Seated in the century-old San Marco coffee house, over a cup of caffé, soaking in its aroma, I learn more about the history of Trieste than I would otherwise. It is the hour of passeggiata — when the Italians take a break from work. The wooden counter is filled with people discussing their day over a cuppa.
Located at the cusp of Italy and Slovenia, Trieste, the port city with Roman origins, is, however, loyal to its Austrian heritage. The Habsburg dynasty that reigned over the city since the medieval ages left its signature in the farrago of Neoclassical, Baroque and Liberty monuments all around. But, it is the coffee houses that stand out, dubbing the city as Europe’s coffee capital.
Triestians love their coffee to such an extent that they even created their own jargon. As my hostess says, you do not go to Trieste and order a cappuccino but a “capo in b”. It is the Triestian’s version, served in a small glass with milk froth on top. It is believed that the Triestians consume twice the amount of coffee annually than an average Italian, who, according to statistics, consumes a little more than 5 kg.
Trieste’s tryst with coffee started in the 18th century with King Charles VI of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who declared Trieste as a free port. Coffee beans from all over the world found their way into this Adriatic city and it became virtually a coffee harbour in the Mediterranean. Soon, coffee houses mushroomed across the city, becoming a hub for intellectuals, artists and writers. They started roasting and creating their own blend as drinking coffee became a pastime. At one time, there were over 100 coffee houses in Trieste, of which barely a handful remain.
As the chilly Bora wind greets me, I go coffee-hopping. I head next to the historic Caffè Degli Specchi at the “city’s front parlour”, I am at the Piazza Unità d’Italia, the Great Square that opens into the vast expanse of the Adriatic Sea. The square, referred to as the largest square in Europe, built adjacent to the sea, was once lined with several historic cafés and frequented by merchants, sailors, artists and writers. The Town Hall towers over all the monuments.
The “Illy coffee” has its headquarters here, as are the traditional micro-roasters. The oldest coffee house, Caffe Tommaseo, was started in the 1830 and is said to be one of the first cafés to serve gelato. Note that this is one of James Joyce’s favourite cafés. He lived in Trieste for a decade and wrote his famous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), besides a considerable section of his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922). Standing at the Ponte Rosso (Red Bridge) on the Canal Grande, a statue of the author looks down at the colourful boats afloat.
Reclaimed by salt marshes in the 18th century, the Grand Canal is a contrast to its famous namesake in Venice, across the sea, even if it was built by a Venetian, Matteo Pirona. It lacks romantic charm, and is at the heart of the city, surrounded by an array of churches, museums, theatres and coffee houses — a mélange of 18th century cultural and architectural influences.
The crooked, cobbled streets of the Old Town burst into life with festive local markets, and there is a piece of history tucked away in every nook and cranny as ruins lie scattered amid hillocks. Pottering around, I land amid the ruins of an old Roman amphitheatre and on to the path hidden behind a cluster of stony buildings and patches of green. Trudging along the old walls, the climb to the San Giusto Hill, where lie the old remains of Tergeste, as Trieste was called by the Romans, is steep. Standing tall is the 14th century San Giusto Cathedral, home to some of the finely restored Byzantine mosaics. Adjacent to it is the towering Castle which once housed the Habsburgs. I wander around and see more Roman remains along with the ancient Forum and a basilica. Standing there atop the hill with a cup of coffee in hand and looking down at the sleepy city, I realise that Trieste’s charm lies in the eclectic influences and its fairy-tale-like atmosphere — a visit to the 19th century Miramare Castle on the Gulf of Trieste or the neighbouring Italian town of Muggia only adds to the richness of that experience.