Travel June 2002

Trieste Elegies

Enigma and nostalgia on the edge of Italy, at the heart of Europe

A new friend, Luciano, took me to Loggia della Maga, a restaurant "not meant for tourists" (which is putting too fine a point on things). There we dined on a carpaccio of swordfish, and fresh fettuccine with shrimp and preserved lemons. Also on the city's menus I found gnocchi in plum sauce, a goulash, and stewed tripe. Here even the food has symbolic weight. Many regions in Italy insist on the differences and integrity of local cuisine, scoffing at tourist restaurants that will serve a dish as anomalous as "spaghetti bolognese," mixing tropes of north and south with appalling familiarity. But Trieste cooks as it lives—in a simmering melting pot. The restaurateur and media-star foodie Lidia Bastianich spent part of her girlhood here and remembers the city's international but not quite cosmopolitan flavor fondly. She told me recently, "The best fish are always caught where salt and fresh water meet."

At Trattoria ai Fiori, I ate sardines three ways: simple white filets in olive oil; sardello saor, the small fish floured, sautéed, and marinated with caramelized onions made sweet and sour by raisins and vinegar; and, finally, in a cream like a mousse, with fennel. My main course was a plate of fresh tagliolini with tiny clams in an egg-based sauce perfumed by a split hot pepper that sat decorously in the center. Then came baby lettuces, soft like silk in the mouth, dressed with olive oil and a powerful homemade vinegar, and served with a chunk of goat's-milk cheese—all downed with a delicious and cheap Tocai Friulano.

That Trieste is an anachronism is brought home (literally) by the nature of its museums, which were private houses and are now open to the public. The Revoltella is a neo-Renaissance palace, built between 1854 and 1858, that displays a wealthy entrepreneurial owner's taste in furnishings and art. When I visited, the place was empty, and a docent followed me around like an anxious salesperson. In his day Baron Pasquale Revoltella, a shipping magnate, used a camera obscura in his study, upstairs, to keep an eye on people strolling in the square below, and a telescope to keep tabs on Trieste's other leading citizen, who lived across the bay.

The archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg was downsized, as it were, by the imperial powers in Vienna and sent off to Trieste, where his castle, Miramare, was completed in 1860. Three years later he was made redundant again and sent off to be crowned Emperor of Mexico, in which country he was promptly executed by republican insurgents led by Benito Juarez. His wife, Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, obligingly went mad and was sent back to her native Belgium. Their tragic history sets the tone of Miramare, a nervously ornamented replica of a medieval castle built on a seaside promontory. Formal gardens organize the outdoor space, and throughout the park's fifty-four acres are plant and tree species collected from every corner of the world—an anxious hoarding by a dying empire. As I wandered from room to room, I read a tale of insecure power in the castle's interior-design survey of history: the medieval stone walls, the heavy Baroque and neo-Renaissance furniture. This is Second Empire bombast, persuading itself of its legitimacy, dismissing the elegant restraint of Biedermeier.

Upstairs, in rooms appropriated by the Duke Amedeo d'Aosta in the 1930s, the apartments are furnished in Italian Rationalism, with its ironic curves and perspective-giving angles. The effect upon entering is like that of following a goblet of hot mead with a martini. Even the statues of Maximilian (elegantly condescending to the Mexicans he would fail to rule) and the Duke (looking for all the world like Batman's The Penguin) appear to be at least five centuries apart in aesthetics, though they are only seven decades apart in history—a potent illustration of how history has accelerated the fates of the powerful in the past hundred years.

The Museo Morpurgo, the last of the museums I visited, was once the home of a rich Jewish merchant. Jews did well in the reasonably tolerant mercantile city until Italy surrendered to the Allies in World War II, and the Nazis swooped down on Trieste and the Croatian territories, deporting their Jews. Today only 600 or so members of a once thriving Jewish community remain. The museum had a morbid quiet; it seemed unused to visitors. Floorboards creaked, and shutters were drawn. As I walked through the rooms, they were illuminated one at a time by an impatient docent, who lingered in the doorways sighing and clicking her keys at me. I took my time nevertheless, and scanned the leather spines in the library, which seemed to me identical to the libraries at Miramare and Revoltella: Aristotle, Ovid, Cicero, Shakespeare (in German), Montaigne, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, reading like obligatory stops on a Grand Tour.

Like so much else in Trieste, the language now spoken there is mixed, ambivalent. Signs on the city's outskirts appear in both Italian and Slovene. A couple walking their bulldog on a big stone pier spoke Italian to each other but used Hrvatski, the language of Croatia, for the dog. My stumbling Italian did well, because the Triestini speak a more elementary version, and speak more slowly, than do most of their countrymen. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for many years, dearly loved the local dialect, Triestino. Luciano told me that the Triestini speak so slowly because they are used to people's translating in their heads—from dialect, from German, from Slovene and Hrvatski—before speaking, negotiating pauses, reconsiderations, diplomacy, the fear of being misunderstood.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In