With the mountainous Slovenian border on one side and the uncharacteristically grey Adriatic Sea on the other, I gazed out over the crumbling terracotta roof tiles of Trieste, taking shelter from the howling wind and driving rain behind a battlement on the Castle of San Giusto. It was a grim day in northern Italy; the clouds were thick, the wind strong and the rain showed no sign of stopping. But my guide assured me in his own unique way, “This is nothing – you wouldn’t want to be standing up here when our famous bora winds hit…”
Wondering if I should rush back down to sea level before this mysteriously named gust swept me off a turret, I pressed for more information. It turns out that bora (a north to north-eastern wind that can exceed 200 kilometres per hour) only blows for an average of between one and six days per month in Trieste, depending on the time of year, and its arrival can usually be predicted before the wind reaches dangerous speeds. Luckily this wasn’t one of those days.
A blast of culture
My weather worries allayed, I explored the castle – which was finished as it stands today in 1630, after almost two centuries of it being torn down and built back up again on the whims of various rulers from Italy and Austria. There’s no doubt that San Giusto is Italian now though, with the national tricolour flag hoisted high above the fort flapping proudly in the blustery wind. The castle was a perfect vantage point to get a feel for the city and the view alone was worth the very reasonable €4 (Dh19) entrance fee.
A short stroll down the cobbled hill from the castle led me through narrow alleys of tightly packed houses, most with handrails attached to the outside walls for anyone caught out by an unexpected blast of bora.
The architecture on display was fascinating – a real hotchpotch of cultures, with buildings built on top of buildings and evidence of the city’s rich and diverse history popping up in the most unlikely of places. The remains of large stone arches, thought to have been part of the city’s fortified wall, burst out of houses that had been built around the impressive structures.
As I continued my descent through Città Vecchia – Trieste’s old town, which became a slum-like area during the early 1900s due to the vast influx of sailors who worked out of the city’s port – I imagined what must have occurred in times gone by in the darkest corners of these old, cobbled streets.
An indication of what it must have been like comes in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The legendary author lived in Trieste for ten years, but his only clear mention of the city comes in Ulysses’ Eumaeus episode and pertains to a homicide and a smuggling.
Thankfully Joyce’s portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth of modern-day Trieste. Despite his far-from-glowing review of the city, the residents don’t hold a grudge, and there is a bronze statue paying homage to him looking out proudly over the harbour.
With the rain persisting, I decided that I needed to warm up indoors. As I passed a small café in a busy square, I was drawn in by the alluring aroma of fresh coffee.
This particular café, called Torrefazione, is a favourite of the locals and was packed to the rafters. They love the place so much because it roasts all of its coffee in furnaces in the back (which the owners will let you look at if you ask them nicely), so it’s snugly warm and the coffee couldn’t be fresher.
As the punters shouted their orders to the barista, who had the uncanny ability to seemingly ignore everything that was said to him yet produce everyone’s request with the speed of a Formula One driver, I tried to listen out for the most popular order so I could get a genuine taste of Trieste’s favourite brew. Among the chorus, one seemed to be the runaway favourite: Capo in B (short for cappuccino in bicchiere or glass). So I joined the ranks of shouting customers and, sure enough, within a minute of my request I was presented with what looked like a mini cappuccino in a small shot glass. Delicious! With more intensity than a regular cappuccino but less bitterness than an espresso, it had bags of flavour concentrated into a small serving – Heston Blumenthal-esque.
Suitably warmed, I ended my tour of the city in the stunning Piazza Unità – the main square. With three sides of the square surrounded by the city’s grandest and most elegant buildings and one side open straight out on to the Gulf of Trieste, it holds the somewhat tenuous title of ‘largest European square facing the sea’. But forget the awkward accolade; the square is atmospheric and beautiful.
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Although Trieste is an Italian city and the residents are clearly proud of that fact, the place comes across more as generically European, perhaps due to the heavy influence of Austria in its history and its proximity to Slovenia. I noticed this even more as soon as I arrived in the boiling cauldron of pure southern Italian culture that is Naples.
Satisfying the senses
Naples is a behemoth of a city but is often overlooked as a tourist destination in favour of the nearby historic part-buried city of Pompeii – where the victims of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption are still preserved. Despite its size – Naples is Italy’s third largest city, behind Rome and Milan – the best way to explore is by foot. So my guide Tina took me to the perfect starting point to look around; Spaccanapoli – literally meaning ‘Naples splitter’ – the main street that separates the old and the new parts of the city. Standing at the top of the road and looking down its dead-straight, two-kilometre length, I could see where it got its name from.
Spaccanapoli was an attack on the senses. The sound of street buskers competing to be heard over the booming voices of over-zealous salesmen trying to convince passersby to come into their shops; the smell of freshly roasted coffee, which seemed to be wafting through the air wherever I went in the city; the taste of Naples’ famous fresh milky buffalo mozzarella – I gobbled down a free sample from one of the salesmen to tempt me into buying some, which of course I did; the feel of the cobbles underneath my feet as I wandered down the historic street, soaking up the atmosphere – this is what Italy is all about.
I stopped at a small streetside café – one of many on Spaccanapoli – for a coffee. The milky Capo in B is a no-no here. The Neapolitans take their coffee black and as hot as you can handle, so espresso was the order of the day.
It’s hard to get across just how much the Italians love coffee – the stuff is everywhere. They even have a song about it, A Tazza e Café, where the singer compares his loved one to a cup of the black stuff.
In among all the shops and cafés is an unexpected gem. The Sansevero Chapel Museum is home to the most amazing sculptures I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The main attraction is a piece by Giuseppe Sanmartino called The Veiled Christ, which is so mind-blowingly realistic that it caused people to suspect its owner, Raimondo di Sangro, of being an alchemist, capable of turning people into marble. It is, of course, made out of one solid block of marble, but the detail on the statue was so stunning that it had me lying in bed that night wondering if the legends of alchemy were true.
With my mind completely blown, I wandered back out on to Spaccanapoli, where Tina gave a busker a few euros and made a special request. He broke out into a rousing rendition of A Tazza e Café, much to the delight of the passing crowd, who showed their appreciation with cheering, applause and a flurry of coins into his guitar case.
As if the bustling streets of the city didn’t have enough to offer, Tina took me to a huge part of Naples that could easily go unnoticed; an 80-kilometre labyrinth of subterranean caves that run up to 40 metres deep under the city.
There are plenty of entrances, but I ventured into the Bourbon Tunnel. With more uses than a Swiss army knife – they have been used as an aqueduct, an escape route, an air-raid shelter, a vehicle impound lot and finally as a car park – these caves have been a vital part of Neapolitan history.
Undoubtedly the most useful period in the tunnels’ history was during the Second World War, when they were used to shelter more than 10,000 Neapolitans from the barrage of bombs hailing down on the city above. Restorers have delved through the debris and resurrected artefacts, including cars, mopeds and even children’s toys.
On the face of it Naples and Trieste are two Italian cities with very little in common. One is a southern Italian giant most famous for its ice cream; and the other is a small seaport in the extreme north of the country, barely clinging on to its Italian status. But they’re both full of character, hidden surprises and, most of all, passion for the good things in life.