It's early on a Saturday afternoon and I’m the only pedestrian in a sun-lit cobbled street in the centre of Gorizia, an ancient border town in north-eastern Italy. A former provincial capital, Gorizia is now paired with the Slovenian town of Nova Gorica on the other side of the state frontier, creating the peculiar trans-border conurbation Gorizia/Nova Gorica.
Via Roma, which would normally resonate with the loud, yet peaceful and amicable buzz of an Italian crowd, feels gagged, and my solitary footsteps echo bluntly among the silent Art Nouveau facades.
In Gorizia/Nova Gorica, the normally invisible state border runs across busy roads and quiet lanes. It dissects the railway station plaza, now called Europe Square, from which both Italian and Slovenian streets radiate. It’s habitual, therefore, for Gorizia’s inhabitants to dash ‘across the street’ for a cheap Slovenian beer, and for the Slovenes to pop over to Italy for a cup of hugely superior espresso.
I visited Gorizia/Nova Gorica early in March, at the unique historical moment when the border – totally open and all but imaginary since December 2007, when Slovenia joined the Schengen Area – became real and visible again for the first time in 13 years.
While Italy was deep in lockdown, Slovenia was still practically unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with no coronavirus-related deaths and just a few positive tests in Ljubljana, the capital, about 50 miles away. It was a bizarre and sinister sight: the Slovenian part of the town was lively and full of people; the Italian half was semi-deserted. Just a week after my departure, the quickly spreading pandemic forced the complete closure of the Slovenian-Italian border inside the town, with fences, concrete blocks and barbed wire appearing overnight at all designated crossings – a gruesome throwback to the Cold War, when similar barriers separated Marshal Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia (of which Slovenia was a part) from the Western world.
My Nova Gorica contacts, who still remember the Cold War era, gazed in disbelief at the return of the guarded checkpoints, through which only key workers were allowed to pass.
The global pandemic is surely one of the few forces capable of restoring Cold War borders in the EU, even if it’s only for a relatively short time. Gorizia and Nova Gorica have merged so thoroughly that they are running together for the title of European Capital of Culture 2025 – the first and so far only case where two urban communities from two different countries have strived to become a cross-border ‘capital’.
SMUGGLING ACROSS THE SQUARE
My Slovenian escort, David Kozuh, a local historian and the curator of the regional museum, and I are standing next to each other in the middle of Europe Square – a living symbol of the town’s present-day unity. We’re both on the Slovenian side, where social distancing isn’t yet in force. I make a small step to the right and bingo, I’m in Italy and David now has to keep two metres away from me.
On the Slovenian side, the square is dominated by the Nova Gorica railway station, built in 1906 as the Gorizia station of the Bohinj Railway, crucial for the Austro- Hungarian Empire, of which Gorizia was then a part. Local history here can be complicated, which is why it’s great to have a knowledgeable historian as my guide.
David explains that the station building became part of Yugoslavia in September 1947, when the square was divided in two in accordance with the February 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. The station entrance was just 38 metres away from the border. Until 1954, the square was dissected along the frontier line by several rows of barbed wire, later supplemented with a concrete fence. All of those barriers were partially removed in 2004 and taken away completely in 2011.
The history of this Italian-Slovenian divide is far less sinister than that of the Berlin Wall, but hundreds of people, mostly from the Yugoslavian side, were still killed and injured trying to cross the border illegally, particularly during the first years of its existence, between 1947 and 1950.
Then, of course, there were the smugglers.
Tito’s Yugoslavia, or the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, as it was officially known, was much better off in terms of material well-being than any other country of the former Communist bloc. And yet, the gap in living standards with neighbouring Italy was still striking – to the point where the few lucky Slovenes who were officially allowed to travel across the border made sure they carried substantial amounts of locally made produce – meat, honey and wine – in order to exchange it for manufactured goods such as cameras, radios, household items and, later, electronics.
‘Smuggling was a way of life here, with no stigma attached to it,’ David explains. It was so widespread that at some point, the government in Belgrade had to make provisions for the Gorizia border to be guarded exclusively by the supposedly incorruptible soldiers from Serbia, another Yugoslavian republic, who had no connections with the locals and were therefore more difficult to bribe. David’s own granny used to smuggle out rabbit meat, tied to her body, and bring back such coveted Italian goods as chocolate, coffee and brooms.
‘Brooms?’ I ask him in disbelief.
‘Yes, indeed, ordinary sorghum brooms, which were in short supply in Communist Yugoslavia, like many other basic household goods,’ he says with a smile.
Those hard-to-obtain brooms swept their way into history on Sunday 13 August 1950. Rumours had got around that the border would be briefly opened that day and nearly 5,000 Slovenes gathered to cross into Italy to reunite with friends and family. When nothing happened, they took matters into their own hands and tore down the border crossing. Although it was a Sunday, Italian merchants opened their shops and many of the Slovenes took the opportunity to stock up on basic necessities. As they made their way home, many carried brooms on their shoulders and so the incident became known as the March of the Brooms.
Those times are firmly in the past. With both Italy and Slovenia (which declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991) being members of the EU, there are no more shortages of food or consumer goods in either country (even if basics such as petrol and beer remain cheaper in Slovenia). And yet, some people on both sides of the (normally) non-existent fence still tend to romanticise the old way of life, of which smuggling was an important part.
‘Border mentality has always been in our psyche,’ Anja Medved, a Slovenian writer and filmmaker, tells me as we sit together in a Nova Gorica bar. ‘We always looked at the West with longing and when the border went, its disappearance reverberated in my soul, which used to thrive on the uncertainty. At times, I have a feeling that it is still there, that it is the world that has changed, but the border remains. To me, it is not a geopolitical concept, but a category of the mind. And wasn’t it great to be 12 and on a bike and on your own, riding to a different world?’
