The Old Port of Trieste

Download the booklet THE OLD PORT OF TRIESTE

From emporium to centre for goods in transit

The idea of designing and building a modern port gained momentum in Trieste in the first few decades of the nineteenth century in the face of increasing competition from North European ports with their more modern facilities and equipment and efficient infrastructure. To keep pace with the times, Trieste’s various economic and financial interest groups pushed to transform the port from an emporium into a centre for goods in transit.
The construction of the Southern Railway (1857), connecting Trieste to Vienna, and of the first railway warehouses (Lager no. 11, 1861), in the vicinity of the dock closest to the station, represent the first and fundamental steps towards modernising the City-Port. In fact, in 1863 the government in Vienna announced a tender for the construction of the new Port of Trieste and, two years later, on 27 January 1865 it chose the project presented by the engineer Talabot which involved filling in the old dock next to the railroad and extending the rail network and facilities.
The new port was to be located in the northeast of the bay, near the new railway station, to facilitate the transfer of goods from one mode of transport to another. The recovery in trade was such as to demand a large-scale intervention, involving new structures offshore and onshore and landfills and earthworks that would alter the old shoreline.
The project involved the construction of five piers, of which four parallel and one oblique, resulting in the formation of four docks, in front of which a protective breakwater was erected measuring 1,100 metres long and forming an entry channel 150 metres wide. The new construction covered a total area of 320,000 square metres. Shoreline depths were 6-7 metres.
There were important technical difficulties to be overcome, protracting the time required to complete the project. The port structures had to rest on a muddy bottom and on landfills, causing problems when laying the foundations. The filling and consolidation operations encountered numerous obstacles and specific hydraulic works were needed to channel the Martesin and Klütsch streams and even take them underground in places. The breakwater, which protects the docks from heavy seas, was completed only in 1875, the year in which Pier I, Pier II and the first dock came into operation. The first phase of the Port was completed in 1883, behind schedule but not overly so compared with project estimates, thanks to the momentum unleashed by the inauguration of the Suez Canal (1869) and the resulting commercial pressure.
Around the same time, in 1879, the Ministry of Commerce placed a body known as the General Public Warehouses in charge of managing port operations conducted onshore, while those on board ships remained the prerogative of masters and shipowners. This led to a further phase of design and construction, with the planning of additional warehouses and facilities capable of making Trieste competitive against the major European ports. Warehouses 7, 6, 9, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 26 were built between 1883 and 1893. With the construction of Pier IV it can be said that the New Port was complete.
Subsequently, following revocation of the city’s privileged status as a free port (1891), the area of the New Port became a “free zone” for goods entering it and assumed a clear geographical identity, with the erection of a fence to demarcate the new spaces for duty-free goods behind it as separate from the rest of the city. After just a few years, however, the government would sponsor further extension of the port, to the south of the city, where soon the New Free Zone would be built.

Technical description

The Old Port of Trieste covers an area of 67 hectares, with more than a million cubic metres of warehouses and buildings many of great value, and is one of the most important examples of maritime industrial archaeology in the Mediterranean.
The site of the Old Port is nonetheless well connected to the city given its privileged location close to the city centre and excellent inbound and outbound road links. In addition, the entire site is served by a network of rail tracks directly connected to the city’s main railway station (Trieste Centrale) and is equipped with appropriate intermodal infrastructure.
The site could be used to set up not only commercial activities characteristic of the Port but also complementary businesses such as administrative offices, restaurants and hotels, recreational boating and associated services including shipbuilding and repairs. The multipurpose Adria Terminal is located within the Old Port. Occupying an area of 3 hectares, it features modern warehouses and 12 metre-deep quays.
The Old Port is protected by a breakwater 130 metres parallel to the outermost quay: extending 1,100 metres in length, its depths range up to 18 metres.
The breakwater was originally structured to allow vessels to be moored on the side facing the mainland. Commercial vessels are now prohibited from mooring alongside the breakwater, which, following restoration of its buildings and sandstone paving, is currently home to a prestigious bathing establishment.
The warehouses located within the site belong to a category governed by specific building regulations applied to the Lagerhäuser found in North European ports, comprising buildings used for the deposit, storage and conservation of goods from their arrival in the Port until onward shipment and distribution. The warehouses were laid out along three parallel roads: a broad central road and two lateral roads, one of which adjacent to the railway.
The warehouses, originally comprising 38 separate buildings, can be classified into three main groups of buildings:

  • one-storey buildings;
  • two or three-storey buildings, with basements and lofts and cast-iron-supported galleries between the various sections;
  • four-storey buildings, with basements, ground floors and four upper floors with galleries.

The warehouses were equipped with cranes, lifts, hoists and other loading and unloading gear; in addition, the buildings in groups 1 and 2 had a perron (an outside projecting platform) about one metre high, suitable for use with rail wagons and road vehicles. Group 3 buildings, of more recent construction (early 20th century), had access at ground level.
A museum complex has been opened in the Old Port and is based in two of its best examples of maritime industrial archaeology: the Water Power Plant and the Electrical Substation, both of which still contain power generating machines preserved intact in their original buildings

Functional restoration of the buildings

Over the past few years, the Port Authority has started to restore some of the main historic buildings in the Old Port, including Warehouse 26, the Water Power Plant, the Electrical Substation and Warehouse 1.

