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Destination: Italy

Intrigue, by Trieste : Uncoverign the easy charm, beauty of overlooked city

August 04, 1996|MICHAEL KENYON | Kenyon is a freelance writer based in Southampton, N.Y

TRIESTE, Italy — The middle-age man behind the hotel reception desk speaks no English, or if he does he's not admitting it. When we ask if he might recommend a restaurant nearby he waves vaguely in a leftward direction. Evidently there are ristoranti to the left. In Florence and Venice when we proffered the same question we were met with bubbling eagerness, penciled directions and a phone call to reserve a table. We're not complaining. People had said we would find Trieste "different."

We're innocents on the trodden tourist trail, wallowing in the glories of the Italian Renaissance, except that with two blank, un-inked-in days before the flight back home, we have chosen to see Trieste. On a map it's in Italy's top right-hand corner on the border with the former Yugoslavia. It now borders the independent state of Slovenia and lies not more than 25 miles from the northwest tip of Croatia.

Is our receptionist perhaps not Italian but a melancholy Slav? Nobody urged us to visit Trieste. Indeed, when we asked Italy enthusiasts if we should take a look at this cosmopolitan city, eyebrows lifted in puzzlement. No smiting the brow and crying out, "Si, yes, you must go to Trieste!" Our suspicion grew that few Italians and fewer Americans had ever seen Trieste.

But the idea of Trieste intrigues me as a city of intrigue. Remember those 1930s stories of spies and skulduggery in Central Europe? Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes," the espionage novels of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene? I picture Trieste as a stopover for the Orient Express, crossroads between Central Europe and the Mediterranean haunt of Greeks, Turks, Albanians, Slavs, Jews, stiff-upper-lip Brits and out-of-their-depth Americans, all with briefcases stuffed with money and secrets, meeting clandestinely in coffeehouses and, soon after, discovered dead.

At least we'll not want for culture: Roman ruins, art galleries, museums, neoclassical architecture and an opera house, a scaled-down La Scala, Teatro Verdi, named for Giuseppe Verdi, who composed two operas for it. James Joyce ran away to Trieste in 1905 with Nora Barnacle, the young Galway woman he would marry 26 years later. Joyce may not have been ecstatically happy in Trieste, but he stayed 10 years, writing, teaching English and scrounging money. One of his pupils was the novelist Iralo Svevo, born in Trieste and killed in a car crash. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived for a while in a castle near the city. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, father of modern art criticism, was stabbed to death in Trieste in 1768.


The two-hour train ride from Venice is through a fertile, flat, fairly dull landscape with none of the gorgeousness of the cypresses and red-roofed villages of the Tuscan hills we left a few days ago. The train slows. There below on the blue Adriatic Sea, besieged by green hills, lies Trieste. Gray buildings and white cliffs glint in the sun. The view already justifies the visit.

So does the food. No thanks to a certain world-weary receptionist, we light on an unpretentious hostelry, Trattoria al Pescatori, where the absence of English doesn't matter because by this point in our tour we're adept at picking our way through Italian menus. Also, this menu is in five languages: Italian, French, German, English and, it says, Yugoslav. Does that mean Slovenian? Serbo-Croatian? Some of the English reads oddly. Fish on offer includes toadfish, gilthead, dentex, yolk prawns and swimming-bell. The menu offers plenty of pork but we go for misto mare (mixed fish), then lasagna. Delicious, every mouthful. Salad is trolleyed up on a cart. The bill for two: 56,000 lire--about $40--including wine and service.

And speaking of food, the next day at Birreria Forst we knuckle under and do as the Triestines do, some of them anyway. For starters, assorted salamis, prosciutto, sliced sausage, a cheese named Liptauer, Russian salad, gherkins and olives. Main course, Kaiserfleisch: three hot sausages, each different; ham (three sorts); bacon; sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Dessert: a 3-inch-high strudel with apple, raisins and pine nuts. We could be in Vienna.

Trieste, biggest seaport on the Adriatic, is a modern university town with 227,000 inhabitants, vast shipbuilding yards and oil pipelines linking it to Austria and Bavaria. Geographically and culturally it stands remote and sequestered from the rest of Italy, a little forlorn, faded, forsaken. Its glory days as chief seaport of the Hapsburg Empire are long gone.

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