Bonjour Trieste

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 40

John Kasmin is beguiled by the city's exquisite melancholy

It was Jan Morris who defined the 'Trieste effect'. In the only
book you need to read about the place, she summed up the city thus: "This opaque sea port of my vision, so full of sweet melancholy, illustrates not just my adolescent emotions of the past, but my lifelong preoccupations too." Once you've arrived, the Trieste effect is something you find everywhere you go. There is something tangible about the past glory and quiet romance here, haunting a city that has shifted allegiance so many times it has now become its own state.

No one ever really decided to which country the city belonged. It was settled by the Romans – the walls were built under Augustus, while the theatre, still an evocative sight, dates at least to Trajan – but Trieste changed hands constantly, with Byzantines, Lombards and Franks all sweeping through.

The city was, and is, home to a staggeringly mixed population. After the First World War, Trieste was handed over to Italy, but the neighbouring Slavic countries of Slovenia and Croatia are only a bus-ride away.

Yet it is the mark of the Habsburgs that remains indelible: the city was the most important sea port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the streets are still lined with Viennese-style coffee houses: I like Caffè San Marco, on via Battisti, so much that I even keep a napkin from the place. It has the classic Trieste air of very recently departed elegance.

One of my favourite facts about the city is that Illy coffee is made here – indeed, Riccardo Illy has served twice as the mayor. His contributions to the world of art include commissioning Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois to decorate coffee cups. There's modern art – Arnaldo Pomodoro, Burri, Lucio Fontana – in a more familiar setting on the top floor of the excellent Museo Revoltella.

One of the most tragic relics from the Habsburg era is the Castello Miramare, a Neo-Gothic castle overlooking the Adriatic. It was built by Ferdinand Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, as a love nest for himself and his wife, Carlota. It is a truly dotty monument. Designed by Carl Junker, it fuses Scottish Baronial with a dash of mediaeval and a soupçon of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, as so often happens with obsessive patrons, Maximilian never saw his vision completed. He was forced by his brother to become Emperor of Mexico, where – after a brief reign – he was shot in June 1867. But the castle is still standing a few kilometres outside Trieste, and is well worth a visit.

Because of the Karst, a huge limestone plateau to the north, Trieste is small and it simply can't get any bigger. The countryside is wild there, and the contrast of that uncompromising stretch of nature with the regimented streets and architecture of 19th-century Austro-Hungary is another reason I adore being here.

The city is quiet. I love to sit out in the Piazza dell Unità d'Italia – the main square, it's thought to be the biggest sea-facing piazza in Europe. Trieste is a place for contemplation, for wandering the streets, for sitting in a café to read. The bookshops here are low key, but there is always something wonderful in them.

Indeed, this is a city lodged in the mind of anyone who loves to read. I was first attracted here because of the number of my favourite writers connected to it. Rilke was inspired to write the Duino Elegies by a voice he heard in his head as he walked the cliffs near Trieste. James Joyce lived here while working on Dubliners and Ulysses, and Confessions of Zeno, one of my favourite books, is by Italo Svevo, born in the city and a pupil of Joyce.

The little James Joyce museum feels like a shrine, and there's a distinct melancholy to the opulent 19th-century drawing rooms of Museo Morpurgo, and the reconstructions of vanished telegraph offices and railway ticket kiosks in the Museo Postale e Telegrafico della Mitteleuropa and the Museo Ferroviario. Trieste is a great place to feel sad – not an unpleasant sadness, because nothing in Trieste is unpleasant; rather, a delicious wistfulness.

Enhancing that air of wistfulness, I always stay in the Duchi D'Aosta, an old- fashioned hotel on the main piazza that's suitably expensive and very comfortable. You can imagine Joyce dropping in for an aperitivo or a coffee. I like the rituals of Trieste – the pre-dinner stroll onto the Molo, for instance. This great old pier, stretching into the Adriatic, is a legacy of the mercantile past that made Trieste great in the late 1800s. Walking along it to look back at the city is the first thing I do when I arrive, morning and evening, thinking all the while about how comfortable is would be to amble through Trieste and think about civilisation for the rest of my life. The city has a population of about 200,000, my favourite size – the same as Oxford my home city, and Trieste is just as civilised.
At the moment I always seem to be scurrying everywhere. Trieste is the place I want to go to when the scurrying stops.

Art dealer John Kasmin discovered David Hockney in the 1960s, giving him his first solo show. Kasmin's Postcards is published by Trivia Press on 19 September.

Where to stay

Trieste maintains an aura of Mitteleuropa despite its Mediterranean location. Set on Italy's largest sea-facing square, Piazza dell Unità d'Italia, the city's grand old lady is the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta (; pictured above). Opened in 1873, it remains relatively intimate, with only 71 rooms and suites, enhanced with Turkish baths, an indoor heated swimming pool and antique furnishings. Harry's Grill, its signature restaurant, is part of the famous Cipriani family group. There is also a 19-room annex on the opposite side of the road, which is slightly cheaper and has more of a boutique feel. The Duchi d'Aosta's chief rival is the Savoia Excelsior Palace ( which is right on the seafront, with views over the Gulf of Trieste. Double the size of its competitor, it was opened in 1912. Emperor Franz Joseph kept a private apartment here, which has been fully preserved. For more contemporary accommodation, the best option is the Urban Hotel Design (, comprising four converted 18th-century buildings. Although the fixtures are all cutting edge, there is a view of Roman ruins from the hotel's breakfast room.

Where to eat

Local cuisine shows a strong Austro-Hungarian influence, with a number of so-called buffets. These usually have a counter bearing pork cut straight from the joint. Opened more than a century ago, Buffet da Pepi ( is an old-fashioned establishment specialising in fresh and cured ham, cotechino sausage, ribs, and ham hocks, all with lashings of sauerkraut, mustard and horseradish. Very popular with the locals, it is open from breakfast until late evening. For coffee and a pastry, head to Caffè San Marco (, one of the city's oldest cafés, with a cosy library and a sensational Linzertorte. There is superb seafood too, both in Trieste and neighbouring villages. One of the best is Al Bagatto (, owned by the Marussi family for more than half a century. The menu is dependent on what is available in the market, but often includes cuttlefish, squid, octopus, scallops, amberjack and sea bass. The cellar has more than 350 wines. Only a few miles north of Trieste, Ristorante da Slauko has an amazing terrace with views over the Gulf of Trieste. Everything is pared back, with no written menu and only a handful of local wines, but the location, food quality and reasonable pricing more than make up for that. If you have time to venture even further north, visit Hiša Franko (; pictured below), the most famous restaurant in neighbouring Slovenia. Chef Ana Ros was recently crowned as the best female chef in 2017 by the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards. Hemingway wrote some of A Farewell to Arms in one of the rooms here. Bruce Palling

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