Exploring Trieste, Italy
Published: July 2011
By Reggie Nadelson
T+L takes in the architecture, seafood, coffee, and more in Trieste, Italy.
It’s lunchtime in Trieste, the handsome Italian city on the Adriatic, and at Buffet Da Pepi, a genial crowd surges forward toward the serving station, lured by fresh pork simmering in fragrant broth. The steam rises. The three guys serving up the food resemble old-time countermen at a New York deli or maybe Tom Cruise as the bartender in Cocktail. The art is in the speed, the deft theatrical wielding of carving fork and knife as they haul the meat onto a marble slab, carve off slices of fresh pork, cured pork, ham, and cragno (sausage), toss some in a bun for a sandwich or onto a plate for a mixed platter.
With a side of crauti (sweet sauerkraut with caraway seeds), freshly grated cren (horseradish), and some mustard, lunch at Da Pepi alone makes the trip to Trieste worthwhile. I ask for a beer. Pierpaolo Segrè, my guide, suggests a glass of Terrano, the local red.
“This is what you could call a pig pub, and it is pure Trieste,” says Segrè, a third-generation Triestine who claims Italians, Dalmatians, Austrians, Hungarians, Catholics, and Jews among his recent ancestors, a mix as characteristically Triestine as the pork and the wine, followed by a black espresso at a tiny café where you stand up to drink your brew.
Segrè, like most natives, is a little obsessed with his city and thrilled that it’s currently got a buzz. Its tourist-office people eye the profoundly blue bay—dotted with sailboats and rimmed with beaches—they lick their lips and, in spite of the fact that Trieste is much more singular, grander, and more alluring than a mere coastal resort, pronounce the town “Portofino waiting to happen.”
After lunch, I try to walk off the pig, averting my eyes from the pastry shops, windows stuffed with Sacher torte, fruit tarts, pink and green almond cakes. In this compact city of about 200,000, you can walk almost everywhere. I wander. I climb the little hill to the Roman ruins, make my way to the Revoltella, once a rich merchant’s mansion, part of the house still intact, the rest a museum of modern art. Past the Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi through grand squares and along winding cobblestoned backstreets, I head for the main square, and the sea, which stretches out in front of it.
Trieste’s location on the very edge of the Adriatic Sea has always defined it; it still does. As a modern city it was, in a sense, invented as a port town. From the 1380’s to World War I, Trieste belonged to the Hapsburgs—it was Vienna’s main route to the sea and the rest of the world.
Sitting in the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, I watch a spiffy blue and white ferry on its daily run. It seems about to sail straight into Trieste’s main square. The sea is the piazza’s fourth side, and you can almost taste the salt as speedboats bounce over the water. In summer, bronzed bodies in tiny bikinis lie on beaches just outside the town; in early fall, during the Barcolana regatta, the bay is so heavily dappled with white sails you feel you can almost walk out over it.
Everything in Trieste leads to the piazza; this is the city’s beating heart, its living room. On three sides are the massive buildings of imperial ambition, built between the early 19th and 20th centuries. The government palace, town hall, and the insurance and shipping companies make this an open-air architectural museum and provide a snapshot of the city’s roots in commerce and culture, of its sense of self.
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.
But of all Trieste’s period attractions, the Museo Storico del Castello di Miramare is the most evocative: a little castle and fort that, at night, glows like a mirage in the moonlight. Built in the 1850’s by Archduke Maximilian, it is the exact reflection of the naval officer, the Victorian gent. His study is designed like a ship’s cabin; the book-lined library and carefully chosen art collection reflect his intellectual passions.
As the Austrian Empire morphed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it got rich. Like other great ports—New York; Hong Kong; Bombay—Trieste was also tolerant. Money before God, this is not a pious place. Still, it’s astonishing that in a small Italian city, six religions have existed in peace for a long time (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox). The religious edifices are more the result of a wealthy merchant class showing off than of any zealotry. The deep-blue dome of San Spiridone, a Serbian Orthodox church, soars to the same sky as cupolas of Sant’ Antonio Taumaturgo, a Catholic church. There is a Benedictine monastery as well as San Giusto Cathedral, which, with its mosaics and frescoes, dates partly to the 12th century.