Warehouse 26
Warehouse 26 – the largest building in the Old Port completed in 1890 by the firm Geiringer & Vallon – is located in Dock I, behind warehouses 24 and 25 and next to the old Water Power Plant. This monumental building, with a frontal length of approximately 244 metres and occupying an area of some 6,000 square metres, consists of a basement and four storeys above ground. The recently renovated warehouse is the most interesting in the area thanks to the artistic detail of its façades, its architectural features, the height of its ceilings and the scale of its interior.
The façade presents five sections, interposed with galleries on successive storeys and featuring cast-iron columns made at the Wagner factories in Vienna. The interior was laid out with enclosed spaces for administrative work (offices) as well as larger areas for storage or small manufacturing activities. To facilitate operations on the upper floors, the warehouse was equipped with a number of internal hoists and lifts.

Water Power Plant
The Water Power Plant – a unique example of port industrial archaeology – has recently been restored to form, along with the adjacent Electrical Substation, the heart of the developing Port of Trieste Museum Complex.
The property, built in the mid-19th century, housed the machinery, control units and related equipment to generate the hydroelectric power needed to operate the cranes and lifting equipment located within the Old Port. The 19th-century machinery was in service until the second half of the 1980s. Although retired from operation, the machinery is generally well preserved, even if no longer usable.
The restoration work has provided the building with new means of access and renovated its interior and facilities.

Electrical Substation
The Old Port’s electrical transformer substation, built between 1913 and 1915, has been the subject of extensive restoration, resulting in its full aesthetic and functional refurbishment.
The L-shaped Substation has two main buildings: the first housed the switchgear room on one floor and the 27000 V busbar room on another floor; the second building contained the main entrance, a double-height room with the two different low and medium voltage switchboards as well as associated technical rooms.
The renovated building will house the historical archives of the Port Authority and the related study and consultation rooms, as well as workshops and offices, all of which necessary to the success of the Museum Complex as a new cultural institution within the Old Port.

Warehouse 1
Built in 1904 on Pier IV of the Old Port, Warehouse 1 occupies an area of about 4,000 square metres and stands on a raised platform about a metre off the ground. The particular structure and location, making it visible from the city’s waterfront, has made it a priority for the Port Authority to restore it to working order. The recent redevelopment has aimed to maintain the building’s original features, particularly structural elements like the timber roof truss.
The Warehouse is now under concession to Trieste Terminal Passeggeri S.p.a. and is used as a passenger terminal for small and medium-sized ferries; it is also used as offices by shipping companies and for the organisation of events and conferences.

State property

The construction of the New Port of Trieste (now known as the Old Port) began in 1868 with the filling in of the “Lazaretto Nuovo” dock near the train station. The first phase of the work, mainly involving landfill and the construction of the piers, the waterfront embankments and the breakwater, was completed between 1883 and 1884; in the next decade, the main buildings were constructed and equipped, and the rest of the port facilities completed.
Now, almost 130 years later, the Trieste Port Authority is aiming to achieve a functional rehabilitation of the historic property within the Old Free Zone through the concession – to public and private companies – of areas, water expanses and buildings. Only in this way can an important part of the Port of Trieste be reused, as indeed envisaged by the “Master Plan Variation for the site of the Old Port of Trieste”, approved by Decree of the President of the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia on 10 September 2007.

Commercial activities in the Old Port

Adria Terminal, a modern facility for general cargo and the only part of the Old Free Port of Trieste still in active operation, was created in the late 1990s after filling in Dock 2.
Two internationally recognised companies operate out of the site: C. Steinweg – Genoa Metal Terminal (GMT), a member of the Steinweg Group and the leading provider in Italy of logistical services for the metals trade, and Saipem, a global leader in the provision of services to the onshore and offshore oil industry.

C. Steinweg – Genoa Metal Terminal (GMT)
The part of Adria Terminal managed by C. Steinweg-GMT – under a fifteen-year concession running until 2022 – occupies an area of about 70,000 square metres, of which 25,000 under cover, and has 570 metres of 11.90 metre-deep quays.
C. Steinweg-GMT, specialised in the forwarding, transport, storage and handling of various goods, works mainly with non-ferrous metals, steel, ferro-alloys and scrap.
Some of the warehouses used by the company (12, 13 and 14) are approved by the London Metal Exchange, the world’s most important centre for trading non-ferrous metals, while warehouse 13 is also approved by LIFFE (London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange) for the storage of coffee and cocoa.
Through its worldwide network of offices and relations with freight forwarders, trucking companies, railway companies and air freight agents, the Steinweg Group is able to ship goods to and from any destination; it also offers a distribution service to manufacturers and sales agents, allowing intermediate storage of goods in its warehouses all over the world. The huge volume of goods handled by the Group allows it to offer particularly competitive rates to its customers.
In Trieste C. Steinweg-GMT has exclusive use of the berths and terminal in which it operates, where it has warehouses both near the dock and to the rear, letting it store goods either indoors or outdoors.

Saipem (a member of the ENI Group) operates on the north side of Adria Terminal, the site of the old Pier I. It holds a ten-year concession under which it manages an area of about 7,000 square metres, including Warehouse 23 with which occupies an area of nearly 3,000 square metres.
Saipem has used this area of the Old Free Zone to create an operational base for its high-tech offshore logistics activities, where it mounts, assembles and tests underwater excavation and trenching equipment and all other systems used offshore by the division operating out of Trieste. This is a centre for testing and maintenance of sophisticated equipment used to repair underwater oil and gas pipelines.
The company has two deep-water docks, which are essential for testing underwater equipment and give vessels in its fleet the necessary freedom of operation when preparing equipment for offshore projects or later storing it when such projects finish.
The base also serves as a hub for the temporary storage and subsequent release of company equipment used in various offshore projects on which Saipem works globally. In fact, the Free Port regime allows the company to use the base for temporary storage of technological equipment used in specific projects, by having it arrive and depart by sea.