A Once-Forgotten Port Of Italy Is Alive With A Diverse Cultural And Literary Legacy Overshadowed by nearby Venice, the lesser-known city of Trieste is one of Italy's great destinations and once the stomping ground of great writers like James Joyce.

A Once-Forgotten Port Of Italy Is Alive With A Diverse Cultural And Literary Legacy

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Tourists to Italy are likely to visit Rome, Florence, Venice, maybe Naples, maybe Sicily. But few tourists and few Italians venture to Trieste, the port city in Italy's northeastern corner. For our series Wish You Were Here, our international desk colleagues are transporting us to illuminating places in their regions. And today, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli brings us to a melting pot of religions, languages and cultures.


SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Waves lap the promenades of this seaside city. Its wide gulf dotted with sailboats lies below limestone cliffs whose vineyards produce wines that taste of sea and stone. Legend has it, Jason and the Argonauts, with the Golden Fleece, sailed in from an underground river. A well-preserved Roman theater is testimony that in antiquity, this was a thriving city.


POGGIOLI: Gilded mosaics in San Giusto Cathedral are evidence of Byzantine influence. In today's Trieste, the place to be is the Cavana neighborhood, a jumble of winding streets. In a city of espresso addicts, the fragrance of coffee is pervasive. Wine bars serve the original spritz - the native aperitivo, white wine and sparkling water. And a unique cuisine, blending the Austrian, Slavic, Hungarian and Italian, ranges from Wiener schnitzel to gnocchi with plums.

For a panoramic view, we visit the restaurant in Faro. From its vast, jasmine-covered terrace, diners enjoy breathtaking summer sunsets over iridescent waters, dining on freshly caught scampi, mussels and spider crab. Chef and owner Dario Rakic, Croatian by birth, has lived here since 2004.

DARIO RAKIC: It's awesome. Trieste is a hidden city, you know? Everywhere, it contains a hidden universe. So it's all hidden and to be discovered.

POGGIOLI: To help in that quest, we turn to Trieste native Susanne Seghayer, a young sound engineer by profession.

SUSANNE SEGHAYER: Being a Triestina today means being an open-minded and unbiased person because you are raised in a city in which you see people from all the different parts of the world that speak different languages, and you appreciate the diversity around you.

POGGIOLI: A microcosm of that ethnic diversity is the list of names on Trieste's first world war memorial.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bednaski, Bonivento, Liebman, Padovani, Prister, Salon, Streinz, Stuparich.

POGGIOLI: In a city of many faiths, houses of worship are within walking distance of each other. A musical highlight is listening to chants at vespers in the Serbian Orthodox church.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: All this multiculturalism - Austrian, Italian and Slav - has its roots in empire. In the early 18th century, the Habsburg rulers of these lands needed a maritime gateway for trade and declared Trieste a free port. To lure entrepreneurs and workers, they welcomed whoever could be useful - Greeks, Armenians, Turks and most of all, Jews.

ARIEL HADDAD: Of course, this was based on an old, you know, prejudice and an old bias that they are good with money, they are good in trade and they have connections.

POGGIOLI: Rabbi Ariel Haddad heads Trieste's Jewish community museum.

HADDAD: Even if it came on a biased basis, well, it worked.

POGGIOLI: Empress Maria Theresa expelled Jews from parts of her empire, but here granted them unprecedented concessions. In return, Jews rapidly entered commerce, politics and culture. And Trieste's Jews gave Italian literature two of its 20th century luminaries - novelist Italo Svevo and poet Umberto Saba. Another writer who enriched the city's literary legacy was a young Irishman who came in 1904. Today, visitors can follow the trail of his favorite haunts and visit the James Joyce Museum. In this hub of Mitteleuropa, says museum director Riccardo Cepach, Joyce wrote his early works. And his close friend, the novelist Svevo, was the inspiration for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Joyce's "Ulysses."

RICCARDO CEPACH: "Ulysses" would not have been the same if Joyce wouldn't have spent so many years in Trieste.

POGGIOLI: So what's the secret to Trieste's literary legacy?

CEPACH: The fact that the city is multicultural, multireligion. Ideas flows better in such a kind of population.

POGGIOLI: Riccardo Illy is former mayor of Trieste, former governor of the region and head of the renowned Illy coffee company. He's proud of his family's contribution to coffee culture in a city whose historic cafes served as literary salons. But, says Illy, those glory days ended with the first world war. With Austria's defeat, the city went to Italy, which already had major ports, and Trieste lost its purpose. Then, with the fascist dictatorship, the Slovene minority was persecuted, sparking deep ethnic animosities. And Mussolini picked Trieste to announce his ignominious laws persecuting Jews. With the German occupation, the only Nazi extermination camp on Italian territory was created in an old rice mill on the outskirts. Today, it's a Holocaust memorial. The Nazis were defeated, says Illy, but communists won in next-door Yugoslavia.

RICCARDO ILLY: We had the Iron Curtain just running at 10 kilometers from where we are sitting now.

POGGIOLI: The Cold War cut off trade, and this became a peripheral outpost. But after the fall of communism and an expanded European Union, borders are now finally gone. Trade and tourism are back.

SARA ALZETTA: (Through interpreter) Trieste is 20th century history in a nutshell.

POGGIOLI: We meet actress Sara Alzetta in a city landmark, the Caffe San Marco. In this historic literary haunt, patrons sit for hours sipping coffee at marble tables under art deco murals. Alzetta has written plays about Trieste's history through the eyes of women. Free of the dominating influence Catholicism had in other parts of Italy, she says the women of Trieste asserted their independence far earlier. Her great grandmother, for example, came to the San Marco to play chess and meet her lover and perhaps sang this ditty in the local dialect.

ALZETTA: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: The women of Trieste wear a cross around their neck. Their husband is away at sea, their lover is below the bed, and they pray to Jesus that husband will never come back.

Sitting outdoors at the San Marco, we meet another woman deeply attached to Trieste.

SHEILA SMITH: It's kind of the stepchild of Italy, you know? It's that we're not really part of Italy kind of, sort of.

POGGIOLI: Sheila Smith was born here of a Triestina mother and an American soldier and grew up mostly in San Francisco. When she retired a decade ago, she was drawn back to the city of her birth.

SMITH: So I don't know what the secret is. All I know is that when I'm here, I'm peaceful and I'm content. This is where my heart belongs.

POGGIOLI: With nearby Venice crushed by over-tourism, this laid-back, diverse city with panoramic hiking trails, sandy beaches and a Gulf custom-made for sailing is a natural destination.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Trieste.


ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in non-English language).

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