Trieste has often been thought of as a Jewish city. In its heyday, Jews were welcomed, and they prospered. The old ghetto, just behind the piazza, is now a chic quarter of antiques shops and pubs. Still, there are empty buildings, a sense of an almost forgotten world.
Toward the end of World War II, the Nazis, furious that the Italians had signed up with the Allies, invaded Trieste. They rounded up the remaining Jews and murdered them. The Risiera, an old rice mill in the San Sabba district just beyond a tangle of new highways, was Italy’s only Nazi extermination camp and is now a museum. Here are the narrow cells, damp, cold walls scratched with dates, the remains of the crematorium. Most Holocaust memorials make tears seem to me trivial, irrelevant. But the Risiera, perhaps because it seems so unexpected in this lovely seaside city, makes me cry.
It was among the Jews who were his friends in Trieste that James Joyce found the inspiration for Leopold Bloom. The tiny Caffè Pirona likes to boast that it was there that the writer ate his morning pastry. Near the Grand Canal is a bronze statue of Joyce, bow tie and boater in place, heading perhaps for the language lessons he gave to support himself.
If the Adriatic stretching out to the world from Trieste defines it, so, in a way, does the Karst, the ridge of wild limestone hills at its back, an outcrop of the Julian Alps. Trieste sits between them, suspended between sea and mountain. Before the rail lines and highways, visitors slogged over the Karst to Trieste by horse and wagon, always on the lookout for bandits.
In good weather, wine gardens spring up all over the Karst, usually marked by a red arrow. You go in, you might be in a farmhouse, where there is locally made wine, and homemade sausage or pâté. Few have addresses. The Karst is a secretive place. If the sea makes Trieste a cosmopolitan, enlightened European city, the Karst adds something in-turning and almost medieval.
One day I get a cab to the Marian Temple of Monte Grisa. From here you can see the whole of Trieste, the coast, the Karst with its remote farms, underground river, grottoes, and caves. Consecrated in 1966, it’s a cavernous concrete cathedral. People kneel on the hard floor, praying. Unlike Trieste’s gorgeously decorated and gilded churches, here you feel the tough piety, the fervent and feverish beliefs that make it seem utterly Eastern European. You feel you’re virtually in the Balkans. Slovenia is five miles from the center of Trieste; Croatia is ten.
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.
Great Value Urban Hotel Design 2 Arona Chiusa; 39-040/302-065; urbanhotel.it; doubles from $150.
Eat and Drink
Antica Trattoria Suban 2 Via Emilio Comici; 39-040/54368; dinner for two $110.
Antico Caffè San Marco 18 Via Cesare Battisti; 39-040/363-538; coffee for two $9.
Buffet Da Pepi 3 Via della Cassa di Risparmio; 39-040/366-858; lunch for two $31.
Caffè degli Specchi 7 Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia; 39-040/036-5777; coffee for two $9.
Caffè Tommaseo 4/C Piazza Tommaseo; 39-040/362-666; coffee for two $8.
Chimera di Bacco 2 Via del Pane; 39-040/364-023; lunch for two $94.
Harry’s Grill Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta, 2/1 Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia; 39-040/660-606; breakfast for two $31.
Pasticceria Caffè Pirona 12 Largo Barriera Vecchia; 39-040/636-046; pastries for two $5.
Ristorante Al Bagatto 7 Via Luigi Cadorna; 39-040/301-771; dinner for two $125.
Trattoria da Giovanni 14/B Via San Lazzaro; 39-040/639-396; lunch for two $40.
See and Do
Farmacia Biasoletto all’Orso Nero 16 Via Roma; 39-040/364-330.
Museo Civico della Risiera di San Sabba 5 Via Giovanni Palatucci; 39-040/826-202; risierasansabba.it.
Museo Revoltella Galleria d’Arte Moderna 27 Via Diaz; 39-040/675-4350; museorevoltella.it.
Museo Storico del Castello di Miramare Viale Miramare; 39-040/224-143; castello-miramare.it.
Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi 1 Riva III Novembre; 39-040/672-2111; teatroverdi-trieste.com.