ECHOES OF EM­PIRE

Mit­teleu­ropa meets the Med in the Ital­ian port city of Tri­este. JOHN IRV­ING ex­plores its unique blend of Latin, Slavic and Ger­manic tra­di­tions – one buf­fet at a time.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - OCT - Pho­tog­ra­phy SI­MON BAJADA

John Irv­ing ex­plores Tri­este’s unique blend of Latin,

Slavic and Ger­manic tra­di­tions – one buf­fet at a time.

Out on a limb in the ex­treme north-east cor­ner of Italy, far closer to Vi­enna than to Rome, Tri­este was part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire for cen­turies. And you can tell. On ar­rival, dur­ing a brief re­con­nais­sance drive around the cen­tre, I see the Hab­s­burg pres­ence ev­ery­where. Pi­azza by pi­azza, what seems like the en­tire dy­nasty ap­pears in a suc­ces­sion of solemn stat­ues – from Leopold I, Holy Ro­man Em­peror from 1604-1705, to Em­press El­iz­a­beth,

“Sisi”, the con­sort of Em­peror Franz Joseph, who came to a sticky end when she was stabbed to death by an Ital­ian an­ar­chist in Geneva. No won­der the city was once nick­named “Vi­enna by the Sea”.

Down on the prom­e­nade, from the Canal Grande where small boats rest at their moor­ings to the Savoia Ex­cel­sior Palace, Mit­teleu­ropa meets the Med. On one side are grandiose 18th- and 19th-cen­tury build­ings, on the other piers and jet­ties stretch into the wa­ter like fin­gers. Half­way along, the city’s pièce de ré­sis­tance, the Pi­azza dell’Unità d’Italia, is lined on three sides by the Neo­clas­si­cal and Baroque-in­flu­enced façades of grand civic and com­mer­cial palazzi. At the eastern end, the im­mense Palazzo del Co­mune, or town hall, looms over the wa­ter­less Foun­tain of the Four Con­ti­nents, an homage to Tri­este’s pen­chant for in­ter­na­tional trade. The point is re­it­er­ated by the west­ern end, the fea­ture that gives the pi­azza its wow fac­tor. It opens di­rectly onto the sea, hence onto the world.

To turn their em­pire from con­ti­nen­tal to mar­itime, the Hab­s­burgs de­vel­oped the city into a com­mer­cial sea­port. The Im­pe­rial Mar­itime Gov­ern­ment was based here from 1850, and by the end of the 19th cen­tury Tri­este was be­ing dubbed the “third en­trance of the Suez Canal”. A lo­cal no­ble­man, Barone Pasquale Re­voltella – whose sump­tu­ous town house on Pi­azza Venezia is now a mu­seum and well worth a visit – was once the largest pri­vate share­holder in the Suez Canal Com­pany. “A colos­sal em­po­rium and a prodi­gious trad­ing cen­tre” is how Jules Verne de­scribed Tri­este in 1874, and the bill of lad­ing “Via Tri­este” was fa­mil­iar on dock­sides the world over.

Af­ter World War I, the city be­came Ital­ian and Mus­solini laced it with more overblown architecture, this time in the Fas­cist style. Dur­ing World War II, it was first com­man­deered by the Ger­mans, then carved up by the Al­lies. Con­tested by the for­mer Yu­goslavia at the start of the Cold War, Tri­este was even­tu­ally handed back to Italy in 1954. It now found it­self am­pu­tated from its hin­ter­land, hang­ing from the rest of the

coun­try by a fine thread of coast­line, hemmed in by Yu­goslavia. A poll car­ried out a few years ago claimed 70 per cent of Ital­ians didn’t re­alise Tri­este was part of Italy at all. “We are at the eastern limit of La­tin­ity and the south­ern ex­trem­ity of Ger­man­ness,” said a for­mer mayor.

In a city with an Aus­trian past, I’m lucky to have a cou­ple of Vi­en­nese friends as guides: writer Ge­orges Des­rues, who lives in Tri­este, and his part­ner, stage ac­tor Karin Kofler, who com­mutes from Vi­enna, a five-hour drive away.

On my first evening, they take me to the Carso Plateau, atop the cliffs that rear steeply above the dusty San Giusto quar­ter, the Old City. We fol­low the route of the tramway that climbs to the Slavic vil­lage of Opic­ina. The tram is an at­trac­tion in it­self: at some points, the gra­di­ent is so steep it has to be shunted by a fu­nic­u­lar en­gine. The plateau is a place of pli­able lime­stone that has pro­duced a dra­matic land­scape dot­ted with de­pres­sions, crevasses and gorges. It’s Ger­man name, Karst, and the ad­jec­tive “karstic” have been adopted by ge­ol­o­gists to de­scribe this phe­nom­e­non tout court.

