The deep-water port of Trieste, now one of the Mediterranean's most important maritime gateways.

On a warm August evening in Trieste we sat on a rooftop overlooking the Adriatic Sea watching the annual Perseides meteor shower light up the night sky and reflect off the water.

Not far away the telescope of the Astronomical Observatory could perhaps provide more meticulous views of the dust particles, scattered from the yearly passing of the Swift-Tuttle comet, which are transformed into jewel-like sparkles as they enter the atmosphere. The Observatory is now part of INAF, the National Institute for Astrophysics, but it’s roots were in the Nautical School founded in 1753 by the Empress Maria Theresia of the Austria-Hungarian Empire for the seaport of Trieste.

Trieste: A former Habsburg maritime gateway dating back to Roman times and the second millennium BC when it was first inhabited. (Photo: Arno Senon/Unsplash)

Trieste is tucked away in a corner of the Adriatic, on the furthest northeastern ruff of the Italian boot where it curves around and reaches south to Slovenia. It’s a part of the Mediterranean that has seen a succession of rulers from the Romans onwards. The Habsburgs were the longest to possess this city on the sea. The dynasty ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, dominating Central Europe, until it was dissolved in 1918 after World War One.

After 17 years of operation, the AGILE Italian scientific satellite supported by INAF recently re-entered the atmosphere, ending its intense activity as a hunter of some of the most energetic cosmic sources in the Universe that emit gamma and X-rays. (Photo: INAF)

A centre for innovation, discovery and multiculturalism

During those centuries, Trieste was the thriving port of the Empire, international commerce creating conditions which were ripe for innovation and discovery. Multiculturalism was embraced in Trieste long before it was a term.

In 1781 Emperor Joseph II extended religious freedom and participation in Trieste’s cosmopolitan life to all. The traders, sailors and intellectuals who made Trieste their home, enriched the maritime and commercial centre with a wealth of different ethnicities, religions and languages and created a uniquely dynamic city.  

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It was a natural progression from commending the engineers, who built the Grand Canal—a navigable channel which brought goods into the centre of Trieste—and the inventors, like Josef Ressel who designed ship propellers for steam age, to supporting the science establishments in the 20th century.

Now Trieste proudly calls itself ‘The City of Science’ and boasts one of the highest percentage of scientists to citizens of any European city. (See comparative oceans’ piece on the rejunvenation of The Bahamas by Peter Hulm)

Around the world, it’s easy to find scientists who spent time in Trieste. They are scattered throughout European universities, working for UN agencies such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) or possibly researching the esoteric world of particle physics at CERN in Geneva. They are the women and men who happily recount the pleasures of studying and living in Trieste. Their stories of delicious meals and daily swims off the Trieste coast feature just as much as the world class science.

The natural beauty of the coast is framed by Austro-Viennese architecture of the city which is dominated by the magnificent Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, the splendid main square of Trieste which faces the sea and opens onto the iconic pier, the Molo Audace as it reaches into the harbour. Like much of Trieste, the pier is made of gleaming sandstone, the building blocks of the city carved from the cliffs of the Karst above.

Trieste is home, not only to a stunning setting but to 30 science research centres, a gracefully landscaped science and technology park and two universities. Not bad for a city with a population of 225,000.

Outstanding performance for science and higher education

Trieste was named the European City of Science by EuroScience in 2020 to mark their outstanding performance in integrating science and higher education. Sadly, the planned events were curtailed by the Covid Pandemic but Trieste continues to host an annual science fair, known as NEXT. The 2024 edition will be celebrated 27-29 September.

Dozens of sciences are represented in Trieste with institutes and university departments scattered across the city, along the coast and on the Karst Plateau which rises dramatically 400 meters above city and the sea.

Short-term Fellowships are offered by the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Triests. (Photo: ICGEB)

One of the most well-known of Trieste’s science institutions is the ICGEB, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Its researchers from 35 countries are spread across scores of research teams investigating dozens of diseases in partnership with labs on three continents. Medical and industrial biotechnology are a focus and they contributed to research during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The ICGEB can be found in the science technology park, high on the Karst Plateau, along with seven other research institutes and more than a dozen tech and science start ups as well as more than seventy companies.

Not far away is the Elettra Sincrotrone, home of research on synchrotron light and electron lasers which have key applications in materials and life sciences. Like the ICGEB, the Elettra Sincrotrone is surrounded by trails full of local hikers heading through routes on the Karst to immerse in nature or do a spot of rock climbing.

