The International Writers Magazine
Muses on Bella Italia

Muses on Bella Italia
Wynn Wheldon

Why Venice it too much and Trieste is not enough

here’s too much human flesh, for a start. I mean that literally: it feels inappropriate to wear shorts or Eminem t-shirts that finish just above the midriff. Ok maybe the occasional singlet (plain, white) on a genuinely Venetian bargeman.

Obviously, there’s too much Vivaldi, he's just everywhere. There’s too much self-glorifcation. Venice proclaims its own glory in every pieta and ascension, in every ludicrously overwrought church. God must look down, baffled, bedazzled, wondering 'what on earth?'

And beauty. There’s too much beauty. On the San Marco side of the Rialto bridge, on the grand canal, there’s a tall slim house, and it’s just too beautiful. The ground floor shutters are of mussel blue, on the first floor they are racing green; they sit on a background of that inimitably flaky venetian red umber that is the colour one remembers the city being. I could have stood and stared at it for hours, so utterly perfect were its proportions and colours. It has probably turned up dozens of times in those horribly tasteful and self-congratulatory design magazines that take themselves so frightfully seriously, but for the time I looked at it, it was mine alone, and it lived.
Ah yes, and then there is Titian and Bellini and Tintoretto and – well, as I say, there’s altogether too much beauty.

Venice is too much.


…and Trieste is not enough

Strolling out into the Mediterranean upon the wide jetty known as the Molo Audace, one feels that, Trieste sits upon the sea. The impression is reinforced by the great ring of mountains that creates the half bowl at the bottom of which the city floats. Unlike Venice, however, Trieste is not a work of Renaissance genius. To all intents and purposes, it was built by the Austrians in the Eighteenth century. It was the land-locked Habsburg Empire’s toe into the Mediterranean.

And with the Viennese architecture came a certain Viennese bourgeois style: austere, urbane cafes filled with an altogether less than austere variety of cakes and desserts and sweets and tarts and rolls. While we were there, in November, a chocolate festival was proceeding at the foot of the outlandish Chiesa di Sant’ Antonio Taumaturgo. Along with the sweet spicy hot chocolate drinks, the carefully wrapped little bags of nutty chocolate, and the smooth Lindty stuff, there was a display of chocolate penises. I thought immediately of Dr Freud. But then perhaps that says more about me than about Trieste.

Despite having booked a room with a double bed and a bath at the Hotel Roma, we arrived in the evening to find the twin beds unmade and the room untended to; at the lobby another customer was complaining about rain coming through his ceiling. The rather hapless clerk, his shirt and tie far too big for his neck, explained to us that the Hotel Roma had no double beds, had never had any double beds, and to the man – as if this made everything okay – that the “rain” was almost certainly the shower being used in the room above. With that in mind, he rang the offending room and asked its occupant not to shower so heavily. We sought somewhere else. But Trieste was full with an International Convention on Critical Medicine, and the only place we could find was a superiorish motel in the shipbuilding town of Montfalcone. We had no choice. Having spent nothing on the flights (a Ryanair deal), we had already spent 90 euros on taxis attempting to find a decent hotel room.

The following morning we headed back into Trieste, having booked a room in some hotel called the Duchi D’Aosta. We hadn’t asked the price. Turned out, naturally, to be the best hotel in Trieste. Our room was on the first floor, overlooking what Jan Morris, in her wonderful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, calls 'the whale heart' of the city, the enormous Piazza dell’Unite d’Italia, formerly the Grande Piazza, a much better name.

To we literary souls, Trieste means James Joyce and Rainer Maria Rilke and Stendhal, but the modern city seems curiously uncharismatic. Sightseeing really doesn’t take that long. You stroll up the hill to the citadel and cathedral of Saint Giusto, wander about, look out over the town and the Adriatic and then make your way back down, through the numerous cats and the ill-kempt gardens. There was a market on the Saturday, remarkable chiefly for the amount of Nazi regalia on sale, along with copies of Mein Kampf (which I have never seen on sale anywhere else except in newsagents on the Edgware Road) and numerous secondhand copies of Jane Fonda’s workout video.

And that, pretty much, was that. I suspect of course that Trieste being a great disappointment reflects more on me than on Trieste. In another life, perhaps, I shall be a solitary soul in search of a city that belongs to no-one, and I shall go and live in Trieste. Perhaps.

© Wynn Wheldon February 2006

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