Trieste: the mad, the 'osmizas' and the dead German poets

Article published on Aug. 22, 2007
community published
Article published on Aug. 22, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The many faces of this very lively, multicultural northern Italian city

The Canal Grande in Trieste (Photo: borzikako/ Flickr)

For 10 Euros, spend an evening 'amongst madmen' in the district of San Giovanni

Italian film director Marco Belloccio portrays them in the film Matti da slegare ('Fit To Be Untied, 1975). Another director, Marco Tullio Giordana, did the same in the outstanding saga La Meglio Gioventù ('The Best Of Youth, 2003). Both films remind us that psychiatric hospitals were still open in Italy until quite recently - terrifying places commonly known as asylums, with electric shock treatment. Franco Basaglia, a forward thinking psychiatrist from Venice, was the first to decide to close the Trieste psychiatric hospital, which you can still visit today just outside the district of San Giovanni. He came up with the idea of a working co-operative for patients to help rehabilitate them into normal life. Such an initiative was set up in 1979 and was called La Cooperativa Il posto delle fragole ('The Strawberry Place Co-operative), named after the bar-restaurant of the same name situated near the psychiatric building (as well as two hotels in the town centre). Another co-operative broadcasts Radio Fragola ('Radio Strawberry' – whose Youtube grooves you can check out here), over the airwaves. There are many initiatives including parties and concerts by university students which run all year round, as well as local food and drink festivals in summer, bonfires by night and an open-air cinema in August. You can even go and see shows put on by a theatrical company of 'mad' actors. The company was founded by one of Basaglia’s former patients and is called the Accademia della Follia ('Madness Academy').

Former psychiatric hospital (Photo: Simone Campani/ Flickr)

For 15 Euros, enjoy a lavish dinner in an osmiza (the local name for a winemaker’s house in the Carso Triestino region)

The fact that Trieste is a frontier town sharing a border with Slovenia becomes more obvious as you leave the city itself for the bucolic (and cold) Carso hills near Trieste. Duino Aurisina, Sgonico, Monrupino, Dolina – these tiny villages cover the hillside around the osmize, restaurants run by farm workers of Slovenic origin. Originally only opened 8 days a year, they are now open all summer long, offering the opportunity to taste locally produced wine and salami. Don’t miss the Terrano wine and the Tabor cheese.

Osmiza (Photo: Simone Campani/ Flickr)

For 10 Euros, go shopping in the former Jewish ghetto

In the local dialect, which is both playful and very much alive, brick-a-brack sellers are called the trapolieri. They sell everything from luxurious antiques to old, scrap furniture and books. And there are lots of them in the former Jewish ghetto. This is because the Jewish commercial spirit is still very strong, and it is the Jews who organise everything. Trieste is a multi-religious city. Not only does it have a synagogue, but also Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox churches. These are definitely worth a visit and are an important, living testimony to the fact that religious communities can live together peacefully.

Serb-orthodox church (Photo: Deanz/ Flickr)

For 2 Euros, take the old tram to Opicina to sentiero Napoleonico (Napoleon’s Way)

An historic tram climbs up the steep hill of via Commerciale, arriving at the small village of Opicina, where a splendid walk with sea views along sentiero Napoleonico (Napoleon’s Way) leads to a climbing wall for enthusiasts. The walk is not difficult and is possible in both summer and winter, obviously depending on the Bora wind.

Historical tram (Photo: Simone Campani/ Flickr)

For 7 Euros, visit the Duino castle and walk along sentiero Rilke (Rilke’s Way)

Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was originally from Prague but also lived in Bohemia, Germany, Russia and Paris. He described his time at the Duino castle saying, Hiersein ist herrlich ('being here is wonderful'). Indeed, it was here that he wrote the excellent Elegie Duinese (Elegies of Duina). A nearby pathway was even named after him, sentiero Rilke (Rilke Way), along the most romantic routes to the cliff tops by the sea in this enchanting corner of the Mediterranean. The castle holds numerous exhibitions on the poets work.

(Photo: Simone Campani/ Flickr)