Our des­ti­na­tion, half­way up, is an os­miza, a sort of coun­try inn char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Carso since 1784, when Em­peror Joseph II is­sued a de­cree al­low­ing peas­ants to sell their pro­duce at their cot­tages for eight days a year (os­miza de­rives from the Slove­nian “osem”, mean­ing eight). To­day os­mize serve char­cu­terie, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, bread and wine, and are marked by a frasca, a leafy branch, hang­ing at the gate or on the road­side, where the signs are bilin­gual, in Ital­ian and Slovene.

We set­tle on a ter­race with a few ta­bles and benches un­der a per­gola. Ge­orges tells me that his coun­try­men are buy­ing prop­erty in Tri­este, seek­ing a res­i­dence on the sea just as the Hab­s­burgs used to do. One such is his friend Erich, an ar­chi­tect, who joins us with his wife, Bar­bara, and their teenage daugh­ter, Nina. They’re ren­o­vat­ing a house in the city and are here on a week­end break from Vi­enna. Erich tells me they’ve been vis­it­ing the city for at least 20 years, that they’re in love with the place.

“You watch, it’ll grow on you too,” he says.

I walk to the balustrade and take in the view: the Is­trian penin­sula to the south, the cranes and ware­houses down at the docks, the ferry set­ting sail for Is­tan­bul, the grid pat­tern of the city pi­azze and av­enues, the pur­ple sun­set over the Adri­atic to the west, the back­drop of the Carso. I’ve been here only a cou­ple of hours but Erich is right – Tri­este is grow­ing on me al­ready.

At the next ta­ble, a bunch of bois­ter­ous Is­tri­ans are drink­ing white wine and talk­ing loudly about cat­tle breeds and beef. I catch the at­ten­tion of one, a dap­per man with a grey goa­tee. He’s called Fabio, and I ask him if meat is all they eat.

“No, no,” he says. “We eat lots of veg­eta­bles, too. Bo­bici, for ex­am­ple.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Corn on the cob in Is­trian di­alect. We mix it with pota­toes and beans and sausage to make a soup, mines­tra di bo­bici. It’s a great del­i­cacy of ours.” “In­ter­est­ing. Maybe I’ll try some to­mor­row.”

“No, it’s a hearty dish. Not for eat­ing in sum­mer.” The folk of Tri­este ev­i­dently don’t share Fabio’s no­tion of where win­ter food ends and sum­mer food be­gins, as I dis­cover the next day when Ge­orges takes me on a buf­fet crawl. Ban­ish all thoughts of dainty fin­ger food. In Tri­este “buf­fet” is the name of a gas­tro­nomic in­sti­tu­tion, re­fer­ring to a trat­to­ria spe­cial­is­ing in nose-to-tail pork cook­ing – an­other rem­nant of the city’s Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian past. At the counter of ev­ery buf­fet is a cal­daia, an en­cased stain­less-steel boiler that bub­bles away all day long, re­plen­ished from time to time ac­cord­ing to ne­ces­sity. In it sim­mer sal­s­icce Vi­enna, the lo­cal name for frank­furters; cotechino, boil­ing sausage; Kais­erf leisch, or smoked pork loin; porz­ina, pork neck; and more be­sides. If Fer­gus Hen­der­son had been born a Tri­estino, he would cer­tainly have run a buf­fet.

We be­gin at the old­est of all, Buf­fet da Pepi, open since 1897, just off Pi­azza dell’Unità. The air is thick with the smell of pork and cab­bage, and the be­spec­ta­cled cal­daia op­er­a­tive is busy slic­ing and cut­ting with the pre­ci­sion of a heart sur­geon. Some cus­tomers are grab­bing porz­ina or Prague ham sand­wiches to take away. We sit down to an oval dish of corned tongue and pig’s cheek, served

with the es­sen­tial ac­com­pa­ni­ment of crauti, or sauer­kraut, and cren, grated horse­rad­ish. Not ex­actly sum­mer fare, but ir­re­sistibly, unc­tu­ously de­li­cious. Who cares if the tem­per­a­ture to­day hov­ers around 30 de­grees and the sea beck­ons just 100 me­tres away?

