A virtual Trieste

Due to the coronavirus lock-down I’ve turned my hand to something more like a book review…

 I joked in the introduction to my Bradt Guide to Dresden that I’d misheard and signed up to write it because I thought they’d said Trieste. Not actually true, because after all, Dresden is stunning and I loved being there and have been badgering them to do an update ever since. And I never got to write about Trieste, in fact I’ve not been there for several decades – but I have been reading Jan Morris’s classic Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

 Born in 1926, James Morris was just old enough to join the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (the same regiment that occupied Montevideo in 1807, as it happens) at the end of the war and served as a subaltern in the forces occupying Trieste. The city had been liberated by the Yugoslav partisans, with New Zealand troops (and the Lancers in their tanks) arriving two days later – they were led by General Bernard Freyberg VC, whose grand-daughter Annabel I later knew at Oxford, playing Gertrude to Hugh Grant’s Hamlet, with me as production manager. Morris later got one of the greatest scoops of the century, covering the first ascent of Everest, and then James became Jan, and one of our most beloved travel writers (not that she likes the term).

 She said that Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, would be her last book, although happily that turned out to not quite be the case; she’s also called it her favourite non-fiction book (ie of the ones she’s written herself). It’s also clear that the city is one of her favourite places, with its ‘sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place’. You could just about use the book as a guide to the physical city (as it was twenty years ago, at any rate), but it’s really a metaphysical investigation into the nature of a city that was essentially created in the eighteenth century as a highly multicultural outpost of the Austrian empire and is only accidentally part of Italy today. It’s also a meditation on nostalgia, ageing (after over five decades of visiting Trieste) and her lifelong sense of self-exile.

 She pays particular attention to the city’s literary strengths, concentrating on James Joyce, who did much of his best work here, and Italo Svevo, taken as a pseudonym by Hector Schmitz to express his joint Italian and Swabian background – The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older are both firmly set in a very recognisable Trieste (I haven’t read either, I confess [but see below]). Robert Musil is mentioned several times (and I did once read his three-volume magnum opus The Man Without Qualities), but without going in to so much detail. And Richard Burton (the translator of The Arabian Nights, not the Welsh actor) is examined too, although he fails to light my fire.

 Morris mentions Morpurgo as a quintessentially Triestino name, but was clearly writing too soon to be aware of the name’s current literary significance – War Horse was published as a novel back in 1982, but took off as a phenomenon only after the play opened in 2007. It’s an Ashkenazi Jewish name (which Michael Morpurgo acquired from his stepfather), and I also find it odd that Morris never mentions Trieste’s admittedly small Sephardic population.

 I was also assuming that Morris had totally missed Rainer Maria Rilke’s connection with Trieste – his greatest work, The Duino Elegies, was conceived at the castle of Duino, just up the coast – but no, he gets a passing mention in the penultimate chapter. Morris often mentions the bora, the wild north wind that frequently buffets Trieste, and it was while walking on the cliffs in a bora that Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him with the first line of the first Elegy, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’) – which vaguely reminded me of how Morris refers several times to that moment when a conversation falls silent (often at ten to the hour, it seems), allegedly when an angel passes overhead. Anyway, I assume Morris just doesn’t much like Rilke – he was a sort of Austrian equivalent of TS Eliot, but without any of the humour.

 I’d already read Last Letters from Hav (1985), Morris’s one novel, which she thought was ‘about an entirely imaginary Levantine city’ but found that ‘between every line Trieste was lurking’. It’s not a masterpiece, and doesn’t add much to our understanding of Trieste. Thanks to Covid-19, I’ve had time to look at it again, and at a couple of other books that describe Trieste. They certainly agree about the faint melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the city.

 Claudio Magris is another Trieste author referred to in TATMON – his great book Danube, which I’ve referred to when writing about Romania and Bratislava, was published in 1986 (and in English in 1988), but the rather slimmer set of essays published as Microcosms appeared in 1997 and in English in 1999, just in time for Morris to refer to them. The first essay is about the life of the Caffè San Marco and the last about the Public Garden, both mentioned by Morris. One discovery is the poet Juan Octavio Prenz, born in Argentina in 1932, who lived in Trieste from 1979 until his death in 2019 and was a typical example of the multicultural Triestino beloved of Morris, as well as of Musil and Magris.

 Last year I also read Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, published in 1995 and mentioned by Morris – passing through on his tour around the Mediterranean, his take on Trieste was similar to hers and that of other writers, although he paid a bit more attention to the food and the women, in addition to Joyce, Svevo and Burton.

 Morris mentions Abbazia (now Opatija), just down the coast, but misses a trick by not noting that Nabokov described (in Speak, Memory) going there as a child in 1904, when it seemed like a haunted version of Menton. And it seems odd, given what a major cultural totem the eponymous fizz now is in Britain, not to mention that Prosecco is just 8km north of Trieste, and less than 1km inland from Archduke Maximilian’s castle of Miramar, which Morris knows well. The populace of Prosecco is over 90% Slovene, calling it Prosek, and most of the wine is now produced 100km away to the northwest.

