Trieste reminded me of Ulysses.
Ok, Trieste was definitely more fun than reading Ulysses, but like that great work of literature, it's not going to hold your hand and coddle you. Frustratingly difficult to understand? Aloof and a bit rude? Brilliant and a bit insane? Yes, and they are not apologizing. The novel may be set in Dublin, but I'm convinced Trieste is where Joyce received his divine inspiration.
James Joyce's Ulysses holds the top spot on Goodreads 'Most Difficult Novels' list. An avant garde darling, this famously impossible book first popularized 'stream of consciousness' storytelling, where a multitude of thoughts and feelings pass through the character's mind. I've attempted, and failed, to get past 40 of Ulysses' 735 pages, preferring a much simpler narrative style. I just don't like to work that hard.
While I'm not a huge Joyce fan, I do love history and literature, and welcomed our visit to Trieste for this reason. Joyce lived there for ten years between 1905 and 1915, before WWI forced his move to Zurich. At the time, Trieste had a thriving artist community and a Viennese coffeehouse scene to match it. The scene was unable to weather WWI, one many battles over the past 2000+ years to determine under which border Trieste should be claimed.
An important Adriatic seaport that is technically part of the Balkan peninsula, Trieste has been occupied by the Romans, Byzantines, Franks and then 800 years of relative calm under Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) rule with a couple of Venetian and Ottoman skirmishes thrown in to shake things up.
This border battle is at the heart of the city's identity with pieces of the various empires at every corner, creating a culture all its own. But I couldn't help associate my experiences in Trieste with one of its most famous residents as we visited over Bloomsday- a global celebration of Joyce and Ulysses held every year on June 16, the date the novel is set.
In honor of Joyce, I will season my recap of Trieste with an essence of Ulysses.
Episode I: Welcome, or Not?
As we approached the Old City and its narrow and steep medieval streets, we experienced a panic-inducing anxiety as we attempted to park the car. When I say narrow and steep, these aren't throw away descriptions. Driving a manual vehicle on cobble at 15% graded (allegedly) two-way streets with pedestrians walking down the middle made for a new definition of 'thrill ride'.
'This can't be a real street,' I half shrieked at least five times as we held our breath and cringed while turning corners.
As I 'directed' and Perry drove, we cursed the lack of train service between Slovenia and Italy. At least the drive between Ljubljana to Trieste was fantastic- all beautiful scenery and modern highways. Powering through the navigation nausea, at last, we abandoned the Opel at the top of Cathedral Hill, not to be touched until we were forced to repeat the terror upon leaving the city.
Once inside our accommodation however, moods improved upon meeting our roommate, Attila the Cat, and the view from the window. Attila, who was rescued from Slovenia, sports a nub for a tail, and has a penchant for rough play.
After a warm greeting and cup of strong espresso served up by Francesco (Attila's owner), we set out to explore. The Old City is a mix of historic sites and pedestrian streets filled with cafes, restaurants and shops near the seafront.
At the center is the main square, Piazza Unita d'Italia, home to City Hall and Caffe Degli Specchi, where we were received and served drinks with sullen indifference. Later, we would look back on this as the apex of our foodservice interactions.
After walking around in the heat, we stopped for gelato that had rave reviews, but after our Vigo experience in Ljubljana, it was disappointingly lacking in flavor which matched the bland encounter with the attendant.
We decided to head to dinner, armed with two recommendations from our host. After a long walk, we found the first one closed. When we entered the second restaurant at 6 pm, they had just opened and the place was empty. Before I could even get the words out of my mouth, the host shook his head violently with a curt 'No' and then turned around!
Gobsmacked, we wandered aimlessly around the neoclassical Austrian-era quarter looking for something that might be somewhat healthy. We saw a couple eating salads in a place called Via Roma and so we sat, but were to experience service that even the kindliest of humans would consider downright surly. I smiled when the waitress approached, but she stood stone faced over our table, finally giving us a wide-eyed, exasperated 'Well? WHAT?' look and later threw our plates down on the table, not bothering to return.
Trieste had just earned the 'least hospitable people' award of our three months on the road.
Episode II: The Kindness of Strangers
Back at our Airbnb apartment, our generous host, Francesco, unknowingly compensated for the rudeness by devoting his entire Sunday to us.
First, we headed north of the city to Grotta Gigante, the largest tourist cave in the world.
Afterwards, we stopped at a nearby agriturismo (a farm that also serves as a restaurant) where we were joined by Francesco's friends Mike and Andrea, former Triestians that now work in London as tattoo artists. After a lunch of delicious homemade cheeses, meats, bread, pasta and wine, we made a quick detour to a nearby cave where local teens like to party.
We capped off the day with a stroll down the seafront promenade where the cool air and fresh breeze were a welcome relief after the hot afternoon. Over beers (poor Perry has been forced to suck them down more often than not) and some rock tunes, we pondered our good fortune with such a personal and memorable experience in sharp contrast to the defeated feeling of the day before.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Francesco drove us back to the house and made a pasta dinner with homemade sauce.
Episode III: The Tourists
After the TLC provided by Francesco and friends the day before, we steeled ourselves for a day alone. But first, we stole a few tender moments with the cat.
We started at the top of Cathedral Hill for a quick peek in the church and then made our way down past Richard's Arch, a Roman ruin with a legend about King Richard passing under it while returning from the Crusades. After stopping to admire some nice views, we came upon the Roman Theatre.
We stopped for a carb loaded lunch and my new favorite pizza 'Quattro Stagioni', then decided to head up the hill to the village of Opacina on the old-fashioned tram. After a short walk to grab some photos, we got caught in a severe thunderstorm and packed back into the tram with a busload of German tourists for a steamy, yet stoic ride back down.
A bit wet, but not deterred, we decided to give the Austrian quarter another try where we viewed the Grand Canal, Serbian Orthodox Church and Joyce Passage.
Our time in Trieste had come to an end. The next day, Perry made our escape by maneuvering down streets like this until we came to the blissfully wide open and friendly spaces of Slovenia once again.
As we left the city, my mind was filled with thoughts ala Joyce.
...Tree-Es-Ta how on earth does anyone drive a car up here and not lose their mind I suppose the view is good but maybe thats why they are so miserable and how are they not fat with all the pasta and pizza I hope they find the treats we left the cat which pizza did I like better was it the one in the old town and what was the deal with the restaurants why did the host take one look at us and decide we were vermin did I pack my toothbrush oh what was the name of that restaurant near the cave maybe I should get at tattoo I think we will be back in Ljubljana just in time to eat some ice cream at Vigo or maybe I should just skip it and have wine...
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: A Holiday in Croatia