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Rome, Florence, Venice — they’re all lovely. But Trieste is downright intoxicating, and in so many ways.

. Photographs by Mario Mazziol.

When I see the man behind the bar, I see Trieste.

He’s wiry, with dark Mitteleuropean features and an air of quiet intensity. “What have you got by Rencel?” I ask.

I’m asking about an obscure Slovenian winemaker named Josko Rencel, and I’ve put the question to him in impeccable Italian. The proprietor could not be less impressed. He whirls toward the bank of 500 or so bottles stationed behind him, roots through a box below the bottom shelf, pulls out three bottles by Rencel — a Sauvignon, a Malvasia, and a late-harvest red made with refosco grapes — and sets them in front of me. Checkmate.

“Is it possible to have one of them by the glass?” I ask timidly.

The proprietor could crush my spirit here and now. Instead, he gives a casual wave of the hand, saying, “Tutto è possibile.” Everything is possible. He then uncorks the Sauvignon.

It’s midafternoon. A couple of elegant middle- aged women and an octogenarian man sit on the bar stools behind me. The ladies are drinking Prosecco; the gentleman is imbibing an espresso laced with grappa while he rattles the pages of Il Manifesto. Each of them has a leashed dog. The proprietor slides me a small plate of crostini with locally produced Montasio cheese to go with the wine. He doesn’t know my name, nor I his, though he and I have been joined in this ritual at Gran Malabar once or twice a year for a decade now. Somehow, that has always seemed to me to be a fitting arrangement in Trieste, where hospitality is never of the unctuous kind. You slide easily into an Italian tableau and then slide back out, confident that this is neither some practiced fantasyland nor a frail ecosystem but instead the stuff of natural human exchange — which is the miracle of Trieste, a city that has been bludgeoned with frightful regularity and yet remains like my man behind the bar: a figure of cool, unruffled decency.

Trieste stories are all this way, pleasurable and unself-consciously authentic. I bought my hip (if I do say so myself ) Italian eyeglasses from an optician here a few years back. Another time, two days after covering the 2004 presidential election, I found myself in an unprepossessing but excellent seafood restaurant nearby called Slauko, sharing a feast of Adriatic bounty with three others while gazing out at the vast, politically indifferent gulf from whence it all came. On one Saturday afternoon, I turned a corner onto Via del Ponte and thereby stumbled upon the city’s monthly antique market: The rows of dusty books and lustrous picture frames transformed the old quarter into a centuries-old memory of itself. And one evening, I found myself invited to a local enoteca’s anniversary party, where I became enamored of a waitress, and she apparently of me — though I had to excuse myself to grab what I promised her would be a quick dinner at the great Al Bagatto. Alas, the restaurant’s wine list was a siren song, its array of olive oils and exotic local shellfish too demanding a lover … with the inevitable result that when I finally returned to the enoteca, though the party was still well under way, the waitress had settled into the arms of a less gluttonous suitor.

Still, most of my Trieste
experiences are unpurposeful — and happily so, I should hasten to add, since the word triste means “sad.” And though the city’s name doesn’t derive from that word, there are those out there who would give you the impression that Trieste is a real downer of a place. An Italian friend of mine compares Trieste to a princess who’s forever awaiting her errant prince. Another friend, the Italophilic author Fred Plotkin, has written of the city’s distinct weltschmerz, or world-weariness. The great travel writer Jan Morris, an unabashed fan of the city, nonetheless titled her paean to it Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. I can only conclude that these authors are part of a campaign instigated to discourage Trieste’s overpopulation, much the way Seattle residents happily concur that, oh, yes, it’s far too rainy to live there — try Portland!

No one who has ever laid eyes on Trieste disputes its beauty. Its combination of theatrical seaside setting, stately architecture, and beguiling cross-cultural ambience has no peer in Italy. But because Trieste is east of Venice (a two-hour drive or train ride away),
most Americans have never heard of it, or of the gorgeous region of which Trieste is capital, Friuli Venezia Giulia. For that matter, many Friulians don’t connect to their capital, since Trieste fell into Italian hands only at the conclusion of World War I.

