While visiting Slovenia, we enjoyed slavic flavors with obvious Italian ingredients: both food and culture in general. Now we get to explore the inverse — in the city of Trieste, right next door. Geographically, a narrow spit of Italian territory holds Trieste; it nestles against Slovenia and Croatia. Historically, Trieste’s foundations are Austrian, Hungarian and Slavic. It’s been officially part of Italy only since 1954.
A combination of geographic and historical factors has made Trieste a city unique in its kind and a fascinating place to visit. It is not the typical Italian city you may expect to visit. It has maintained its cultural diversity because of its heterogeneous history and the different ethnic groups that live here side by side. Trieste flourished as part of Austria, from 1382 (which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867) until 1918, when it was considered one of the most prosperous Mediterranean seaports as well as a capital of literature and music. However, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Trieste’s annexation to Italy after World War I, led to a decline in its economic and cultural importance. Hence, the city lost its strategic and commercial influence. (source)
You feel this push-pull between Italy and central Europe as soon as you start walking around the city center. Neo-Palladian churches with austere columns and crisp pediments sit next to imperial administrative buildings like what you see in Vienna and Prague.
Still, for our first lunch in the city, we sat outside along the so-called Grand Canal, and ate fried calamari and a pizza — that’s Italian!
An after-pizza stroll through some welcoming streets:
The culture of coffee is a big deal in Trieste, thanks in part to its having been a major port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Cafés are a second living room for many Italians. After home, this is where social life often unfolds, as people from all generations gather with friends to share the latest gossip and pass the time. But in an already coffee-obsessed country, many people might be surprised to learn that this far-flung border city is commonly considered Italy’s unofficial “Coffee Capital”. Not only are the Triestini said to drink twice as much of the stuff per year as anywhere else in Italy – an eye-popping 10kg of coffee beans each annually – but it’s also home to the Mediterranean’s main coffee port and one of Italy’s biggest coffee brands: Illy.
Coffee is thought to have first arrived in Italy in 1570 when physician Prospero Alpini brought coffee beans from Egypt to sell in Venetian pharmacies. Though the drink was immediately beloved, it aroused suspicion because of its unfamiliar buzzy effects and associations with Islam. Catholics called it “The Devil’s drink” and rallied Pope Clement VIII to ban it. But after one sip, the Pope declared it was so good that it should not be exclusive to the “infidels.” By the mid-17th Century, elegant cafes were established in Venice and Vienna, and coffee was revered as a luxurious drink, enjoyed by aristocrats and intellectuals.
Trieste started to catch up with this coffee craze in 1719, when its port was declared tax-free under Austro-Hungarian rule. Trade began with coffee arriving from the Ottoman Empire, and Trieste was soon supplying beans to cafes throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire – including Vienna’s famous coffee houses.
Our first caffè stop was outside, along the edge of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, at the Caffè degli Specchi.
An outside table at Trieste’s Caffè degli Specchi, from 1839, is an ideal spot to take in the city’s Piazza Unità d’Italia. Locals claim this is the largest seafront square in the world. Arriving here is breathtaking, with one side open to the Adriatic and the rest flanked by a grand Neoclassical expanse of four-storey pale grey and ivory stone buildings. It’s a harmonious vision of arches and balconies, with a gold-faced clock at its centre topped by bronze figures who clang it on the hour. (source)
I don’t know if the coffee itself was more wonderful here than at other places. But it was rich and creamy, and we were sitting outside on the main square of Trieste on a cool sunny day: pretty great! Not to mention the little hot-chocolate chasers.
The next day we sought out another famous caffè: Caffè San Marco. It’s notable for its place in Trieste’s coffee culture, and for its lovely interior.
Yet the favourite of every Triestino I met is Caffè San Marco, founded in 1914 and located just outside the historical centre. The scene inside is warm and retains its stunning original design, with bronze coffee leaves bordering its ceiling and an antique copper espresso machine. There’s a bookstore on site and marble tables full of customers playing chess. Locals consider the owner, Alexandros Delithanassis, a city hero. A former book publisher, he took over the cafe in 2013 and saved it from demise. (source)
We sipped our coffees at a little table by the windows. We could easily watch the servers and other sippers. We monitored a man of our age at a table across from us. He concentrated on a real-paper newspaper and on his phone. He had ordered a morning pastry along with his coffee. Eating the crumbly pastry, he didn’t lean over the little table; he leaned out to the side, unleashing a cascade of pastry crumbs onto the floor. Our first thought was, What a slob! But then we noticed that he wasn’t the only one with this method, and after a bit, a staff person came through with a broom. We guess that when you’re in Trieste, enjoying a coffee and pastry, sweep your crumbs onto the floor to make it easier for the staff to clean it all up.
