If you come to it by car over the Karst, all the same, Trieste looks perfectly self-explanatory. The road crosses the border out of Slovenia and reaches the village of Opicina, where the plateau abruptly falls away through pine-woods towards the sea. There, a tall obelisk marks the beginning of the city. It was erected in 1830 to commemorate the completion of the first proper highroad across the Karst, connecting Vienna with its seaport on the Adriatic. Now the monument is peeling and neglected, and its setting is suburban, but when it was new, it told the grateful traveller that his journey across the wasteland was over, and he was reaching a haven of imperial order -- an up-to-date Mediterranean outpost of the empire of the Habsburgs. The young Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Joseph Maximilian came this way in 1850 and thought the Karst a cursed desert, but he saw the distant appearance of the obelisk as a symbol of hope, and urged his coachman to get a move on.
For me an element of hope is the essence of cityness, and when I see a city in the distance, out of the open country, I always get a move on myself. The more isolated the city, the more hopeful, because then it offers a more spectacular contrast to the bucolic world outside. Until lately the cycle of the countryside was regular and foreseeable, governed by the seasons and the primeval needs of agriculture: the harvests came and went, the lambs were born and slaughtered, sowing and reaping, calving and hay-making -- day after day, year after year, the dutiful round proceeded. All being well, there were no surprises. Even the advent of silage and artificial fertilizers, even the prospect of genetic interference, has not yet freed rural living from its age-old routines. Winter or summer, rain or shine, sharp at six o'clock every morning of his life my neighbour Alwyn Parry drives up our lane in his pickup to prepare the cows for milking.
But the city! There matters change by the hour, and people too. The city bursts with ideas as with traffic, a swirl of newness and surprise. Who can be bored in a city? If you are tired of one activity you can try something else, change your job, take your custom to another restaurant. Most human progress has been engendered in cities. While the farmer ploughed his same old furrow, supervised by priest and landlord, and succeeded when the time came by sons and grandsons, away in the city people were devising new ways of living, dressing, thinking, eating and believing. "Had I but plenty of money" the poet said (Browning again)/"Money enough and to spare/The house for me, no doubt, were a house in a city square./Ah, such a life, such a life, as one leads at the window there!" I agree with him, lifelong country-dweller though I am. In our own times urbanism has begun to overwhelm the rural way of things, but there is still enough disparity between town and country to make me prod my postilion when I see a city down the hill.
Surreal? Hypochondriac? Subliminal? Surely not. Our first sight of Trieste from the Opicina obelisk, high on the ridge above the city limits, is as reassuring now as it was in Maximilian's time. The city sprawls before us apparently explicit and composed, and its setting is superb. If the weather is fine we can see it all, there and then, like a diagram of its history. Trieste lies around two bays, the bay of Trieste to the north, the bay of Muggia to the south, separated by a promontory -- The Promontory, Triestini used to call it. The coastline stretches away towards Split and Croatia one way, towards Venice and Italy the other, with the blue hilly outline of Istria to the south, the flat shore of Friuli-Venezia Giulia to the north and west. Often this tremendous scene is blurred -- by rain or fog in the winter, by heat-haze in the high summer -- but sometimes it is almost preternaturally clear, and then one can fancy a flash of sunshine from the golden domes of San Marco in Venice, seventy miles away across the waters.
On a little hill below us, beside Trieste's northern bay, stands the original walled settlement of the city, known to the Illyrians, the Romans and the Venetians. It has a cathedral and a citadel upon its summit, a Roman amphitheatre in its flank, and its medieval tumble of streets is still recognizable, running down to the waterfront -- the pattern of the small fortified port that grew out of Tergeste, and was perhaps rather like a less formidable Dubrovnik. Nowadays Trieste's Old City is partly obliterated by modern development, partly dingy with age, partly prettied up, and has lost most of its ancient pride; but beside and around it, overpowering its consequence, is the city the Habsburgs built as their imperial port.
The prospect of this other Trieste, much of it gleaming new in Maximilian's day, must have cheered him up with its promise of white tablecloths and decent beds. This was a universal compensation of imperialism, and his contemporaries in British India found their spirits similarly rising when their trains drew into Bombay or Lahore out of the endless Indian plains. "See you at the Club!" they cried to each other in relief, as they hurried off to their hansom cabs, and Maximilian, after a look at the view from the Obelisk (which still gets a capital O in Trieste), doubtless hastened back to his carriage, shuffling the leaves from his boots, in the same expectant frame of mind. There in the lee of a wilderness Habsburg Trieste was built, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with all urban refinements. Its design was logical, its buildings were substantial, its streets were spacious, its manner was amply complacent, for it was a mercantile city, a port city, built for the job. It was not primarily concerned with politics, grace or leisure, like its architectural contemporaries St. Petersburg, Calcutta or Bath. Hard work and enterprise were its hallmarks, but its builders knew that creature comfort was next to profitability. It was a thoroughly modern and efficient urban machine.
Today both old and new Trieste are invested by industrial works and nondescript suburbs of the last century, but from Opicina an imaginative eye can still see their first relationship -- an imperial relationship again, one settlement vastly dominating the other. The one is still cramped beneath its castle, vestigially walled: the other confidently faces the sea, with quays and jetties all along its waterfront, a grand splash of a piazza opening directly upon the Adriatic, and a lighthouse on a mole enclosing the harbour. The little medieval town has a certain delicacy to its muddle; the big Habsburg city has no subtlety, only measured swank. From one you might hear the music of lutes and madrigals, from the other oom-pah-pah. For a contemporary parallel you have only to go down the holiday coast into Croatia, where proud old Venetian cities are awash in concrete hotels and camping sites: but again the contrast would be familiar enough to officers of British India, because the complex alleys of castellan Trieste stand amidst the symmetry of the Austrian city rather like an Indian bazaar town beside a neat and whitewashed cantonment of the Raj.
Yet time and setting have made a unity of them (as they often have of the bazaar and the cantonment, and even of the camp-sites and the campaniles). At the start of the twenty-first century there are few modern structures down there, by the standards of most European cities. Trieste was not badly damaged by the wars, and high-rise buildings are rare -- local guidebooks call a six-storey structure a grattacielo, a skyscraper. If we look selectively enough towards the city centre we still see much of what Maximilian saw, except that in his day the northern bay down there, the bay of Trieste, was massed with masts and riggings, and there were ships tied up at all those jetties, steamboats coming and going and wagons rumbling along cobbled piers. "All motion and animation," Maximilian thought it then. If a warship of the Imperial Navy sailed in she was greeted with a gun-salute from the castle, and a muffled echo would reach up here to the Obelisk itself.
Today that bay is more subdued. Farther away from us a new port has arisen, around the promontory in Muggia bay, and we can see tankers and container vessels moored there, or coming in and out: but immediately below us the central waterfront of Trieste, during a few grand generations the sea-gate of an empire, is likely to be without any ships at all.
Copyright © 2001 by Jan Morris
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Jan Morris evokes Trieste's modern history -- from the long period of wealth and stability under the Habsburgs, through the ambiguities of Fas-cism and the hardships of the Cold War. She has been going to Trieste for more than half a century and has come to see herself reflected in it: not just her interests and preoccupations -- cities, empires, ships and animals -- but her intimate convictions about such matters as patriotism, sex, civility and kindness. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is the culmination of a singular career.