When the Cold War ended at the close of the 1980s, Trieste’s last claim to fa me melted with it. In March 1946 Winston Churchill had named it the southern extreme of the Iron Curtain, giving the little city on the Italo-Yugoslav border – wedged between a limestone plateau known as the Karst region and the Adriatic- a little bit of geopolitical kudos. But when the borders of former Yugoslavia opened for business,
Trieste fell out of the history books. It’s not the city’s first fall from grace. In the 1700s it was the chief port of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a gateway to the globe. The First World War ended that period of relative eminence. But there is something stirring about visiting a former travel classic – a city that has been there, done that, and moved on.
Today, Trieste’s symbolic centre is Europe’s biggest seafront public square-the Piazza Unita d’Italia – a legacy of its heyday and flanked on three sides by monumental buildings as imposing as any found in Milan, Rome or, indeed, Vienna. Surrounding it are the g ridded streets of the Borgo Teresiano, where you’ll find yourself passing moody old bars and cafes, grand residential blocks, faculties-Trieste is an big university city-and churches of every denomination. As the historian and writer Jan Morris, who chose the city as the locus of her last travelogue, noted, everyone here seems so civilised, and it’s true that they are always happy to talk, walk or pass the time of day. Trieste is a cultured affair. Long before the coffee bean became hipsterish, it was making perfect cups of Vienna-grade joe. The city also has a superb art museum, fabulous Italian cuisine with a Slovene twist, boasts links to two European literary greats and is eminently walkable and cycle-friendly.
Why, then, is Trieste not uttered in the same breath as Florence or Barcelona? Well, for one thing, Italy has a tendency to forget it even exists, not least because Venice – enthralling, distinctive, its canals flowing with smooth cliches – is very close by. And while Ryanair regularly flies there, it doesn’t have much competition in the skies -Trieste is not apparently a ‘push’ destination. Morris called her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
She noted the inevitable sense of faded greatness, but also something less precise and more mysterious. For here was a port city with few ships, an Austrian city belonging to Italy that never really belonged to any hand; a city mesmerising to anyone who has ever felt rootless, dream-prone or happily lost. That is to say, a traveller’s city, but one perhaps showing signs of a renaissance. On my visit it seemed that Trieste was not only one of Italy’s secret cities but one of Mitteleuropa’s unsung glories.