses and shadowy Cold War atmosphere, was once a thriving Austro-Hapsburg port. A Germanic punctilio survives in the clockwork eating habits and the double-headed eagle motifs found on buildings in the Austrian Quarter. In 1919, after the First World War, Trieste was ceded to Italy; the city’s old town, the Città Vecchia, is where Mitteleuropa meets the Mediterranean in twisted cobbled streets hung with laundry. On my last visit in 1991, those streets were crowded with refugees from neighbouring Slovenia and Croatia. Yugoslavia was breaking up and Trieste exuded a shabby, Vienna-on-the-Sea atmosphere. Triste Trieste, Italians called it, “Sad Trieste”. But that was then.

 

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A quarter of a century later, Trieste is an Adriatic city transformed. The neoclassical seafront buildings have been prinked and refurbished, the Austro-Hapsburg cafés restored. Trieste is admirably situated for day trips to Venice as well as the former Yugoslavia, where the limestone pastures are a postcard-picturesque. More so even than Venice, Trieste is a gourmet’s delight. Hole-in-the-wall eateries serve Germanic pork and sauerkraut soup spiced with freshly grated horseradish. The ubiquitous Illy coffee brand (typically Triestino in its Italo-Hungarian origins) is an added pleasure.

 

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For all that, an air of sadness pervades this great borderland city. After World War II, Trieste became a pawn in a battle for possession between East and West, when Jugoslav partisans claimed the city as their own. After a murderous, forty-day battle between Italians and Marshal Tito’s Communist insurgents, Trieste was finally re-annexed to Italy in 1954. The memory of that battle – the famous ‘Quaranta Giorni’- is alive among older inhabitants. Nostalgia for imperial Vienna has not quite disappeared, either.

 

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You can feel it the dark-panelled cafes off Piazza Unità d’Italia, and in the plush magnificence of the Savoia Excelsior Palace, built in 1911 as a hotel by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. The emperor’s marble bathtub, embossed with Hapsburg eagle motifs, is kept behind locked doors on the first floor, but did he have time to use it? Everything that Franz Joseph loved about Trieste came to an abrupt end in 1914, when his nephew and heir Franz Ferdinand was assassinated along with his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. The equilibrium of Europe was shattered as the First World broke out. The imperial bodies were transported through Trieste in solemn pomp for burial in Austria.

 

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From my balcony on the hotel’s third floor the Adriatic appeared a wonderful Pernod-green. And behind its Monte Carlo-like façade stretched the forbidding outcrop plateau of the Giulian Alps known as the Carso. In the winter the bora wind blows so hard from the Carso that it rattles street railings. But the liquid softness of the autumn afternoon worked on me like a soporific. Across the Gulf of Trieste shimmered the Giulian Alps, snowy and serene.

 

In its imperial heyday under Austria, Trieste had attracted a Danubian diversity of peoples and faiths, from Serbo-Croats, Greeks and Bulgars to Transylvanians and Jews. Russian Old Believer places of worship still exist in Trieste, along with Turkish-Tartar, Russian, Ukrainian, Serb and Bulgarian mosques. This cosmopolitan tradition is maintained in the busy Caffè degli Specchi, where a Harry Lime-type zither music tinkles atmospherically as waiters in their Franz Joseph moustaches serve slices of Viennese strudel cake. In many ways, Trieste is an innately conservative city, where high a bourgeois tradition survives.

 

 

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Of course, that though that is not the whole picture. On my way to the opera house I stopped off at a champagneria on Via Cardona, where young Triestini were enjoying tapas to champagne and house music provided by DJ Atomic Cat. The grand Teatro Verdi – a blaze of gold and red plush – was as I remembered it from a quarter of a century ago. Opera-goers wore Borsalino-brand fedora hats, sable stoles and loden overcoats. Incongruously, a bunch of burly-looking firemen were drinking beer at the bar downstairs while the clientele sipped at their Spritz aperitifs. (It was a scene out of FelliniRossini’s comic opera Opportunity Makes the Thief, about a pair of newly weds up to no good in Naples, prompted cries from the audience for encores. Lemon-scented cologne reached me from the stalls.

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