Trieste: Sip coffee and re-Joyce in Jewish heritage

We visit the 'gateway to Zion', and experience a heady mix of piazzas, prosecco, pasta and illuminating stories of the past.

By Kate Wickers, March 8, 2012
Canal Grande, located in the city centre is flanked the sea at one end and Church of St Anthony at the other

Canal Grande, located in the city centre is flanked the sea at one end and Church of St Anthony at the other

The city of Trieste sits sedately on the Adriatic Sea, on the edge of north-east Italy, in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. So different from other Italian cities it oozes the atmosphere of Mittel-Europa, greatly influenced by its location at the crossroads of Latin, Austro-Hungarian and Slavic cultures.

And it has a magnificent sea faring past, once the premier port of the great Hapsburg Empire and known as "The Gateway to Zion" due to the frequent covert emigrations to Palestine by Jews fleeing persecution.

The immense Piazza Unita d'Italia, where adolescent Italians convene to flirt and eat gelati near the baroque fountain, is the heartbeat of the city. It's unusual as it's the only square in Italy not to have church but is framed instead by numerous ostentatious Palazzos built in the 1800s by shipping and insurance companies and the immense Government Palace, and Palazzo del Municipio (Town Hall).

Although the Jewish community only numbers around 600 today, Trieste was once home to more than 6000 Jews. They were free to attend university, to buy property, to found commercial ventures and unlike elsewhere in Europe, the ghetto was abolished in 1785. Gabriella Kropf, a third generation Triestine, runs Key Tre Viaggi, a tour company specialising in Jewish cultural tours and she was waiting for me at the synagogue, one of the largest in Europe.

The vast interior with four mighty marble pillars sustaining the huge central dome and an Oriental-style design in the biforate windows, columns and carvings is testament to the standing of the Jewish community in Trieste. The prayer area is bound by a marble railing embellished with flowers and corn ears the symbol of the Trieste community.

We wandered up the Via del Monte, which was in 19th century the central thoroughfare for the Jewish community. Number 5 has been a Jewish hospital, primary school and refugee shelter but today is The Carlo e Vera Wagner Jewish Community Museum.

It has a varied collection from important historical documents to ceremonial objects and religious furnishings.

The most moving section of the museum though is dedicated to memory of the people of Trieste who were deported to concentration camps. The Risiera di San Sabba, Trieste's old rice husking factory, was the only extermination camp in Italy, and thousands of people among them partisans, political prisoners and Jews died here.

Getting there

Fly: Ryan Air flies to Trieste from Stanstead Airport. Flights start at just £12.99 one way including taxes.
Stay: A City Break Special staying at the Savoia Excelsior Palace starts at just 144 Euros for two people sharing a Classic room including breakfast. See our review.
Tours: Key Tre Viaggi specialises in Jewish heritage tours to Trieste.
Discount card: An FVG Museum card from the Tourist Information Centre costs 15 Euros and is valid for all the places featured in this article apart from The Synagogue. Guided tours are on Sunday at 10am, 11am and 12am.
More info:

In 1965 it was declared a National Monument.

At the summit of Via del Monte is the Jewish cemetery where you can pick your way through the very elaborate graves of Trieste's important Jewish families to the memorial dedicated to those that died during the Second World War.

We had a coffee in Café San Marco, one of Trieste's Viennese-style Art Nouveau coffee houses, traditionally, a favourite haunt of the city's intellectuals. Think Zeno, Emilio and Svevo. The writer James Joyce, who lived in Trieste from 1904 -1915, penned most of the stories of The Dubliners here and began writing Ulysses whose main character, Leopold Bloom was of Jewish extraction.

We joined the elder Jewish ladies in their furs, who come after Synagogue to sit and gossip over their espresso, before getting lost in the narrow streets.

I came first to The Roman Theatre. It's capacity was 6000 and it is remarkably intact though a little overgrown with weeds and stray cats. In bygone days it would have overlooked the sea but today sits slap bang in the middle of Trieste's commercial district just a step from stores such as Max Mara and Fendi.

The Riborgio Ghetto starts just behind here and is a confusing labyrinth of narrow streets and blind alleys, many of the buildings are in decay but there is love in the air and houses are being restored.

It's a knee-aching steep climb up cobbled streets to the castle built between 1471 and 1630 and home to the Lapidarium, a collection of Roman sculptures; bas-reliefs and immense inscriptions that look freshly chiseled and wonderfully intact mosaic floors. From the ramparts there are far reaching views over the Cyprus trees to the port where jaunty little ferries make haste across the blue.

Next morning I was up early because I wanted Castello de Miramare all to myself. Built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian Joseph in 1855, it shines like a beacon on a rocky outcrop just a couple of miles from the city centre. It's an enchanting fairytale place, jutting out over the sea, sumptuously furnished (the archduke's study like a ship's cabin), and surrounded by 54 acres of rare and exotic flora imported from around the world. Just the coo of pigeons and the gentle lap of the sea interrupted the silence.

Bus 36 dropped within me striking distance of Museo Revoltella, Modern Art Gallery.

It would be hard to pick a highlight among this collection of 19th and 20th century art but Carl Frithjof Smith's After The First Communion, painted in 1905 is truly compelling and Giacomo Manzu's sculpture Child with a Duck brought a smile to my face.

At restaurant Fratelli la Bufala I sat outside by the edge of the Grand Canal to soak up some sunshine and devour a ciliegina salad - grilled aubergine, carrot, mozzarella, olives and fresh radicchio.

It's just a short stroll from here to Piazza Oberdan to catch the Opicina electric tram, with its unique stretch of funicular railway, which has run from the city centre up the steep hills to a plateau high above Trieste since 1902.

From the Obelisk stop there's a picturesque stroll through pine trees to the town of Prosecco, where on a clear day you can gaze past the Victory lighthouse to the coast of Croatia and Slovenia.

No visit to Italy would be complete without a spot of shopping. I indulged in a set of art collection coffee cups, designed by Anish Kapoor, from the eminent coffee makers illy, who founded their business in Trieste in 1933.

In Café de la Tour I sat and drank my prosecco and listened to the animated banter, dipping my ciabatta into soft polenta topped with tomatoes and peppers - a complimentary snack. Later in trendy Roma Quattro I ate spaghetti made simply with butter and porcini mushrooms and then picked up a pistachio mousse at the Jazzin Gelateria on Via Mercato Vecchio on my way home. Loosening my belt, I wondered why food never tastes this good at home.

Last updated: 11:36am, March 8 2012