Here’s a rhapsodic quote about the place of coffee in the Trieste spirit from Roberto Morelli, who is Chief Marketing Officer at Illy Coffee. We realize he has a vested interest.
Trieste and coffee. There is history – with the arrival and trading of coffee that arose due to the city’s status as a free port since the eighteenth century and the stock exchange that was established in the early twentieth century. There is the economic aspect – with Trieste being the most important Mediterranean port in the sector. There are the companies – covering the entire production chain from trading to roasting. There is culture – with historic cafes steeped in a Central European atmosphere and teeming with thousands of everyday rituals and myths….
Only in a city of disenchanted and unpolished sociability could this most sociable daily ritual spring up and take root, forming the most civilized interludes of our daily life, which culminate in a coffee cup. And these tell us the value of the simple things that shape our lives and seem pointless, as do all things that are truly essential.
Straight rigid streets walled with administrative palaces fill much of the city center. But there is an older, medieval nucleus between grid and seafront. The streets are narrower; and they wind picturesquely.
As we strolled here we started to notice a lot of people standing around in front of small caffès and bars. Many of them were dressed in worker uniforms — like what street cleaners or dock workers wear. To us, their conversations seemed animated and passionate. Then we noticed that they were slowly gathering and flowing toward Trieste’s seafront boulevard. The crowd swept us up. We all emerged onto the boulevard — and then we spotted the signs and placards: No to the Green Pass! Someone with a bullhorn shouted, Libertà! Libertà! We were walking in the midst of a very Italian, very anti-vax, very anti-health-pass demonstration. We had to get out of here: surrounded by people who most likely weren’t vaccinated was not a place we wanted to be.
Still, it was fascinating and darkly entertaining. We hadn’t been in an Italian political demonstration before. We know from our lives in France that, at least in France, street demonstrations are a normal and important part of French culture. Presumably, there is a similar Italian predilection and tradition.
We quickly checked online to see exactly why this demonstration was taking place here today. In just a couple of days, it would be mandatory for workers across the country to have the Covid-19 health pass, called the Green Pass. No pass, no work. Most Italians had been vaccinated by this time, but the percentage was lower in Trieste than in the rest of the country. In October 2021, 40% of Trieste’s port workers were not inoculated.
We escaped the unhealthy crowd by crossing the boulevard and walking to the end of a broad stone pier. It was late afternoon. We joined a growing crowd (with lots of interpersonal space) to await sunset over the Adriatic. Behind us, the grand buildings of Austro-Hungarian Trieste stood silently, except for the unrelenting call for Libertà! Libertà. The curve of the land and hills cupped the harbor. And a ginormous cruise ship looked down on us. Since Trieste faces the open sea and has a long history of being a grand port, unlike Venice across the Adriatic, it can handle the large cruise ships without being damaged. Still, the scale of the ships fights even the grandest of the Trieste palaces.
During our strolls around Trieste, we kept encountering brightly colored and amusing plastic critters. Fuschia foxes guarding classical fountain; a red crocodile descending the face of a building; and colorful pairs of birds either staring each other down, or ignoring each other; a giant whipped-cream-colored bunny.
A little research revealed that these were parts of an urban art exhibition by Cracking Art:
The partnership between Comune di Trieste, Arthemisia group and Cracking Art continues. For the first time, the artistic movement founded in the Biella area creates an artwork that takes over the whole city – Trieste. Entitled Incanto (magic), the large installations will be available for visits from 3 July to 17 October 2021….
“Back when the pandemic was just beginning, we started thinking of how we could revive our city” said councilor for culture Giorgio Rossi. “The Cracking Art project came to us at just the right time – we knew it would make people smile, would make them take pictures of the animals and with them, would make everyone feel better.”
“I think Triestini are definitely intrigued by the many colorful installations around the city and that’s exactly what we wanted,” said councilor for equal opportunities, Francesca De Santis.
“The exhibit is called Incanto (magic)” said Salvatore Macaluso, one of the organizers. “And let’s face it, we all need a bit of magic in our lives.”
Marise, Osteria e cucina
The evening’s wine: Refosco 2019 Sancin