While I was growing up in Milošević’s rump Yugoslavia, Trieste was to me a mythical city of my parents’ stories. In them, Trieste figured not only as a thriving market for Western wares for Yugoslavs – jeans, toys and appliances – but was also as a stage where some of the funniest family stories, petty arguments and mishaps, played out and conjured those lost care-free days. However, a few years later, a Rough Guide to Italy, cautioned me that Trieste was a seedy port city with little of interest to show to a tourist, and in a few cutting sentences removed all the sheen from this place. The allure returned, once I realised that James Joyce lived and worked there, that it has one of the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox churches in the world, and finally that some of the best coffee and cafes in Europe are to be found there.
An ex-Yugoslav tradition, probably born when we occupied Trieste for 40 days in May 1945, is to visit Trieste for 1 May, so I drove from Belgrade last week to finally see it for myself. Far from a seedy disintegrating port-city, Trieste was lively and elegant. Impeccably dressed business people, working in its large insurance sector, were buzzing about. My ex-countrymen were going from shop to shop and commenting on the prices, while I decided to take in the city from its cafes and strolling through streets chock-full of fantastic Belle Epoque architecture.
The obvious spot for people watching was Caffe degli Specchi on the main square, where tourists thronged to enjoy the last rays of sun before sunset while sipping Aperol spritz. The best, however was Caffe San Marco, whose fantastic art-nouveau interior was only matched by the relaxed atmosphere. When I first came in, it was full of people listening to a talk about the future of progressive left, which immediately conjured images of early-20th century intelligentsia who patronised it.
While there are plenty of great sights to visit, especially for architecture aficionados, the stand-outs in the city were the San Giusto cathedral overlooking the city, decorated with fantastic byzantine and modern mosaics, Serbian Orthodox Church of San Spiridone and the fantastic massive Synagogue. A bit further afield, romantic Miramare castle, built by the unfortunate Maximilian I of Mexico, a younger brother of the Emperor Franz-Joseph, is a great way to see the opulence that European 19th Century royals enjoyed. Above it, close to the village of Prosecco, is Miramare’s polar opposite, was Monte Grisa, a serene 1960s sanctuary dedicated to Virgin Mary, whose trapezoidal church overlooks the bay of Trieste.
Grub-wise, I stumbled upon a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant, Salvagente, whose wooden walls were decorated with posters for jazz and swing nights. The new Eat-aly store/cafe offered a great quick bite of focaccia and pizza in a stylish eating area overlooking the sea. Finally, I had a great gelato in Chocolat.
I only stayed for 2 nights, but it seemed like I could have filled a few more easily by just strolling around town or driving around magnificent karst mountains in the area.