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Trail of the unexpected: James Joyce in Trieste

James Joyce spent 15 creative years in Trieste – and his spirit still lives on here.

This Thursday, thousands will congregate in Dublin – and Buffalo, Buenos Aires and other cities – to celebrate Bloomsday, the day in 1904 on which all the action of James Joyce's novel Ulysses takes place. Ironically, no Bloomsday razzmatazz is planned for Trieste, the city where Joyce spent more than 15 richly creative years between 1904 and 1920.

Visitors need not know a jot about Ulysses or its author to relish the Joyce trail, which brings the Italian city's Austro-Hungarian heyday astonishingly close.

Swaggering oversized statues flank doorways once owned by prosperous Habsburg merchants, and crumbling walls strike an occasional melancholy note. Helpfully, an easily walkable itinerary available from Trieste's tourist office maps the eight houses Joyce inhabited and dozens of his favourite haunts. It is fascinating to discover how this grand and beautiful Adriatic port interacted with the man who wrote most of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while living here.

The stories attached to Joyce's time in Trieste are constantly diverting. Arriving aged 22 and penniless, he planned to fund a spell abroad by teaching English. On arrival, he installed his young mistress Nora Barnacle on a park bench opposite the station while he hunted for a place to stay, but instead got arrested along with some rowdy English sailors and had to be rescued from jail by a reluctant consul. He carried on behaving just as unreliably for the next decade, unable to support his family without the help of his steady brother Stanislaus who settled in Trieste.

His happiest period was spent living on the third floor at number 4 Via Bramante, near some elegant steps leading to the Basevi Gardens. You can retrace his possible route when taking his young son and daughter to the local school, where they picked up the harsh Triestine dialect. Joyce liked to stride out, undaunted by the steep hills of the city. Sometimes he went further afield, to escape what he called "a damn silly sun that makes men into butter" and occasionally to escort one of his rich and attractive students up to the Carso plateau. An urban tramway opened two years before Joyce arrived, and operates still. Every 20 minutes and for a mere €1.10, you can climb aboard a tram-cum-funicular at the Piazza Oberdan to ascend the steep gradient and gain magnificent views over the harbour.

For a time, Joyce breakfasted every day on presnitz (a succulent fig roll with nuts) and red wine at the Pasticceria Caffè Pirona. Now, tempting Mitteleuropean pastries are mounded up under the glass counters of this historic Art Nouveau bakery at 12 Largo Barriera Vecchia. The pedestrianised Via San Nicolò was where the Joyces lived at number 32 above the Berlitz School which employed Joyce. Next door is the Umberto Saba Antiquarian bookshop, little changed from the time that it was owned by Joyce's friend, the celebrated Triestine poet Umberto Saba.

Joyce might not have had two crowns to rub together for all the years he spent in Trieste, but he couldn't live without certain pleasures: eating out drinking (a lot), buying books and going to the theatre. He frequented the Teatro Verdi, condemned to the cheap seats where the "sodden walls ooze a steamy damp" and smelled of the "sour reek of armpits". The atmosphere in the upper loggione these days is far more genteel, but the opera is just as captivating.

One entertainment which cost Joyce nothing was to attend places of worship. As the main port of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste embraced a polyglot melange of cultures. One of Joyce's favourites was the Greek-Orthodox church of San Nicolò with its twin towers facing the sea, where the mysterious rituals behind the curtain intrigued him. Many of his most loyal friends and students were from the Jewish community, which was wealthy enough in 1912 to open a synagogue built on a lavish scale on Via San Francesco d'Assisi. Today, the Tempio Israelitico can be visited on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.

A cultural omnivore, Joyce frequented the red light district of the Città Vecchia quarter, including a brothel at 7 via della Pescheria, now a semi-gentrified apartment building. He was equally at home in high bourgeois coffeehouses like the Caffè San Marco, still evocative of Viennese elegance, and the Caffè Stella Polare near the Canal Grande. It was here that he once tore such a strip off the local newspaper editor for chasing after Nora, that the poor man burst into tears. Nothing so dramatic happens now.

A bridge over the canal is graced by a bronze statue of the Irishman caught mid-reverie. I was too taken aback to demur when an Italian passerby who offered to take a photo said "I suggest you kiss him". I was allowed to keep my distance from another fine statue of Joyce enveloped in a flowering rose in the exuberant Giardino Tommasini.

Ulysses is famed for encompassing everything under the sun. For all its wonders, Trieste can't promise quite that range of experience, but Joyce's time here is worth commemorating – on 16 June or any other day.

Travel essentials: Trieste

Getting there

* Trieste is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and Birmingham.

* If starting in Venice, regional trains depart from Venice Mestre throughout the day with a journey time of about two hours to Trieste Centrale ( trenitalia.com; singles €10).

Staying there

* James Joyce Hotel, 7 Via Cavazzeni, Trieste (00 39 040 311023; hoteljamesjoyce.com). Hidden away off a narrow pedestrian lane in the old town, the hotel's reception is located across the street in the smarter Urban Hotel Design. Doubles start at €108, including breakfast.

More information

* Bloomsday is on Thursday 16 June.

* Trieste Tourist Office, 1 Via dell'Orologio (00 39 04 0347 8312; turismofvg.it). * 45 plaques around the city indicate places of Joycean interest.

* The book James Joyce: Triestine Itineraries by Renzo Crivelli is a detailed guide (in English and Italian) with maps.

* See also www.retecivica.trieste.it/joyce