A quickening breeze off the Adriatic brings a spray of rain sweeping across the city’s grand plaza, empty on this late July morning. A two-hour train ride away, the smaller Saint Mark’s Square in Venice is filled with U.S. tourists, but I hear no American accents here, mostly the harsh Triestino dialect, a blend of Italian, Slovenian and German.
I’d driven 10 hours to here from the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, another tourist playground, to learn about James Joyce’s formative years living in a city light-years away from his native Dublin. Feeling confined by Ireland’s conservatism, he left Ireland with his mistress Nora Barnacle in 1904 seeking artistic freedom in Europe and landed in Trieste with a promise of a teaching job in a Berlitz language school.
Joyce and his family — he and Nora had two children while here — were forced to leave in 1915 because of wartime restrictions. In that interval, he wrote Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, and started his masterwork, Ulysses.
Having a coffee on the square in the 19th century elegance of the Il Caffe degli Specchi, I try to conjure Joyce’s Trieste, but it’s not easy. The prosperous and powerful city he knew is gone. In its place is a lively 21st century metropolis of 240,000 people no longer dependent on shipping but on technology and medical research. Just off the beaten path of vacationers and tourists, Trieste isn’t a popular destination, except for Joyce fans, but it’s a place I would happily return to.
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While much of the city’s timeless beauty and ancient architecture have been preserved, Trieste is alive with modern culture and independence. Located on Italy’s farthest eastern shore, bordering on Slovenia, the city has only been part of Italy for 95 years after six centuries of rule from Vienna. Because of that tradition, Trieste’s prospect is not toward Rome, but east, toward the now-stable Balkan nations and the European Union countries of Central Europe.
When Joyce, recently broke, and Nora, recently pregnant, arrived at the elegant train station Oct. 20, 1904, 12,000 cargo ships docked yearly at Trieste’s harbor carrying goods to and from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the empire’s sole seaport, it was among the busiest shipping and ship-building centers on the continent, and its healthy economy drew a wide range of nationalities.
It was a city where “Italian dialects clashed with German, Czech and Greek,” writes literary historian Kevin Birmingham. “Albanians and Serbs haggled over prices while Croatians and Slovenians half-guessed their way through conversations. If Joyce wanted to escape Ireland’s provinciality, he had found the perfect place.”
This tiny corner of the Adriatic coast has been occupied by a mixture of ethnic groups since 2,000 B.C., including a legendary — and mythological — visit by Jason and the Argonauts, but it was the Romans in 177 A.D. who set the city’s course as a seaport.
Signs of their presence are found in the ruins of a forum on the site of San Giusto, the city’s hilltop Roman Catholic cathedral and castle, a small theater and city gate dating to 1 A.D. The modest gate has been named for Richard the Lion-Hearted, who supposedly passed through on his way to the Crusades.
The dominant architecture of the city, however, is European. The commercial buildings in Trieste’s core are modeled on ones in Vienna and Budapest, best seen in the ornate 19th century structures that line the grand plaza, now called Piazza dell’ Unita d’Italia.
Built by Empress Maria Theresa, who wanted it to dwarf Venice’s famous plaza, the piazza faces the sea and is the only main square in Italy without a cathedral. It was renovated in 1999 and is marred only by Fontana dei Quattro, called “the ugliest fountain in Europe,” a rock pile with a group of statues.
At the back of the piazza is the Town Hall topped by a clock tower with two bronze figures — Mikeze and Jakeze — which clang the hours.
Behind the central square is a warren of narrow streets winding through rows of centuries-old buildings. These lanes become alive at night with Triestinos enjoying apertivos after work and hearty dinners after 9 p.m.
I found the James Joyce Museum by accident on one of these confined streets, the Via Madonna del Mare. On the second floor of a small office building, the two-room office is really two museums, one for Joyce and one for novelist Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, a businessman and novelist who was Joyce’s student. He’s called the father of the modern Italian novel.
Joyce scholar Richard Ellman believes Svevo contributed certain aspects of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish hero of Ulysses,”\ to Joyce.
The friendly, eager guides were more than happy to detail the writer’s life here, but the museum itself is cramped, lacking display space and original material. It does provide a helpful map to the writer’s numerous lodgings and landmarks, marked with small yellow signs.
Plagued by money troubles, he and his family often moved one day ahead of the rent collector, leaving the yellow markers to dot the city. Most of his former digs are still occupied, so there are no tours. His other haunts, like waterfront dive bars and brothels, have been long demolished.
The most obvious evidence of Joyce here is a diminutive bronze statue along the “Grand Canal,” a three-block stretch where now only small boats are docked. I missed it several times before almost running in to it at the end of a bridge on the Via Roma. Designed by Trieste sculptor Nino Spagnoli to mark the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s arrival, its left shoulder has been rubbed shiny by the pats of passers-by.
The fullest way to experience the writer’s life here is the annual Trieste Joyce School presented by the University of Trieste since 1997 in June and July. It’s a weeklong program of seminars, lectures and cultural events capped by a walking tour of the city.
And it is a walkable city, if you don’t mind a steep climb to the overlook at San Giusto with its expansive view of the harbor and the rough countryside to the west known as the Karst for its outcroppings of limestone, farms, olive groves and vineyards.
Closer west is Miramare, the fairyland castle built by Maximilian, brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary in the 1860s. Its exterior and grounds are lovely, protected by the World Wildlife Foundation, but the interior is full of tragedy and terror. He foolishly accepted the French offer to be emperor of Mexico when Napoleon III tried to establish a presence in the Americas in 1864.
Maximilian was overthrown and executed, but his wife, Carlotta, was allowed to return to Miramare, where she went insane. Later inhabitants suffered downfalls ranging from abdication to car accidents. During a World War II occupation by the British army, its commander slept in the garden rather than inside to stay safe.
Trieste would later witness the beginning of the end of the Habsburg dynasty on July 2, 1914, when the bodies of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, and his wife were brought to Trieste by warship from Sarajevo where they were assassinated June 28. It was the spark of war. By September, most of Europe was at each other’s throats.
When I entered the Piazza della Borsa en route to the grand square, I found four free-standing displays of historic photographs of the archduke’s funeral procession, an observance of the 100th anniversary of the killings. Who knows if Joyce was among the crowds watching the slow march to destruction of the Old World order of Europe, but he had little time left in the city that nurtured his ambitions.
As British subjects, he and his family were ordered to leave a year later. Both he and Trieste would never be the same.