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Trieste: Italy’s Dark Piece of Iron Curtain History

Trieste at night personTrieste, Italy

Behind me, I know that sapphire lights stud their way across the stone. Right now, though, I’m watching darkness.

Behind me, flames from an occasional car streak across the empty velvet sky, backlit by the brilliance of a long forgotten empire.

Ahead I see nothing. Black, dark, empty, silent. Just the sound of water touching the stone that leads from the Piazza d’Unita d’Italia to the edge of the Adriatic.

I am standing in Trieste, in Italy, and I am thinking about the Iron Curtain, the driving force for my current #ironroute trip.

In 1946, Winston Churchill made this landmark speech:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere…”

He was talking about the political divisions that had appeared in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. At the time, much of Europe lay in ruins, and the rest of the world hardly looked much better. Sixty million people had lost their lives, and two thirds of those lost had been civilians. The defeated “Axis” powers of Germany, Italy and Japan lost 3 million civilians; the “victorious” Allies lost over 35. Ninety percent of Cologne’s buildings were gone. Eighty percent of those in Manila. Widows and orphans grieved in Berlin. In London, Sydney, Namibia, Hiroshima, Nepal, Texas and Arkansas.

The world had changed. The powers of Western Europe, who had set the rules for more than 500 years, were hungry, homeless and looking for help.

And the two giants who held the cards were two late entries into the war: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Given the length and complexity of the Cold war that followed, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that during the struggle against the Nazis, the Russians and Americans had been on the same side. And that by the end, they both wanted the same thing: a peaceful, stable central Europe. One that wouldn’t bring the world to its knees every generation or so.

Trieste Station

Trieste Station

It was winter when I arrived in Trieste. The wind carried with it the whisper of sleet and the soft scent of snow. The ground sparkled with the reflections of Christmas lights in the afternoon rain and the central square was surprisingly quiet.

A central square with a name like Piazza d’Unita d’Italia already invites questions. A mention in a landmark Churchill speech becomes an informal visit to help the police with their enquiries. By the time I was translating the Italian word for sauerkraut (crauti) while sitting in the century-old beloved Buffet da Pepi, historical questions had become a caffeine-fuelled double cross-examination in a hyped and highly-televised celebrity trial of the century.

Just who or what was Trieste? What was the former Iron Curtain? And why didn’t I already know about this fascinating, fantastic place?

Trieste at night

First things first. Trieste lives in the northeast corner of Italy, a short train ride away from the not-so-well-kept-secret city of Venice. One hundred years ago, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire. The Habsburgs (in case, like me, you never covered any of this in school) were essentially Kings and Queens based in Vienna who ran and oversaw an empire that at various points stretched from Holland to the subsequent USSR and lasted for more than 600 years.

Less than 100 years after their demise, hardly anyone knows who they are. For a modern day parallel, imagine your grandchildren drawing a total blank at the mention of a Britain or the notion of a Queen of England.

Yet in the eyes of the world as it entered the 20th century, Trieste formed the Habsburgs’ 4th largest city, right behind the glittering icons of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

The assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife (think the gunning down of Wills and Kate) lit the fuse to World War One and the well-catalogued destruction, misery and suffering that followed.

As World War One ended, so did the Habsburgs. A victorious Italy moved into Trieste, Slovene names were switched to Italian and the decades that followed involved ongoing border disputes, forced Italianization, Nazi occupation, the decimation of the Jewish population and the formation of the only concentration camp on Italian soil.

Landing on the losing side once again, at the end of the Second World War, Trieste “belonged” to the Allied Forces. Its territories were split once more and within a few years it settled into the borders it uses today, snug against what used to be western Yugoslavia, and what is now 21st century Slovenia.

And, according to Churchill’s speech in 1946, at the edge of the Iron Curtain.

My visit to Slovenia, the next stop after Trieste, painted a rather different picture. Talk about the iron curtain with Slovenians ranks right up there in chit-chat terms with discussing slavery with the Yanks or “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Folk, if you’re old enough to remember, picture Bruce Willis with an “I hate Niggers*” sign walking through New York’s Harlem, and proceed through conversation in Ljubljana with caution.

Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) adds in a striking piece to the Cold War jigsaw. Led by General Tito, Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War as a communist country, although it quickly fell out with Stalin’s extremist stance in Moscow and established itself as an independent socialist state.

Unlike Stalin, Tito kept travel borders open; his trade routes were more relaxed, his ideas less radical. The land that he governed forms a crucial part of understanding the Cold war, but I’m not ready to go there. Not just yet. Not now.

Now I’m watching the waves of the Adriatic as they approach the shore of Trieste. I’m smelling fresh and salty air and thinking of dinner. I’m looking for Viennese-style coffee shops and lard-soaked pizza; historical sauerkraut and slices of pork; a Garden of Remembrance and the inspiration for James Joyce. I’m looking for Italian and Slovene, Habsburgs and happiness, Cold War and warm peace.

I am, I suppose, looking for Trieste.

Trieste Lights

Come back soon to read more about modern-day Trieste and more about the Iron Curtain, the Cold war and #IronRoute.