Students at Trieste’s Elettra Sincrotrone which conducts research on synchrotron light and electron lasers.(Photo: Elettra Sincrotrone)

Close by is SISSA, the Scuola Internazionale, another institution set on the Karst.  Hundreds of students, professors and researchers focus on physics, neurosciences and mathematics in this postgraduate lab for interdisciplinary studies. SISSA is where many distinguished scientists have started their career.

The Grotta Giganta: A valuable scientific resource

The Trieste Karst is peppered with caves and the largest one is the spectacular Grotta Gigante. The Grotta’s vast interior chamber is 107 meters high and filled with fantastically shaped stalactites and stalagmites. It’s one of the world’s largest show caves and is a favourite with visitors who climb hundreds of steps up and down through the cavern to take in the subterranean spectacle. But the Grotta offers even more—it’s a valuable resource for scientists. 

The Grotte Gigante, over 100 metres under the ground. (Photo: Gotte Gigante)

The giant cavern holds seismic detectors and other instruments from the nearby National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics (OGS) and the Geoscience Department of the University of Trieste. A pendulum and clinometer calculate the movement of the earth while other sensors monitor properties of the groundwater which flows through the limestone layers.

The fields of oceanography and geophysics are intertwined and the OGS’s home in Trieste provides the perfect location for this research. The institute has compiled marine seismic datasets for the Mediterranean including a gravimetric map of the sea. These provide accurate measurements which are vital tools for environmental monitoring of the sea.

Intertwining oceanography and geophysics. (Photo: OGS)

To find even more scientists, take the winding roads with spectacular views down from the Karst into the coastal area of Trieste. On the way you will probably be overtaken by the more athletic scientists as they plunge down the steep roads on their bicycles passing other colleagues heading the other direction making exhausting ascents. The topography of Trieste rewards cyclists, climbers and, of course, anyone who loves the sea.

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), now known as the Abdus Salam International Centre, after the founder and Nobel Laureate, may have the most picturesque setting of the science establishments, situated on a hill behind Miramare, a dazzling fairytale castle that has inspired writers, poets and filmmakers.

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) seeks to engage more women in nuclear science. (Photo: ICTP)

Miramare Castle was built in 1856 by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the brother of the Hapsburg Emperor. The Archduke had fallen in love with the panoramic view of the Gulf of Trieste from the promontory on the coast and was determined to build the castle as his family home. Made of gleaming white stone, with baroque carved interiors, Miramare was finished only after Maximilian set off to Mexico in 1864, an ill-fated journey which ended in 1867 where after a brief reign as Emperor he was executed.

According to local legend, Maximilian still haunts the beautifully landscaped gardens at night. 

Promoting marine ecosystem health

From Miramare Castle it’s easy to spot the oceanographic buoys from the National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics. The buoys are one of their many projects which collect data on the sea to design systems for marine ecosystem health. The buoy floats near the Miramare Marine Protected Area, a Biosphere Reserve recognised by UNESCO. The reserve’s protected waters are full of dozens of species including sea bream, damselfish, tiny blennies and waving anemones.

The Miramare Biosphere Centre in Trieste. (Photo: Miramare)

Snorkelers and divers can visit the Biosphere with a guide. But swimmers have even more scope as Trieste is a swimmers’ paradise. The long coastline offers dozens of glorious public beaches. A few are sandy, some are pebble beaches and others are accessed by metal steps fitted over boulders. The beaches are all full of life from dawn until nightfall.

Distance swimmers in goggles set their courses in the blue waters while other swimmers bob along with friends chatting and taking in the view while children play games in the shallows.

A key component of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative?

In the end, Trieste is all about the sea. Last year, Italy’s Minister of Enterprise Adolfo Urso announced that the government intends to make Trieste the main port of reference for Ukraine’s wartime imports and exports. Economically, too, the city’s Port Authority is seeking to develop itself as a crucial maritime access point for China’s Belt and Road initiative. In 2019, just prior to Covid, it signed an agreement with the China Communication Construction Company opening the door to partnerships in the years ahead by Beijing.

Both the EU and other institutions have voiced concern regarding China’s expansionist moves, insisting that full transparency and rigorous monitoring be part of any agreements, given some opaque Chinese port and infrastructure deals in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Overall, Trieste stands out as a cosmopolitan seaport with stunning views, exceptional food, a city with a rich history long celebrated by writers and travellers. It took a bit longer for scientists to discover the charm and beauties of Trieste, but now they are there to stay.

Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist based in London. She is an Ambassador for the Science Museum in London and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Her distance swimming trips have taken her around the Mediterranean. For further information, please see:

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