Driving along Viale Miramare, one passes a large expanse of seemingly abandoned buildings and warehouses. This is the Porto Vecchio, the Old Port of Trieste. When I first visited here 5 years ago, most of it was closed off to the public. One could gain access only with special permission and armed with a passport on the rare occasion that they would open up the infamous “Magazzino 18” — a warehouse filled with the personal belongings of those Italians who, expelled from the lands of Istria and Dalmatia, emigrated to Trieste only to be treated like second class citizens, many relegated to refugee camps and eventually shipped off to the US and other parts of the world.
In recent years, the Port of Trieste and the City have been working to breathe new life into the old port. Thanks to the Film Commission of FVG, the location began gaining popularity as a backdrop for films, car commercials and more recently, the very popular television show La Porta Rossa on RAI’s flagship network.
Covering 600,000 square meters, or the equivalent of a little over 112 football fields, this prime real estate holds as yet unrealized promise for the future of the city. Frozen in time and filled with relics of the ancient port, abandoned buildings, warehouses for livestock and goods, this one time bustling port — the heartbeat of Trieste and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has lain dormant for decades. Little by little, some of the warehouses have been refurbished and turned into exhibition spaces, the Magazzino 18 has been somewhat re-organized and sorted to allow tours to come through as an educational experience, (largely thanks to the folk-singer Simone Cristicchi, who dedicated an eponymous musical to the tragedy thereby resurrecting a hidden history that had been buried here for decades).
The history of the port of Trieste began in the 18th century, following the 1717 Declaration of Freedom of Navigation for the Adriatic and the concession of the Free Port license in 1719 by Charles VI of Habsburg, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Port of Trieste was the jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their only sea-access.
Maria Theresa of Austria is largely credited with confirming the nature of the free port, extending its privileges and reaffirming its “duty-free” status with regards to consumer goods, also adding similar customs advantages for the import of raw materials and materials and the export of finished products from Triestine factories destined to the Austrian provinces thereby ushering in a Golden Age of commerce in Trieste and giving rise to an economic boom.
The port gradually began to occupy an increasingly prominent place as the hub for sea and land transport in the Adriatic Sea corridor.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the importance of the port continued to increase thanks to the arrival of the railway connection with Vienna and the Suez Canal opening in 1869 which allowed for a direct and faster route for shipping requiring even ore expansion. During WWII, the Porto Vecchio sustained significant damage and while some reconstruction was undertaken, the Port expanded to the other end of Trieste to allow for the the opening of the transalpine gas pipeline in the 60s and the completion of the container terminal in the 70s.
The status of the Free Port Zones of 1719 has remained a distinctive feature of the Port of Trieste throughout its history and this special status has been confirmed by subsequent peace treaties, by the European Community and by the Italian Parliament thus allowing the port to remain outside the jurisdiction of European Union Customs.
Access to the port is either through the downtown area near Molo IV where the art-space Magazzino delle Idee and the famous low-cost shop Mirella (these buildings were once refrigeration rooms for goods) are located or from Viale Miramare which takes you into the main area near the Hydrothermal plant, (1890) which is described as “an important piece of industrial archaeology. The first alternators were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in 1881, while the first electric motor was invented by Galileo Ferraris in 1885. Together with Hamburg, Buenos Aires, Calcutta and Genoa, Trieste was one of the first ports in the world to be equipped with a hydrodynamic plant”. The newer (early 1900s) electric substation is also a must-see, as it is reminiscent of a Science Fiction movie set.
Nowadays, the Porto Vecchio is coming back to life. Claimed initially by cyclists and joggers within the non-customs area, now there are Instagram meet-ups as well as a steady flow of visitors to the exhibition spaces, tours of the old hydrothermal plant and the electric substation (which looks like something you’d see in an old science fiction movie). The port is a treasure trove of “industrial archeology” and fascinating to visit and explore.
The Port of Trieste is celebrating its 300th birthday and with the launch of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2020, new activity is under way to get the area ready for what promises to be a year filled with visitors and events to highlight the city’s premiere Science, Research and University facilities and faculty.
Plans for next year include the opening of the new Museo del Mare (the Sea Museum), as well as a conference center which will house a 1400 seat auditorium, 12 conference rooms, a Press area and a open area for informal gatherings. There will be also a large area for restaurants, bars and the waterfront will be once again accessible . The City will add a dedicated bus line (80) to the existing other 2 buses (6, 36) currently serving the area. There is even talk of creating a water-taxi service that can accommodate 200-300 passengers at a time from the center of town to the Porto Vecchio.
Needless to say, there is much anticipation for the rebirth and redevelopment of this historic area which hopefully the city and visitors will enjoy for decades to come.
Porto Vecchio (google link)