This article forms part of a series for #ironroute, a journey by train from Istanbul to Berlin. This took place thanks to the sponsorship, freedom and encouragement of InterRail.
*And just so there’s absolutely no confusion…This comes from a scene in the movie/film Die Hard With a Vengeance. Since inflammatory and defamatory language comes with a linguistic and cultural context, the line in this article is trying to relate a situation in one place and time with a comparable one in another, only so that people can understand the high tensions and emotions involved, not because I believe or support any kind of discrimination or prejudice. That’s actually the opposite of what this series is trying to achieve…

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30 Responses to Trieste: Italy’s Dark Piece of Iron Curtain History

  1. Andy Jarosz December 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Plenty of great insights into the history of this region. I never knew Trieste had been such an important Habsburg stronghold. I guess it really is the southern tip of the old divide of the two Europes that existed until the end of the 1980s.
    One historical note. The Soviet Union may have been late into WW2 in terms of fighting with the Germans but they marched into Poland only two weeks after the Germans did, back in 1939. They ‘liberated’ the east of the country under the terms of the secret non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin that carved Poland up between its two giant neighbours.

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:31 am #

      Thanks, Andy, for that timely reminder about the Soviet Union’s “pre-war” activity. The history of Poland throughout the twentieth century is a fascinating subject in its own right – and obviously intextricably linked with that of both the Second World War and the Cold War. Beyond the (perhaps unanswerable) questions about why each power chose to behave as they did in Poland, I also wonder why Hitler chose to break that pact, given its catastrophic results for his own position. Then again, the Allied Forces had a number of secret pacts as well with repercussions still being felt today…The more I read, the more I want to read…

  2. Sheila Johnson December 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    Love it Abi.

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:32 am #

      Thank you. It was a tough one to write!

  3. jade December 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    Great story and I love that last photo- so much energy and excitement in it!

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:33 am #

      Thanks. Ideally, I wanted a full sweep of car headlights running across the frame but Trieste in December simply doesn’t have enough traffic!

  4. cailin December 30, 2011 at 4:48 am #

    Looks gorgeous. You definitely found a hidden gem. Love the photos :)

  5. Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:34 am #

    Trieste is absolutely beautiful. I can’t understand why it isn’t better known. Oh, well! Makes for a nice discovery…

  6. dtravelsround December 30, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Really educational — I love that I’m learning and being entertained at the same time. :)

    • Abi January 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

      What can I say? I’m a travelling geek ;)

  7. Stephanie - The Travel Chica January 1, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    Great info and love the night photos.

    • Abi January 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      Cheers! Travel through Europe in winter rather forced me to improve my night photography ;)

  8. Camels & Chocolate January 2, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    Looks like a beautiful place! Not that there’s a single part of Italy that isn’t…

    • Abi January 2, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Venezia Mestre station tries hard to contradict you – but, yes. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Italy several times now and it is an unfairly beautiful country…

  9. Federico January 2, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    Good info on this place, great learning for my first day of 2012!

    • Abi January 11, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

      Hope it’s not too heavy going…

  10. Ayngelina January 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    I will blame it on my North American citizenship but I know absolutely nothing about Slovenia, I’m really looking forward to more of your #Ironcurtain stories to fill in the gaps.

    • Abi January 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      The more I travel, the more I realise how little I know about the world. I wouldn’t particularly blame North America…I suspect most people in Europe don’t know much about Slovenia…

  11. Mark S January 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    When ever i go to Italy I always think about a few day stop in Germany but after reading this article I think I should start planning a trip there. It is just hard sometimes to try something new when you know what you like.

    • Abi January 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

      Well that’s why Trieste is such an interesting compromise ;) It’s in Italy yet you get a taste of several other cultures as well!

  12. Lane January 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Great history, beautifully written and thought-provoking.

    • Abi January 26, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

      Thank you

  13. Ambra Sancin February 8, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Nice story Abi, and of particular interest to me as I was born in Trieste, but have lived my adult life in Sydney, Australia. Have been back to my p.o.b. many times and it certainly is a place like no other…some Triestines don’t even consider themselves Italian! One of the things I miss most is the great coffee. You CANNOT get a bad coffee in Trieste. In fact, I wrote a piece about the Trieste coffee connection for a local magazine ‘Italianicious’ this month. Hope you enjoy it.

  14. Ambra Sancin February 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Hi again, re above story on Trieste, here’s the link to the page above.

    cheers

    • Abi April 16, 2012 at 7:59 am #

      Hi Ambra – links tend to get stripped out to prevent spam. I’ll agree with you over the coffee, though (and the cake.) Delicious!

  15. Ambra Sancin March 8, 2012 at 7:14 am #

    PS. Trieste has just been named #1 on Lonely Planet’s List of Overlooked Cities

    • Abi April 16, 2012 at 7:57 am #

      I always knew they read my blog ;)

  16. Bob R April 8, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    Have you read ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ by Jan Morris? She often wrote about Trieste and lists it as her favourite city.

    • Abi April 16, 2012 at 8:07 am #

      No – or at least not yet. I will add it to my list, though as the city has such an interesting past.

    • Ambra Sancin April 16, 2012 at 9:55 am #

      Agree. It’s a great read. Jan Morris also included Trieste in her 1980 book “Destinations”(Essays from Rolling Stone).

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