Sunday 18 August 2019

Shout-out for Trieste: James Joyce's Italian home


People watching doesn't get any better than in Triste where you can dine al fresco around the Piazza Unita d’Italia as the world and its dog pass by your table
People watching doesn't get any better than in Triste where you can dine al fresco around the Piazza Unita d’Italia as the world and its dog pass by your table

David Blake Knox

For me, the north-eastern Italian port of Trieste is inextricably linked to James Joyce.

I first visited the city while I was making a documentary about his great novel Ulysses in 2004. Earlier this year, I was making another film about his life and work, and, once again, Trieste had seemed a good place to start.

When Joyce arrived at Trieste's railway station one evening in 1904, he was just 22 years old and almost penniless. He left his partner, Nora Barnacle, sitting on a park bench while he went off to find a place for them to stay.

Joyce being Joyce, it wasn't long before he found himself in a hostelry sampling some of the local brew. And it didn't take much longer before he was arrested, along with a group of English sailors, for causing a drunken disturbance. Joyce spent several hours in a police cell before he was bailed out by the British consul, and was able to make his way back to the park where Nora was waiting, literally and figuratively in the dark.

I had flown from Dublin to Treviso with Ryanair, and had driven from there to Trieste. It was late at night, and the journey had taken a couple of hours, so we were all fairly exhausted when we arrived at our hotel.

The Hotel Italia was fairly modest and inexpensive, but the rooms were clean and comfortable, and the staff were exceptionally helpful and friendly. The hotel is located in the centre of Trieste, just a few hundred yards from the railway station where Joyce and Nora arrived more than a century ago. Our hotel was also close to the Piazza Unita d'Italia. This magnificent square is believed to be the largest in Europe, and faces the Adriatic Sea. The piazza was built when Trieste was part of the Habsburg Empire, and is said to be the only square in Italy not to contain a church of any description.

Nowadays, the piazza is sometimes used to stage concerts - both classical and rock - and can accommodate a very large audience. Trieste sits at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures, and they have all left their marks upon the city. Although the piazza bears an Italian name, the influence of Austria is evident in the huge municipal buildings and opulent palazzos that line three sides of the square.

I enjoyed breakfast in the famous Caffe degli Specchi. There was a wide selection of coffees, gelati, pastries and hot chocolates on offer, and the cafe's terraces are believed to be the best place for people-watching in the city.

The piazza is a wonderful location during the day, but is even more impressive at night, when its glittering lights are reflected in the waters of the Adriatic. There is, however, a darker side to the history of this piazza. It was here in 1938 that the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini announced to a vast crowd that he was introducing anti-Semitic laws that would deprive Italy's Jews of most of their civil rights. He had chosen Trieste to make the announcement because it was home to a large and thriving Jewish community.

When Joyce lived in the city, there were thousands of Jews in Trieste, and one of them - the novelist Italo Svevo - is thought to have provided Joyce with a model for Leopold Bloom, the central character in Ulysses. During World War II, Mussolini's supporters desecrated the Great Synagogue of Trieste, but it has now been carefully restored, and a visit to this beautiful building gives a forceful reminder of how much Europe lost in the Jewish genocide.

Mussolini's fascist gangs damaged and destroyed a number of other buildings in their attempts to "de-Austrify" Trieste. However, there are still very many that escaped such wanton destruction. One of the most remarkable of these is the Miramare Castle, perched on a cliff edge, a few miles from the city centre. The castle was built on the orders of the Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph, and was designed to suit his personal, and somewhat eclectic tastes.

It had not been completed before Maximilian accepted the offer to become Emperor of Mexico. Within a few years, he would come to regret that decision, since he was executed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867. The castle that he commissioned remains intact, and more or less as he had imagined. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world, and into the mind of its creator.

An equally lavish estate can be found at the Museo Revoltella on Via Armando Diaz. This museum includes the home of Baron Pasquale Revoltella, a financier who amassed an immense fortune, and played a major role in the economic and political life of Trieste in the nineteenth century. The museum contains an important collection of modern art, but it also includes evidence of the Baron's extravagant and sumptuous lifestyle - such as an extraordinary dining room that seems to positively drip with gold.

Over the centuries, Trieste has been subject to what has been aptly termed "serial conquests".

For several centuries, the city belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that period has profoundly influenced its identity. But, in the early nineteenth century, the city was also one of Napoleon's puppet states.

It was first united with the Italian state after World War I, but was also part of the Yugoslavian federation immediately following World War II. In 1947, it established its own independent state, the "Free Territory of Trieste", and the city was only re-united with Italy in 1954.

It seems that there is now an emerging separatist movement in Trieste, and I saw many flags - sporting the city's coat of arms - hanging from windows, as well as graffiti daubed in support of Triestine Independence.

All of this turbulent history is reflected in the range of cuisine that can be found in the city. This may not conform to our expectations of Italian cooking, and in many ways the city's restaurants and cafes feel closer to Vienna than Venice. Italian cuisine is certainly available, but so too are dishes that are more associated with central Europe, such as wurstel, blood sausage, and smoked ham. There are also a large number of wonderful pastry shops serving strudel and similar delicacies. If you feel like splashing out one evening on some fine dining, then I can recommend the Al Bagatto restaurant on the Via Luigi Cadorna, one of many outstanding fish restaurants to be found in the city. I enjoyed some wild sea bass there, accompanied by a glass of Manzoni Blanco from a local vineyard. Trieste is not a large city, but it does take time to explore, since the cityscape includes many narrow, crooked laneways as well as large and elegant piazzas. It might even be said to combine Italian style with an Austrian sense of order, but that may seem to deny the city its own unique identity. For me, some of the most enjoyable times I spent in Trieste on this visit took place during what is known in Italy as the passeggiata: the space that exists between the end of the working day and nightfall.

At such times, it seemed as if the whole of the city's population was strolling past my table as I raised a glass of Prosecco, listened to the Adriatic lapping softly against the harbour's limestone walls, and considered where I would like to dine that evening. Joyce's initial response to this city was not favourable, but it did not take long before Trieste had bewitched him, and he ended up living there for 15 years. Even after he left the city, Joyce and his family continued to use Triestino - the local dialect - as the spoken language of their home. Indeed, it could be argued that Trieste has certain similarities to Ulysses - since it can seem equally as complex, as multi-layered, and as ambiguous in its fundamental character. "They call it a ramshackle Empire," Joyce wrote of his time in Trieste, "I wish to God there were more such Empires."

No doubt, the city has changed a great deal since Joyce lived here, but it is still a melting pot of languages, cultures, religions and ethnicities, and it has retained much of the charm and unexpected delights that he and Nora Barnacle encountered soon after they disembarked at Trieste's railway station a century ago.

James Joyce - A Shout In The Street, presented by Angelica Huston, RTE 1, Wednesday December 13, 9.35pm

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Coffee and chat

James Joyce visited the Caffe San Marco on the Via Cesare Battisti to meet his literary friends. It was destroyed during World War I, but has now been restored, and is still a rendezvous for Trieste’s writers.

Chocolate heaven

Trieste is famous for its coffee. But it is also a magnet for chocoholics, and a large number of small shops specialise in exquisite confectionery.  Check out the aptly-named Chocolat boutique on the Via Cavana.

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