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Exploring Trieste, Italy

The Piazza Carlo Goldoni.

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

In the middle is the Fountain of the Four Continents, a place where students loll, yapping into their iPhones in a cacophony of languages. Two young Italian businessmen in sharp pointy shoes examine their BlackBerrys. A little girl in a pink dress shows her doll the sights. The piazza is flooded with the curious gilded Triestine sunlight that bounces off the sea and catches the old stones. At night, lit up with operatic grandeur, its splendor is as heart-stopping as almost any public space in Europe.

Trieste? Where? A lot of people, including Italians, have trouble placing Trieste on the northeastern coast of the Adriatic, up by the fold in the map, sometimes obscured by the staples, its oxygen sucked out by Venice, its more glamorous neighbor 90 miles away. Surrounded by Slovenia and with Croatia, Austria, and Hungary just up the road, this is a border town. In Trieste, geography is everything—language, history, culture, cuisine. After World War II, Trieste became a political football, tossed between East and West. The polyglot city had been Italian on and off for decades, but it wasn’t until 1975 that Trieste became absolutely, legally Italian.

I visited Trieste at the end of the Cold War, and it felt a shabby place that had lost its purpose. Wherever I went, a fog of melancholy seemed to cling to me. By the time I got back this year, everything had changed. The city I visited—its gleaming buildings, its street life, its sheer vigor—had been revived. The man responsible, as almost everybody agrees, was Riccardo Illy, who was mayor from 1993 to 2001.

The head of the Trieste coffee company that bears his name and has been a mainstay since his grandfather founded it in 1933—the Illy sign is ubiquitous here—Illy played prince to Trieste’s Sleeping Beauty. He saw in his hometown huge potential as an important crossroads in the European Union, which was beginning to engage with Eastern Europe.

He cleaned up the buildings and opened them to conferences and festivals. He raised the profile of the already influential physics institute. He invited the world in as the city had always done, welcoming, tolerant, with a passion for the arts and an eye for the main chance. Trieste has a design hotel and an experimental restaurant and food lab; there are film festivals, food festivals, and even a Celtic festival. There are rock concerts in the piazza. As mayor, Illy gave the city a sense it had a future as well as a past.

At the Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta, a pair of local ladies, Vuitton bags in hand, gossip over coffee, glancing at the handsome, stubble-jawed young Polish filmmaker looking hungover from the festival the night before. This is Trieste’s hotel—everybody calls it the Duchi; in its present shape, the building has been here since the 1870’s. Harry’s Grill, the hotel restaurant, has a large terrace on the piazza. At teatime in the bar, the waiters, with a little bow, bring drinks on silver trays. At breakfast there is chocolate cake along with the eggs and toast.

“Remember the Austrian Empire,” says a mustachioed man on the Duchi steps as he gathers up his cape and disappears into the morning.

Even in the new, vibrant Trieste, history seems to swamp me. Those tourist touts with Portofino on the brain are quick to attach the label Hapsburg to everything they can. Around 1740, it was the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa who ordered the new town laid out on what had been salt flats, much as Peter the Great built St. Petersburg on a swamp; the cities, built around the same time, are architectural cousins. The Borgo Teresiano, named for the empress, is a lovely quarter, a canal at its heart, the streets full of bookshops, old churches, and small, elegant houses that could be in Prague. My favorite of all the city’s shops is here: Farmacia Biasoletto all’Orso Nero is a pharmacy founded in 1821 by a botanist, and it retains all the original fittings—fine wood; glass; tile; painted ceramic mortar and pestle.

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