by Pat Levy
When in Venice, there will come a time when you feel jaded and need awakening from the dreamy, Disneyfied atmosphere of the place. Sometimes it’s just a tad too twee; and at all times it is crowded. You have to feel sorry for the people who actually live there – outnumbered by the daily onslaught of daytrippers – as they struggle to negotiate their way past by selfie-obsessed pedestrians and the small armies of wheelies being dragged up bridges and down narrow alleys.
Therapeutic then to get away for a day or so to somewhere with the familiar buzz of traffic on roads and people going about their business indifferent to the relatively small number of visitors and daytrippers. This is Trieste, a breezy Trenitalia train ride from Venice.
Sitting in a tiny coastal strip of northern Italy, within shouting distance of the border with Slovenia, Trieste has had multiple national identities over the centuries. This accounts for the glory of its multicultural architecture and a non-Italian feel that is hard to pin down but discernible to the senses.
Its gloriously monumental Piazza Unità d’Italia (Unity Square) – imagine the space of Venice’s St Mark’s emptied of people – is testimony to its vital role as an Adriatic seaport for the Hapsburg Empire. The twentieth century saw it passed bloodily from hand to hand as warring parties ebbed and flowed, becoming an independent state for a short period before finally joining Italy in 1954.
James Joyce lived in Trieste for many years after leaving Ireland in 1904, working as an English teacher at a Berlitz school, and the city played a formative part in his development. He completed Dubliners hereandwrote some of the early chapters of Ulysses. There is a James Joyce Museum and aficionados should ask for the Joyce map that can be followed to locate his numerous addresses, the Berlitz school and places he frequented. The definitive book to consult is The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-20 by John McCourt.
There is a Roman amphitheatre right in the middle of town, the outlandish Miramar Castle built for one of the Hapsburg archdukes, and churches of various denominations that reflect the multicultural history of the city. The Tourist Office offers an audio walking tour of the city which takes in the major sights and the hilly nature of the terrain makes the Lapidary Garden and history museum, filled with seemingly random antiquities a joyful breathing space.
A surprise of the city lies in its sophisticated eateries, all of them taking pride in locally sourced wines, seafood and vegetables. Look for rose of Garizia, a type of chicory with a distinctive flavour, or the dry white Vitovska wine that is found only in this region.
Pepenero Pepebianco is a smart place to dine. Handsomely crafted into the nineteenth-century former stables of the Hapsburg army and with an ultra modern design overlaying its historic stone walls, the restaurant has an innovative eight-course tasting menu. The seafood is largely locally caught and presented with as much care as the restaurant’s interior design. A four-course vegetarian menu, plus local and Slovenian wines, makes Pepenero Pepebianco a place not to be missed.
For posh dining and elegant service, Harry’s Piccolo – looking out at the Adriatic from monumental Unity Square – has only four tables so a reservation might be essential. The food arrives deftly at your table on lid-covered plates, supplemented by a series of little gift dishes from the kitchen. A dessert of a dozen cheeses, eight types of chocolate and four sorbets is a prize-winner. Harry’s Piccolo has a sense of panache which extends to the interior design by way of the highly distinctive lamp shades and triffid-like chandeliers.
Al Bagatto, set in a nineteenth-century building near Unity Square, deserves its reputation for sourcing fresh catches on a daily basis. Meat has only a nominal presence on the menu but there are over 160 wines and bottles are all around the dining area. Above-average deserts are a Trieste speciality and one of Al Bagatto’s is a camomile mousse with blueberry cream, walnut crumble and edible flowers.
An arty place to stay in Trieste is L’Albero Nascosto, located in a narrow street close to the centre. Ten large rooms, some with their own kitchenettes, are set in a renovated eighteenth-century townhouse. A Roman pillar, discovered during the renovations, graces the breakfast room and lobby while twentieth-century craft furniture and antiques add quality to the bedrooms. A grand honey-oriented breakfast (and over a dozen types of jam) is a highlight while original paintings on the walls and an extensive library of art books are other attractions of this friendly and unpretentious hotel.
Trieste buzzes with the busy lives of citizens going about their business in a non-touristy Mitteleuropa corner of Italy. With superb seafood restaurants, utterly local wines, a surfeit of bars for an aperitivo as evening approaches, a medley of architectural forms, the James Joyce connection and cultural events throughout the summer, as a short-break destination it’s hard to beat.