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). 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.