Thursday, January 7, 2010

Time in Trieste

Trieste does not feel like Italy. Neither Martello nor Trofie Wife has visited Austria, but from everything we’ve gathered, Trieste is more akin to Vienna than Milano or Venice. This is due to the fact that it wasn’t firmly, finally, and officially part of Italy until well after World War II (1954), having spent a good chunk of time as the Adriatic seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and switching hands numerous times in the first half of the 20th century). Given this history, Trieste is very clean, orderly (they have literally numbered each and every city street lamp), and filled with strudel and schlag.

They count all the public lamps! Pazzo!

Trieste Municipo

Piazza di Unita

It was Ferragosto on our first day in town, so much was closed. Being Mary’s holiday it’s supposed to have religious significance, but in the last 40 years or so, it’s been turned into a sort of American Labor Day, an excuse for beach going and parties (the Vatican is not very happy about this and makes a point of getting on TV prior to the holiday to remind people of its original message). We wandered through the piazza, enjoying klezmer (?!) and classical music played by street musicians. We had an amazing lunch at the “wrong” café (we were headed for a guide book recommendation but turned too soon, with excellent results) and walked along the quays to the decrepit old university building, uphill to the duomo of San Giusto, and then back downtown to the Serbian church of San Spiridione (Trofie Wife’s favorite; loved the gilt).

Well-dressed street performers

Approach to the Duomo 

San Giusto

Interior of San Giusto

Serbian Church, San Spirito 

Inside San Spirito

We sipped café shakerati (iced espressos) and ate apple strudel filled with raisins and pignoli at the famed Café degli Specchi, right on the Piazza d’Unita. There is a bit of a pigeon problem at the many outdoor cafes, with the brazen birds landing on tables (cleared and with patrons still around) in hopes of getting some crumbs. They are probably responsible for breaking at least a dozen glasses a day at each venue. We returned to the piazza at nightfall (after a pre-dinner gelato; despite the heavy Austrian influence, the gelato is still 100 percent Italian and fantastic) for a jazz concert with a fairly well-known (though not to us) Italian jazz elder. The piazza was lit up and filled with people from front to back; it was quite a sight. We capped off the evening at a beer garden overlooking the water.

Cafe degli Specchi

Jazz concert in the piazza

Sunday was devoted to Jewish activities. We toured the impressive synagogue (Tempio Israelitico di Trieste) and learned about the community, past and present. During the community’s heyday from the mid-1800s to just prior to World War II (the Jewish population was around 5,000 just prior to the start of the war), it was Ashkenazi (German and Eastern European) and filled with major players in the Trieste economy (we think our hotel was a mansion owned by one of those families and run by a descendent, hence the mezuzah). It also notably served as a weigh station for Jews clandestinely immigrating to British Mandate Palestine. Now Trieste is mainly Sephardic (descendents from the Spanish expulsion in 1492), but out of deference to history, services are held in Ashkenazi style on Shabbat. It was always an Orthodox synagogue, but interestingly enough, they have an organ. It was never used on Shabbat, just for weddings and concerts and such, but as the well-to-do community integrated into the secular (yet still heavily Christian influenced) society, they attended functions at their co-workers’ churches and wanted to incorporate some of what they enjoyed into their place of worship. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but Martello snapped many outside. It’s somewhat of a Moorish style in the main sanctuary; one of the side rooms has a low-tech retractable roof that serves as the sukkah (a hut for the fall harvest holiday), which was kind of cool.

We spent the afternoon at perhaps the most embarrassing historical site in all of Italy—the Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory that was transformed into the country’s one concentration camp. Neither Martello nor I had ever been to a camp, and it was an intense experience, filled with information and sensory (especially smell) overload. We didn’t feel right or comfortable taking pictures, but here’s what it looks like ( There was a crematorium (hastily destroyed by the commanders as the Allies approached, but the outline is still clear and properly memorialized), but most of the Jews (700 from Trieste; more from other nearby northern regions) brought here were sent on to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or other death/labor camps, so the Riseria’s main victims were Slavs and Italian partisans and communists (a total 3,000-5,000 people were murdered here; but it mostly served as a transit camp). The museum appears to do an excellent job reaching out to its neighbors in Slovenia and Slovakia, translating the materials into their languages (along with the standard English, French, and German). At least in our educational experiences in the States, the Slavs get brief mention along with the list of the non-Jewish million murdered in the camps. Italy, in concert with the Nazi occupiers, expended great effort “cleansing” Slavs from Trieste and the surrounding multicultural regions. Slavs endured a propaganda campaign and forced name changes and the outlawing of their language and culture. Given that we still live in a world where genocide is a reality (and Trofie Wife spent the better part of her beach time in Sardinia reading Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, a history of the United States’s responses to genocide), it behooves us all to learn about each situation and see the similar, sad patterns (this is especially helpful in parts of the world where little is known about Jews and the Holocaust and a multicultural approach has shown to help decrease anti-Semitism and lead to better coexistence).

After recovering from the intensity of the camp, we spent the next morning learning about Trieste’s role in the history of literature at the Joyce and Svevo museums. As mentioned in the last post, James Joyce spent nearly two decades in Trieste, teaching English, writing, and lecturing. At the museum we watched a DVD about his time in the city, particularly learning about his experience tutoring the well-to-do Jewish families and writing alongside Italo Svevo, an Italian-Jewish businessman and author (Joyce helped put his self-published work on the map). Many believe that much of the character development of Leopold Bloom of Ulysses emerged from these relationships. In addition, there’s a strong theory that the language of Finnegans Wake was inspired by Trieste, where at every street intersection a different language could be heard—some critics have gone so far as to say that Trieste is the only city that could have inspired the ruckus within the Wake!

Trofie Wife discusses literature with Svevo

Our last tourist stop within the city limits was to Miramare, a Hapsburg castle built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the loopy one who was named emperor of Mexico. It was quite stunning (though we’ve been told it’s merely a shadow of what we’ll see one day in Vienna), with lovely sea views and elaborate furnishings. It also held the quarters of the Duke D’Aosta, a much-loved figure. Although we lacked our bathing suits, we waded in the Adriatic on our way back to the hotel. There isn’t really a beach on this part of the coast; instead people just lay out on the sidewalk or park benches. Gotta love Italian improvisation! 


Trofie Wife surveys her holdings

Improvisational sunbathing

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie

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