Last tram to Opcina

Of course, this wouldn’t be Unraveltravel without a mention of public transport –  wrapping up the book in the summer of 2000, Morris mentions ‘tracks laid for a magnetic tram service’, which I found a bit baffling – maybe she meant the tram up to Opicina (see below) which has electromagnetic emergency brakes as well as rheostatic and air brakes? But no, it turns out that an experimental bus (not a tram), powered by magnetic induction from rails laid in one of the city’s busiest streets, ran briefly in 2000 but fell foul of a new city government and was soon abandoned.

 Opicina (Opčine in Slovenian) is the main crossing point to Slovenia, but the  connections are notoriously awful. It’s up on the Karst, the limestone plateau that similar formations around the world are named after, and direct trains from Venice to Ljubljana stay up there rather than dropping down to Trieste and crawling back up again. The link from Piazza Oberdan in Trieste is a fascinating tram-funicular hybrid, with automated cable-hauled tractors giving a boost on the steepest section; this terminates in the centre of Opicina village, 1.2km short of the railway station (an extension was opened in 1906 but closed in 1938). In any case this has been out of action since a collision in 2016, with a replacement bus service, although it will supposedly reopen early in 2020. Fingers crossed!

Help us to help you

And finally – as I said, half the world is currently shut down due to the new coronavirus and Covid-19. Lots of people and businesses are in trouble, but one of the worst affected is the travel industry. I do most of my writing for Bradt Travel Guides, which is the only major British travel publisher to still be wholly independent. It’s a company that has always tried to make travel work for the greater good, not just helping tourists have a good time, but encouraging education (in both directions) and trying to boost tourism in smaller, off-beat destinations rather than the obvious honeypots (and I’m proud to have played a small part in this). The Slow Guides series, focussing on community involvement and active/sustainable travel, is particularly welcome. To get through the lean times, and to encourage people to start thinking of what they might do afterwards, they’re now offering a 50% discount on all books (so, as they say, a guidebook will cost less than a luxury pack of loo roll).

 Click here and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this offer will end, but don’t leave it too long! And yes, there is a Bradt guide to Trieste and its surrounding province.

[August 2020 – I have now read The Confessions of Zeno, and it is a modernist masterpiece – and funny too. Zeno really is an awful character – a self-centred hypochondriac procrastinator who has a terrible attitude to women – but the novel is written from his viewpoint at the time of the story, his later viewpoint during World War I (when he has unexpectedly turned out to be a very good businessman after years of failure), and that of his psychoanalyst who claims to be publishing Zeno’s letters as revenge for stopping treatment. It’s the psychoanalytical background that to me makes the novel seem very Viennese, akin to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities which laid bare the sickness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately before World War I. The last production I saw of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (online, during the Covid-19 lockdown – with Kate Royal making time stand still as the Marschallin) featured Dr Freud sitting by the couch taking notes, which I though was an inspired touch.]

Updating Wales, especially Anglesey

I managed to get in two trips to Wales (north and south) just before the coronavirus pandemic really struck – but the new edition of the Rough Guide to Wales has now been put off anyway, so at last I have time to write the odd blog post.

 I do love Wales, but I admit I began with some rather dull towns – Newport, Wrexham and Mold. Newport (Pembrokeshire) is in my half of the book (and is lovely), but Newport (Monmouthshire) is not – I spent a few hours there between trains because I’d been given a first-class ticket on what people still call The Gerald (Y Gerallt), but is now officially the Premier Service. It’s a train that runs from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning and returns in the evening, without too many stops, and provides complementary meals for first-class passengers. It’s subsidised by the Welsh government to persuade business travellers not to drive (or fly from RAF Valley), and to bind the rather separate north and south halves of Wales together. In fact it’s the only train run by Transport for Wales that has first class at all. It also offers perhaps the best on-train dining experience left on Britain’s railways. 

 The train is named for Geraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a medieval churchman who travelled around Wales and wrote the first descriptions of the country. Anyway, there was a lot of flooding at the time, including at Shrewsbury, and when I left home in the morning it looked as the train would get to Hereford and we’d be put on a bus to Shrewsbury – but in fact the level of the River Severn dropped sufficiently for the train to run as normal. The two stewards only joined the train at Hereford, and started taking orders before we had left the station, so I was able to have a full three-course meal, finishing just five minutes before I got off at Wrexham. It was a great experience.

 In Newport, I enjoyed the museum and art gallery (with single works by Ceri Richards, Stanley Spencer, LS Lowry, Stanhope Forbes, Julian Trevelyan, Michael Rothenstein, Alfred Munnings, Laura Knight, Kyffin Williams, August John, Frank Brangwyn, William Scott, Peter Blake, and an 18th-century piece attributed to Loutherbourg). The cathedral is an overgrown parish church, as one would expect, but attractive enough with its Norman arch and font.