Next stop is Trat­to­ria da Gio­vanni in Via San Laz­zaro. Here the black­board menu also of­fers tripe, goulash, jota, a bean and cab­bage soup, and fish dishes, in­clud­ing bac­calà, ev­ery Fri­day. The steam of cook­ing gets the gas­tric juices flow­ing again, but busi­ness is hot­ting up as lunchtime ap­proaches, and it’s hard to find a seat in­side or out. We limit our­selves to a glass of Ter­rano, a red wine from the Carso, be­fore mov­ing on for more porcine de­lights at L’Ap­prodo, a five-minute walk away.

Be­tween buf­fets, we also visit a cou­ple of cafés: Caffè degli Spec­chi on Pi­azza dell’Unità, where the list of cof­fee styles is en­cy­clopaedic, and Caffè San Marco, where stu­dents play chess, pro­fes­sors read, and writ­ers write. Café cul­ture is an­other Vi­en­nese le­gacy and the scent of cof­fee – es­pe­cially Illy cof­fee, a linch­pin of the lo­cal econ­omy – lingers ubiq­ui­tously.

Our last buf­fet stop, Buf­fet da Siora Rosa, is on the cor­ner of Pi­azza At­tilio Hor­tis and Via Torino, a pedes­trian precinct of wine bars and restau­rants, the hub of Tri­este’s movida. Hav­ing over­shot our choles­terol count for the day, we set­tle for a glass of Vi­toska, an­other Carso wine, this time white.

The waiter is about to serve it with a bowl of crisps, but the cal­daia man in­ter­venes. “Che tris­tezza!” he says, “how sad”, of­fer­ing us a slice of hot smoked ham on the tip of his for­mi­da­ble carv­ing knife in­stead.

Run­ning a buf­fet, open from dawn to dusk for meals and snacks, must be hard work, yet the staff smile and chat through­out. Bon­homie seems to be a trait of the Tri­es­tini. That morning, for ex­am­ple, not con­tent with giv­ing me di­rec­tions, a wait­ress in a bar had in­sisted on ac­com­pa­ny­ing me per­son­ally to the baker’s to buy bread and to the newsagent’s to buy Il Pic­colo, the city’s daily news­pa­per.

In the evening we meet at Sa­pore di Vino, a trim lit­tle wine bar in the Borgo Giusep­pino where lo­cals gather. It’s run by the ami­able Guer­rino, a dead ringer for the Ital­ian spaghetti west­ern ac­tor Gian Maria Volontè.

A reg­u­lar comes in with a pram in which a tiny baby is fast asleep. “This is my grand­daugh­ter,” he says proudly. “It’s time to wean her off my daugh­ter’s milk and onto red wine,” he laughs. A thin, ginger-haired man called Paolo, a for­mer dock­worker, starts telling me about ship­build­ing in Tri­este and how the har­bour is one of the deep­est on the Adri­atic. He’s in­ter­rupted by Don Luigi, a bald­ing pen­sioner who used to be in charge of lo­gis­tics at the port. He takes up the story with an au­thor­i­ta­tive air, launch­ing into a long ex­pla­na­tion about the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of load­ing and un­load­ing cargo on ships and trains: boxes of or­anges, sacks of cof­fee, drums of oil, cars.

All this talk of ship­ping makes me re­flect on the com­ings and go­ings of peo­ple. Tri­este has been a mag­net for mi­grants and ex­iles for cen­turies. Ar­me­ni­ans, Jews, Ger­mans and Slavs have all passed through or stayed, and busi­ness­men from all over the Hab­s­burg Em­pire used to come to con­duct their af­fairs here. The tran­sit of dif­fer­ent cul­tures is re­flected in the city’s places of wor­ship: the San Giusto Cathe­dral; the Greek com­mu­nity’s San Ni­colò dei Greci; the sy­n­a­gogue, the Ser­bian Or­tho­dox San Spiri­done; the Walden­sian, Methodist and Angli­can churches.

In­tel­lec­tu­als have al­ways been drawn to the city, too. Richard Bur­ton fin­ished his trans­la­tion of

The Ara­bian Nights in nearby Opic­ina; James Joyce wrote A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man here and en­cour­aged lo­cal nov­el­ist Italo Svevo with his writ­ing; Sig­mund Freud came as a young re­searcher to study eel cop­u­la­tion (no, re­ally); Al­bert Ein­stein em­i­grated to the States from the docks.

