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Exploring Trieste, Italy

The Piazza Carlo Goldoni.

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

Coffee is Trieste’s drug of choice, its consolation, its memory-making madeleine. The café culture is more reminiscent of Budapest or Vienna than of Rome. In Trieste, I’m tempted to idle away the days at the cafés: in the morning at Caffè degli Specchi, on the piazza, where coffee comes straight, with liqueurs, or with ice cream; before lunch at Caffè Tommaseo for an aperitif among the marble-topped tables, old mirrors, and plaster cherubs; in the evening, at the Jugendstil Antico Caffè San Marco. Dimly lit, unchanged for a hundred years, San Marco is home to students and writers who spend their days reading, flirting, posturing over coffee, beer, and wine.

But, as usual, my pal Segrè has got food on his mind. Lunch today is at Chimera di Bacco. Following the classic jota (bean and kraut soup), there’s meat stuffed with potatoes and a sampling of strudel. A snack at Trattoria da Giovanni that follows turns out to be tripe and fried baccalà (salt cod). I need to lie down.

That night I get a taxi up to Antica Trattoria Suban, Trieste’s famous 19th-century restaurant. The décor is slightly kitschy, a sort of Eastern European farmhouse style, and the food, in keeping, is meat. Families are gathered around platters of succulent beef and lamb just off the open grill. The wines are red and big. It all reminds me of a trip to Bosnia where every meal was meat, sometimes only meat; a sign of prosperity, it also seemed about something less tangible, a kind of peasant culinary macho.

Da Pepi notwithstanding, the best meal I have in Trieste is at Ristorante Al Bagatto. A few minutes from the piazza, it’s a deceptively small and simple fish joint with a little fridge in the middle of the room, the catch of the day on display. I eat octopus stew with soft polenta, snapper tartare with chive ricotta, and the best fritto misto—mixed fried fish—I’ve ever had. At Al Bagatto, eating sublime Italian fish dishes (oh, the dumplings with mullet roe and marinated squid!), I return at last to the modern Italian city, back from my tryst with fin de siècle Mitteleuropa. Slovenia this is not.

One of the odder sights in Trieste is the handrails, usually metal chains attached to the buildings. Almost the first thing people tell you about is the bora, the wind that blows in over the mountains, usually in winter. Hold on to those handrails, or the bora will knock you over.

I can’t understand at first why everybody talks about the bora all the time, but after a while, I get it. The bora is Trieste’s force of nature, its mistral, the only violent thing that happens in this trim, equable city.

“I feel good in Trieste,” Illy says. “The light and the air—thanks to the sea, the surrounding plateau of the mountains, and the bora—are truly unique.”

Before it sweeps away the clouds and turns the sky that intense Triestine blue again, the bora makes you feel a little uneasy. But then, if Trieste is a lively modern city, there is also a sense of somewhere-else-ness, a lingering delight in the melancholy. By my last day I realize I’ve fallen slightly in love with it, as if infected by an agreeable daydream. Trieste is my secret city, and I will be back.

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