Georges Rouzeau - 2012-10-17
A door to the Balkans at the far edge of Italy, Trieste is a vibrant crossroads of cultures and influences. Mistreated by history, this is a city to discover without hesitation.
Trieste, an indefinable charm
So many statues, steles, columns and epigrams in Trieste! So many landmarks, so many dates! Might the city be endeavouring to define its identity? Clinging to the north-eastern coast of the Adriatic, between Italy and Slovenia, the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea, Trieste is difficult to ‘locate’, both geographically and historically. To help make things clear, the city’s loveliest square, looking toward Slovenia, is called Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia.
Is it a northern city in the south or a southern city in the north? Italian or Austro-Hungarian? East or West? Serbs, Slovenians, Romanians, Greeks, Jews (a remarkable community with great economic, political and cultural influence), Armenians, Swiss, Germans and Croats have all left deep imprints here. In fact, Mussolini found the ‘melting-pot’ character of Trieste so objectionable that this is where he chose to present his infamous racial laws in 1938.
‘Elsewhere’ is Trieste’s second skin. From the jetty that stretches far into the bay, you can spot enormous Turkish ferries en route to Istanbul. And if you stand on your tippy toes, you can almost smell the steppes beyond the Danube. The Bora, that cold wind from the north-east that blows along the Adriatic, part of the Aegean and the Black Sea, powerfully evokes the Boreas of Greek mythology, the incarnation of the north wind in all its might.
To confuse matters further, you won’t see Renaissance manors in the streets of Trieste. Instead, there are elegant, cream-coloured buildings: the neo-classic Austro-Hungarian manors which have long housed insurance companies such as the famous Assicurazioni Generali. No Baroque churches either, but a synagogue – Europe’s second-largest, after the one in Budapest – and two Orthodox churches: one Serbian, the other Greek.
Trieste, literary legend
Devoted to the gods of maritime trade and insurance companies, Trieste is not able to pride itself on the strong artistic and visual traditions of cities such as Venice. On the other hand, in the early 20th century, its literary brilliance began to shine forth thanks to authors such as Scipio Slataper, Giani Stuparich, Virgilio Giotti, Roberto Bazlen, Boris Pahor, Giorgio Voghera, Umberto Saba, and, closer to home, Claudio Magris and Paolo Rumiz.
The best-known among them is still Italo Svevo, the author of Zeno’s Conscience and Emilio’s Carnival. This humble employee of an insurance company once took English lessons with a certain James Joyce. Indeed, it was in Trieste that the nomadic Dubliner began to write Ulysses. Naturally, the city was destined to become a veritable legend in the world of literature. Today, several statues – of Svevo, Saba and Joyce – in different parts of the city honour their memory.
The authors’ shadows continue to haunt the city’s many historic cafés, many of which have retained their original decor. Cafés have played a decisive role in the city’s cultural development and its political destiny as well, as they once harboured the Italian irredentists who claimed that their ‘unredeemed’ city should be returned to the motherland.
Yet today, the writers of Trieste keep the café tradition alive. Claudio Magris is one of them: the author of Danube is a regular at the Caffè San Marco, a café with a sumptuous Viennese Art Nouveau decor.
Far from being tourist-centric, these authentic cafés often serve excellent food, or, perhaps, 22 kinds of hot cocoa, as does the Caffè Tommaseo, open since 1830.
Typically, brilliantly Italian.
Trattoria Nero di Seppia
Via Cadorna 23
The former proprietors of a renowned establishment (Ritrovo Marittimo) have moved to an old liqueurs shop which they’ve restored with simplicity and style. The trattoria menu showcases fish and seafood from the Gulf of Trieste, accompanied by a variety of local products, from olive oil to Boris Skerk’s Karst wines.
Via dei Fornelli 2
Just two minutes from the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, this is another restaurant devoted to the treasures of the sea, as suggested by the marine decor. Fresh ingredients, top-quality cuisine.
Via Cecilia De Rittmeyer 14
Old stables near the train station and the conservatory of music have been transformed into Pepenero Pepebianco, a restaurant with a modern, pleasant decor that is comfortable and plush. The reception and service are remarkably congenial. The cuisine runs from traditional (an entire menu is devoted to Trieste’s gastronomic heritage) to contemporary (within reason). Pepenero Pepebianco also organise meetings, debates, concerts and special theme dinners, all adding up to a veritable culture of taste. Needless to say, this is not your standard eatery.
Where to stay
Starhotels Savoia Excelsior Palace
Riva del Mandracchio, 4
Located along on the Gulf of Trieste in the epicentre of the city, Trieste’s loveliest hotel represents the quintessence of the Austro-Hungarian era – one can still visit the emperor’s private apartments here. Inaugurated in 1912, it was entirely restored just before the centennial.
Website of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region (of which Trieste is the capital)
Italian National Tourist Agency