La Vita Triestina – Tram de Opcina
September 6, 2014
A tram has been running between Trieste and the hilltop town of Opicina – Opcina in Triestin since 1902. It is a unique part of the history and lore of Trieste. A small crowd of people is waiting and chattering excitedly at the Tram Station in Piazza Oberdan. It has been a rainy summer and this first week of September has been no different. The rain has finally cleared but the weather is still uncertain so this is a perfect day to finally go for a ride to Opicina on the Tram.
The Tram was not operating for well over two years. The newspaper was full of different reasons and suppositions for what had broken down and what was so difficult to repair. The question most often asked was why the Austrian engineering worked so efficiently for over a hundred years but when a computer system was added to meet Italian safety and other regulations all of a sudden things no longer worked. It is seen as an important tourist attraction and reference to the Tram had not been removed from any of the tourist materials as if all was running as it had been for 100 years. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the tram needed to be put back into service and that it was an embarrassment that somehow Italians did not have the expertise to fix the problem. But there seemed to be no real will to get the job done. The – chi se ne frega – roughly translated as who really cares attitude that seems so prevalent in civic affairs generally, kept the trams parked in the depot in Opicina.
Finally it seems like the mayor made it his cause to get the train back on the tracks and in early spring an engineer was brought in from Venice to do the final tests that the repairs had been done and that all was safe to resume service. The real “road” test ran into a serious obstacle. In this city of steep hills, too many cars and not enough parking spaces, people had taken occupancy of the part of the rail lines that run through the city proper to park their cars. A parking space once found is like having a deed to that spot – if you do not have to you do not move your car. That spot is yours. After weeks of notices on the paper, attempts at fining people, of finding out where the owners of these cars were, of towing cars, the line was finally cleared. Il Piccolo ran a front page story – the Tram was spotted today!
In early July, the mayor held a re-opening ceremony and it seemed that once again the tram to Opicina was back. Embarrassments of embarrassments within a few days the train was again out of service.
The Tram has now been running for a couple of weeks and I too am excited to take a ride. The boxy, blue colored Tram arrives and we all jostle a little to get a good seat – go to the right side I am told so that I can enjoy the view of the Gulf on the way up to Opicina.
We settle into our seats. There is a grandmother with two grand children explaining the route the Tram will take, a father with his young daughter explaining some of the mechanics of the system, the couple that sits next to us are Italian tourists, the women has a small white dog in her Louis Viutton bag, in general mostly families with young children this Saturday afternoon. We are seated on wooden benches with high backs and with burgundy leather seats. Much easier on the back and the behind than those Velcro type fabrics on public transport today! The windows are framed in a honey colored wood, there are wooden luggage racks overhead, and the bi-fold doors are also a warm honey-colored wood.
The Tram is a combination funicular and electric tram. What makes it interesting is that in the funicular section of the line, the tramcars are pushed uphill and braked downhill by cable tractors in Italian, carro scudo. These vehicles are permanently attached to the haulage cable. They are not attached to the tramcars, but the lower end of the tram car rests against the upper end of the cable tractor. There have been three generations of cable tractors on the line. The first two generations of cable tractor were operated by their own driver, distinct from the driver of the tramcar. In 2005, tractors operated remotely by the drivers of the tramcars were installed.
Car numbers 401-404 were built in 1935. Cars 406-407 were built in 1942 by the same company to a similar design, although war-time shortages resulted in a more basic interior and different window detail
The grandmother explains to the children that there used to be a lot more of a view but now the trees are all a lot taller and you get only short glimpses of the beautiful view of the city and Gulf of Trieste below.
The station stop in Opicina is very utilitarian, a bar-caffe with its habitués sitting at the little tables outside and watching the people coming off the Tram. As people get off they stop to take pictures of and with the Tram. We walk down the main street – which at one time was the road to Vienna and still carries that name. Then head to the pastry shop that sells chocolates made in the shape of little tram cars – the hazelnut filled milk chocolate is my favorite.
We walk through the narrow streets of the old part of the town. This used to be the home of laborers and workers. It always had a largely Slovenian population though now it is the minority population though the civic signing is bilingual. At one time this was also kind of a summer resort area for the Triestini who came up higher onto the Carso to escape the humidity of the city. Today is more like a suburb of Trieste and has lovely pastel colored two storied homes with small gardens and all are fenced in like villas. We stop for a creamy cup of gelato.
On the way back we stand right behind the Tram driver and get a first hand view of how the Tram is operated. The controls seem to be the original – a stainless steel steering wheel, a crank that moves the train forward and back, breaks but also two video screens that show the tracks and the inside of the Tram. Like the inside of the train that has been equipped with a stainless steel handhold for passengers that are standing up, the drivers area is a mix of old and modern.
As we arrive at the funicular part of the tracks, the driver eases the Tram towards the “tractor” and deftly connects the Tram to the device that “brakes” the speed of the Tram on the way down. I can see the cables moving that are hauling the other train up and there are round metal clog like pieces inside the narrow tracks. The track winds slowly down and as we reach the bottom we head onto a bit of a side track where the driver releases the braking tractor and then pushes a switch that moves the rails a little to the right and then we are back on the track to head to the station stop at Piazza Oberdan. The ride takes just under 30 minutes. A very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon with a little piece of Triestin history.