Some friends and I visited the beautiful sea port city of Trieste in Italy yesterday, just a short ride from our home in the Istrian part of Croatia. As rustically charming as Istria is with its tiny hilltop stone villages and ubiquitous olive groves and vineyards, Trieste is charming in a whole different way.
Like most parts of Istria, Trieste was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire as well as part of Italy and those influences are seen all throughout the city. So many artistic and cultural details jump out at me every time I visit, and this time was no different.
For example, as we were sitting down for lunch at a waterfront restaurant on the Canal Grande, I noticed a few young people walking around with these large, leafy wreaths around their heads. Young men and women alike wore them, and the big glossy green leaves contrasted beautifully with the red ribbons that were woven throughout these wreaths. What could they be?
I asked the hostess who sat us at our table what these wreath crowns were for, and she explained “la laurea,” the graduation of the baccalaureate. They were graduates (laureatos) celebrating their big educational accomplishments! The tradition in Italy is that right after the graduation ceremony, students are given a laurel wreath to wear for the rest of the day.
One family celebrating their graduate was sitting at the restaurant near us, and I didn’t want to impose on their celebration, but when I saw them getting up to leave, I went over and asked the graduate if I could take her picture. I told her we didn’t commonly have this lovely tradition in the USA, and you could tell she was flattered and a little embarrassed, but said enthusiastically, “Of course.”
You could see how proud her family was of her accomplishment and her face is just radiant with happiness!
This tradition in Italy originated at the University of Padua two centuries ago and has since spread throughout the entire country’s universities. This particular wreath is made from the bay laurel tree and traces its roots back to Greek mythology. Apparently Apollo immortalized the laurel tree after his beloved Daphne was changed into the tree while he was chasing her. Because of this he made its branches into sacred symbols to honor her and consequently, victors throughout Greece began receiving the sacred laurel wreath for military triumphs, athletic competitions and for accomplishments in music and poetry.
These beautiful wreathes were one of the many colorful and artistic details that caught my eyes and touched my soul in this poetic port city. Trieste is just a short hour and half drive from our home in Pula, so we have visited it before, but it always manages to inspire me in some way. Because it is so close, we tend to take it for granted and kept pushing a visit out into the future until recently, when Carolyn and our new friend Tina from Australia decided it was time to head back.
Trieste is not as famous as it’s Italian siblings: Venice, Florence and even Bologna or Milan. But perhaps it’s because of this obscurity that the city is so refreshing and its poetic ambiance catches you by surprise. Because of its history, it has that strong Austro-Hungarian influence in its beautiful architecture and a lovely Viennese caffè culture. Of course, there are always some tourists meandering about (I mean, we were there), but even in the middle of July, the city is not overwhelmed with them, so it seems more authentic and less touristy than other cities you visit in Italy.
Part of this authenticity emerged for us when we saw our waitress had four precious Italian girls following her around because they were bored sitting with their moms who were chatting away over their coffee. Carolyn and I asked them to come over with the waitress while we spoke to her, and they bounced over in their colorful tutus and flowered dresses acting very demure and shy. We asked if they spoke English and they said not much, but lo and behold, they knew quite enough to answer several of our questions specifically about their names and ages. They were 7 to 9 years old and their names were Flora, Sophia, Claudia and Gaia. They were perfectly charming acting like little ladies and the picture of poise, until we saw them later leaving the restaurant. Two of them were in tears crying dramatically and fussing (about what we don’t know ) and one was getting a stern talking to by her mother. Maybe they wanted gelato? But it seems kids are the same everywhere.
Walking around the city after a delicious lunch which included a caprese salad with genuine buffalo mozzarella, homemade gnocchi with pumpkin sauce and a clam linguine dish, (Oh, and yes, the food is as great as you get anywhere in Italy!) I was taken in by all the stunning architectural details everywhere you turn. Like this fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Borsa or the gorgeous mosaics covering this Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Spyridon.
Even non-descript streets had buildings with charming old doors along with sculptures and busts of people dangling over the keystones of doorways or gracing window tops. Those types of details usually speak to me the most. Like this amazing carved wooden lion on this battered door.
We strolled towards the Piazza Unità d’Italia, a beautiful square which is surrounded by large stately municipal buildings and faces the Adriatic Sea. It is known as the largest public square located next to a sea in Europe, and it is fantastic place to have a cup of coffee or an Aperol Spritz and absorb the beauty of the area.
My friend Tina who visits Trieste regularly recommended this beautiful historical cafe on the piazza called Caffè degli Specchi, which opened in 1839, and it was one of the highlights of the afternoon for me.
Why? Besides it being a beautiful historical building and having a great view, I love visiting places where famous writers have found inspiration and apparently Dublin’s James Joyce, the Italian novelist Italo Svevo and Prague’s Franz Kafka all frequented Caffè degli Specchi when they lived in Trieste. I try to imagine them sitting inside the glamorous building or outside looking to the Adriatic and each creating their own literary masterpieces. Next time I return I’ll bring my notebook. Who knows what could happen?
After a drink at the cafe, we walked further down the Piazza to the waterfront where there sat an incredible life-like bronze sculpture of two girls stitching the Italian national flag, even though someone decided to use part of it as an advertisement for a number of products. The top picture was the front of it and the bottom was the back of it. It was creative, I have to give them that. I guess the city inspired them as well.
And look at this guy below hanging over this doorway, he looks pretty odious with that missing tooth and wicked mustache. Was he a real person? A character in a story? And who was commissioned to carve this and why? As I wander around, I think of these things.
Below is a statue of the author James Joyce that stands along the Grand Canal. Joyce lived in Trieste for 15 years and wrote many of his famous novels there including Ulysses and A Portait of an Artist as a Young Man. He also spent time teaching English to mariners both in Trieste and in Pula.
And here is my old friend again….
And another friendly guy hanging above a doorway….
Anyway, if you happen to be visiting Croatia, or Slovenia or Italy, you might want to consider a visit to this inspiring city, as its airport connects you to all of the above destinations. Trieste’s rich maritime history would please sailors and seaman alike, its literary history would interest the literary buffs like myself and for music lovers, the famous Guiseppi Verdi was inspired here in the city as well and has a beautiful opera theatre named after him.