Trieste Elegies

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

The mind of the traveler has much to work with in Trieste. The place has hilly vantage points, beautiful balmy summers, earthy and sensual food, the largest yachting festival in Europe (the Barcolana), and a strange, unresolved history. The city sits on a strip of land called the Karst that is now in the far northeast of Italy, on the Slovenian border, but that has over time been host to the Illyrians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Venetian Empire, Napoleon's Empire, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Italy again, since 1954. The city proves that globalization is anything but a new phenomenon; the region speaks of ambivalence and political revisionism. It bridges cultures to mark, as the Triestine author Claudio Magris once put it, "the passage from the airy marine ethos of Venice to a continental and problematic Mitteleuropa, grand, morose laboratory of civilization's discontents."

Trieste's moody winters fill the city with its signature wind, which whips down from the mountains in the northeast to the Adriatic at up to sixty miles an hour. Like the Provençal mistral and the New England nor'easter, this wind bears its own name and legend: la bora is said to periodically cleanse the city of its sins with three-day episodes. The wind seems overly expressive to the understated Triestini, who deem a man who's unnecessarily blustery, all full of himself, l'uomo borioso.

When I arrived in Trieste, however, on a Saturday last fall, the air was still and the sea was silver calm. A port city, Trieste has always lived and died by its water. For Italy, nearly all of whose outline could be regarded as one vast harbor, the city might seem redundant. But for the largely landlocked Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which the city belonged from 1382 to 1918 except during some Napoleonic episodes, Trieste was the main port, a miniature Vienna by the sea, toward which the whole of Northern Europe seemed to lean.

Even today the city is dominated by the Hapsburgs' ambitions for it. Its architecture celebrates nineteenth-century neoclassicism; its medieval plan was opened up in favor of grand boulevards laid out in a fiercely logical grid. Despite the romantic ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and the medieval Romanesque Cathedral of San Giusto, the true icons of the city are republican, commercial, utilitarian, and bourgeois.

On that Saturday the market in Piazza Ponterosso bustled, albeit with a curious datedness. Two teenaged boys scraped together change to buy a reproduction poster for a 1968 Doors, Steppenwolf, and Chambers Brothers concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Two gentlemen in tweed coats and ties bought hand-held fishing lines. Old ladies bought various salamis, and socks to wear with their sensible shoes. They walked with their adult sons, who lingered behind, giving rides to their own children on their shoulders.

Nearby, the bursary Tergesteo exhibited vintage photographs of Italian markets throughout the past century, in sepia sentimentality. Although the fashions have changed, many of the goods have not. This display was the perfect introduction to Trieste—a celebration of the middle class; a nod to consumerism, that ancient form of entertainment; a stylization of what we do to survive.

In the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, Trieste's centerpiece and one of the largest open squares in Italy, dozens of couples walked arm in arm, stopping almost dead center to embrace and kiss. No one appeared to be alone. Dogs were being paraded proudly: pedigreed and manicured Borzois, Afghans, standard poodles, pugs, whippets—trophy dogs sniffing at each other with the compromised disdain of the kept.

Less clear was the status of the cats; these creatures of the back streets and the shaded public garden had a feral quality to them. Plates of fresh pasta and fish heads were left for them on stoops, like animist temple offerings. No sooner was a Vespa parked than a cat was sure to curl up atop its warm seat. These unskittish cats are so sure of the Triestini's affection that some actually need to be lifted off a bike by its owner.

Notwithstanding the cats, chickens rule the public garden: thuggish cocks and hens strut and peck, acting more like the Italian-gangster cliché than any of the citizenry. One pigeon that dared to step into a cock's way was pecked almost to death before it was saved by a woman who sat on a bench stroking and cooing at the stunned bird and then walked away with it. I was unsure whether she meant to nurse it or to cook it for dinner.

I was on a Sunday-morning walk when it began to rain. I dipped into a church, the Beata Vergine del Soccorso, and stood in the back with husbands who didn't take communion and waved good-bye to their wives as they headed to the altar. Curiously half-hearted, episodically Baroque, with sudden flourishes of exuberance, the church seemed tired of itself, unsure of what was in store for it. Yet the communion line was long, and the service felt relevant. During the salutation the man beside me gave me his hand to shake, startling me with its rough grain and absence of a middle finger.

In Trieste there is just too much diversity—but of a subtle nature, as if calculated to add up to some average of all European culture—for you to entertain observations about quaint differences from your own life. There I was surrounded by people who sort of look like me or my mostly Slavic relatives, with broad faces, beaked noses, unexpected coloring. Unlike their dogs, the people are mutts, amalgamating the genetic legacies of the ethnic groups that have settled here. Body types seem to be decisive: big and beefy or light and waiflike. There's none of that American self-consciousness about being either too big or too little; these people seem to have adapted well to the culinary imperialism that defines their diet.

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.

All the same, Trieste has a strong, proud tradition of literary life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent an exquisite and celebrated period of creativity at Duino Castle, as the guest of the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. Her very name perhaps illustrates just how much the world has changed, and why something like The Duino Elegies is unlikely ever to be written again.

When I tried to visit the castle, it was closed to tourists. In fact, the house was on the market (though that's no longer the case). The family has sold its antiques and furnishings through recent Sotheby's auctions. But, I told myself, Duino is almost better this way—visible only from a footpath along the white cliffs, "towering against the sea, like foothills of human existence," as Rilke put it.

Probably the best James Joyce pilgrimage site is the Caffè San Marco, where bookshelves are lined with the works of the joint's onetime regulars, including Joyce, Magris, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba. Joyce lived in the city in "voluntary exile" (the poetic kind) for much of the twentieth century's first three decades, writing most of the stories in Dubliners, all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and major sections of Ulysses here. Joyce loved Trieste and its contradictions, its sensuality and its indeterminism; it is a city he well imagined, his sense of exile blurry with myopia, the city itself stereoscoped through his spectacles.

The travel writer Jan Morris claims that her recent memoir of living in the city, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, will be her last book. As James Morris she was stationed in Trieste after World War II, during the Allied occupation, and her portrait of the city necessarily yearns after some lost state of mind. Morris charts Trieste as a cartography of melancholy, "an allegory of limbo." If Trieste is "nowhere," might a traveler come here to be lost, to experience abandonment, to play at being an exile? Trieste particularly appeals to travelers in search of the romance of exile, who look at the new world order with an ache for the old one, who seek out the scars of a homeland in a place that has never been sure to whom it belonged.

One of the great pleasures of travel is imagining living elsewhere, and Trieste obliges one with its ease, its mediocrity, its impurity, its crisis of identity and identity of crisis, with its contingencies, its nostalgia—but nostalgia for what? I sat for a few last hours speculating at Caffè degli Specchi, sipping a warming cognac against the breezes in the Piazza dell'Unità. The square, big enough that you can forget your thoughts or gather them in the time it takes to cross it, seems to lose visual depth, as an oozy fog breaks through any sense of dimension. The water laps lazily against the banks. Into it old Europe drains itself.