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Exploring Trieste, Italy

The Piazza Carlo Goldoni.

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

But of all Trieste’s period attractions, the Museo Storico del Castello di Miramare is the most evocative: a little castle and fort that, at night, glows like a mirage in the moonlight. Built in the 1850’s by Archduke Maximilian, it is the exact reflection of the naval officer, the Victorian gent. His study is designed like a ship’s cabin; the book-lined library and carefully chosen art collection reflect his intellectual passions.

As the Austrian Empire morphed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it got rich. Like other great ports—New York; Hong Kong; Bombay—Trieste was also tolerant. Money before God, this is not a pious place. Still, it’s astonishing that in a small Italian city, six religions have existed in peace for a long time (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox). The religious edifices are more the result of a wealthy merchant class showing off than of any zealotry. The deep-blue dome of San Spiridone, a Serbian Orthodox church, soars to the same sky as cupolas of Sant’ Antonio Taumaturgo, a Catholic church. There is a Benedictine monastery as well as San Giusto Cathedral, which, with its mosaics and frescoes, dates partly to the 12th century.

Trieste has often been thought of as a Jewish city. In its heyday, Jews were welcomed, and they prospered. The old ghetto, just behind the piazza, is now a chic quarter of antiques shops and pubs. Still, there are empty buildings, a sense of an almost forgotten world.

Toward the end of World War II, the Nazis, furious that the Italians had signed up with the Allies, invaded Trieste. They rounded up the remaining Jews and murdered them. The Risiera, an old rice mill in the San Sabba district just beyond a tangle of new highways, was Italy’s only Nazi extermination camp and is now a museum. Here are the narrow cells, damp, cold walls scratched with dates, the remains of the crematorium. Most Holocaust memorials make tears seem to me trivial, irrelevant. But the Risiera, perhaps because it seems so unexpected in this lovely seaside city, makes me cry.

It was among the Jews who were his friends in Trieste that James Joyce found the inspiration for Leopold Bloom. The tiny Caffè Pirona likes to boast that it was there that the writer ate his morning pastry. Near the Grand Canal is a bronze statue of Joyce, bow tie and boater in place, heading perhaps for the language lessons he gave to support himself.

If the Adriatic stretching out to the world from Trieste defines it, so, in a way, does the Karst, the ridge of wild limestone hills at its back, an outcrop of the Julian Alps. Trieste sits between them, suspended between sea and mountain. Before the rail lines and highways, visitors slogged over the Karst to Trieste by horse and wagon, always on the lookout for bandits.

In good weather, wine gardens spring up all over the Karst, usually marked by a red arrow. You go in, you might be in a farmhouse, where there is locally made wine, and homemade sausage or pâté. Few have addresses. The Karst is a secretive place. If the sea makes Trieste a cosmopolitan, enlightened European city, the Karst adds something in-turning and almost medieval.

One day I get a cab to the Marian Temple of Monte Grisa. From here you can see the whole of Trieste, the coast, the Karst with its remote farms, underground river, grottoes, and caves. Consecrated in 1966, it’s a cavernous concrete cathedral. People kneel on the hard floor, praying. Unlike Trieste’s gorgeously decorated and gilded churches, here you feel the tough piety, the fervent and feverish beliefs that make it seem utterly Eastern European. You feel you’re virtually in the Balkans. Slovenia is five miles from the center of Trieste; Croatia is ten.

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