 I don’t think I discovered anything new in Wrexham or Mold. Well, yes and no – positive efforts are under way to revive Wrexham’s markets, and I did discover some good beers from Wrexham, although not when I was actually there – Border and Big Hand both produce some very pleasant ales, and Wrexham Lager is an interesting oddity. The Wrexham Lager Beer Company Limited was Britain’s first lager brewery, founded in 1881 by two German immigrants, but after World War II it was taken over by Ind Coope, then Allied Breweries, then Carlsberg-Tetley, who closed it down in 2002; the rights to the name were bought by local businessmen, and the company was revived in 2011. I haven’t tasted the beer myself but I wouldn’t altogether object in the right setting – I usually run a mile from tasteless British lager, but on a hot summer’s day after cycling in Germany or indeed the Czech Republic the real stuff can be very refreshing.

 The rest of Northeastern Wales (from Wrexham to Bala and Denbigh) was familiar enough, but then I moved on to a chapter of the Rough Guide that I haven’t tackled before, covering the north coast and Anglesey. I’ve cycled along the north coast, but I was surprised by a few new things, for instance the outburst of gentrification in Colwyn Bay, which comprises precisely one street, Penrhyn Road – here you’ll find Haus (a hipster café and brunch spot), the Flat White café, The Bay Hop (a shopfront-style alehouse that’s the local CAMRA branch’s perpetual Pub of the Year) and Virgilio’s Portuguese grill all in a row. Across the road are Sheldon’s Bar & Bistro and Briggs & Co, purveyors of fine wines & coffee (and of craft beer, though without a proper hand pump to be seen).

 In Llandudno I was keen to visit Mostyn (formerly Oriel Mostyn Gallery, in an awkward bilingual version), which used to be run by a friend of mine – there wasn’t much on, but I was very impressed by the internal remodelling and extension that he orchestrated.

 In Anglesey I’d only taken the train direct to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Dublin, so I was very much looking forward to my two days there, and it did not disappoint. The northwestern coast, in particular, is very scenic, and there’s a great variety of Neolithic tombs and Iron Age hut circles reminiscent of Chysauster, one field away from my sister’s in Cornwall. Having said that, I expected more of Beaumaris Castle – it was never completed and is not in fact as impressive as Caernarfon or Conwy, both of which I’ve visited in the last couple of years. However I did enjoy Beaumaris Gaol, which has been taken over (along with the Courthouse) by the town council and seems to be enjoying an infusion of fresh energy – I was given a whistlestop tour by a volunteer guide in Victorian costume and stick-on sideburns who was full of great stories. I’d heard that the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait (from Menai Bridge to Beaumaris) was a hotspot of fancy foodie spots aimed at the affluent folk of southern Manchester/northern Cheshire (and a hotspot of so-called adventure sports such as riding in very fast boats), but Menai Bridge itself turned out to be pretty drab, and you have to book a long time ahead to get into the best restaurants; Beaumaris is far more attractive and would make a nicer weekend destination; on the other hand it’s further from the lovely beaches at Newborough Warren, a key part of the package for many visitors.

 In the centre of the island is its other moderately attractive town, Llangefni (Holyhead is of no interest except as a place to leave by ferry) – on the edge of town is Oriel Ynys Môn, the island’s main museum and art gallery, which has a comprehensive overview of its history and excellent art exhibitions too. (I looked for the Oriel Tegfryn gallery in Menai Bridge too, but that has closed.)

 I also remember Llangefni as birthplace of Hugh Hughes, the ‘award-winning emerging Welsh artist’, actually the alter ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, artistic director of the touring theatre company Hoipolloi. It’s brilliantly deadpan comedy – see here for photos, videos and droll stories.

 My geologist brother-in-law had told me about Parys Mountain, which was memorable because in its forty-year boom period it wiped out our copper mining industry in Cornwall, but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of its multicoloured post-industrial moonscape, which is now traversed by a two-and-a-half mile trail. In fact the whole of Anglesey is now covered by the UNESCO-recognised GeoMon geopark, with information panels in many places of geological interest, mainly on the coast.

 At Plas Newydd (the one on the Menai Strait, not the one in Llangollen), the National Trust is undertaking a two-year (at least) project to replace the 1930s wiring and plumbing (with attached asbestos), following a potentially disastrous flood in 2011. They’re keeping the house open as much as possible, and are going to great lengths to explain what’s going on and incorporate it in the visit – the Behind the Stage displays are well done, but it’s a shame that a lot of interesting paintings are hidden in the dark. So I’ll have to rewrite this section of the Rough Guide for this edition, and revert more or less to the original text for the next one. Oh well.

 There’s not a lot new to say about Southwest Wales, especially as I just did a quick sprint around before going home to hunker down for the duration of the pan[dem]ic, however long that turns out to be. Our long-term favourite restaurant in St David’s (Cwtch*) has closed, the Carmarthenshire Museum at Abergwili, just outside Carmarthen, has closed for a year to have its roof fixed and a general refurb, and the Shire Hall in Llandeilo is also being done up to be a community/heritage/visitor centre from the autumn of 2020 – I would anticipate some delay to that in present circumstances.