On the way home that night, the large seafront build­ings stand silent. I read the names on the en­try-phones. Bar­toli, Bil­lanovich, Zecchin, Tu­dor, Kos­toris, Quar­an­totto, Maier. They tell the story of the city: part Slav, part Latin, part Ger­manic.

It would be in­ex­cus­able to leave Tri­este with­out tast­ing the famed fish of the Adri­atic. Ev­ery­one has been rec­om­mend­ing a place called La Tav­er­netta al Molo in Grig­nano, a short drive along the coast, and that’s where we’re headed on my last day. Driv­ing north we pass through the sub­urb of Bar­cola, where the city dou­bles as a sea­side re­sort. Ev­ery hun­dred me­tres or so along the prom­e­nade is a topolino, a round plat­form that serves as a so­lar­ium, and chioschi sell­ing sand­wiches, ice-creams and drinks. This is where the Tri­es­tini sun­bathe and swim in sum­mer.

Then, on a promon­tory ahead, the soli­tary white cas­tle of Mi­ra­mare ap­pears, built in the 1850s for Aus­trian Arch­duke Max­i­m­il­ian and his wife, Car­lota, the King of Bel­gium’s daugh­ter. Max­i­m­il­ian was as tragic a fig­ure as his sis­ter-in-law Em­press Sisi. Spon­sored by Napoleon III, in 1864 he sailed off to be­come Em­peror of Mex­ico, only to be ex­e­cuted by a gov­ern­ment fir­ing squad three years later. Sur­rounded by park­land, dec­o­rated op­u­lently and hous­ing count­less trea­sures, the cas­tle is Tri­este’s most-vis­ited at­trac­tion.

Grig­nano is a fish­ing vil­lage in the ad­ja­cent bay, and La Tav­er­netta turns out to be a trat­to­ria with ta­bles on the ma­rina. It’s not high sea­son and it’s a week­day, yet the place is packed. Karin turns on her thes­pian charm and man­ages to se­cure a cor­ner ta­ble. The hand­writ­ten menu is an em­bar­ras de richesses. The stand­out for me is bis di po­len­tine, two piles of po­lenta, one topped with cut­tle­fish in its ink, hence black, the other with bac­calà alla vi­centina, creamed stock­fish, hence white. Tooth­some, too, is the com­mu­nal pot of bigoli in cas­sopipa, an old Vene­tian dish of home­made pasta and mixed seafood. It’s straight­for­ward fare but cooked with care and skill, and very fresh.

One thing other Ital­ians do know about Tri­este is that here blows the Bora, the rasp­ing cold wind that whips down from the Carso in win­ter. On my last evening we’re back in town, eat­ing more fish at Sal­vagente, a homely os­te­ria just off the prom­e­nade. Chef and owner Marco Mu­nari is sit­ting at our ta­ble, chat­ting and ex­plain­ing how vi­o­lent the bora can be. When it clears the air you can see as far as the dome of Basil­ica San Marco in Venice, he says. Sud­denly, as he’s speak­ing, rain starts lash­ing the win­dow and we hear omi­nous groan­ing from out­side. The ta­ble um­brel­las are about to be blown away. “Il Nev­erin!” ex­claims Marco as if he’s seen a ghost. He rushes out with Ge­orges hot on his heels. They re­turn, drenched and bruised, but they’ve saved the um­brel­las. “What’s this nev­erin?” I ask. “The sum­mer ver­sion of the Bora,” replies Marco.

Dur­ing the night, the Nev­erin does its work and I leave Tri­este on a sparkling sum­mer morning, the Alps sharply de­fined on the hori­zon. As the train, the Frec­cia­rossa, or Red Ar­row, speeds along the coast, the city re­cedes, then dis­ap­pears. But not for­ever.

When I get home to Turin, I send a mes­sage to my niece in New­cas­tle, with a photo of Pi­azza dell’Unità. “Just back from here. Tri­este,” I write. “Beau­ti­ful,” she mes­sages back. “Where is it?”

Clockwise, from left: Gran Mal­abar wine bar; the char­cu­terie and cheese plat­ter at Os­miza Zi­darich in Pre­potto; view to Tri­este from the Carso Plateau; buf­fet restau­rant Trat­to­ria da Gio­vanni; Palazzo del Governo in Pi­azza dell’Unità d’Italia.

Above, from left: sun­bathing at Bar­cola; swim­ming at Bar­cola har­bour. Op­po­site: misto mar­i­nato at Tav­er­netta al Molo in Grig­nano.

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