Still, just as 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, there’s something to be said for a city that the Romans, Huns, Byzantines, Lombards, Goths, Cossacks, Venetians, Austrians, Nazis, Yugoslavs, and Italians each took the trouble to invade. The allure is Trieste’s seaport, wedged invitingly into the crossroads of Western and Eastern Europe
. Because of this geographical happenstance, blood has washed through Trieste for centuries — most recently (as monuments and street names throughout town attest), as a result of the grueling battles on the Carso plateau above the city during the First World War and of the lynchings of Nazi resisters during World War II.

If You Go 

HOW TO GET THERE: American Airlines has daily nonstop service to
Rome with flights from New York/JFK and Chicago, and they offer service to Venice in cooperation with codeshare partners British Airways (via London) and Brussels Airlines (via Brussels). From Venice, it’s a straight-shot two-hour drive on the A-4 autostrada due east. Trains also connect Trieste to Venice, Milan, Rome, and most other major Italian cities.

WHERE TO STAY: The top choice in Trieste is the Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta (www.grandhotelduchidaosta.com), situated on the edge of the sweeping Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. The staff is extraordinary, and there’s nothing at all wrong with the Harry’s Grill inside. Otherwise, Hotel Continentale (www.grandhotelduchidaosta.com) is charming, convenient to the shopping district, and less expensive than Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK: To eat just-caught branzino or orata while taking in the panorama of the Gulf of Trieste, there’s no better locale than Slauko (011-39-040-225393), in Contovello, above town. In the center of Trieste, Al Bagatto (011- 39-040-301771) is a tour de force in preparation, expert service, and tremendous regional wines, though the nearby Ai Fiori (011-39-040-300-633) would be any other city’s top choice. Go to Gran Malabar (011-39-040-636266) on Piazza San Giovanni to sample the area’s best wines on both sides of the border while digesting a slice of the city’s daily life. Enoteca Nanut (011-39- 040-360642) is the perfect respite from a hard morning’s worth of shopping and is the place to buy an unfussy lunch and a bottle of Friulian wine to take back home.

WHAT TO DRINK: Trieste is in the Carso D.O.C. wine zone of Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region. Three unusual varietals well worth trying are the hearty red Terrano (a cousin to the refosco, found elsewhere in Friuli) and these two whites: Malvasia Istriana, a dry wine that marries perfectly with the area’s seafood; and Vitovska, an agreeably acidic wine with a sagelike bouquet. The Malvasia of Edi Kante is widely considered the best, while Zidarich makes an exemplary Vitovska. Across the border in Slovenia, Josko Rencel has no peer when it comes to Terrano. (Or Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.) It’s axiomatic that Friuli produces the country’s best white wines. The offerings of Venica & Venica, Roberto Picech, Franco Toros, Dario Raccaro, Edi Keber, and Slovenia’s Sim?ci?c provide ample proof.  

But I don’t ever feel the remotest sense of tragedy as I move through Trieste. If anything, the mortal collisions have bestowed an exotic legacy. Some of the Triestini sport keen Slavic cheekbones along with gold Hapsburg hair. They take their fine madein- Trieste Illy coffee (whose president, Riccardo Illy, is the town’s former mayor) in splendid Austrian-style cafés, where a nebbish expat named James Joyce furiously scribbled out first Dubliners and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The restaurateurs mix up their northern Italian menus with goulash from Hungary, strudel from Austria, a cinnamon-savory pasta called cialzons from the Carnic Pre-Alps, and a strange but agreeable bean soup made with sauerkraut, potatoes and pork and named jota from Slovenia.

