The blob at the edge of Italy

Trieste used to divide capitalism and communism. Now it seems like the centre of Europe.

Forget the Restaurant at the End of the Universe; the Cafe at the Centre of the World is grander, more genial and much easier to reach. The Caffe San Marco rests heavily on a prominent corner of Trieste's most bourgeois boulevard. Customers make a theatrical entrance through a doorway that possesses the scale and ambition of a proscenium arch. You immediately become part of the drama being played out at the Pinteresque pace of the creakiest old waiter.

Once your pulse subsides from the shrieking Lambretta wars on the streets outside, take stock of the set. Heavy tables are stained to a uniform darkness by a century of immersion in a fine mist from coarse cigarettes. Stern, high-backed chairs glare at a bloated leather Ottoman. The furnishings are upstaged by the well-polished bar, whose shelves support a global binge of bottles in all manner of alarming shapes and shades.

The players are equally heterogenous - in age, appearance and gender. Giggling students slurp drinks in primary colours; men whose faces are the colour of cafe au lait and as creased as croissants play out their last few moves across a doddery old chessboard. The ensemble is multiplied to infinity by a platoon of tall mirrors, you feel as if all Europe has converged on a corner of Trieste.

Indeed, Europe does just that, as it has for centuries. Everyone knows what Italy looks like, but peer closely at the map and you see that the territory seeps a little beyond the natural border. That blob contains Trieste and its hinterland.

The precise frontier was fixed only in 1954, when Italy's dispute with Yugoslavia was finally settled. In those days you could turn left for state Communism, or right for capitalism, from Trieste's main street. Now Yugoslavia has crumbled along with Communism, everyone is a capitalist - and most of them congregate at the central market.

Remarkably, the main commodity is the same as it has been for decades: blue denim. Ten years ago, wild tales circulated on the Inter-Rail circuit about the risks and rewards of the Yugoslav jeans trade. Smuggle a few pairs across the frontier, and you could live on the coast for a fortnight on the profit. Nowadays Serbs and Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes barter and bargain over jeans whose provenance and cut are equally questionable.

A ramble around the city's heart is a confrontation with Trieste's many pasts. The dominant suit is pompous Austro-Hungarian, a kind of Budapest- on-Sea. When the Hapsburgs sought a maritime link with the world, they happened upon a quiet port at the head of the Adriatic. The existing old hillside settlement was left to one side (and continues to be - the modest medieval huddle seems in slow collapse). Like Renaissance Lego, a mercantile city sprang up by order of the EmpireCacophonous resonances abound, and the chorus of cultures drew James Joyce here. The writer constructed his walk around Dublin in Ulysses while swimming in a middle European soup.

The city's dimensions are not merely ethnic. In pre-history, Trieste took a geological hammering. Ancient limestone hills rise sharply from the sea. Where the city streets slam into the stone, a network of gigantic staircases tempts the visitor up to a plateau to appreciate the arc of the Adriatic. If you prefer not to walk, then the most entertaining public transport in Europe will lift you halfway to the sky for 50p.

At sea level, it looks like an ordinary tram - a humble timber-trimmed carriage weary from decades of donkey-work. Just as you wonder how so frail a thing could scale a steep gradient, it rounds a bend and meets a slope that resembles the launch stage of a particularly malevolent roller- coaster. Much shouting and shunting takes place while an extra locomotive is bolted on the back. One heave and the ensemble starts to creep up the mountain.

The world changes quickly, with commerce giving way to viniculture; some fine vines cling to these slopes. Each village seems sleepier than the last, as demonstrated by the increasing number of snoozing, scraggy cats. Then into your peripheral vision creeps the final, glorious act of imperial madness.

Miramare is Italy's greatest folly, dreamed up by a commensurately implausible junior Hapsburg by the name of Maximilian. He decreed that elaborate gardens should rise above a rocky coastline and march towards a castle that is almost childlike in its calculated castellations. The poor chap was dispatched to become Emperor of Mexico at the height of Latin revolutionary fervour, so died before he could see the triumph of turretry that shoulders its arrogant way into the Adriatic.

In the course of a weekend in Trieste you may not meet any marauding Mexicans, but you will encounter just about everyone else. James Joyce was, I hope, sipping a cappuccino in the Caffe San Marco when he wrote, "Trieste remained unmoved and unscathed by the Revolutions and Convulsions around her, and in fact became a City of Refuge to the Stranger."

Simon Calder reports from Trieste for 'The Travel Show' on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow.


Italian connection: fly to Venice on Alitalia, British Airways or one of several charter airlines; a fare of pounds 180 return is quoted by the Italian Flight Centre (0181-748 1333) for travel in early June. From Venice airport, take the bus to Mestre station (15 minutes, pounds 1), then the train (two hours, pounds 7) to Trieste.

Slovenian connection: fly from Heathrow to Ljubljana on Adria Airways (0171-437 0143) for pounds 241 return, and take a bus (two hours, pounds 10) to Trieste.

Modest accommodation: check in to the Pensione Centrale, in the middle of the city at Via Pochielli 1 (00 39 40 639482), where you pay pounds 12 per person per night.

Tram trip: there is only one tram route remaining in Trieste; it starts in the centre and wends up to the village of Opicina. The fare is 1,200 lire (50p).

More information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254).

Italian alternatives: read more Italiana in the travel pages of the Independent Weekend on Saturday.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis