Trieste is Italy’s last city – it is last geographically, isolated at the end of a long finger of land that carves a narrow course eastwards, only 5 kilometres wide in places, squeezed between mountains and the Adriatic sea. But it is also last temporally, only having become part of Italy post World War II, in 1954, when following almost a decade of political and bureaucratic wrangling, it was finally signed over to the Republic, a last piece in that complex puzzle.
Many Italians don’t even know that Trieste is in Italy, nestled, as it is, into the crooked arm of Slovenia, and cut off from Venice, its nearest Italian neighbour, by an inimitable stretch of limestone desert known as the Karst. This expanse may easily be crossed by road or rail today, but the character of the city owes much to the days when this wasn’t so. When arrival was on horseback, and by all accounts grueling – three days across the stony and tree-less wilds, cavern-riddled, canyon-pocked, and bandit-infested.
The first sight of Trieste, having crested the final flinty canyon of Karst? A shiny golden obelisk, situated high on a ridge, and put there for this exact moment, to re-iterate and to reassure. ‘Relax crazed traveller, you made it, this is a place and you’re here!’ And what a sight Trieste is – sprawling in repose against its hills, sweeping down to a wide and glistening bay. Perfectly composed, sun bleached and starched, patiently sat watching the sea, and waiting – but watching and waiting for what?
The city docks were once a centre of bustling trade – coffee from East Africa, grain from the Black Sea, first European point of call after Suez – the Hapsburg Empire’s great sea-outlet to the world! But now the docks are bare, nothing moving save a few lonely fisherman casting into the blue. You can watch them do so from one of the myriad café tables in the Piazza Unita, Europe’s largest public square, (and home to its most lackadaisical waiters).
The piazza itself is a three-sided theatre – the grand buildings mercantile shrines to the wealth that briefly washed in from the docks. Flags waves furiously at the front of each still, but out on the ‘stage,’ the dazzling horizon of sea towards which all this attention is turned? Nothing… save the fishermen, and the occasional twitching of a line.
‘It reminds me of St Petersburg,’ comments a Muscovite friend as we cross the wide piazza. It reminds me personally of Vienna, although I’ve not actually been. It is a city at once intimately familiar, and unerringly strange. A not-quite-déjà-vu of a place, reminiscent of everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. Trieste is ‘an allegory of limbo’ in the words of Jan Morris, a city both out of place, and out of time – caught between the folds in the map, unable to get up and move, nursing left-behind memories as the wheels of history have continued to turn…
And then, there’s the Miramare. A miniature white folly castle, situated on a small promontory in the westerly part of the bay, Trieste’s only true tourist attraction. Built by Archduke Maximilian, the younger of the two hapless Hapsburgs, the site was chosen, legend has it, after the Archduke successfully sheltered here when his boat was hit by a sudden and violent storm.
The perfectly proportioned little chocolate-box castle was intended as a wedding gift to his new bride Carlotta, but sadly the castle never offered the couple the protection that its founding tale foretold. Before building was even complete, Maxmilian and Carlotta were dispatched to Mexico, where they briefly reigned as Emperor and Empress, before he was to suffer a rather more unceremonious (and permanent) despatching courtesy of some angry Mexican Republicans. Poor distraught Carlotta was left to return to Europe alone, and descended into madness inside the empty white castle.
It is not for nothing, I think, the assonance between the name Trieste, and the Italian word for sadness, ‘triste.’ And nor is it for nothing that the city attracts the language of madness to its description – surreal, sublime, neurotic, hypochondriac, and paranoid...
Geographical isolation and history’s cruel vagaries explain this in large part, but the weather also has a lot to answer for! Unsettled and unsettling, even in the summer, the city is famously terrorised by a northerly wind called the bora. Furiously violent in nature, it is liable to whip up wholly unexpectedly (Maximilian was likely seeking shelter from a bora that day at Miramare), and it has been known to make even the activity of walking impossibly dangerous. The bora, a Triestino artist is famously quoted to have said, ‘is the only original thing we have.’
Originality, it seems, is a matter that particularly preoccupies the Triestini. For instance, Italo Svevo, the city’s most famous author, offers us – ‘Life is neither ugly or beautiful, but it’s original!’ You can read this etched in bronze at the foot of a life-sized statue of Svevo standing on one of the city’s tree-lined streets. They are the words of his anti-hero protagonist, Zeno, who blurts them out under pressure to say something, anything at all! In a book that centres on Zeno’s ongoing psychoanalysis and all-consuming desire to smoke his final, greatest, cigarette, I think the knowing pseudo-profundity of these words says a lot about the Triestino character. Hamstrung by history, yes, in the wrong place on the map, certainly, going slowly mad, perhaps, but able to laugh darkly about it all the while, necessarily!
So, why go to Trieste? I came because I decided not to go to Venice, (my love of that place being too important and too intense to risk testing by mid-August cruise-ship crowds). I let my eyes drift on the map and there it was, a little along to the right, a place I knew nothing about… Lonely Planet’s most underrated travel destination 2012! I think it’s how lot of people end up coming here – for no real reason exactly, beckoned only by intrigue and that difficult to pin-point feeling of strange familiarity that the place manages to emit even as a mere dot on the map.
And, if you’re a piazza-wanderer, passegiata-taker, a lover of café-sitting, or anyone who has ever had the desire to just press pause and hideout somewhere, you’ll be glad you came. The wonderful cafés are a legacy of the Austrian rule, excellent coffee comes courtesy of Illy (a company founded on the Triestine docks), and the opportunity to take as much time sitting drinking it as you like, the less appreciated flipside of especially lazy waiters!
It was not until the last day of our weeklong wander that we found the tiny gelateria – just a stone’s throw from the piazza, but on an island of un-walked street. Our criss-crossed paths had thus far managed to take us all around it, but never quite past. Inside, the usual line-up of gelati colours, but lean in closer to read the flavours… Pumpkin & Amaretto, Lemon & Ginger, Peach & Basil!? And how did they taste? Not surprisingly, entirely strange, and extremely familiar. In other words, absolutely perfect.
Peach & Basil Ice cream
(Makes 650ml of ice cream – enough for 4 people)
- 400g (approx. 4) perfectly ripe flat peaches
- 150g caster sugar
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Approx. 20 leaves of basil
- 200ml fresh double cream
Cut the peaches in half along their natural cleft, and twist apart to open. Remove the stone, then roughly chop the fruit (skin on) into approx. 1cm cubes. Place these into a shallow dish, sprinkle over the sugar, along with the lemon juice, and mix briefly with a spoon to coat the pieces. Now, cover with cling film, and leave to macerate at room temperature for 3 hours.
After 3 hours, the fruit will have softened and released a lot of its juices. Pour both the peaches and juice into a food processer, along with the basil leaves. Tear these roughly with your hands as you add them, as this will bruise the leaves a little, releasing their flavour. Give the mixture a quick stir with a spoon to ensure that the basil leaves are evenly distributed through the fruit, before blitzing in the food processor for approx. 30 seconds. You want the fruit to liquefy, but for small flecks of peach skin and basil to still be visible.
Next, add the cream to the processor, and blitz again, for another 10-20 seconds, to blend.
If you are planning on using an ice cream machine, it is best to cool the mixture to fridge temperature before doing so. A couple of hours on the top shelf of the refrigerator in sealable container should be enough. Depending on the type and quality of your ice cream machine, you may be able to omit this step. I find that the kind of machine that relies on a pre-frozen bowl does work best when the liquid introduced to it is refrigerator-cold to begin with.
When the peach mixture is sufficiently cold, pour it into your ice cream maker, and churn for 30 minutes. Remove to a freezer-proof container once churned, and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours before eating.
If you don’t have an ice cream machine, pour the mixture directly into a baking tray or wide container and place into the freezer. The best results with this method rely on some serious diligence – you’ll need to take the mix out of the freezer every half an hour and beat it vigorously with a whisk to stop ice crystals forming. If you have an electric whisk – even better. Really get into the corners of the tray and scrape all the icy bits from the edges.
Keep checking on progress, and, after about 2-3 hours the ice cream should be very nearly frozen. At this point, transfer to a sealable plastic container, and return the ice cream to the freezer until you’re ready to eat it.
The flavours are at their best when still fresh, so best to enjoy it within three days or so of making.