Anja grew up during the 1980s, when the borders between the socialist Yugoslavia and the West were all but open (unlike his Soviet counterparts, Marshal Tito decided to grant the right of travel to his politically oppressed subjects in exchange for their loyalty) and Yugoslav citizens, including Slovenians, were free to live and work anywhere in the world.
THE TOWN WITH TWO FACES
I manage to fit in a visit to the headquarters of EGTC GO, the Gorizia branch of the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation, just hours before it, too, succumbs to lockdown. Unlike some other EU-supported organisations designed to ‘facilitate cross-border co-operation’ but in reality bureaucratising it even further, EGTC GO was established in 2009 by both municipalities as a tool to overcome the numerous bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of joint projects and initiatives.
EGTC GO staff don’t waste their time and budgets on parades, festivals and other public manifestations of cross-border solidarity. Its director, Ivan Curzolo, tells me about the importance of such down-to-earth issues as joint waste collection and cross-border ambulance services that serve both communities equally rather than being disrupted by regulations. One of the organisation’s significant achievements is that women from the Slovenian community can now choose to give birth in Italy, which has higher standards of midwifery.
Nevertheless, not everything in cross-border relations is so good. Ivan claims that his organisation’s initiatives have yet to fi nd signifi cant support in the respective national capitals. I hear similar notes of dissatisfaction when speaking with Aldo Rudel, a Gorizia-based Slovenian writer, translator and former teacher who volunteered to show me around his Italian town, which is described in my vintage 1905 copy of Baedeker’s Austria-Hungary as ‘the capital of a province, charmingly situated on the Isonzo [River] and frequented as a winter resort’.
We begin our tour in the central square, known as Travnik (‘meadow’) in Slovenian and Piazza della Vittoria (Victory Square) in Italian, where the fascist leader Benito Mussolini spoke twice – in 1938 and 1942. Rudel points at a billboard with the town map and the legend in both Italian and Slovenian. The Slovenian part has been sprayed with black ink to the point of being unreadable.
‘Someone keeps stubbornly desecrating this map,’ complains Rudel. ‘We clean it up – and overnight they do it again!’
He laments some of the anti-Slovenian attitudes in Gorizia, which he believes have resulted in ethnic Slovenes being underrepresented in the local government bodies. He also complains about the lack of Slovenian street signs – although I hadn’t spotted many Italian signs in the town’s Slovenian section.
WHEN LE CORBUSIER WENT TO THE CASINO
My very first impression of Nova Gorica, the modernistic Slovenian part of the conurbation, is that I have been here before, despite the fact that I most certainly haven’t.
Architecturally, the ‘planned community’, built after the Second World War on the orders of Tito, strikes me as a cross between Minsk and Stevenage, with a touch of Le Corbusier’s brutalist Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, inside which I once stayed. The latter association is actually quite relevant, for Nova Gorica was designed and built under the supervision of the Slovenian architect Edo Ravnikar – Le Corbusier’s disciple and keen follower.
A special committee to organise the construction of a new Slovenian town on the Italian border was set up in April 1947, following the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty, and the first groups of workers started to arrive at the site that October. They were soon followed by the so-called ‘youth work brigades’ – young volunteers from all over Yugoslavia. Orders from the top, combined with compulsive ‘socialist planning’ and a touch of enthusiasm, weren’t sufficient to ensure the project’s success. Ten years after the town’s foundation, Slovenian geographer Igor Vriser wrote: ‘Despite huge efforts, Nova Gorica is still only a half-built town paralysed by territorial division, deficient in economic resources, with a housing problem, unfinished municipal services etc.’
According to a local survey, it wasn't until 1980 that the town took ‘a significant step forward’. That was largely due to the decision – in stark contradiction to Communist principles – to open several large casinos, in which the locals weren’t allowed to gamble. A 1988 Yugoslavian guide to Nova Gorica said that: ‘The proximity of the border is stimulating the growth of business in the hotel industry, and the casino is now one of the features available to visitors from abroad.’
Indeed, the large Soviet-style hotel, in which I am staying, is part of an even larger casino, semi-empty because of Covid-19. The locals are no longer banned from gambling, but not many seem interested. The few punters are mostly confused and uncharacteristically taciturn Italians, caught unawares by the pandemic and either unable or unwilling to return to their country.
David Kozuh and I take a stroll around the town, which, like most of the 1970s and ’80s urban developments in the Soviet Union, has no obvious ‘centre’, just rows of high-rise housing blocks, hastily constructed from grey prefab panels, with standard- shaped balconies. I’m pleasantly surprised, however, by the abundance of small green spaces, with fountains, flower beds and tasteful modern sculptures, nestled casually among all of those concrete monoliths – a welcome post-Communist addition to the otherwise unimpressive and drab socialist townscape, so very diff erent from that of its much older sister-town across the border.
I am also happy to discover that among the various cross-border initiatives overseen by the Gorizia-based EGTC GO is ‘mutual language learning’, which is helping Slovenians to study Italian and Italians to come to grips with Slovenian. As regards the latter, unlike most other Slavic tongues, Slovenian possesses the so-called ‘dual grammatical form’ or ‘the dual number’. Whereas most languages are happy with just a singular and a plural, Slovenian has a special way of saying ‘just the two of us’: midva. The term is often used in relation to newly married couples – two individuals, joined together to create one new entity. That rather pleasant-sounding pronoun feels particularly appropriate in Gorizia/Nova Gorica – a pair of border towns that have merged together to form a single new identity of its own.