La Barcolana 2015 Visiting the Porto Vecchio

October 2015

Porto Vecchio

As part of La Barcolana events we had a rare opportunity to see inside the stone walls surrounding the warehouses of the Porto Vecchio.   For the period of the Barcolana a vintage train ran from just behind the Molo lV and for about 1000 metres into the Porto Vecchio.   The day we went was bright and sunny and there were a lot of people like us waiting in line, curious to not only ride the train but also to see one of the buildings that has been restored and set up as a museum – the hydrodynamic plant.

In the 19th century, Trieste was the most important port of the Habsburg Monarchy one of the Great Powers of Europe. As a prosperous seaport, commercial hub, and shipbuilding centre, Trieste became the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (after Vienna, Budapest, and Prague).

The merchant shipping line Austrian Lloyd, founded in 1836, had its headquarters at the corner of the Piazza Grande (today’s Piazza Unita d’Italia). By 1913 Austrian Lloyd had a fleet of 62 ships.

The construction of the first major trunk railway in the Empire, the Vienna-Trieste Austrian Southern Railway (the Südbahn), was completed in 1857. It opened up the possibility for trade reaching the interior of the continent right to the Balkans.

In 1868 the construction of the current Porto Vecchio (the Old Port, at the time called Porto Nuovo, the New Port) was started. The port became important for non-European maritime transport as well with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In fact the Baron Revoltella, a prominent businessman in Trieste, was an investor in the building of the canal. The canal shortened the distance separating Trieste from Bombay by 7,500 miles. The first ships entering the Suez Canal were from Trieste.

The railway was central in the design of the port structures. In 1874 a contract was signed with the Südbahn for the development of the port and in 1879 the Magazzini Generali (the warehouses) were erected.

I had expected to see a jumble of flat warehouse buildings. Instead there was a wide road avenue-like, lined with oleanders in planters. The buildings are all joined in an orderly series of two, three and four story structures all with a consistent architectural style. In fact the Port’s buildings and warehouses were laid out along three parallel roads – one broad central road and two lateral ones, one of which was adjacent to the railway.

We walked a short distance from the end of the train track to the hydrodynamic plant. There was a guide there to greet us and explain a little of the history and the mechanics of the shiny black furnaces on display.

Built in 1890 the plant is an important piece of industrial history.  Hamburg, Buenos Aires, and Trieste were among the first ports in the world to be powered with a hydrodynamic plant. The warehouses were equipped with cranes, elevators, hoists and other equipment, used for loading and unloading goods. The plant generated the power to run the more than 80 cranes and other equipment in the Porto Vechhio. The machines worked for more than a century, an extraordinarily long time for the lifespan of a machine.

The hoists are still on the roofs but the buildings are covered with ivy.   The original pastel pink and yellow paint has mostly peeled off and the long galleries are covered with rust. But you can still get a sense of how busy this area must have been; trains arriving filled with coal to power the hydrodynamic plant, people coming and going to the customs offices, merchandise being hoisted up into the warehouses, trains taking these goods to all parts of the Habsburg Empire and ships being loaded to deliver cargo half way round the world.

It all came to an abrupt ending after the World War I. Trieste became part of Italy and lost its purpose of supply line to the now non-existent Empire.

The Porto Vecchio is still prime real estate right on the Gulf of Trieste and every so often there is talk of doing something grand with the space and buildings. But as I have come to understand, there is no lack of great ideas in Italy. There is however very little in the way of spirit of community and working together to get things done. Instead there is this pervasive mentality of self-interest and nothing actually gets done. Sadly this area with great historical interest and huge potential for redevelopment stays derelict and empty.

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