There’s no nativist chest-beating here. History is strewn about as if it were an afterthought. At the edge of the city’s glitzy shopping district is an exquisite Roman amphitheater that would be a lesser town’s centerpiece; here it goes thoroughly ignored. Gold statues of Joyce and Trieste’s famous homegrown author Italo Svevo jut up unexpectedly from pedestrian streets. The Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia — for my money, right up there with the Piazza San Marco in Venice, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and the Piazza del Campo in Siena in its photogenicity — audaciously spills out of the city center and into the Adriatic like a gleaming carpet of marble.

Trieste doesn’t fuss over itself or over its visitors. It’s not a lifecoach kind of city. What I’ve seen in Trieste is nothing like worldweariness or a pining princess. Instead, Trieste is so self-possessed that the small matters of who claims to own it or who might ignore it are of perfect irrelevance. 

I begin the year 2007 in Trieste. It’s a cold, wet morning, the dreaded bora wind sending periodic bullwhip cracks of frigid currents across the gulf. The streets are empty, and the city’s merchants, no doubt feeling as nonindustrious as I am on this morning after New Year’s Eve, have reposed for the day. But I’m in luck: One of the best restaurants in town, Ai Fiori, is open for lunch.

You don’t come all this way for the familiar — not even when the body thinks it requires comfort food. And so, I opt for an antipasto of tiny crabs, sea urchins, and branzino (sea bass) carpaccio; linguine steeped in ebony cuttlefish ink; and a simple, flawless zuppa di pesce (fish soup) containing the all-important posthangover restorative ingredient, tomatoes. Though I got here before everyone else, I’m determined to spend my day here — to outlast the Triestini in their hats and furs grandly drinking their Champagne — aspiring to become some solitary object of mystery, should anyone occasion a glance.

The next day, the skies are a searing blue. My room at the spectacular Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta looks out onto the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, where children and their dogs rampage after the local pigeons. There are some who flock to Trieste just to tour its famous cafés (the majestic Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, and Joyce’s teensy Pirona), but I elect to pay the lower price for an equally good shot of Illy at various bars on my way to San Giusto, the ruined Roman crown atop Trieste’s skull. The walk is not that steep, and the reward is getting to stand among the rubble of a forum, in the company of a few overfed cats, and gaze out at the placid blue curtain of water that in earlier times received one invading fleet after the next. Returning downhill, I encounter a modest little house where Joyce taught English classes.

I’ve been gearing up for an atypically purposeful day in which I visit the Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice factory on the outskirts of town. In 1944, the Nazis converted the old plant into a concentration camp and installed a crematorium there. It’s a stark and gruesomely compelling museum today. As I walk through the former death house, studying its minuscule cells and the tattered artifacts of its condemned, it occurs to me that I can hear screams. After several bewildering minutes, I discover the source: There’s a small amusement park just behind the rear wall of the Risiera, and children are screeching as a ride whips them through the air. At last I’ve found a downside to Trieste’s indifference to juxtaposition.

The visit is no less affecting, however. After taking a cab back to the center of town, I find myself unable to do anything except shuffle broodingly through the streets and watch the boats clank against the canal’s docks. Trieste abides such moods, of course. It doesn’t spite you with cheeriness or with the crush of urban bustle. Passing by the market stalls, I’m slightly cheered by the bright purple radicchio and the jars of locally produced marmalade. The clothing store signs announce winter sconti, or discounts. Inside a slick Illy bar, I encounter a swarm of ultrafashionable 20-somethings strung out on caffeine and their own unassailable grooviness. A few doors down the block is a fine boutique grocery store, where I purchase a bottle of Slovenian olive oil for my mother. I’m starting to feel like myself again. And anyway, I’m almost there. 

Almost there, to the bar stool that awaits at Gran Malabar, where the barman greets me as the Adriatic would. I stare at the armada of exotic Friulian and Slovenian wine bottles. He stares at me. It’s a meaningless little moment … except that it feels like a wonderful little fulcrum. Choose your own poison? Author your own identity? Outlast your conquerors? 

Tutto è possibile. It feels that way here.