Our visit to Koper was short and sweet. We could have made a more direct path to Maribor but choose to travel through Trieste, in north-eastern Italy to have a quick visit with our childhood friends.
Trieste was where our parents would buy brightly coloured clothes, jackets, and shoes and smuggle them back to Slovenia. A ferry boat connected our hometown of Koper with sophisticated Trieste with its trendy shops and cafes.
There was an enticing buzz in Trieste that was enhanced by the fact that we were sneaking goods across the border. Black market bad-ass — that was our mom, all 5’2 and 90 lbs of her. It helped that she was a beautiful brunette with a saucy up-swept ponytail, and a bright, friendly smile.
For my sister and I, Trieste meant a boat ride, gelato and balloons. I remember my father teaching me primary colours with the balloons I held in my hand. Never miss a moment to learn a lesson, that was our dad’s motto. As a four year old, I would study my red, yellow and blue balloons combining them to create new colours. It was magic — the scientific mind.
Adriane and I had missed seeing Trieste on our previous visit to Europe so we were excited to discover what memories we would find there.
We flew into the small international Friuli Venezia Giulia Airport and caught the local bus to the main station where our childhood friends Nives and Tamara had arranged to meet us.
After fumbling at the vending machine, a very attractive young man showed us how the ticket booth worked (bring cash) and over an hour later (we did not realize how far it actually was) of passing one community after another, we pulled into the station.
We grabbed our small carry-ons – a lesson we had learned from last year’s mammoth suitcase mistake– and as usual, headed straight for the restroom.
The bus station was massive but there they were! Nives and Tamara ran up to us and gave us such a hug and squeeze that any doubt we might have had that we were infringing on their good graces evaporated immediately.
“Nives!” I exclaimed between hugs and laughter. We spun each other around. She looked radiant her short blonde hair framing her face. Tamara, more of a tomboy in her youth, had a big grin on her face. Her husband Niko was driving so we settled back in the seats.
Trieste has a long history of empires and cultures that have come and gone, leaving their mark. During Marco Polo’s time this was a major maritime power that would become a rival to the Venetians who didn’t like that and occupied it from 1283–87, and again in 1368 until 1372. Later Venice renounced its claim and Trieste voluntarily joined Austria and became one of the country’s largest cities and a magnet for artists and writers including James Joyce.
Today, with a population of over 200,000 it is still a great centre for shipbuilding and shopping.
As we drove through Trieste a heavy fog obscured the coastline blurring the details until all that was left were grey blurred shapes… half real half ghost. It was as if my memory had manifested itself into the real world – things looked familiar yet I couldn’t make out details. Despite the fog both real and in my memory — we had no problem recognizing the old ferry landing that had taken us back to Koper, mouths sticky with ice cream, a balloon in our hand.
The fog had made taking photos pointless, but we knew this weather was not the norm. My sister and I vowed to return to Trieste. We had another item to add to our bucket list. Caving! This area has approximately 1,500 of them including Grotta Gigante, the largest tourist cave in the world and Cave of Trebiciano with the Timavo River running underground at Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. The Romans believed this to be the Entrance to Hades. Today these caves are on a UNESCO list and we will be exploring them the next time around. After all, we still had not visited Slovenia’s famous Postojnska Jama with its famous white dragon fish.
Koper, Trieste’s neighbour is the Italian speaking hub of Slovenia. For obvious reasons. This was an Italian community until after the World War I when it became part of Yugoslavia. Slovenians fled Trieste, Italians left Koper, today the city holds both Italian and Slovenian as its official languages. When I was five my parents enrolled me in the Italian school, while my sister attended the Slovenian school next door.
During Marco Polo’s time, Koper was enjoying a golden age when it became the Capital of Istria – from which its Italian name Capodistria came from. This town was fortified and a beautiful cathedral and palaces rose with civic pride.
Under the Venetian Republic trade grew in the coming centuries. But when Trieste became a free port in the early 18th century, Koper lost its importance.
After WWII the Free Territory was divided into two zones with Koper going to Yugoslavia and Trieste to the Italians.
When we arrived at Tamara’s home, filled with colourful original art – and a new kitten, the mouth-watering smell of sardines awaited us. Prepared traditionally they were butterflied and pan-fried lightly. Potato salad and a generous sampling of wines and aperitifs from Slovenia and Croatia were waiting for us. Anise, grass flavoured, and the traditional red current liqueurs were sampled. Nives’ husband Bojan joined us for dinner and it was as if a year and a half ago had not passed since our reunion.
The next day we woke up in Nives’ old-town apartment and visited with her mom, our mother’s best friend. More stories were exchanged, a walk through the old historic centre of Koper with its beautiful 12th-century cathedral, and a coffee and burek.
We couldn’t resist the last walk through our old neighborhood where the red landmark Tomos apartment building we had called home stood forlorn waiting for a suitor to invest $2 million Euros.
A quick gelato with Nives on the waterfront and it was back on the buses to our next destination.
As we pulled out of the station I looked out the window hoping to catch the last glimpse of Trieste across the bay, but the fingers of fog hung stubbornly to the coast.
Why are you hiding, I wondered? Or more importantly, what are you hiding?
I thought of my mom’s brothers William and Paul who as young men vanished in the Partisan movement. And the 3000 Jews and inmates who were killed at Risiera di San Sabba, one of Italy’s extermination camps. And the Slovenians who fled from here, and the Venetians and Austrians and Romans and Greeks and other nationalities and ethnic groups lost in time. Humanity had washed upon these shores in waves of peace and prosperity, with bloodshed at the changing of the tide.
Marco Polo’s time and our own were not that different after all.